DJI drone. (Mark Colborn)
The Department of Homeland Security is working toward conducting separate series of evaluations later this year of systems that can be used to detect, track, identify, and in some cases, defeat drones flying in areas where they don’t belong.
By early this summer, the DHS Science and Technology (S&T) Directorate plans to release a Request for Information seeking interested vendors for evaluations of technology that can detect, track and identify small unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), ultralight aircraft, and small manned aircraft, below 500-feet along the Northern Border, Tim Bennett, the Air Domain Awareness Program Manager with S&T, told HSR in an Feb. 4 interview.
The Northern Border evaluations were directed by the House and Senate in their respective markups of the fiscal year 2019 DHS appropriations bill, which is stalled due to intense differences between President Donald Trump and congressional Democrats over funding for physical barriers along portions of the southern border. Bennett said that as long as DHS is able to operate under a continuing resolution, his office will honor the intent of the House and Senate Appropriations Committees with regard to the drone evaluations.
In the Northern Border evaluations and a separate set that will also investigate Counter UAS systems for use around “covered assets,” DHS S&T will be working with other stakeholders, including the Federal Aviation Administration, which has responsibility for managing the national airspace, the Defense Department, which already has operational experience in theater and in the U.S. with using counter unmanned aircraft systems, the Energy Department, and the Departments of Interior and Justice, Bennett said.
Over the next few months, DHS and the FAA will define the initial set of “covered assets” that counter drone testing will take place around, Bennett said. Trump in late 2018 signed a reauthorization bill for the FAA that includes the Preventing Emerging Threats Act, which gives DHS and DoJ authorities to mitigate potential drone threats to “covered assets” in the U.S. The act also allows for DHS S&T to test counter drone systems.
Prior to the passage of the new legislation, only the DoD and DoE had limited authorities to protect certain of their domestic assets from UAS threats.
Bennett said for the testing of counter UAS systems around covered assets could begin as early this summer. As a hypothetical example, if DHS and the FAA decide major airports are covered assets, evaluations would likely occur at different airports over time because they all may present different operational and environmental challenges, he said.
Around Washington, D.C., Reagan National Airport is adjacent to the city while Washington Dulles International Airport is in the suburbs, so the requirements for each may differ, he said.
For the covered asset evaluations, the federal partners will also be looking at detection, tracking, identification and remote identification capabilities in addition to being able to mitigate or defeat drones, Bennett said.
The FAA is interested in remotely being able to identify the user or operator of a drone so that law enforcement authorities can contact or locate the individual, determine intent, and terminate the use of the aircraft without having to necessarily resort to actively defeat it.
In December, there were a number of drone sightings around London’s Gatwick airport that resulted in hundreds of cancelled flights. In January, there were two reports of drone sightings by incoming flights into Newark Liberty International Airport in New Jersey that led to brief holds on inbound flights and ground delays elsewhere for flights heading to the airport.
U.S. airports are interested in the drone detection and defeat technology but are taking a “cautious” and deliberate approach to understand the state-of-the-art, what their options are, and what the regulatory framework is, Justin Barkowski, staff vice president for Regulatory Affairs at the American Association of Airport Executives, told HSR in Feb. 1 interview.
There still isn’t clarity whether drones were in fact what were sighted at both Gatwick and Newark, Barkowski said.
An FAA spokesman told HSR on Feb. 5 that the agency hasn’t been able to “positively identify what the pilots saw as a drone” in Newark. “In most sightings, we can’t identify and speak with the operator, so we can’t say exactly what a pilot saw and reported.”
Barkowski highlighted that airports present “highly congested spectrum” so that it is difficult for some tracking systems to even detect a drone. There is potential for false readings that would have operational implications for the airport, he said.
A July 2018 letter from the FAA addressed to airport sponsors notes that in 2016 and 2017 the agency and its federal partners evaluated UAS detection technology from various vendors at airports in Atlantic City, New York City, Denver, and Dallas-Fort Worth. Those evaluations showed that challenges remain for the technology, at least around airports.
“Through these efforts, we learned the airport environment presents a number of unique challenges to the use of technologies available for civil use,” the FAA letter says. “The low technical readiness of the systems, combined with a multitude of other factors, such as geography, interference, location of majority of reported UAS sightings, and the cost of deployment and operation, demonstrate this technology is not ready for use in domestic civil airport environments.”
Bennett said that for the covered asset evaluations that could begin early this summer, the hope is that the technologies provide the 50 to 70 percent solution initially just by having systems being used for testing. By fall, in some cases further evaluations may provide the 80 percent solution, he said.
These evaluations will build on lessons the DoD has already learned through its own testing and deployments, Bennett said.
The question of who ultimately pays for drone tracking and defeat systems has yet to be determined and will likely depend on what assets are protected.
There will be four scenarios for the Northern Border evaluations, Bennett said. There will be a site in the mountains, one will be in the plains, one will be urban, and another will be in the maritime environment, he said.
The evaluations will allow DHS to better determine what systems work in different environments and then “catalog” these results for various stakeholders, Bennett said.
Last November, Sandia National Labs and DHS S&T issued an RFI for a market survey of vendors and their systems that can be used for drone tracking, identification and mitigation. Bennett said that the spreadsheet Sandia put together from the responses contains more than 300 systems and how they work.
These systems haven’t been tested by S&T, he said.