U.S. Agencies Support Counter-Drone Technology Efforts

 - November 23, 2015, 2:00 PM
The electronic perimeter of the SkyTracker system to detect and track rogue drones is depicted on a monitor. (Image: CACI International)

At the end of a year that saw a spike in reports of rogue drone sightings, U.S. government agencies are supporting efforts to prevent small unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) from flying near airports and other, security-sensitive locations. One federal contractor has already announced the commercial release of a system designed to detect and track drones.

With support from multiple federal agencies, the Mitre Corporation is conducting a counter-UAS technology challenge with $100,000 in cash rewards as well as non-monetary prizes. The challenge seeks to identify technological solutions to “detect and safely interdict” small UAS weighing less than five pounds that present a potential safety or security threat in urban areas. The largest cash prize—$60,000—will be awarded for the best overall system. The winners in each of two other categories, for the best detection system and the safest interdiction solution, will receive $20,000.

MITRE is a not-for-profit organization that administers federally funded research and development centers for the government. It supports agencies including the Federal Aviation Administration, the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Defense.

In an interview with AIN, Michael Balazs, MITRE senior multidisciplinary systems engineer, said the sought-after solutions would down, although not necessarily destroy, small drones that fly too close to airports or other sensitive locations. These might be flown by hobbyists who are either unaware of or undeterred by airspace rules, or by persons with “nefarious” intent. Such a system would also guard against drones that have lost control.

“It’s all about taking something out of the sky and landing it safely,” Balazs said. “There are a number of ways and technologies that are out there that can do that, but the ones that we are looking at for this challenge have to fall under the category of ‘domestically viable.’ Some of the things we’ve explicitly said we will not accept are, for example, missiles and lasers. All the solutions that we’re looking for have to be deployable within the United States.”

Challenge participants must submit white papers to MITRE by February 7. These should explain their approaches to detecting and interdicting unauthorized UAS. The most promising entrants will advance to a second phase, in which they will demonstrate their approaches in a “live-flight assessment,” planned for early fall 2016. (Information on the challenge can be found at www.mitre.org/research/mitre-challenge.)

The live-flight locations will likely not include the six national UAS test sites the FAA announced in December 2013, Balazs said. “The challenge with the FAA test sites is that while they are test sites, they are still in the national airspace,” he explained. “Right now, interdiction, which is basically trying to take the UAV down safely, is considered experimental. In the national airspace you’re not allowed to interfere with the flight of any craft. We need more controlled airspace to be able to test those kinds of systems.”

In a separate development, government contractor CACI International on November 19 announced the release of its “SkyTracker” system, which is designed to protect airports and “geographically compact” locations such as government buildings, embassies and stadiums from rogue drones. In October, the FAA named the Arlington, Va.-based company as an industry partner in its “Pathfinder” effort to explore future applications of small unmanned aircraft. The agency plans to assess capabilities of CACI’s proprietary technology within a five-mile radius of airports.

CACI describes SkyTracker as a passive detection system that senses the radio frequency link between a drone and its operator within a defined electronic perimeter. The system detects, identifies, tracks and mitigates threats from unauthorized drones and is “currently deployed,” said the company, which works with the U.S. military as well as civilian agencies.

“Unlike other technologies, SkyTracker’s mitigation capability won’t disrupt legitimate electronics or communications systems in the area,” the company states in a brochure. “SkyTracker has the unique capability to identify and locate both UAS and their ground operators, improving responders’ ability to act in incidents of inadvertent or unlawful misuse.”