FAA Will Evaluate 'Counter-UAS' Technology at Denver Airport

 - November 9, 2016, 10:53 PM
Components of Gryphon Sensors' Skylight drone detection system stand on display at the UTM conference in Syracuse. (Photo: Bill Carey)

The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration will test technologies for detecting small unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) at Denver International Airport on November 15 and 16 as part of its ongoing research into systems that could safeguard airports from rogue drones. It plans another test next spring, likely at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport.

Marke “Hoot” Gibson, FAA senior advisor on UAS integration, announced the Denver test during the recent UTM 2016 convention in Syracuse, N.Y., a gathering focused on the NASA-led effort to develop a low-altitude UAS traffic management, or UTM, system capable of organizing dense drone traffic. The identification and authentication of properly registered aircraft via a UTM system would offer the initial layer of protection around airports; a “counter-UAS” system would provide the next layer of defense against unauthorized drones, Gibson said.

“We’re looking to several techniques, radar being one of them,” to detect and track small drones, Gibson said. These include “bistatic passive” radars that sense radio frequency emissions and acoustic and optical systems. “Geofencing” software that manufacturers install in their drones provides still another means of protection by containing where the aircraft can fly in the airspace.

In October 2015, the FAA entered into a cooperative research and development agreement (CRDA) with defense contractor CACI International to test the latter’s “SkyTracker” system, which it evaluated over five days in January and February at Atlantic City International Airport—the first drone detection research at a U.S. commercial airport. In May, the agency signed CRDAs with Gryphon Sensors, Liteye Systems and Sensofusion to evaluate their respective prototype systems. Also that month, the FAA said it tested an unspecified system with the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security and other government, industry and university partners at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York.

Fiscal Year 2016 appropriations legislation that Congress approved in December requires the FAA to continue research into counter UAS systems, the agency says. And the FAA Extension, Safety and Security Act that became law in July authorized spending $6 million to conduct a pilot program over 18 months for “airspace hazard mitigation at airports and other critical infrastructure using unmanned aircraft detection systems.” The authorization bill directed the FAA to consult on technologies with the departments of defense and homeland security and other federal agencies.

Two FAA-designated UAS test sites—the Nevada Institute for Autonomous Systems based in Las Vegas and the Northern Plains UAS Test Site in North Dakota—will operate about a dozen small fixed-wing and multi-rotor drones during the ground detection system testing in Denver, said Chris Walach, director of operations with the Nevada organization. “Our mission is to fly the scenarios per the test cards, as an airport would see [drones] intruding in the airspace,” said Walach, who spoke separately at the UTM conference. Operators have prepared by flying profiles for night and day operations, he added.

The FAA aims to produce a concept of operations [conops] for airport use of counter-UAS systems by next year, said Gibson. “The thought is by this time next fall that we will have learned some minimum performance standards [and] we will have a useful conops on how to deploy these systems,” he said. “Then we’ll begin the long debate [over] cost and how we might go about providing some level of protection in and around manned aviation.”