Recent incidents have shone a spotlight on the need for counter-unmanned aerial systems (C-UAS) in the airport market, with manufacturers set to showcase their systems here at the Paris Air Show.
In December, UAS sightings at Gatwick Airport led to the cancellation of hundreds of flights just ahead of the Christmas holidays. This was followed weeks later by similar disruption at Heathrow Airport and at Newark Airport in New Jersey.
Such incidents show that “this certainly isn’t a manufactured crisis,” with similar problems to be expected in the future, said Michael Hofle, high energy laser (HEL) product line lead at Raytheon (Chalet 296, Static B8). The U.S. defense company has a military C-UAS business, notably through its "Laser Dune Buggy," which is being displayed at the show. Raytheon will also be showing the HEL product line, aimed at C-UAS solutions for military users. The company has seen a surge of interest from airport customers since the Gatwick incident, said Hofle, though he was unable to provide further details about potential deals.
“There’s certainly going to be a lot of interest [at Paris] because drones are so ubiquitous now; they’re insanely cheap and adaptable,” he said. “Clearly, the community recognizes the hazards and the threats that drones represent. This is a market that’s here to stay.”
Raytheon sees the airport sector as a major target for its Windshear C-UAS, said Hofle. Windshear is a command, control, and communications system that uses multiple sensors and deploys both kinetic and non-kinetic effects. It tracks UAVs with radio frequencies (RF), radar, and other sensors, the company said, and has been tested with several detectors, such as the Skyler low-power radar and the RF-based Mesmer (developed by Raytheon and Department 13), as well as the Black Sage UASX. Mesmer and Black Sage UASX can be used to defeat drones as well as track them. The former manipulates RF to control drones, while Black Sage UASX mixes sensors, cameras, software, and effectors.
The Windshear system is on display at Le Bourget, and Hofle said he expects to see strong interest from companies in the system’s use as a non-kinetic effector that can safely overtake a UAS using RF jammers or cyber means, hijacking the drone, then safely landing it.
Hensoldt is displaying its Xpeller family of C-UAS products at the airshow (Static A9). Xpeller Guard is most relevant in the airport domain, designed to protect fixed sites. The system combines sensors and effectors to protect infrastructure against small UAVs, according to the company, aiming to detect the potential threat, identify it as a threat with the lowest possible false alarm rate, and act on it by raising the alarm or engaging with a countermeasure. It deploys sensors including radar as well as countermeasures such as jammers.
Hensoldt has seen a sharp rise in interest among airport customers, according to a company spokesman, along with police departments and military clients. The previous disruption at airports has raised awareness of the threat and potential solutions. Airport operations are particularly complex, involving a huge number of people and functions and covering a wide area that cannot be monitored properly using existing devices.
“Airports are particularly vulnerable because the consequences of intrusion could be disastrous,” the spokesman said.
There are many recorded incidents involving UAV sightings at airports every year, with the number growing exponentially, said a spokesman for Thales (Chalet 265, Static B1). While the vast majority do not cause the kind of protracted and costly disruptions seen at Gatwick or Heathrow, “It is becoming obvious to airport operators that the threats posed by UAVs are now a real and immediate issue.”
Thales conducts a range of C-UAS work, including ForceShield, an air defense system designed to intercept air threats from small UAVs to combat aircraft. On the airport side, its major focus is its work on Hologarde, a C-UAS developed in collaboration with Direction des Services de la Navigation Aérienne (France’s air traffic control body) and Groupe Aéroports de Paris (ADP). This system deploys the 3D holographic radar developed by the Thales-owned Aveillant, which provides 3D identification and tracking of UAVs up to 7 km, RF detection to monitor communications, as well as long-range infrared cameras for identification, managed by a customizable command center co-developed by Groupe ADP and Innov’ATM. Hologarde can also provide a drone-neutralization capability, jamming communication between the system and the pilot or taking control of the UAV.
Hologarde is currently being tested at Paris's Charles de Gaulle airport. The first operational deployment was due to take place by mid-June, with Thales expecting the system to be qualified for operations next year. It will demonstrate the system capabilities and concept of operations at the Paris Air Show, the spokesperson said.
The company is working on system integration with appropriate capabilities (in detection, for example), as well as target classification. When Hologarde is fully operational it will provide air safety and air security with a low level of false alerts, he said, “which is a must if you wish to deploy this capacity across a large area at a major airport that manages dense and permanent traffic.”
The companies expect to see a range of technological developments in the coming years. Hensoldt, for example, pointed to a trend toward sensor fusion and the use of artificial intelligence to speed classification, along with the increasing use of smart jamming and "direct force" as a countermeasure. For example, Hensoldt proposes using a "hunter drone" to catch intruders, the spokesman said.
Thales expects to see an increasing impact from digital technology, such as big data and artificial intelligence. Thales is working on a number of areas that could impact C-UAS in the coming years, the spokesman said, such as swarms of drones acting in coordination, as well as fully integrated commercial UAS traffic in the airspace, which will have natural consequences for C-UAS provision.