The Air Domain Awareness Program is a federally funded project that tests new technologies to stop the illegal use of drones and small airplanes in any environment.
By DRONELIFE Staff Writer Jim Magill
As technology for unmanned aerial vehicles and systems grows faster and faster, with the promise of a myriad of useful uses such as agriculture, mapping, and filmmaking, that growth also increases the possibility of using the technology for illicit purposes such as drug trafficking and illegal surveillance.
To counter this growing threat, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), in collaboration with the Federal Aviation Administration and other federal agencies, will start a series of tests of new devices and systems to detect, track and identify drones and small manned aircraft that cross the northern border the USA can penetrate to Canada.
“Anyone can buy a drone and do whatever they want with it, from surveillance to destruction,” said Tim Bennett, program manager for the Air Domain Awareness (ADA) program at the DHS Science and Technology Directorate .
With support from Congress, DHS has joined the FAA, the Department of Defense (DoD), the Coast Guard, Air and Navy Operations, Customs and Border Patrol, and other agencies and select vendors to test and enforce the state state-of-the-art air surveillance technologies, sensors and functions on the northern border.
Over the next two years, the team will host a series of demonstrations and testing events in four different locations, each representative of a key geographic region along the northern border – flat lowlands, a mountainous region, a maritime setting, and an urban setting.
Vendors competing for government contracts will be given the opportunity to test their respective detection technologies – such as radar systems, cameras, radio frequency detection systems, acoustic devices, and other electronic detection devices – and demonstrate how effectively they can provide surveillance capabilities in each of these different environments .
The ADA team will stay at each location for one to four weeks, depending on the number of suppliers registered for the program, Bennett said.
The first round of Air Domain Awareness demonstrations will take place this spring at Camp Grafton, North Dakota, a National Guard training center, to measure how well potential vendors’ sensors and systems are working on a flat lowland plain.
“We’ll probably be doing three or four weeks there,” said Bennett.
The reason Camp Grafton was chosen is because it is in a topographically flat area with little noise, electronic or acoustic noise to interfere with the electronic signals from the test equipment. “It’s a pretty harmless area,” said Bennett. “If the equipment doesn’t work in North Dakota, it won’t work anywhere and we’re not going to ask these companies to go to the next location.”
The next demonstrations and tests will take place in the Limestone Hills Training Area of the Montana National Guard, where the providers demonstrate the effectiveness of their detection technologies in a mountainous region with canyons and deep valleys. It’s the kind of terrain drug smugglers and other bad actors often use to cross the border undetected, Bennett said.
“What you have is they fly everything from small UAS to small helicopters and small planes in the valleys so they won’t be seen by radar,” he said.
At Selfridge Air National Guard Base on the shores of Lake St. Clair, Michigan, vendors have the opportunity to demonstrate the effectiveness of their detection technologies in a marine environment. “We don’t know how radar and other technologies will work against water. Will water absorb frequencies? Will water reflect or give us different reactions from land situations? “Asked Bennett.
The final tests will take place in nearby Detroit to test the effectiveness of the technologies in an urban setting. “You have so much electronic noise there; They have acoustic noises; They have buildings that drones can easily hide behind, ”said Bennett.
Providers are to be judged according to cost effectiveness
In evaluating the vendors’ devices at all four locations, the DHS team will look for detection technology solutions that are not only efficient but also inexpensive. “We don’t have unlimited resources,” said Bennett. ADA officials will ask, “What technology will we use to get the best range for the lowest (number) dollars?”
A number of small unmanned aerial vehicles, including DJI phantom drones and unmanned commercial fixed-wing aircraft, and small, ultra-light manned aircraft, will serve as the target of the Air Domain Awareness demonstrations. Given DJI’s dominance in the consumer drone market, “this is one of the things we need to differentiate,” he said.
Bennett said that in order for the DHS to fly a small UAV it must obtain prior DoD approval, but an additional level of approval is required to use the China-made DJI drones. “We have to explain why we need to use these, and then we get special permission to use them for a specific time, for a specific duration,” he said.
Due to the federal government’s concerns that data collected from drones manufactured in so-called “unfriendly countries” could find its way to the Chinese government, “we need to obtain special permits for locations” where the DJI drones will be flown can . “There isn’t anything specific or classified in any of the areas we cover that could cause a problem,” said Bennett.
Bennett said the Remote ID rules recently announced by the FAA will help the ADA program identify drones flown by law-abiding individuals, but those using drones for illegal purposes will not obey the rules.
“The bad guys have a lot of money. You don’t have to buy off-the-shelf products. You will make products that will be difficult to see. So they will probably be silent; In many cases they run without command or control, ”he said.
The ADA program is a nationwide effort in that multiple agencies work together to find solutions to protect the home country from air intrusion by bad actors.
“We realize we can’t get there from here because technology is changing so quickly that once we find a way to detect and track it, they’ll find a way to mitigate it,” said Bennett.
Miriam McNabb is editor-in-chief of DRONELIFE and CEO of JobForDrones, a marketplace for professional drone services, and a fascinating observer of the emerging drone industry and the regulatory environment for drones. Miriam has written over 3,000 articles focusing on the commercial drone space and is an international speaker and recognized figure in the industry. Miriam graduated from the University of Chicago and has over 20 years experience in high tech sales and marketing for new technologies.
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