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Controlling Our Airspace in the Age of Drones

When you think of a story about federal agencies joining forces, “feel good” might not necessarily be the descriptor you’d reach for. But, in this case, we at the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Science and Technology Directorate (S&T) think we’re onto something.

We have a story to tell that includes cool technology and the best minds in government research and development coming together to keep our country, and the skies above it, safe.

We are all familiar with drones, or as they are more formally called, Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS). They are becoming more and more ubiquitous, used for everything from backyard fun to military operations. Relatively inexpensive, small, and easy to deploy, they can be controlled with a specialized remote control, an app on your phone, or they may be autonomous, following a preprogrammed mission. As the technology for UAS has improved, so has the potential for them to be used in illegal and dangerous ways. They can be used to ferry drugs secretly over the border, they can stealthily observe and monitor installations, they could deliver a terrorist attack, and on and on.

In order to deal with these new and emerging threats, novel and innovative technologies need to be researched, developed, tested, and deployed, and this is where the concept of UAS Traffic Management (UTM) and Air Domain Awareness (ADA) comes in. UTM is an S&T-funded program to support integrating drones into the National Airspace System (NAS) and S&T’s ADA program will detect UAS in the air from the ground to 500 feet up, identify the target and its attributes in order to determine the threat level, and if necessary, bring the UAS down safely. That is, take it down without causing collateral damage to people or property on the ground. UTM will establish airspace flight corridors, geo-fencing, route planning, terrain avoidance guidance, and weather alerts, among other capabilities.

A significant number of UAS are not large targets, just detecting them reliably is a challenge. And an ADA system needs to be able to accurately detect and identify these small targets in all sorts of terrain; deserts, scrubby foothills, mountains, forests, cities, coastlines—anywhere these types of incursions are possible. The ADA needs to be able to identify what is legally flying and what is not. A combined system is needed that can provide the kind of air traffic management for UAS that the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has for airplanes.

“UTM began at NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) Ames Research Center in 2013 with a research project,” says Tim Bennett, program manager of the Air Domain Awareness project here at S&T.

“A NASA engineer had an idea for an innovative way to approach the problem using software and started with $5,000 of funding,’ recounts Bennett.

The success of the initial work brought additional funding and the project has continued to grow since then as the scope of the problem and the need for a solution has increased. Congress saw the benefit and need for this effort and has appropriated funds as well.

A unique and inspiring part of this story is the way that multiple government agencies, each with a need for a similar solution, have come together to create a single platform.

Because UTM and ADA is a pervasive and cross-agency concern, there was interest in the program from not only NASA, but other agencies such as Department of Defense (DoD), the FAA, the Department of the Interior, and DHS. Each agency has its own operational use case for UTM and ADA and saw the value in having a single system that could be designed, tested and approved. This system could then provide a standard stream of data which could be used and displayed to suit the individual missions. For example, even though DoD has some Counter-UAS capabilities, they are designed for the battlefield or other hostile environments. They still require a system that is designed, tested, and approved for use at their installations in the Continental U.S.  

“In my 40 years of working on UAS,” says Bennett, “I have never seen federal government come together like this. The agencies meet once a month, and S&T has been providing input on each agency’s operational needs.”

Starting next year, there will be a series of ADA demonstrations to evaluate the system in the various environments in which it will have to operate. These events will be observed by representatives of the disparate agencies that are coordinating on the project. The demonstrations will be standardized so that competing platforms can be compared head to head. The first demonstration will be in April in North Dakota, operating in a “plains” environment. The targets will be:

  • UAS under 55 pounds
  • Ultra-light manned aircraft
  • Small fixed and rotary aircraft

Conducted during both day and night, the demonstrations will operate beyond-visual-line-of-sight and be performed at/from:

  • Different altitudes
  • Different angles of approach
  • Varying launch locations

Follow up demonstrations will be conducted in mountain, maritime and urban settings.

“When you consider metrics of time, risk, and ability, the combination of UTM with ADA will be a game changer for DHS drone operations, including the delivery of medical supplies and responding to 9-1-1 calls of hazardous materials, bomb threats, suspicious packages, and locating lost persons,” said Bennett.

In the not-too-distant future, ADA could be monitoring the border, national parks, sensitive national security targets, military installations, coastlines and even the Super Bowl. Creating a single system that can address the needs of multiple federal agencies, based on the ongoing and enthusiastic coordination of those agencies, in order to expand the types of aircraft systems monitored in the NAS and protect against nefarious UAS, is a great example of the potential of the whole-of-government approach.

Last Updated: 01/07/2022
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