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Feature Article: Montana Skies Provide the Perfect Backdrop for Testing Border Security Tech

Feature Article: Montana Skies Provide the Perfect Backdrop for Testing Border Security Tech

Release Date: 
October 28, 2021

In August, the Science and Technology Directorate (S&T) and its National Urban Security Technology Laboratory (NUSTL) collaborated with a number of federal and industry partners on a series of air domain awareness technology demonstrations in Montana. This second round of demonstrations served as a follow-up to a previous round of tests that were held in North Dakota this past April. The purpose of both of these demonstrations and tests was to evaluate specialized air domain awareness technologies such as radar systems; electro-optical and infrared cameras; radio frequency detection systems; and acoustic devices to see how effectively each can monitor, safeguard, and secure the various terrains and airspace that surround the northern border between the U.S. and Canada.

Our most recent round of technology demonstrations took place over three weeks at the Montana National Guard’s Limestone Hills Training Area in Townsend, Montana. The photos below offer a behind-the-scenes look at the tests, the technologies, and the terrain in this mountainous region of our northern border.

The sun rising over the mountains, valleys, and badlands that surround the Limestone Hills Training area in Townsend, Montana.
The sun rises over the mountains, valleys, and badlands surrounding the Limestone Hills Training area in Townsend, Montana.

S&T and its partners spent long days conducting dozens of flights and technology assessments over the course of the testing. Held at random times of the day and in varying weather and environmental conditions, these assessments allowed us to evaluate whether the specialized systems had the capabilities required to quickly and accurately detect, track, identify, and respond to incursions from various types of low, slow-flying aircraft—both manned and unmanned.

Participating vendors from the aerospace and defense industries set up a specialized radar system for field testing at Limestone Hills.
Participating vendors from the aerospace and defense industries set up a specialized radar system at Limestone Hills, in preparation for three weeks of field testing.

“In order for these technology demonstrations to be effective, it’s vital that we evaluated these various technologies in different terrains,” said S&T technical lead Tim Bennett.

A radar operator tracks a drone via a radar display as the drone flies in the valleys and behind the mountains surrounding Limestone Hills.
A vendor utilizes his radar system to track a drone as it flies in the valleys and behind the mountains surrounding Limestone Hills.

Montana’s mountainous landscapes make it susceptible to drug smuggling, human trafficking, and other illegal activities conducted via manned and unmanned aircraft. S&T tested various radars; electro-optical and infrared cameras; and acoustic systems to gauge how accurately they could detect and track these aircraft as they flew in the valleys and behind the mountains near the border.

A tower equipped with an electro-optical/infrared camera, X band radar, and passive radio frequency system stands in a field at Limestone Hills – ready to detect, track, and identify drones and planes that fly by during testing.
A tower equipped with an electro-optical/infrared camera, X band radar, and passive radio frequency system scans the skies surrounding Limestone Hills for manned and unmanned aircraft.

“We know that it’s possible for both manned and unmanned aircraft to fly across remote areas along the northern border in Montana to conduct illicit activities,” said NUSTL test lead Teddy Damour. “These aircraft represent a significant security challenge, so it’s important that we improve our air domain awareness capabilities to maintain our awareness of what’s in the skies here and ensure the safety of our border.”

An Unmanned Aerial System pilot flies an Alta X drone through the valleys and behind the mountains to test the capabilities of the systems and operators, and ensure that both would still be able to detect it.
Pilots fly an Alta X unmanned aerial system (UAS) through the valleys and behind the mountains to test system and operator capabilities. The goal: ensure that both are able to effectively detect, track, and identify UAS, even when they are presented with interference from these diverse environments and terrains.

The aerial surveillance technologies, sensors, and capabilities that DHS eventually implements at the northern border will need to be able to detect everything that travels through this airspace. The rigorous testing conducted at Limestone Hills (and in North Dakota earlier this year) will further help S&T to determine which of these tools will be ideal for preventing and responding to illegal activities at these crucial points-of-entry into the country.

A Super Cub aircraft pilot conducts a mid-day flight over the mountains to see if he will be detected by the equipment being tested.
A Super Cub aircraft pilot simulates a mid-day flight over the mountains.

“One of the key metrics we’ll be looking at during our post-demonstration data analysis is ground truth information,” explained NUSTL engineer Blaise Linn. “In the context of air domain awareness, this is defined as the real-time location of an aircraft as its traveling. To measure ground truth information, we equipped all aircraft that were flown at Limestone Hills with GPS transmitters, then tracked them during test flights. As we analyze our findings from the demonstrations in Limestone Hills, we will be comparing our ground truth information with data obtained from our vendors and their technologies. This side-by-side comparison will help us to determine how well their systems were able to perform in a mountainous environment and how accurately they were able to detect our aircraft.”

A vendor monitors an electro-optical camera to see if it can detect, track, and locate drones and small passenger craft that are conducting test flights at Limestone Hills.
Vendors monitor an electro-optical camera to see if it can detect, track, and locate drones and small passenger craft as they conduct test flights at Limestone Hills.

While the Limestone Hills demonstrations are over, there is still much more work to do. The data collected and analyzed from these tests, along with the data from previous demonstrations in North Dakota, will provide valuable information about the selected tools and their capabilities and limitations when it comes to detecting aircrafts in the field. S&T is currently developing comprehensive reports detailing the technologies that were tested, their capabilities, and how they each performed in the field. These reports will then be shared with all federal agencies and organizations looking to procure and implement ADA technologies at the northern border and other key points of entry around the country.

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