Drone detection pilot program at Ottawa airport produces results

Airports, for obvious reasons, would like to know if there are drones anywhere nearby that could potentially interfere with crewed aviation operations. So not surprisingly, an increasing number of airports are testing out various drone detection and mitigation technologies. The one we’re writing about today is taking place at the Ottawa International Airport (YOW) and involves some pretty cool tech.

There are increasingly sophisticated ways of detecting whether drones are in the skies. And these methods are increasingly being put to use at airports, highly secure facilities like nuclear power plants, and even at major sporting event stadiums. There are plenty of places that would want to know if drones are approaching, and then be able to locate and possibly even bring them down from the sky.

But arguably, airports are the most critical locations.

Airports

Incidents involving drones and crewed aircraft are, thankfully, relatively rare. And the people who run airports want to keep it that way. You simply don’t want an aircraft on takeoff or approach (or anywhere else) in close proximity to a drone.

Most drone pilots understand the rules and operate responsibly. But there are still some operators – either due to lack of knowledge or deliberately – who fly a little too close for comfort. Check out YouTube and you’ll find numerous example of close encounters. This example is a little older, but it explains the issue clearly:

Pilot project for detection

At the Ottawa International Airport, a pilot project involving multiple partners (and multiple technologies) is under way. Those partners include:  Indro Robotics, Aerial Armor, QinetiQ, NAV CANADA, and the Airport Authority. And, says YOW’s Michael Beaudette, there was clearly a need for a detection system:

Drones are becoming almost ubiquitous, with exponential growth in sales to both hobbyists and commercial operators. As an airport operator, we felt it was vitally important that we test systems to detect drones operating on flight paths, near the airport, and in other restricted zones to help ensure the safety of air crews and passengers.

The system

The system involves two core technologies: Radio Frequency (RF) detection and micro Doppler radar. The RF detection unit is mounted on the roof of the passenger terminal building. It’s constantly scanning the 2.4 and 5.8 Ghz bandwidths, and can detect drones within a 15-kilometer radius.

Part of the drone detection system at the Ottawa International Airport

This system comes from Aerial Armor and InDro Robotics, a recognized leader in the Canadian drone space. InDro Robotics CEO Philip Reece explains:

Our system “interrogates” each device to gain more information to pin down GPS point X, Y, and Z – Z being important as we want to know how high the device is flying. We can also determine the make and size of the device, which helps determine what kind of threat it may pose. For example, a small, slow moving drone that’s far away is less of a threat than a large drone on an airport flight path.

The news release also states, “The system includes a user interface from Aerial Armor that provides real-time and consolidated historical reports including drone ID numbers in most cases.”

Does it work?

You bet. Here’s the airport’s Michael Beaudette:

In March of this year, the InDro system detected 1,626 flights within the 15-kilometer zone, including 64 flights that occurred at night. The totals were up significantly over January, as the weather got warmer and people decided to take their drones out for a fly.

A previous InDro installation utilizing DJI’s Aeroscope for drone detection

Micro-Doppler

This part of the solution is pretty interesting. It comes from a British firm called QinetiQ; the product itself is called Obsidian. And how it works is pretty cool: It uses millimetric wave radar – 9-12 Ghz. And that radar is designed specifically to detect the movement of small spinning propellers on a drone flying anywhere within two kilometers of the airport. Here’s QinetiQ’s Paul Romano:

Our solution is the product of QinetiQ’s decades in the defense sector, and our involvement with radar since World War II. The most serious threats to safety are not likely to be conventional drones that respond to electronic interrogation. Radar can detect and track drones that, for whatever reason, can’t be detected by RF or don’t want to be. Ultimately, it’s all about identifying all potential threats so that appropriate action can be taken to keep aircraft safe.

Is this “Anti-Drone?”

Nope. Think of it instead as “pro-safety.” That’s certainly the view from NAV CANADA, which runs Canada’s civil air navigation system.

“Drone use across Canada continues to expand at a significant pace and NAV CANADA is taking a proactive approach to ensure the safety of our skies for both traditional aviation and new entrants,” says Alan Chapman, director, RPAS Traffic Management at NAV CANADA. “We welcome collaboration with partners like the Ottawa International Airport as our industry continues to push forward on drone safety initiatives.”

The airport’s Mark Laroche adds that most drone operators are highly responsible – but that it’s important to have these safeguards in place.

The vast majority of drone operators aren’t out there trying to disrupt aviation nor threaten aircraft. But we need to know where they are and if they do pose a threat, be ready to take the appropriate action that we as an airport can take to ensure safety. What we are seeing and reporting to Transport Canada is a very disturbing trend that requires a quick response to reverse the number of drone operators flying in restricted areas.

Wait, there’s more!

Well, sort of. What we were hoping to see here was some indication of what this system will do to mitigate drone threats. Will it jam the signal? Fire laser beams?

Well, no. And the reason is based in Canadian laws. To commandeer such a signal is the equivalent of wiretapping; it’s just not allowed without a court order or some other form of legalese. But having situational awareness from 15 kilometers out is a huge advantage for an airport, and – based on the number of recorded flights already – this project is already proving its worth.

Oh, and a final FYI: InDro Robotics is a very diversified drone company, with its fingers in all the cutting-edge drone use-case scenarios: Delivery, mapping, security, 5G connectivity, BVLOS and much, much more. (Seriously, it’s hard to keep track of everything this company is up to.)

Alpha, Bravo, Charlie

One of its subsidiaries is BravoZuluSecure. It features not only detection and identification capacities, but also has the tech to neutralize a threatening UAV. The company has multiple international clients, including some in the world of commercial shipping, where pirates have been using drones to remotely scope out a ship’s defense systems before attempting a takeover. If this kind of technology appeals to you, contact them here.

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