Drones: The rising security threat for today’s smart airport

Perimeter security at US airports, and of course gateways across the globe, is of utmost importance for several reasons, not the least of which is the need to protect the safety and security of passengers and staff.

Preventing unauthorised access to airport facilities and aircraft helps safeguard against sabotage and other malicious activities, while also enhancing public confidence in this critical infrastructure.

Complicating the security case are new security risks – drones. The cheap and easy-to-buy devices are popular with curious thrill seekers as well as bad actors intent on causing real harm. Unfortunately, airports are an apt target for both. Because drones are classified as aircraft, destroying or damaging them may be subject to legal consequences similar to those applicable to manned aircraft.

With the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) receiving over 100 reports each month of unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) sightings from pilots, citizens, and law enforcement, these incidents are rapidly becoming a thorn in the side of airport security operators and a burden on the national airspace system (NAS). The FAA has established specific protocols for handline drones that pose security threats; yet airports must tread carefully to avoid violating federal regulation on interfering with aircraft operation.

Understanding the scope and scale of the modern ‘drone problem’ at airports 

Today’s ‘drone problem’ is not the same as yesterday’s. Rapid changes in drone technology and resourceful drone operators are eliminating the once tell-tale radio frequency (RF) signal emitted by the drone and its controller.

Referred to as ‘dark’ or ‘silent’ drones, these small aircraft emit zero RF signal and are instead navigated by waypoints or cellular frequencies. This means that early adopters of RF technology as a means of drone detection in airports are now sitting blind to the drones that pose the greatest risk.

Dark drones – even the least expensive, smallest ones – have the potential to cause serious damage at airports where RF technology is the sole detection layer. This includes disruption to flight schedules and ground operations, safety hazards, aircraft damage, emergency landings due to penetration, inhalation hazards, lost optics, and more. This leaves the airport dealing with everything from lost revenue, logistical nightmares, disillusioned passengers, and potentially catastrophic events.

Further complicating the ‘drone problem’ is the fact that many of the regulations governing their use are still in development. This extends the security concern beyond just the menace of intrusive or unwelcome drones. It also encompasses the challenge of integrating lawful drones and drones as tools (for delivery, medical, and disaster awareness) into the NAS.

Without a clear understanding of what constitutes responsible drone usage at the moment, distinguishing between benign and malicious drone activities becomes nearly impossible for the airport security operator. This heightened state of vigilance, compounded by a lack of specific information about drone operations, fosters anxiety and further amplifies the risks to the NAS.

However, airport security operators are not without recourse. They can adopt technology that provides them full situational awareness on the ground and in the airspace that will not only protect from immediate threats, but also grow and adapt to drone usage regulations as they are refined.

Command and control: The airport security operator’s eyes and ears for old and emerging threats 

Airport safety operators know that airports are uniquely complex, noisy, and sensitive signal environments, requiring a multifaceted approach to ensure safe and efficient operations. This includes strict adherence to regulations governing flight schedules, operational procedures, noise and environmental regulations – all while simultaneously maintaining vigilant, round-the-clock monitoring for any security threats. If this security ecosystem wasn’t already complicated, drones have added even greater complexity.

As part of a multi-layered approach to security, all airports have a perimeter intrusion detection system (PIDS) that detects and alerts security personnel to unauthorised physical intrusions, feeding real-time updates into a command and control platform. This layer is by far the most crucial component of the security stack, as it serves as the ‘eyes and ears’ of airport security operators.

Alarm, information and operation management

A robust command and control platform integrates a variety of functionalities to manage detectors and various alarm systems effectively. It prioritises alarms based on the severity and critical nature of incidents to address the most urgent situations first. This adaptability is crucial for handling complex system structures and hierarchies within different operational environments.

Furthermore, the platform associates each alarm with predefined actions, suggesting them to operators based on the current situation, aligning closely with established security protocols. Each action is meticulously logged, providing valuable data that can be analysed to enhance the efficiency and effectiveness of security operations over time.

Open interfaces and flexible architecture

A command and control platform should offer an intuitive user interface with hierarchical arrangement of status updates, events, resources, and actions. The ability to implement updates seamlessly, without causing system downtime or operational disruptions, is critical. Additionally, the system should support role-based access control and be adaptable to both centralised and decentralised organisational structures through a flexible, web-based client framework.

Coverage of large geographical areas

An advanced command and control platform should effectively manage security operations over large or multiple geographical locations. It should include a geo-referenced data structure where all events are mapped out, enabling control over extensive infrastructures and their surrounding areas. This may include the visualisation of nearby streets and other relevant points of interest, enhancing situational awareness within the security operations centre.

Resource management

An advanced command and control platform should provide real-time visibility of security resources and suggest the optimal deployment of these resources to operators. Features like automatic or semi-automatic alarming, dispatch capabilities, and transmission of task-relevant information are essential for effective resource management. Additionally, operational progress is logged to meet the stringent requirements of critical infrastructures. For enhanced coordination in larger security organisations, the integration of a mobile web client allows for seamless communication between the security operations center and field operatives.

Cybersecurity

Finally, a command and control platform must continuously reinforce itself with robust cybersecurity measures, such as patch management to help close security vulnerabilities while also optimising software and device performance. Regular training, up-to-date security policies, and proactive monitoring are essential, foundational components of a cybersecurity strategy for command and control platforms.

Airport security is only as good as the data the command and control platform receives. Taking this into account, how can modern command and control solutions meet the moment for the emergence of drones – especially drones that can skirt traditional sensors? The answer to this question is the integration of radar that can provide the kind of data-fidelity to enhance existing multi-sensor solutions and fill the gaps in drone detection.

The critical case for feeding radar data into the command and control platform to create a ‘virtual fence’ 

With the emergence of drones, ground-centric PIDS and command and control layers are simply no longer sufficient. Compounding the problem, traditional PIDS have relied on stationary camera, RF, or acoustic sensors. While each of the latter sensors plays a critical role in threat detection, they aren’t strong enough in any combination to combat the increasing volume of drones within the airspace nor the proliferation of dark drones that fly without RF signal.

As a result, airport security systems have begun to layer in radar to their security stacks to strengthen camera, RF, and acoustic sensors. This sensor fills the security gap on several different fronts, while also answering the call for full situational awareness both in the air and on the ground.

Radar alone cannot solve the full spectrum of security needs in and around airport infrastructure; instead, is part of a multilayered approach to handling  the ‘drone problem’, providing full field-of-view precision, and bolstering situational awareness by feeding rich data to the other sensors and command and control layer.

Radar is an all-weather sensor 

Radar operates as an effective detection tool around the clock, regardless of weather conditions. While many security systems depend on cameras for identifying threats, their performance can significantly decline under poor weather conditions or in low light. Cameras designed for low light or night use might also find it challenging to track fast-moving objects in the sky. Even under perfect conditions, tracking technologies like pan-tilt-zoom (PTZ) cameras can fail to follow objects effectively, for instance, losing sight of a white drone against a white cloud due to low contrast.

Utilising electromagnetic waves for detection, radar systems can identify both terrestrial and aerial threats accurately, even in challenging weather, lighting situations, or when facing low-contrast scenarios. When integrated with camera systems (be it standard, thermal, or infrared PTZ), radar ensures continuous tracking by providing consistent data to the camera, meaning that the target remains in sight despite any environmental challenges.

Radar can detect against the proliferation of dark drones 

Historically, RF solutions were the go-to for drone detection, leveraging this unlicensed spectrum for communication interception. However, as the drone industry has expanded rapidly, with manufacturers exploring new market niches and operators finding ways to bypass RF detection, including using alternative communication methods and licensed spectrums, these ‘dark’ or “silent’ ‘drones have become invisible to RF-based tools. This evolution renders radar not just preferable, but the essential choice for continuous, all-encompassing airspace surveillance, as this sensor is able to detect everything within its field of view.

Radar technology significantly enhances airport security systems by offering precise tracking and detection capabilities, creating a foundation of critical data for the most important layer of any PIDS stack – the command-and-control software layer that harnesses the best of all sensors to deliver comprehensive situational awareness. Key information provided by radar feeds into this software layer, including the exact coordinates of an object, its size, which is described as the radar cross section (RCS), and details about its orientation, direction, and velocity.

This crucial data supports the seamless integration with secondary security measures, such as camera systems, guiding them to the precise locations identified by radar. As a result, airport security teams can quickly and accurately pinpoint potential threats, significantly improving their response efficiency.

Moreover, the detailed information collected by radar, when combined with video surveillance, forms a powerful tool for forensic analysis and aids law enforcement in taking appropriate actions against security breaches. This fusion of radar data and video footage becomes a pivotal element in the evidentiary chain, bolstering the security framework within airport environments.

Looking toward a future of co-operative airspace 

The advent of drones presents a complex, evolving threat to airport security, necessitating a multifaceted and adaptive approach. The proliferation of ‘dark drones’ and the varied potential for drone usage underscores the blindspots of traditional perimeter intrusion detection systems alone. To counter this, the integration of radar technology into airport security frameworks emerges as a critical solution. Radar’s ability to operate in all weather conditions, its effectiveness against the growing threat of dark drones, and its capacity to feed rich, actionable data to the command and control platform highlight its indispensable role in modern airport security operations.

The future of airport security lies in the development and implementation of comprehensive, multi-layered anti-drone solutions that provide full situational awareness of both ground and airspace threats. As airports navigate the complexities of managing authorised and unauthorised drone activities, the need for innovative, collaborative approaches to security becomes paramount; so, too, does the need for working with an integrator who can identify and deploy the right combination of technologies and services to align an airport’s resources, expertise, and systems.

By leveraging advanced technologies like radar alongside other tried-and-true sensors, airports can not only enhance their immediate response to security threats but also adapt to the evolving landscape of drone technology and regulation.

This forward-thinking strategy will be crucial in helping ensure the safety of passengers and staff while maintaining public confidence in the resilience of critical airport infrastructure against emerging threats.

About the authors
John Kasuda
is head of airports and vertiports smart infrastructure North America at Siemens AG. Briana Clark is regional sales manager for critical infrastructure, North America, at Echodyne.

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