No-fly zone: drone detection at Miami International Airport

Miami International Airport has become the first airport in the US to utilise technology to spot drones operating in restricted areas. Frankie Youd speaks to those involved and explores how the technology works.

Image: copyright

The use of drones in prohibited areas around airports results in mass disruption, safety concerns, and cancelled flights. One of the most famed examples took place in 2018, when Gatwick Airport was forced to cancel hundreds of flights between 19-21 December following reports of drone sightings in the prohibited areas close to the runway.

140,000 passengers and 1,000 flights were affected, the incident being the biggest disruption the airport had faced since 2010 – when it was forced to close alongside many other airports, due to the Eyjafjallajökull volcano eruption in Iceland.

In hopes to prevent drone incidents such as this from occurring again, Miami International Airport (MIA) has been selected by the US Transportation Security Administration (TSA) to be a test site for drone detection technology.

With over 10 million passengers passing through MIA this year, the damage that a drone incident could cause to an airport such as this would be highly detrimental to airport operations.

How does it work?

The new technology being used on-site uses detect, track, and identify equipment (DTI), which allows drones that are unauthorized to enter restricted airspace to be detected. The equipment works parallel to the airport’s ‘perimeter protection pilot’ programme, which alongside the DTI technology aims to protect the airport from aerial intrusion.

The perimeter protection pilot system includes 360-degree cameras, thermal sensors, and infrared illuminators with the DTI equipment allowing those at MIA to gather information regarding the height, altitude, direction, operator speed and type of unidentified craft.

The information gathered by the DTI equipment will be available for airport authorities to access with the hope that technology such as this will be able to be further developed in the future, to benefit and protect airports across the US.

According to those working on the equipment, the DTI will ensure the focus is on non-compliant drone operations, criminal operations, and careless operations, aiming to prevent such operators from entering MIA airspace.

Unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) threat to airports has increased exponentially over the last few years.

Speaking on the new technology, Captain Jim Bamberger, branch chief, TSA, discusses why he feels this technology has not been included within airport environments sooner.

“Unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) threat to airports has increased exponentially over the last few years, which is why it is vital we begin assessing the effectiveness of UAS DTI technologies in live airport environments,” he says.

“Before testing and evaluating UAS DTI technology in an operational airport environment, it is imperative that the equipment meets safety and security requirements approved by technical experts at Department of Defence, Department of Homeland Security, and the Federal Aviation Administration.”

The technology will be updated during the testing period, with new systems and technology every two to three months to ensure the latest equipment is being used, as well as developing the existing system which is in place.

“Since the testbeds will be ongoing, various technologies will be tested that may use radar, artificial intelligence, thermal imaging, and other capabilities to detect, track, and identify UAS,” according to Bamberger.

Future technology development

At present, the technology can identify the area in which the drone is being operated from, track the path it is taking, and identify the drone type which has entered the unauthorised area.

The technology is currently unable to take down the drone entering the unauthorised area, but in the future, the TSA hopes that once testing has been finalised at MIA, and confidence surrounding the testing is assured, developments can then be carried out within this area.

The TSA hopes that in future the technology will be able to neutralise unauthorised drones. Credit: Miami International Airport.

Speaking about the future development and testing of the technology Lester Sola, MIA director and CEO, says: "We are extremely proud to be chosen by TSA for this landmark test of drone detection technology, which will reap unprecedented security benefits for MIA and our sister airports across the country.”

“We look forward to bolstering our strong partnership with TSA through this new initiative, as we continue to advance our shared priority of enhancing the safety and security of our passengers, employees, and business partners."