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Safeguarding northern border against ‘low and slow’ aircraft

UND, Northern Plains UAS Test Site help U.S. government test air security tools for border enforcement

Twelve participating vendors from the aerospace and defense industries set up specialized aerial surveillance systems for field testing at Camp Grafton. Image courtesy of DHS Science and Technology Directorate.

As unmanned aerial systems become integrated into the National Airspace System, incredible uses and applications for those systems will follow.

“But at the same time, there are people out there who will use autonomous systems to do bad things,” said Mark Askelson, executive director of UND’s Research Institute for Autonomous Systems.

“So, we need to make sure that we have the capability to counter those systems. We’ve been working on these types of things at RIAS for quite some time.”

These days, that work is taking place with significant partners and on an exceptionally large stage. In an effort being led by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Science and Technology Directorate, UND is working with multiple federal agencies on a project that is testing and implementing state-of-the-art aerial surveillance technologies along America’s northern border.

The project’s goal is boosting air domain awareness (ADA) – our nation’s ability to detect, track and identify aerial-based threats. Under the leadership of the Northern Plains UAS Test Site (NPUASTS), UND has started supporting efforts to assess and test state-of-the-art ADA technologies.

Mark Askelson

This past April, Askelson’s RIAS team worked on-site with vendors of these cutting-edge surveillance technologies to verify if those systems can maintain air domain awareness over the upper Great Plains. Subsequent phases of the project are going to run similar tests in mountainous, marine and urban environments.

In a release from the DHS, Program Manager Tim Bennett said the northern border faces daily threats such as human trafficking and smuggling of illicit drugs and other substances. Oftentimes, he said, such operations will use low, slow-flying aircraft – manned and unmanned – to attempt to enter the country. (In this case, low altitude would be from ground level to 500 feet or so, which can create challenges for detection systems.)

“These aircraft represent a significant security challenge, so it’s important that we have appropriate aerial surveillance systems that can quickly and accurately detect, track and identify them,” Bennett said.

Askelson gave full credit to NPUASTS for its critical role in the project.

“This initiative is really showing the strength of our partnership with the Test Site and its promise for great things in the future,” Askelson said. Formally, UND is a subcontractor for the Test Site, working data collection and flight operations for manned and unmanned aircraft.

Besides the DHS, other federal agencies involved in the Air Domain Awareness project include Customs and Border Protection’s Air and Marine Operations and U.S. Border Patrol, the Department of Defense, the Federal Aviation Administration, NASA and the U.S. Coast Guard.

In April, the Northern Plains UAS Test Site directed a multi-week flight test event in rural North Dakota that represented the first phase of a four-phase testing process for air domain awareness technologies. UND was subcontracted by the Test Site for flight and data collection tasks. This April photo shows pilots flying a Sentera, Inc., PHX UAS below rolling hills to test capabilities of the systems and operators to ensure that both would be able to detect UAS, even when flying close to the ground. Image courtesy of DHS Science and Technology Directorate.

Eyes on the data

Camp Grafton South, located south of Devil’s Lake and east of New Rockford, is a National Guard training center where the first round of ADA demonstrations recently took place. These demonstrations tested technologies designed to detect and track aircraft over the region’s flat lowland plains.

Every week, as many as four vendors brought their suite of ADA technologies to the site. There, the vendors and their technologies were evaluated for their abilities to quickly and accurately detect and track aircraft as large as a Cessna 150 and as small as a DJI Phantom drone. These wide variety of aircraft were chose, as they are representative of the most common border-crossing threats.

At Camp Grafton, while the NPUASTS directed the test event and operated the UAS flights, UND flight instructors piloted the manned aircraft, including a UND Robinson R44 helicopter and the aforementioned Cessna 150.

Using on-board GPS trackers, investigators then cross-referenced what the ADA sensors detected (and when) in comparison to the precise location of the aircraft in question, whether manned or unmanned.

It’s in collecting these data that RIAS came into play, said Jordan Krueger, project manager for RIAS. And to work with more than a dozen vendors over three weeks at Camp Grafton, he had to find some help.

Jordan Krueger

“A lot of my work on this project so far has been hiring and training eight UND students as data collectors,” Krueger said.

As he explained it, RIAS’ data collectors sat alongside the vendors whose ADA technology was being tested. It was the collector’s job to note whether the ADA system’s sensors detected aircraft, as well as any associated anomalies.

While the data collectors knew the flight status of test aircraft, the ADA vendors were relying solely on their system to detect, identify and track the craft throughout the test run.

In a way, RIAS’s data collectors were positioned as a third party that was vital in validating the accuracy and consistency of ADA systems being tested.

“We’re sitting next to them, and we know when the aircraft takes off, when it lands, where it is; we’re going to be in communication with the data director,” Krueger said. “And when the mission ends, with the notes we’ve taken, we’ll be asking the vendor if they were able to collect data or if they thought or knew that they detected the aircraft, and we’ll communicate that with the data director.”

RIAS: Active and involved

But the RIAS hires will be involved beyond the April testing phase at Camp Grafton, Krueger said. Part of his work in bringing the eight students onboard has been training them into their titles as “autonomous system operators.”

“While the first push in April was for data collection, we’re trying to have them all trained so they can plug in as actual pilots – Part 107 commercial operators,” said Krueger, referring to the common UAS pilot certification.

Though the planning is still uncertain regarding subsequent phases of the project, Krueger is confident that UND will be in the mix moving forward.

“We are well-positioned to support a lot of these kinds of efforts in research, and we want to do more of it,” Krueger said. “In wanting to partner with entities such as the DHS and Department of Defense, this project is clearly a great way to connect and show that UND has been doing this type of work and doing it safely.”

Krueger’s confidence stems from the fact that so many students answered his call for system operators, according to Krueger, despite the scheduling demands laid out in the position description. For Askelson, the enthusiasm points to the fact that students are looking for real-world experience, and that RIAS is working on “very practical, real contemporary problems” of interest to those entering the fields of UAS and autonomy.

The high-profile nature of the project is a bonus when it comes to the myriad lessons associated with field work.

“I always feel that a field project is a phenomenal experience, no matter what,” Askelson remarked. “For RIAS, we’re seeing that students want to be active and involved, so that’s a feel-good moment for us. But it obviously helps when we can show that we’re able to reach all areas of the University to help solve these problems.”

Chris Theisen

Chris Theisen, director of research and development for the Northern Plains UAS Test Site, said that as the team is trained and works through testing at Camp Grafton South, the Test Site would like to maintain a consistent crew for the three remaining stages of the program. The environments are only going to become more complex, he said, so having the right people for the job will be a key to success.

“We’re likely going to want a team from UND to continue supporting our effort, and Jordan has been great at pulling people in to support the roles and functions we’re needing in the field,” Theisen said. “Just looking at the amount of people we needed to make this work, we knew early on UND would need to be involved.”

“And the idea for this ADA program isn’t limited to a one-and-done-type project,” Theisen continued. “It’s something that we’re setting up that has long-term initiatives and goals, such as testing these sensors in more extreme weather conditions. UND’s involvement will be heavy in supporting those opportunities whether through data collection and processing or flight operations.”