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  • Writer's pictureSimon Golstein

Friend and foe: in the age of drones, is complete airspace control still possible?

Drones are extending the benefits of flight to more people and more industries every day as they take on an ever-wider variety of roles, including personal travel. However, this leaves aviation authorities worldwide facing an exponential growth in air traffic without the technology to adequately manage it.


In order for drones to operate safely alongside traditional air traffic, we need technology that can detect uncrewed air traffic and that can directly and safely mitigate threats when they occur.


Why has this been a challenge? Do such solutions exist?

Why can’t existing air traffic control systems detect drones?


The impressive safety statistics of aviation are the result of extensive safety systems specifically designed for crewed aircraft. These include layered radar systems, networks of air traffic control facilities, strict regulations governing aircraft construction and pilot training, and mandatory communication and identification protocols. Unfortunately, these systems are not configured to do efficiently detect, track, and identify drones.

Here are some reasons why traditional air traffic control systems may struggle to detect drones:


Size: Drones are much smaller than even the most basic of traditional aircraft, giving them a smaller radar cross-section (RCS). Reduced RCS means that they are less reflective to radar waves making them more challenging to detect using radar systems designed for larger targets.


Altitude: Radar coverage is limited at the lower altitudes at which drones typically operate. At low altitudes, radar beams can be obstructed by buildings and terrain, and drones that are detected can be misidentified as background ‘clutter’ (like birds and even leaves).


Speed: Drones often fly at slower speeds than any aircraft, making them more challenging to track accurately with radar which is optimized for fast moving targets.


Maneuverability: Drones can perform rapid and unpredictable maneuvers, making it difficult for radar systems to predict their flight paths and anticipate potential conflicts.


How prevalent are disruptive drone activities?


It’s much easier to make an illegal flight of a drone than it is to joyride in a plane - drones are inexpensive, easy to fly, and their operation presents no personal risk to the pilot.


Drone research firm DroneSec put the number of disruptive and/or illegal drone flights at 2,554 in 2022, a 60 percent rise from 2021. One study reported 24 incidents of drones coming within 500 feet of piloted aircraft in the US between August 2018 and July 2021, and in July 2023, a drone came within 10 feet of a Finnair plane at Heathrow airport, forcing a runway closure. Investigation into the incident found that the drone was not picked up by radar at all. It hardly matters whether the drone operators in these situations were malicious or not.


Differentiating between friend and foe


Disruptions aside, drone adoption is accelerating rapidly because drones are beneficial to society. They regularly and directly save lives worldwide in their roles with first responders and disaster management teams. They are improving agriculture and environmental conservation, and their business and logistical applications are endless. Furthermore, advanced air mobility promises to lower traffic congestion, mitigate climate change, and just provide a much more pleasurable way to travel. As a result of these benefits, mass adoption is already happening on a large scale.


Do we have a way to identify drones? Can we safely mitigate threats when they occur? The answer, thankfully, is yes. 

Air traffic control for drones


There is a drone-based equivalent to air traffic control - uncrewed traffic management, or UTM. UTM systems blend standard aviation practices (like plan submissions and ADS-B transponders) with specialized technology (such as remote-ID tags) to track and identify drones in real time. Integrations with drone-specific integrated DTI (Detection, Tracking, Identification) and mitigation technology based on communication protocol analytics completes the picture, enabling a UTM to detect even those drones that don’t want to be detected.


The ability to manage all air traffic harmoniously and put an end to anonymous flights once and for all is more than attractive - it’s vital. That’s why authorities worldwide are supplementing their ATC networks with UTM technology. In the future, digital traffic management may replace traditional ATC entirely. 



Drone threats: hard kill or soft kill?


Complete visibility is great, but what do we do when we spy a drone that shouldn’t be there?


It may seem a simple thing to stop a drone, and indeed, measures like firearms, nets, lasers, anti-drone missiles and even trained birds of prey have been used for this purpose. However, ‘hard kills’ mean falling drones which can cause property damage and serious injury. 


Thus, authorities are turning to ‘soft kill’ solutions, such as jamming or spoofing - Gatwick Airport, the second busiest in the UK, spent £5 million pounds on a ‘Drone Dome’ which can detect and soft-kill drones. However, these solutions also come with a downside in that they disrupt other communication systems and signals such as WiFi or GPS, which essentially makes them impractical for urban environments. 



A complete solution


Luckily, a third alternative exists in the shape of communication protocol analytics-based mitigation. This technology can automatically detect, identify, track and assume control of drones, as well as pinpoint the location of their controllers. Such systems work by surgically decoding the communication protocol between a drone and its remote control, pairing itself to the drone, and then sending a short prompt that makes the drone identify believe the system is its remote control. This enables the defender to land the drone safely in an accessible place or sending it back to its home point, preventing collateral damage and enabling investigation.


The ideal approach to drone management is a combination of a universal UTM system, reliable drone-specific sensors, and communication protocol analytics-based mitigation. This will enable authorized drones and responsible pilots to carry out missions in harmony with our existing infrastructure and existing air traffic while also detecting and safely neutralizing unauthorized drones. And luckily, such a solution has just hit the market.


Two Israeli companies - High Lander, an uncrewed traffic management provider, and Sentrycs, a specialist in protocol-based integrated counter-drone technology - have combined their solutions to create system that provides full airspace awareness and a safe way detect and to disable suspicious drones.

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