Germany’s Drone Detection System expects prototype tests in August

Last May, in the wake of the London Gatwick Airport drone debacle, a drone sighting at the Frankfurt airport led to the cancellation of 143 flights.

In response, the Ministry of Transportation tasked Germany’s air-traffic control authority, Deutsche Flugsicherung (DFS), with developing a drone detection system (DDS) for all large German airports. About a year later, after some COVID-related delays, DFS has announced that the system expects its first prototype tests to take place in August 2020. 

A one-year turnaround? That's pretty fast.

The DFS turnaround time is applaudable, but it’s worth noting that they weren’t exactly creating a system from scratch.

UAS have been a part of the national airspace in most countries for at least 10 years. And, there have been numerous technological advancements that have made creating and implementing counter-drone and UTM systems more feasible than ever before.

Airports throughout the US, UK, and numerous European countries have been rapidly testing and implementing various forms of drone detection systems for years now, so the DFS task force will have had many case studies and precedents to reference throughout the past year.  The most impressive aspect of what DFS is doing is that it is working to develop and implement a complete national solution, rather than leaving things up to the airports.

Okay. So, how is the drone detection going to work?

According to an April 2020 technical support tender, each DDS will comprise phased array and other customized radars, as well as radiofrequency detectors fused with primary trackers to ensure the system can distinguish between drones, commercial aircraft, and other flying objects.

 

Related: FAA Remote ID System Still a Priority For 2020

 

Furthermore, each DDS will be fully integrated within the recently launched national UTM, which will make future innovation and standardization more feasible than if each DDS operated autonomously.  

Sounds pretty failproof.

Not quite.

DFS will have to address several technical issues before DDS is fully functional. For one, the frequencies used by UAS are the same as those used by mobile phones and WiFi routers, both of which can be highly mobile.

This can cause drone detection accuracy issues that can interfere with the DSS’s effectiveness and disrupt airport operations.

To complicate matters further, the European Space Agency (EASA) ‘Prototype’ Regulation is centered around the notion that drones that weigh less (particularly those that weigh less than 250 grams) pose a relatively low risk, and thus require less stringent regulation than their larger counterparts. This will undoubtedly motivate people to opt for small UAS whenever possible, which will make it even harder to tell drones apart from other devices.

For reference, the physical footprint of a Parrot Anafi is not that much greater than most mobile phones, and smaller than many birds that also share the National Airspace with manned aircraft.

 

There must be a workaround.

Yes, but it’s far from perfect.

The UTM that Doniq has recently implemented in Germany features a 149 gram LTE modem “hook-on device” (HOD) designed to transmit the position of the drone, and its identification to the UTM via the cellular network. One hundred forty-nine grams may be nothing for a large UAS, but pilots and manufacturers of sub-250 gram drones – the ones that are the hardest to detect – are likely to resist this arrangement. That’s because it will cause the drones to go up a weight class, which will result in stricter regulatory requirements.

That said, electronics are perpetually shrinking and, in the future, it’s likely that the HOD will soon be small enough to align with regulatory incentives and UTM technical requirements.

Are these systems coming for other European countries?

Other European countries have taken an approach of tightening regulations and/or leaving the logistics of drone detection in the hands of each airport.

For instance, the U.K. NATS Holdings — formerly National Air Traffic Services — responded to the Gatwick incident by expanding the radius of the no-fly zone around airports from a minimum of one kilometer to a minimum of five, but left airports to manage the development of counter-drone systems on their own. French airports have been procuring and deploying DDS individually rather than collectively.

Meanwhile, in 2017 the Spanish Ministry of Defence purchased UAS detection systems, but airports are still left to address the issue of rogue drones autonomously. 

I zoned out... what should I take away from this?

Although there are many kinks to be worked out, Germany’s national airport drone detection system, combined with its new UTM, could place Germany at the forefront of government-driven UAS innovation.

If successful, the DSS could be deployed at military installations, prisons, and all sorts of critical infrastructure around Germany. And most importantly, Germany’s DSS could challenge the status quo of slow and fragmented development of drone detection technology in other countries.

Miriam Hinthorn - Contributing Author - Consortiq

Miriam Hinthorn - Contributing Author - Consortiq

Miriam Hinthorn is an experienced management professional who is currently pursuing her master’s in Data, Economics, and Development Policy at MIT while serving as principal consultant at Consult92.

Miriam developed a love for UAS technology when she served as operations manager at Consortiq. Today, having completed over 30 successful projects in 10 countries, she loves solving a wide variety of logistical, technical, and cultural challenges for her clients so that they can focus on what care about most.

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