Drone defence

The black sheep in the sky – hunting scenes above the airfield

Just a small dot on the monitor and barely visible to the naked eye in the air, yet an object that can crash an aircraft: it is a commercially available mini drone circling over the area of Manching Airport near Ingolstadt. A large number of experts dealing with aviation safety issues are following the events with great interest.

They are attending a world première, as for the first time a solution will be presented as part of an intensive testing programme by Deutsche Flugsicherung (DFS) and Rheinmetall that can be used to detect and, if necessary, combat drones at civilian airports. The guests get to see how the suspicious object is detected, classified and verified and ultimately literally fished from the sky by an interceptor drone using a safety net – danger eliminated.

Drone alarm causes chaos at the airport

The subject is highly topical: in December 2018, London Gatwick Airport was forced to shut down due to drone alarms and remained crippled for three days. This involved around 1,000 flights being cancelled and 140,000 passengers were affected. The economic loss is estimated at 50 million pounds. In Germany, Deutsche Flugsicherung (the company in charge of air traffic control) recorded 158 events involving drones at airports over the past year. Criminals and terrorists, but also mindless hobby pilots can cause enormous damage with drones.

As Head of Strategy at Rheinmetall Air Defence, Matthias Diem deals with this topic. "With our expertise in military air defence, drone detection is not a major challenge for us. However, protecting civilian airports is a supreme discipline – as this involves operating in a highly complex and very sensitive environment. We have to compare the picture of the situation we get from our sensors with the data from Deutsche Flugsicherung and determine which object in the airspace is not supposed to be there. So we're looking for the black sheep in the sky."

Challenging task

This is certainly not an easy task with the around 11,000 aircraft movements that DFS already has to coordinate on peak days. "At the same time, we have to combat danger in such a way that flight operations are not impaired, that communication and navigation technology are not disrupted and that no collateral damage is caused – for example due to dropping drones," Diem continued.

The presentation was hosted by the Bundeswehr Technical and Airworthiness Center for Aircraft, WTD61, which also dealt with drone defence to protect its military properties abroad and made Manching Airport available for testing.

New era in aviation

Thilo Vogt, Head of Drone Traffic at DFS, believes we are currently experiencing the beginning of a new era in aviation. "In the future, manned and unmanned flying objects will share the airspace, and we need to create the technical prerequisites for this in air traffic control as quickly as possible." The flight route and identification of every aircraft and helicopter flying in German airspace today is known to DFS. This is not the case, however, with drones: they still fly around in a completely uncoordinated manner and have no unique identification. The radar systems used by DFS are also blind to such small unmanned flying objects. "We need completely new procedures and regulations in this area. It is well overdue for all drones to be registered and electronically identifiable. Equally, new legal requirements are currently being worked on at EU level," says Thilo Vogt.

Drones replacing helicopters

In the meantime, DFS and Deutsche Telekom have developed a system that will turn a drone into a flying mobile phone using a SIM card. It transmits a signal via mobile radio that makes it identifiable and provides information about the flight route. There will be many such cooperative drones, as the expert calls them, in the air in the future: for example, to monitor gas pipelines and power lines, to observe traffic situations on motorways or to locate fallen trees on railway tracks or forest fires. While helicopters currently involve high operating and personnel costs and produce aircraft noise and exhaust fumes, there will be an increasing number of inconspicuous drones about in the future. One element of concern is that more and more drones will appear in areas where unmanned aircraft are prohibited.

Fusion of pictures of the situation in the air

At the live presentation in Manching, Rheinmetall proved that its Skymaster system can reliably detect such objects in the sky and feed them into DFS's Phoenix system. Matthias Diem: "The major breakthrough here with 'Skymaster' is that we will be able to create a comprehensive and complete picture of the situation for the first time. Sensor fusion is the magic word here, because we are working with a sophisticated mixture of high-performance sensors from Rheinmetall: from the multi-mission short-range radar to the MSP600 multi-sensor platform and the FIRST infra-red sensor."

Rheinmetall's highly sensitive military sensors, which are aimed at the object like a super-sharp telescope, can initially provide additional information, such as whether the drone is carrying dangerous cargo such as explosives.

Jammer forces drone to land

If it's a "non-cooperative drone" that needs to be intercepted, there are a number of possibilities for getting the intruder out of the sky: including laser weapons, shot loads or hunting drones with trapping nets. Another tool was successfully demonstrated in Manching: a jammer developed by Rheinmetall forced one of the drones to spontaneously land as desired.

The Skymaster C2 (Command and Control) system then also makes it possible to verify whether the drone has been successfully stopped and the danger averted. The picture of the situation in the air shows the current situation accordingly and the air traffic controller can use reliable information to decide whether flight operations can be resumed.

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