Eyes on the Skies
October 10, 2021 By Krista Keeley
Inside YOW’s pioneering drone detection program
Early on the morning of March 15, 2021 a privately operated drone took an unauthorized 11-minute flight just north of the airfield at Ottawa International Airport (YOW). The same drone flew 24 flights during March, including flights close to the Civic Hospital Air Ambulance Helipad, the CHEO Helipad and Parliament Hill. “We know what type of drone it was, its unique ID number, its flight time, flight path and its maximum altitude,” says Michael Beaudette, YOW’s VP of Security, Emergency Management and Customer Transportation. “It should not have been flying in any of those locations and in doing so, was in violation of Transport Canada regulations.” Beaudette is leading a pioneering drone detection pilot program at YOW in partnership with InDro Robotics, QinetiQ and NAV Canada. The results to date have been eye-opening.
The issue of drones operating near airports gained international attention in late 2018, when they were spotted flying near Gatwick Airport in the UK. The airport ended up suspending more than 1,000 flights impacting 140,000 travellers. That incident led to the formation of a Blue Ribbon Task Force, which included YOW’s President and CEO Mark Laroche, with a report released by the task force in October 2019.
There are now two types of technology being demonstrated in YOW’s drone detection pilot program: radio frequency (RF) detection and micro Doppler radar. RF drone detection is provided by InDro Robotics and Remote Sensing. InDro installed an RF receiver station on the roof of the passenger terminal building that can detect drones operating on 2.4 and 5.8 ghz within a 15-kilometre radius.
“Our system interrogates each device to gain more information to pin down GPS point X, Y and Z – Z being important, as we want to know how high the device is flying,” explains Philip Reece, CEO of InDro Robotics. “We can also determine the make and size of the device, which helps determine what kind of threat it may pose. For example, a small, slow moving drone that’s far away is less of a threat than a large drone on an airport flight path.” The InDro system includes a user interface that provides real-time and consolidated historical reports, including drone ID numbers in most cases.
“In March of this year, the InDro system detected 1,626 flights within the 15-kilometre zone, including 64 flights that occurred at night,” reports Beaudette. “The totals were up significantly over January, as the weather got warmer and people decided to take their drones out for a fly.”
The second technology being demonstrated as part of the program is a micro Doppler radar solution called Obsidian from QinetiQ. Obsidian uses millimetric wave radar – 9-12 ghz – to detect the movement of the small spinning propellers on a drone flying anywhere within two kilometres of the airport.
Precisely what actions should be taken when a drone is detected flying where it shouldn’t is also part of the program. “As part of this project, we’ve been conducting tabletop exercises with our partners at NAV Canada, Transport Canada, airlines, emergency services and law enforcement,” says Beaudette. “Developing appropriate response protocols and responsibilities ultimately has to be part of the solution.”
NAV Canada, which owns and operates Canada’s civil air navigation system welcomes the collaboration. “Drone use across Canada continues to expand at a significant pace and NAV Canada is taking a proactive approach to ensure the safety of our skies for both traditional aviation and new entrants. We welcome collaboration with partners like the Ottawa International Airport as our industry continues to push forward on drone safety initiatives,” says Alan Chapman, Director of RPAS Traffic Management at NAV Canada.
For their part, pilots are justifiably wary of drones and welcome the detection demonstration pilot program at YOW. “There is no equipment onboard any aircraft, fixed or rotor, that is capable of detecting a drone in flight,” says Greg Hulme, Chief Pilot, Rotor Wing, with Ornge Air Ambulance. “The consequences of a mid-air collision with a drone range anywhere from damage to our aircraft, injury to our crew, injury to persons or property on the ground. In a catastrophic collision it is not unreasonable to assume that there could be a loss of crew, patient and aircraft.”
YOW’s Mark Laroche says the purpose of the program is neither to shame drone operators nor scare the public. “The vast majority of drone operators aren’t out there trying to disrupt aviation nor threaten aircraft,” explains Laroche. “But we need to know where they are and, if they do pose a threat, be ready to take the appropriate action that we as an airport can take to ensure safety.” The ground-breaking program will continue at YOW through to the end of 2021. | H
Krista Kealey is the Vice President of Communications and Public Affairs with the Ottawa International Airport Authority.