The Ottawa International Airport will test new drone detection technology in an effort to counter the threat posed by the proliferation of unmanned aerial vehicles.
The year-long pilot project will evaluate the accuracy and speed of a radar-based drone detection system, which needs to be in place before another system to bring down UAVs can be introduced.
“Given the impact that drone sightings have had on other airports from a security, passenger disruption and economic point of view, we think it’s quite important,” Ottawa airport authority spokeswoman Krista Kealey said Tuesday.
The airport authority is conducting the test in concert with Nav Canada, the not-for-profit company that owns and operates the country’s civil air navigation system.
In December 2018, the threat posed by drones was graphically illustrated when London’s Gatwick Airport was closed for two days by UAVs that were deliberately and repeatedly flown into its airspace.
The incident caused travel disruptions across Europe — Gatwick is the second busiest airport in the U.K. — and resulted in 160,000 passengers’ missing their flights. Those responsible for the drone attack have never been identified.
Gatwick’s experience led to the creation in North America of a blue ribbon aviation task force to address the drone threat. Both Ottawa airport authority chief executive Mark Laroche and Nav Canada CEO Neil Wilson were on the 13-member task force that issued a final report earlier this month.
The report identified a number of critical policy gaps in Canada and the United States.
Among other things, the task force said both governments need to put in place a remote identification system — what amounts to a digital licence plate — for drones so that airports, police agencies and aviation authorities can distinguish approved UAV flights from errant or illegal ones. That system will become even more important as UAVs become part of regular air traffic.
The report also recommended that the Canadian government give local law enforcement officials and the RCMP the authority to bring down rogue UAVs. That authority now rests exclusively with the Canadian military.
“The time has come to take meaningful action on this issue to protect the nation’s travelling public,” task force co-chair Deborah Flint, CEO of Los Angeles World Airports, said at the time of the report’s release.
Flint said the escalating frequency of UAV incidents, and the risks posed by “careless, clueless or criminal” drone activity, represents a challenge that has to be met by the Federal Aviation Administration and Transport Canada in concert with airport authorities.
In Ottawa, the airport authority will test a drone detection system developed by defence contractor QinetiQ Canada. The British-based firm’s Obsidian system was designed to identify and track small drones, which can pose a threat to airports, prisons and other sensitive government installations.
“These small and extremely agile platforms can be used to deliver contraband, capture intelligence and potentially deploy explosives without detection,” the QinetiQ website warns.
Obsidian uses three-dimensional radar to recognize telltale drone features — such as its rotors — to ensure that birds and other wildlife are not accidentally identified as UAVs. The system is based on a radar unit the British Army uses to warn of short-range aerial attacks.
The new system is expected to become operational next month at the Ottawa airport.
Several options exist for taking illegal drones out of the sky, including electronic jammers that block the signal to a drone and AI-enhanced signals that “hack” the controls of a UAV. Birds of prey, nets and lasers are also being tested as drone killers.
Last year, at least five UAV incidents were reported in the vicinity of the Ottawa airport, including one near-collision in which a drone narrowly missed a commercial jetliner. The May 2018 incident involved a Republic Airlines Embraer 170 arriving from Chicago. The pilot reported that a drone missed the aircraft by “approximately 10 feet” while the plane was less than four kilometres from the airport.
Drones have also been used in at least one assassination attempt. In August 2018, Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro was attacked by two commercial drones carrying explosives that blew up in the sky while he was giving a speech from a reviewing stand.