Southend Airport tests drone detection system

Southend Airport has trialled an anti-drone system – though its air traffic control boss cheerfully admitted the airport doesn’t have any “outstanding issues with ‘rogue’ drone operations”.

Metis Aerospace’s Skyperion product, which was the one tested at Southend this week, is billed as working through a combination of radio frequency and optical sensors to detect nearby hobbyist-class unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). Southend tested the system at its makers’ request.

Damon Knight, head of the Essex airport’s air traffic control services, said in a statement:

“We do not have any outstanding issues with ‘rogue’ drone operations at London Southend, but we have had some sightings near the airport which fortunately have not affected our operations. However, we recognise that there is a wider problem for the aviation industry and so as an airport we have been very involved in understanding how we can deal with the issue.”

The week-long trial, which has just ended, involved test drones being flown within a 4km radius of the airport for the two sensors to pick up and classify, and was said to have been a success. Precisely what metrics were tested were not specified, however.

Skyperion’s mode of operation will draw comparisons with DJI’s Aeroscope drone-detection product. The claimed ranges of the two products are very similar, with both of them seemingly relying on line-of-sight detection gear, judging by their published detection ranges; 5km for Aeroscope and 4km for the Metis product. Some straightforward arithmetic will tell the informed reader that the detection range should theoretically increase the higher the antennas are mounted, though like all good electromagnetic gear, your mileage may vary.

Metis’ website has more details on the Skyperion product, including some brief info on how it classifies potential drones after detecting them. It appears to be heavily biased towards picking up transmissions on known drone command-and-control frequencies with operators verifying the presence of a drone using a zoomable camera.

Line-of-sight drone detection antennas mounted inside an airport’s boundaries are not long-ranged enough to fully surveil typical final approach paths, which normally stretch to around 10 miles or so. The Register has yet to see concrete details of any drone detection system that explicitly includes fixed, remote antennas as a deployment option. This is not, however, to say that such systems have no place; a careless drone operator otherwise obeying the letter of the law shouldn’t be flying above 400ft, which, to come into direct conflict with a landing aeroplane, would mean the drone being flown within a couple of miles of the airport’s runway threshold.

Typical threats posed by drones near airports are caused by idiotic thrill-seekers who like watching airliners whizz past within a few feet, using drones’ onboard first-person view livestreamed video capability. Statistics from the UK Airprox Board, which records and publishes pilot reports of suspected drone near-misses, show that around 30 incidents involving drones have been reported between September 2017 and January 2018 – of which just three took place below 1,000ft. Pilots, however, do have a tendency to report any strange item floating around the skies as a “drone”, even in conditions where the object is more likely to be a plastic bag or a balloon.

A relatively quiet hub which, rather implausibly, likes to bill itself as “London Southend Airport” in spite of being around 40 miles from the capital, Southend has a single runway and supports a variety of flights, including the odd airline movement, cargo flights and general aviation work. The airport itself is owned and operated by Stobart Aviation, the aero division of the Eddie Stobart trucking company. ®

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