SAN FRANCISCO (KPIX 5) — A San Francisco company and San Francisco International Airport are at the forefront of new airport security solutions dealing with stray drones.
Airports around the world are scrambling to install anti-drone equipment months after the shutdown of London’s Gatwick Airport exposed a sobering reality: most airports aren’t fully-equipped to deal with drones wandering into their airspace, or in the worst case scenario, drones threatening to attack.
Cutting-edge drone-tracking technology is taking off at San Francisco-based Dedrone. CEO Joerg Lamprecht says business has soared after drone sightings grounded hundreds of flights last December at Gatwick Airport.
“This is the first time it cost money,” said Lamprecht.
Since then, Dedrone says it has installed its anti-drone equipment at 20 airports worldwide (though it can’t say where) and it’s testing at two American military airports.
“The outcome could be a catastrophe when a drone hits an airplane or gets sucked into the engine,” said Lamprecht.
So far, there have only been close calls, but some aren’t taking chances.
San Francisco International Airport is one of the airports looking to install a drone detection system. SFO averages one drone sighting a month.
Spokesman Doug Yakel says the airport is about ready to open bids for an anti-drone program.
“We want to get a system that tells us where the problem is and that’s what was missing from Gatwick: they knew there was a problem, but they didn’t know where the operator was at,” Yakel said.
Technology now makes it possible to pinpoint the operator. Using radio frequencies, Dedrone’s Marketing VP Pablo Estrada showed KPIX 5’s Sharon Chin how to track a drone using sensors, which were shown as blue circles.
They turn red when a drone–depicted by an orange square–breaches the perimeter. Then an orange line follows its movement in real-time.
“We’re totally able to localize the drone, we’re able to localize where it’s flying, how many times it’d be flying what kind of drone it is, we’re able to spot the operator, who it is,” Lamprecht explained.
Nationwide, pilots reported more than 2,300 drone sightings last year.
The FAA says it’s working with Justice Department and Homeland Security officials to test and evaluate detection systems, but a spokesman said, “We have not yet determined the most effective combination of technologies, which may also vary by airport.”
SFO says its system would not attack a drone threatening harm.
“Our airport is not seeking the ability to capture a drone or take a drone, shoot down a drone,” Yakel explained.
Countermeasures would be left to the airport’s federal and law enforcement partners. But a detection program is a start.
“The situation is super urgent,” stated Lamprecht.
With the FAA estimating 3 million drones by the year 2022, it could be a matter of time before a small drone inflicts big damage.
We asked other Bay Area airports about their progress in drone detection.
Mineta San Jose International Airport says it is not testing possibilities and Oakland International Airport says it is not at liberty to share its security plans.