12th Flying Training Wing safety office deploys new drone detection system

  • Published
  • By Benjamin Faske
  • 12th Flying Training Wing Public Affairs

It’s a bird, it’s a plane it’s … a drone?

Commonly referred to as small unmanned aircraft systems, or sUAS, by the Federal Aviation Administration, these consumer-grade drones have been known to penetrate the airspace around Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph and other bases throughout the Air Force, adding yet another obstacle for pilots to look out for.

For years the 12th Flying Training Wing safety office has employed a robust Bird/Wildlife Aircraft Strike Hazard, or BASH, program to deal with the nesting and migratory bird populations that transverse the airspace around JBSA-Randolph.

A mixture of bird radar, air cannons, vegetation management and predatory bird calls have been successful, but the sUAS problem has been a tough nut to crack until now.

With direction from the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Research and Development and Air Forces North, researchers began analyzing the most cost effective way to implement a drone detection system using an airfield’s existing infrastructure.

Air Education and Training Command selected the 12th Flying Training Wing to be the testbed for the new system, because their mission mirrored other pilot training bases and they already had an existing bird radar system.

The Joint Negation of Asymmetric Threats, or JNAT, had originally been scheduled for testing in late 2021, but due to the COVID-19 pandemic, testing was delayed until early 2022.

Testing JNAT was left to the Air Force Operational Test and Evaluation Center, or AFOTEC, located at Kirtland Air Force Base, New Mexico, an independent test agency responsible for testing, under operationally realistic conditions, new systems being developed for Air Force and multi-service use.

AFOTEC had embarked on a 4-year effort to evaluate and modify existing bird radars into sUAS detection systems.

“The Joint Capability Technology Demonstration will be the first time JNAT is used in a flight safety scenario,” said Maj. Daniel Hayes, AFOTEC test director. “We are looking at 20 to 30 different measures to see the effectives, suitability and mission capability. This is a report card on how usable and how much the system helps the Supervisor of Flying.”

JNAT incorporates many different sensors to make it easier for the Supervisor of Flying, or SOF, to visually identify sUAS so they can warn pilots in the air. Thermal and electro-optical cameras can see targets up to a mile and a half, providing latitude, longitude and altitude readings. The sensors are integrated into one radar where the SOF can click on a target and the radar steers the camera to that location, the camera will pan, tilt and zoom to auto track the target.

“Before JNAT, we relied on a pilot’s ability to visually identify drones and maneuver to avoid them,” said Lt. Col. Michael Castlen, 12th FTW chief of safety, “Seeing something the size of a small bird while traveling at the speeds our aircraft operate is extremely difficult. This system gives our aircrew advance warning and allows visibility of a previously undetected threat.”

JNAT will provide a continuous feed during flight operations allowing the SOF to observe developing sUAS hazards in case they need to direct aircrews to go-around, divert or close the airfield.

“Out of all the advances in aviation situational awareness over the last 3-5 years (ForeFlight, Electronic Flight Bags, Stratus Pucks), I’m most excited about this capability. In flight safety, we are looking for how to prevent the next mishap. JNAT has done that,” Castlen said.