Miami Int’l Serves as TSA Test Site for Technologies to Help Detect Drones

Miami Int’l Serves as TSA Test Site for Technologies to Help Detect Drones
Ronnie Wendt
Published in: 

Miami Int’l Airport (MIA) ranks among the busiest airports in the world, with about 43,000 takeoffs and landings a month. Naturally, the bustling airport makes safety a top priority. But unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) using drones present a growing safety risk.

Until recently, it had also been a risk that was difficult to quantify. “In terms of local experience, the presence of drones is mostly anecdotal,” says Mark Hatfield, assistant aviation director and chief security officer in charge of public safety and security at MIA. “It’s pilots reporting to the tower, the tower making observations, and, occasionally, it’s law enforcement on the ground making observations. While we cannot put it on a spreadsheet to show frequency and severity, it is a threat we know is out there.”

Airport operators throughout the world share MIA’s concerns. Many, in fact, deal with unwanted drone traffic on a daily basis. “Airports see that UAS have potentially dire consequences, but no one knows what to do about it,” Hatfield laments.


Project: TSA Drone Detection Technologies Program

Location: Miami Int’l Airport

Purpose: Test & evaluate equipment designed to detect, track & identify drones in commercial airspace

Program Sponsor/Administrator: TSA

Cost to Airport: $0

Timeline: Ongoing since Aug. 2021

Strategy: Evaluate systems from top-tier manufacturers

Technologies Being Tested: Radar; thermal imaging; electro optical; radio frequency; acoustic

Key Benefit: Feedback & data from tests conducted at an active airport will help manufacturers refine their products & technologies

With MIA’s assistance, that could soon change. Since August 2021, TSA has been using the Florida airport as a real-world test site for technologies designed to prevent disruptions and disasters posed by drones operating in commercial airspaces.

“The program aims to help airports defend themselves through detection, identification and eventually mitigation,” Hatfield explains.

At MIA, he saw eye-popping results in the very first month of the program. “The number of drone flights was in the thousands, and many were getting in and around our airspace,” Hatfield reports. “Some breached the altitude limit, and others got very close to the airport border limit.”

Despite the surprising volume of activity, he notes that simply being aware of drone presence can help pre-empt accidents. “Especially if we can communicate with the operator and remove the UAS from restricted airspace,” he adds. “That ability has immense value.”

Program Parameters

The FAA website offers this general statement on the matter: “Drone operators should avoid flying near airports because it is difficult for manned aircraft to see and avoid a drone while flying…Drone operators must avoid manned aircraft and are responsible for any safety hazard their drone creates in an airport environment.”

But regulations get more specific from there, notes Capt. Jim Bamberger, branch chief of TSA’s Public Area Security Infrastructure Protection, Unmanned Aircraft Systems and Counter-UAS Capability. “You cannot fly within a mile of an airport unless you have a waiver and a reason to do so,” he specifies. “Height ranges go down the closer you get to an airport. If you’re in the flight path and are three miles from the airport, you might fly at 400 feet. But when you get closer, the ceiling might go from 300 feet to 100 to zero.”

While most drone operators follow the FAA rules, Bamberger notes that not all are diligent. He divides operators into three general categories:

  • Commercial users who purchase drones for specific purposes and obtain proper FAA Part 107 certifications to operate them.
  • Clueless or careless operators who are not aware of FAA regulations regarding where or how high drones are allowed to fly.
  • Bad actors intent on using drones to cause harm.

Those with criminal intent make up the smallest percentage of drone operators creating a threat to airports, Bamberger specifies. However, anyone who is unfamiliar with or disregards FAA regulations regarding drone use near airports can pose a threat. 

Given the potential for possible problems, TSA is focusing on detect, track and identify (DTI) equipment. Specifically, its Drone Detection Technologies Program aims to:

  • determine whether drones are operating in restricted airspace;
  • identify drones that pose a threat to airport operations;
  • notify the airport authority of unauthorized drones and
  • vet potential DTI equipment.

“There are over 300 vendors in this space,” Bamberger advises. “Most airport authorities lack the wherewithal or background to determine if the equipment works. The TSA’s role is to validate and verify vendor claims and make determinations on the equipment’s effectiveness and suitability in an airport environment.”

Why Miami?

After TSA officially launched the program in 2020, the agency approached MIA about becoming its first test site. As a Category X airport, MIA has high-volume cargo and passenger traffic to provide a rigorous evaluation environment, and the federal agency already had a Memorandum of Understanding with it for previous projects.

Moreover, the new drone detection program dovetails nicely with an ongoing project TSA began at MIA in 2018 to evaluate perimeter intrusion detection and deterrence technologies. “Horizontally, perimeter security detects vehicles, unauthorized passengers and people reaching the perimeter gates,” Bamberger explains. “The new drone program adds a vertical piece to airport security.”

Being selected for the new drone program speaks to MIA’s reputation as a ready and willing host for TSA pilot programs over the last 15 years, adds Hatfield.

When serving as Federal Security Director at MIA from 2007 to 2014, Hatfield volunteered the airport for as many TSA opportunities as possible. “It’s a great way to motivate the workforce and become a part of the future,” he comments.

These days, Hatfield is on the airport operations side, but still sees the value in TSA partnerships. “I’m keen to promote and nurture our relationship with the TSA,” he remarks.

Florida’s mild winters allow agency personnel to test drone detection and tracking technologies year-round, while its salt air and high summer temperatures expose the equipment to harsh environmental factors. 

“We are also an urban environment with city streets on all four sides of our 3,000 acres,” Hatfield adds. “It’s a complex, dynamic environment, making it a tough proving ground and rigorous test bed.”

Recently, TSA began similar testing at Los Angeles International Airport, which provides different noise and geography conditions for evaluating various technologies. “It will give us a lot more information,” Bamberger says. “We might add more airports eventually if we get more funding.”

Testing the Tech

Equipment manufacturers are using many forms of technology to detect, track and identify drones. Those being tested at MIA include:

  • Radio frequency identification (RFID), which detects radio frequency exchanges between controllers and drones. This technology can identify the height, speed, takeoff/landing spots and paths of drones.
  • Electro-optical detection, which leverages high-visibility cameras to spot drones.
  • Acoustic technology, to detect drones by their sound patterns.
  • Radar. This technology is similar to airport radar used to detect aircraft.
  • Thermal or heat signature technology, which allows personnel to detect and follow a drone’s path.

To qualify for field-testing in the program, each technology vendor fills out a detailed questionnaire and submits a demo unit. TSA personnel first test the equipment in a controlled laboratory to assess how the technology will work in various weather and atmospheric conditions. Next, they determine whether the equipment can operate safely in the National Airspace System.

This provides the data needed to receive FAA approval for operational testing. “Remember, this equipment must operate in the most challenging environment in the U.S., an active airport with lots of communication,” Bamberger emphasizes.

Next, TSA personnel test the equipment at MIA for approximately 90 days. “We don’t ask the airport to shut down or do anything differently,” he advises. “We want to make sure the technology will work in an operational airport environment.”

The agency tests the detection equipment by using drones that have FAA permission to fly in specific flight patterns near the airport. “When we test this technology, we find out if it’s missing certain altitudes, speeds or types of drones, how RF [radio frequencies] affect its use, and so on,” Bamberger explains. “The information goes back to the developer to improve the equipment.”

What They’re Discovering

To date, TSA researchers are finding that drone activity at MIA is exponentially greater than what is being seen by airline, control tower and law enforcement personnel.

“That does not mean the activity is bad,” Bamberger specifies. “It just means there are a lot of drones out there, and some are operating in restricted airspace. You cannot tell intent from technology, but we are not seeing anyone who is trying to crash a drone into an aircraft or airport on purpose. We are just seeing a lot of activity, which we think is due to people being unaware of FAA regulations and restrictions.”

From MIA’s perspective, the program is already demonstrating value and potential. For instance, the first RF detect, track and identify technology TSA tested successfully detected a drone over the parking garage near the main terminal building. The police were notified, and MIA dispatched its own officers to the roof of the parking garage. “It was a permitted contractor using a drone to look at some RF antenna locations,” says Hatfield. “But the immediacy and efficacy of the detection and follow-up communication was impressive.”

Still, he notes that the program has also revealed that there is no silver bullet or magic black box. “Every technology has strong points and limitations,” he stresses.

TSA researchers are learning that drone activity around the airport is more common than previously thought.

So far, RFID technology has risen to the top, which did not surprise TSA personnel because drones use RFID to communicate with their controllers. However, if drones operate autonomously without radio frequency communication, RFID does not work.

Heat signature/thermal technologies have also tested well, but they do not differentiate between drones and other objects in the sky such as aircraft and wildlife. Radar has similar drawbacks.

“The best answer will be a layered approach,” Bamberger advises. “We are now layering these systems to discover the best approach. So, we combine the best RFID with the best thermal, with the best acoustic and the best visual to get as much information as we can. It’s important to not only test individual equipment but to put them together to assess a system of systems to develop the best solution.”

Next Steps

What remains to be seen is what MIA and other airports can do with these discoveries. For Hatfield, the goal is real-time detection, communication, dispatch and interdiction. Beyond that, he looks forward to vetted technology with the ability to repel or disable threatening drones electronically. 

But those features will take time. “Before we can assure anybody that a drone is operating in restricted airspace, we have to be confident that we are detecting, tracking and identifying properly,” Bamberger emphasizes. “During our test phase, we notified law enforcement if we detected a drone, but it was up to them to follow any procedures after that notification. Currently, we are not testing mitigation, just detection.”

Mitigation technology will be addressed in the future.

For now, Hatfield looks forward to adding new technologies to MIA’s toolbox based on the program’s test results. “I have every expectation that UAS detection technology is on the future horizon for this airport,” he reports. “Technology drives safety, and that’s the airport’s primary focus.”

In fact, MIA was one of the first U.S. airports to deploy body scanner technologies, and automated screening lanes.

“We have quite a laundry list of areas to address, and we leave no stone unturned with advanced technology,” Hatfield concludes. “Our director has made it very clear that he wants to continue to nurture the reputation MIA has of being a technology innovation leader.”


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