Palm Springs Int'l Boosts Perimeter Security With Radar-Based System

Ken Wysocky
Published in: 

Palm Springs International (PSP) recently joined a small vanguard of U.S. airports using perimeter security systems that employ ground-surveillance radar and infrared cameras to detect intrusions.

Contractors completed the installation of the Perimeter Intrusion Detection System (PIDS) at the California airport in July. The new radar system, coupled with enhancements to existing measures, improved PSP's security from "solid to supreme," says Thomas Nolan, executive director of the airport. "I'd compare it to going from a college football team to joining the National Football League."



Project: Perimeter Security Upgrades
Location: Palm Springs (CA) Int'l Airport
Cost: $2.9 million
Components: Perimeter Intrusion Detection
System (PIDS); new fenceline; additional closed-circuit television cameras
Funding: 90% FAA, 10% airport
PIDS Manufacturer: FLIR Systems
System Design: Reynolds, Smith & Hills
Size of Airport: 940 acres
Benefits: Faster, more accurate intruder detection & tracking; fewer false alarms

In addition to installing the new radar system, crews also replaced about 12,000 feet of old fenceline to meet stricter TSA requirements and added six wireless closed-circuit television (CCTV) security cameras in restricted-access areas. All told, the upgrades cost $2.9 million, with the new PIDS accounting for just less than one-third of the budget. FAA Airport Improvement Fund (AIP) money paid for 90% of the projects, and PSP picked up the rest of the tab.

Reynolds, Smith & Hills managed the design, integration and installation of the fenceline and PIDS units at the 940-acre airport.

"We integrated the PIDS technology into the fenceline-replacement project, which already was part of an airport capital improvement program," Nolan explains. "With support from the TSA, we inserted it into the existing fenceline program to make it eligible for FAA (AIP) funding."

Nolan can't specify the number of PIDS units installed, because TSA requires such information to be kept secret for security purposes. But he notes that PSP required fewer units than other similar-size facilities because of its geographic layout.

"Radar systems work on line of sight ... the radar waves have to travel in straight lines," he explains. "Because of that, the size and cost of a (PIDS) system is a product of how an airport is laid out. Our airport is basically a rectangle, and because it's more symmetrical in shape, it required fewer radar units."

Early Adopters

Nolan became interested in PIDS technology at an American Association of Airport Executives conference, where he saw a unit displayed by FLIR Systems, the company that designs, develops and manufactures the radars, cameras and software used by the detection units.

After months of discussion, airport officials concluded that PIDS units could "elevate an already solid perimeter security system up a notch," recalls Nolan.

PSP, which expects to handle a record 1.9 million passengers this year, is the ninth commercial U.S. airport to adopt PIDS technology, reports Andrew Saxton, director of airport security for FLIR. While the technology is relatively new to the airport industry, military bases and government installations have used it for years. "There are thousands of units installed around the world in other applications," Saxton notes.

"The ability to see more than you could see yesterday, see further than you used to and react to threats earlier and smarter than you could before is driving the industry to consider technologies like these," he explains. "The market looks favorably on the fact that we've developed these technologies for military bases around the world, and they've withstood extremely harsh environments. The technology is already validated."

Visually, the PIDS units resemble R2-D2, of Star Wars fame. Inside each, however, is a CommandSpace ARGUS surveillance system, which includes a radar unit and two cameras that can "see" in total darkness and almost any weather, including rain and fog. When the radar detects a perimeter breach, the cameras hone in on the intruder and transmit an image to a monitor in a security command center.

"The operator immediately has eyes on the object of interest," Saxton explains, noting that a single Argus unit surveys 2.4 square miles of area.

At the same time, global positioning satellite technology provides the exact location and displays it on another monitor via an aerial photo of the airport, overlaid with its security perimeter boundaries. The system also tells the operator how fast the detected object is moving and where it's going. "It's no longer enough to know only where a target is," says Saxton.

The system's ability to prevent security personnel from reacting to false alarms is one of its hallmarks, he adds. "Our system uses sensors that provide more information, so operators only have to deal with real threats," explains Saxton. "At a distance of one kilometer, we can tell the position of a target within one meter. Older systems would tell you within six meters."

Better Detection, 24/7

The radars use frequency-modulated, continuous-wave technology, a radar method pioneered by FLIR that provides more precise target information than Doppler radar, notes Saxton. By enclosing the detection equipment in a single 3-foot-tall structure with minimal infrastructure requirements, the company can offer a simple, clean setup that doesn't intrude on airport operations, he adds.

The cameras in each PIDS unit - one thermal-imaging camera and a daylight camera - provide sharp, high-resolution images via a FLIR algorithm that automatically blends the thermal and daylight images, says Saxton. The system also takes into account more standard factors such as light and weather conditions to improve image quality.

"Instead of operators manipulating the cameras and choosing how to blend their images, the system automatically does those calculations and presents the best picture possible," Saxton says. "As a result, operators can pay attention to a target, not operating the cameras."

The heart of PSP's new perimeter-detection system is a command-and-control center with a scalable platform that includes video management and storage capabilities. FLIR's software can integrate multiple third-party legacy systems into a single, cohesive operating platform, notes Saxton.

The company put a lot of thought and effort into making the system user-friendly and intuitive to minimize operator frustration, he adds.

"You can set your own detection criteria, and if an event occurs, the system can automatically notify people around the facility ... even send them a priority e-mail with a picture and the location of the threat," he describes. "This allows airports to focus on interdiction and resolution of events, instead of picking up radios, taking photos and so forth."

Nolan highlights the system's ability to distinguish authorized and unauthorized entries. "This really enhances our ability to immediately identify and track intrusions," he explains. "Every airport has a fixed number of security assets, so it's always better if you can minimize distractions that aren't true security threats and focus on those that are. The PIDS system enhances our ability to identify and address threats, while enabling us to maximize deployment of resources."
The new PIDS units also enhance the airport's wildlife management program, he adds. "This system is so accurate it can track a rabbit," Nolan raves. "Or, if a coyote penetrates our system - and they can do that - we can actually track it and alert the tower that we have a coyote approaching the runway...and notify pilots. We can even pick up flocks of birds - right down to a group of about three dozen sparrows - then send someone out to scare them away to avoid engine-ingestion problems.

"We're still discovering other possibilities," Nolan adds. "With each month, you can bet we'll discover more capabilities and contour them to our specific needs."

Integration Challenges

The system's installation went smoothly, reports James H. Duke III, regional airfield service group leader for Reynolds, Smith & Hills. Integrating the old and new systems, however, proved challenging. "We had to coordinate closely with equipment manufacturers to ensure all parts and pieces could talk to each other," explains Duke, noting that integration is a common obstacle in such projects, because rapid advances in technology often render older systems nearly obsolete.

Palm Spring's extreme summer weather, with temperatures of 110ø F to 115ø F, also threw the team a curve by overheating radios inside the PIDS units and causing them to drop wireless signals. Switching to "more robust" radios solved the problem, Duke reports.

The installation at PSP drove home the importance of considering airport topography when determining where to locate PIDS units. "We tend to think of airports as large, flat expanses," relates Duke, noting that FLIR ruled out one of its initial placements due to potential line-of-sight issues.

Looking forward, Duke predicts that radar-detection technology will become more commonplace at commercial airports - providing yet another layer of security above and beyond existing fences, CCTV cameras and controlled checkpoints.

After integrating the new PIDS system at PSP, Nolan encourages other airports to embrace, rather than fear, the technology. "It's not as complicated as you'd expect," he assures. "We sleep a lot better at night knowing we have this additional cloak of security technology."


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