San Francisco Int’l Installs New Perimeter Security System

San Francisco Int’l Installs New Perimeter Security System
Jodi Richards
Published in: 

The location of San Francisco International Airport (SFO) is both a blessing and a curse. While the nearby San Francisco Bay provides stunning views for passengers, roughly 10 miles of waterfront perimeter are challenging to monitor and secure. The crucial job is further complicated by notoriously foggy weather that hampers visibility. 

A new $2 million perimeter intrusion detection system that combines radar and video cameras is helping SFO meet its geography-inspired challenges. High-definition radar allows the system to differentiate between legitimate threats and innocuous kayaks, birds, sea lions, etc. High-definition cameras provide surveillance images that allow operators to better distinguish important details for further assessment. 

According to the system vendor, the combination of technologies produces almost no nuisance alarms. And SFO leaders are pleased with its performance. 


Project: Perimeter Intrusion Detection System

Location: San Francisco Int’l Airport

Cost: $2 million 

Installation: Jan. 2018 – Jan. 2019

Security Consultant: Ross & Baruzzini 

System Mfr: Security Radar Integrators Inc. 

High-Definition Cameras: FLIR

Radar: Navtech 

Key Benefits: Boosts security for 10 miles of waterfront perimeter that can’t be fenced; technology decreases need for human patrols; radar & thermal cameras can detect threats in low-visibility weather 

Strategic discussions about perimeter security, especially along the waterfront portion, heated up about five years ago. Knowing that the future of security was more about technology than physical barriers, airport leaders included infrastructure improvements to support more advanced technologies in their dialog. 

At the time, SFO was using basic cameras that provided views of the perimeter, but it largely relied on physical patrols by security personnel. But low visibility conditions caused by the Bay Area’s foggy and rapidly changing weather regularly created challenges for equipment and humans alike, notes Ralf Ruckelshausen, director of Safety and Security Services at SFO. 

Those challenges, and the high-level discussions they inspired, led the airport to engage with security consultant Ross & Baruzzini and the National Safe Skies Alliance, which has conducted waterfront perimeter security research. Ruckelshausen and his team also reached out to airports with similar water-based challenges, such as Amsterdam Schiphol Airport and John F. Kennedy International. Extensive research early on helped develop the scope for the perimeter security project, explains Ruckelshausen. 

Defining the Requirements

The airport tasked Ross & Baruzzini with conducting a comprehensive security needs assessment. When the outside consultant reviewed SFO’s environment and conditions, perimeter security indeed stood out as a priority. The firm then worked with various airport stakeholders to determine how perimeter security needs affect practical operational matters.  

On a specific level, the airport was looking for a solution that would provide accurate, early detection beyond SFO’s buoy line and track potential threats as they approach the shore and move toward the airfield. Moreover, the system needed to work in low visibility conditions and include the ability for airport personnel to “set the dial” to reduce false alarms, explains Ruckelshausen. 

“There’s a lot of activity out on the waterway,” he says. “We learned from other airports that they had a lot of false alarms, so we wanted to have the ability to adjust for that.” 

The solution had to be able to detect, assess and, if necessary, track any object that crosses the perimeter 24/7, in all weather conditions, adds Ann Barry, director of aviation security consulting at Ross & Baruzzini. SFO also wanted a system that could capture all that information in reports. 

“In general, when designing a perimeter intrusion detection system, you want to use multiple technologies that complement each other,” says Barry. “Every technology has strengths and weaknesses. If you’re smart about aligning them, the strength of one technology compensates for the weakness of another, and they are very strong working together.” 

Layering radar and thermal cameras provides SFO the benefit of early detection as well as the ability and time to resolve possible threats without impacting operations, Ruckelshausen adds.   

In addition to performing a needs assessment and developing the resultant perimeter intrusion detection request for proposals and requirements, Barry assisted SFO in establishing objective evaluation criteria for system vendor proposals. Two of the three firms that responded to the airport’s request for proposals were invited to participate in a two-part evaluation.  

First, Ross & Baruzzini and airport personnel developed test scripts that allowed each prospective vendor to demonstrate how its technology would perform at SFO. “We staged different scenarios to mimic some of the potential threats we wanted the system to be able to detect and report on,” Barry explains. 

Next, candidates ran their systems onsite for a 24-hour period, while the airport recorded the number of alarms that were activated and other key performance data. “What we were trying to do is let the candidate systems run in the regular environment,” Barry says. “We were not running any scenarios then, but rather looking for system performance and the number of nuisance alarms produced when operating passively as would be typical of day-to-day use.” 

The onsite exercises allowed airport personnel to see how the systems responded to specific staged events and how many times each system would trigger an alarm for something that was not actually a threat. “If the system alarms every 15 seconds, a security operator is going to stop paying attention after a while,” Barry explains. The challenge is to set the detection threshold at the appropriate level—sensitive enough to detect only legitimate breaches, she adds.  

Based on the preliminary research, functional requirements and understanding of best practices, the project team determined that radar coupled with cameras would be the best technology for SFO’s waterfront perimeter. Barry explains that radar is great for monitoring wide, flat areas in a quick, volumetric search; and cameras are ideal for putting eyes on an object or subject. “So radar and cameras are really complementary and a good combination,” she says. 

Barry credits SFO for the way it approached and executed the project: carefully considering its needs, clearly defining its technical and operational requirements and developing a concept of operations, which helped define what the security operator needs to effectively perform the job. The choice of technology to meet all requirements was the last, not the first, step in the process, she notes.  In fact, Barry encourages other airports to emulate SFO’s methodology as it reduced project risk by ensuring that the needed system—as defined in the requirements—was the system that was implemented.

Selection & Deployment

Ultimately, the airport selected a turnkey system from Security Radar Integrators that includes Navtech radar, color/thermal cameras from FLIR, and Navtech’s AdvanceGuard security platform. The contract was approved in December 2017, and the roughly 12-month installation began in January 2018. 

To automate surveillance, the system uses multiple overlapping radar units near the water perimeter that have line-of-sight views of the secure area, shoreline and airfield. Although security buoys are posted around the airport’s perimeter, boats and windsurfers still occasionally pass into the secure area. And physical markers naturally mean nothing to wildlife. 

“Monitoring the secure area with patrols or closed-circuit TV was not practical,” relates Dan Flynn, president of Security Radar Integrators. “The airport needed to automate surveillance.”

The $2 million SFO invested in its new system included installation of radar, thermal cameras and a high-powered desktop computer in the security operations center. SFO uses its own workstations to run the cloud-based security platform for situational awareness and alarm processing. 

Installation and deployment took roughly 12 months and was performed in phases, starting with the installation of fiber and power to support the new technology. The first airfield radar system units were operational in 2018, and the last units came online in 2019. “This strategy provided increasing protection of large sections of perimeter as the infrastructure progressed,” Flynn explains. 

Key Components

When the radar detects an object, AdvanceGuard classifies it as a person, vehicle or boat, etc. and applies pre-set guidelines to determine whether it is a threat. According to Flynn, the resolution of the Navtech radar units in SFO’s system is 17 times better than the next-best alternative. 

If a detected object is deemed irregular, an alarm is triggered in the security operations center and the operator assigned to the water perimeter begins the resolution process. 

Flynn explains that normal activity, such as an airport operations vehicle on the service road, triggers a camera to follow the object, but not an alarm. A boat or jet ski crossing the buoy line into the secure area, however, initiates the camera follow function and triggers an alarm that must be addressed by security personnel. 

The system uses adaptation and machine learning to reduce false alarms, adds Flynn. Adaptation constantly evaluates and adapts to changes in the environment so that variations in the tide, wind, rain or other factors do not impact system performance. Machine learning is used to classify detected objects by assessing their attributes and behaviors—an especially valuable feature in a complex environment like SFO, notes Flynn. 

Proprietary software from Security Radar Integrators allows the airport to adjust for size, direction and other object attributes. As the system becomes familiar with the objects and patterns at SFO, it has the capability to reduce false alarms, Flynn explains.  

Each airfield radar system stand is 13 to 15 feet tall and includes a Navtech radar unit, a FLIR color/thermal camera and an enclosure to support the electronic equipment. The enclosure is sealed and cooled to protect the equipment from water and the salt air environment. The stand and enclosures are manufactured by Security Radar Integrators and mounted with frangible couplings to the concrete slab. 

Patience Pays Dividends

Installing the system amid SFO’s busy air traffic required a carefully phased approach to avoid impacting operations. It was also a challenge to extend power and fiber to remote areas of the airfield. “I would tell somebody that’s putting in a system like this to be patient,” comments Ruckelshausen. “I didn’t think it was going to take an entire year, but it was worth the wait.”

Moving forward, SFO plans to integrate the new perimeter intrusion detection system into its existing video management system. “It does have playback capabilities, but it’s a stand-alone system that we would like to integrate into our security operations center overall,” Ruckelshausen explains. 

Security and operations personnel especially appreciate the system’s masking feature, which allows operators to shut down radar coverage in a given area while the rest of the system continues operating. “If we have any type of maintenance, the system will allow us to use the masking feature versus taking a large portion of the system down,” says Ruckelshausen. 

The system even helps detect windsurfers and people in small boats who are experiencing trouble in the bay. That’s a benefit SFO leaders didn’t anticipate but certainly appreciate. “Because the radar fans out so far, situations that need to be resolved get brought to the attention of our security operations center,” Ruckelshausen explains. “We see that they are not threats, but can help folks that have gotten stranded on the waterways. We’ve had a few of those incidents, and it feels good to be able to help.” 

Overall, SFO’s Safety and Security director reports that he is very pleased with the system. “One of the challenges this airport has is the waterfront—we can’t build any type of fencing or walls out there,” he relates. “This system really mitigates that risk.” 


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