UMass Amherst researchers developing dual-use radar systems to detect small drones


Researchers at the US-based University of Massachusetts Amherst (UMass Amherst) are developing a dual-use radar system to help detect very small drone aircraft.

Being developed as part of a $200,000 grant from the National Science Foundation, the system is also expected to function as a severe weather warning system for airports and urban settings.

Unlike existing weather radar and aircraft surveillance systems, it will be able to scan the airspace closest to the ground where drones and severe weather are not visible currently.

According to UMass Amherst electrical and computer engineering associate professor and Centre for Collaborative Adaptive Sensing of the Atmosphere (CASA) co-director Michael Zink, a dense network of short-range radars can be used to track tornadoes and predict flash flood-prone areas.

“We believe that a radar-based detection solution will provide the earliest warning of drone intrusions.”

Researchers at CASA, which is a multi-sector partnership among academia, industry and government dedicated to engineering weather-sensing networks, have already demonstrated the capability of a radar-based weather monitoring system.

Zink said: “With this new grant, we want to show that we can use the same system to also monitor the airspace for low-flying drones that might breach secure facilities or threaten public safety.”

According to industry estimates, the world could see as many as three million drones being used by the end of this year.

The increase in the number of drones is also posing threat to public safety. Around 80 incidents of near-collisions between drones and aircraft have so far been reported in Massachusetts, US.

CASA innovation manager Apoorva Bajaj said: “There is a growing market for technologies that can detect the presence of a drone.

“Solutions range from using microphones and cameras to intercepting the radio communications between the drone and the operator.

“We believe that a radar-based detection solution will provide the earliest warning of drone intrusions.”

The new dual-use system will also be developed and modified using existing radars located on the UMass Amherst campus.

Once developed, the new system is expected to help airport managers to know whether a drone is approaching a sensitive airspace, but it won’t be able to stop or ground the aircraft.


Image: UMass Amherst electrical and computer engineering associate professor Michael Zink with radar at Marston Hall, Ames, US. Photo: courtesy of University of Massachusetts Amherst.