ABERDEEN PROVING GROUND, Md. -- Racing across the sky, military drones are protected by a massive net spanning nearly the length of two football fields.

Army researchers installed about a ton of netting across four 107-foot towers and created a fully enclosed research facility that protects people, resources and the environment, while providing a safe space for testing unmanned aerial systems, or UASs. The new netted facility is 220 feet-squared and is 107 feet high.

The larger outdoor facility towers over a smaller one -- 60 feet-squared and 20 feet high. The two areas provide researchers with a safe zone that cost the government less than $75,000 total.

Both facilities meet the Federal Aviation Administration's requirements for testing UASs in a controlled airspace environment.

"The purpose of this facility is to meet the research needs for unmanned, remotely piloted vehicles, systems, component upgrades and counter system research and development," said Tim Burcham, from the U.S. Army Research Laboratory's Sensor's and Electron Devices Directorate. "This includes the detection and defeat of threat assets."

Burcham is the "idea man" behind the new facility, according to Eric Adler, his branch chief.

"We wanted a facility where we could safely fly our sensors on small UAS platforms," Adler said. "I'm in the sensors business and this is a good facility to help us test in a safe and controlled airspace environment."

Burcham said the laboratory is in the forefront of technological advances to embrace both sides of the UAS race and has aggressively pursued better ways to leverage theoretical ideas into workable applications. He added that the nets are lowered during non-duty hours to ensure the safety of wildlife, specifically birds and raised within a minute to begin testing operations.

Timothy Vong from ARL's Weapons and Materials Research Directorate is a frequent user of the facility.

"This facility enables us to rapidly perform research safely as we push the envelope to understand how autonomous drones can help Soldiers on the future battlefield," he said.

The facility is available to all researchers who are testing UASs, to include other services, universities and industry.

Thomas B. Apker, an aerospace engineer at the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory has used the site and said it has been very helpful and fills a key gap between indoor range tests and unrestrained outdoor flights.

"This is an excellent facility," Apker said. "The combination of the big and small nets allows simultaneous training or tuning of new pilots and vehicles. That doubles the productivity of a flight test."


The U.S. Army Research Laboratory, currently celebrating 25 years of excellence in Army science and technology, is part of the U.S. Army Research, Development and Engineering Command, which has the mission to provide innovative research, development and engineering to produce capabilities for decisive overmatch to the Army against the complexities of the current and future operating environments in support of the Joint Warfighter and the Nation. RDECOM is a major subordinate command of the U.S. Army Materiel Command.