Small unmanned aircraft systems (sUAS) are the latest wonder of the aviation world.
The United States military has used unmanned aircraft for decades to perform dangerous reconnaissance and attack missions that save Soldiers’ lives.
As the technology proliferates, however, America’s adversaries could potentially use sUAS to target Soldiers, necessitating robust counter-sUAS (C-sUAS) defenses for use anywhere American forces may be deployed.
U.S. Army Yuma Proving Ground (YPG) provided the ideal backdrop for a week-long C-sUAS demonstration held in April and focused on the most cutting edge drone-busting technology in a low collateral effects interceptor assessment-- in short, an evaluation of capabilities that can intercept and defeat an incoming threat sUAS. This demonstration’s primary objective was on systems able to defeat small Class 1 and 2 drones, or lightweight models that are easily and cheaply acquired and difficult to spot and intercept. In January, the Joint C-sUAS Office (JCO) and the Army’s Rapid Capabilities and Critical Technologies Office (RCCTO) solicited information from private industry, and received multiple white papers in response. Ultimately, three vendors participated in the test at YPG.
“We received a lot of feedback from industry, and these were the three most promising candidates that we looked at that aren’t currently on a government contract,” said Adam Martin, JCO’s test team lead. “We wanted to see where industry has gone since we’ve done our assessments over a year ago to see new approaches and things we haven’t considered.”
The Skylord Griffon made by Xtend, the Drone Kill Drone (DKD) by Elta North America, and the Modular Intercept Drone Avionics Set (MIDAS) by Aurora Flight Sciences participated in the demonstration, which was planned on a short timeline beginning in late January.
“We chose Yuma because of the capabilities that are there, as well as the wide open ranges,” said Martin. “The instrumentation is what really drew us to this site.”
YPG is the most capable of a limited number of test ranges able to accommodate this type of work. The proving ground’s clear, stable air and extremely dry climate along with vast institutional UAS testing knowledge makes it an attractive location to testers, as does the ability to control a large swath of the radio frequency spectrum. YPG has more than 500 permanent radio frequencies, and several thousand temporary ones in a given month.
There was also faith in YPG’s ability to host the test on short notice.
“YPG’s support is always outstanding,” said Martin. “As soon as I found out we were coming to Yuma, I knew everything was going to be done on time and professionally at the highest standard possible.”
For their part, YPG personnel were unfazed by the test requirements and tight timeline.
“The critical part was trying to understand the schedule and requirements of the whole endeavor,” said Hi-Sing Silen, test officer. “It took a lot of communication.”
YPG was able to leverage their existing infrastructure and years of institutional knowledge in testing scores of C-sUAS systems at the large compound in an isolated part of YPG’s vast ranges.
“This whole compound and the test methodologies have been used for the last several years,” said Silen. “With each test event you learn something and apply lessons learned to future tests.”
The testers crafted a schedule and test scenarios to challenge the vendors’ systems.
“The schedule was to have three days for them to set up, do calibration flights, and do all of their check-ups,” said Silen. “The vendors knew they were participating in a demonstration, but they didn’t know what the profiles were or what they were engaging.”
Each system under test has a different defeat mechanism: some entrap a target UAS rotors with an attached net or rope fired from an onboard air pistol, others disable the aggressor UAS by ramming it at full force. The testers installed small GPS pods with compasses on each aggressor UAS, and relied on ground-based radars to track the system being evaluated so as not to skew their performance in any way.
“We’re not modifying or putting any variables into the systems under test,” said Silen. “The ground radar can pick up their system in flight, and we’ll use that radar track to extrapolate data. They also have inboard position data that they provide us every day.”
Each vendor had to use their system in multiple realistic scenarios across four days of testing.
“The scenarios were very straightforward: one involved a drone approaching your defended area, and the other going across your defended area,” said Silen. “We did the same scenarios for everybody so we could compare performance using the same flight profiles.”
During the scenarios, the aggressor drones approached the defended area at different speeds and altitudes to test the system under evaluation’s ability to defeat the threats. The testers watched for any anomalies, and also took note of the individual systems’ ease of use and portability, among other things.
The demonstration drew high-level visitors, including U.S. Senator Gary Peters, who represents Michigan and sits on the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC).
“I’m impressed with Yuma Proving Ground,” said Peters. “This facility is amazing. It’s clear this is not something you could ever replicate: it is an asset for the whole country.”
Peters also sits on multiple SASC subcommittees, and said he is concerned with the emerging threat that unmanned aircraft in nefarious hands could pose.
“I was particularly interested to see first-hand the testing of anti-drone technology,” he said. “I chair the Senate Homeland Security Committee and am concerned about threats to the homeland from relatively inexpensive drones that can do great damage. We have to figure out ways to protect American citizens at home and abroad: I believe this is one of the most significant threats we’re going to face as a country.”
Peters believes YPG is a vital component of ensuring this threat is countered effectively.
“Drones and other weapons systems is something that we have to lean heavily into, so it is great to have a place like Yuma Proving Ground that we can develop these technologies that will ultimately save American lives.”
The demonstrations are expected to continue on a semi-annual basis for the next several years, with each subsequent test focusing on different types of C-sUAS systems.
“Industry keeps marching forward, and what was the best thing 18 months ago may not necessarily still be the best solution,” said Martin. “We’re trying to pick industry’s brain and give them an opportunity to show off what they’ve been doing.”