Drone Radar System Takes Flight In Ohio
This segment is part of The State of Science, a series featuring science stories from public radio stations across the United States. A version of this story originally appeared on WVXU in Cincinnati, Ohio. You can read an update about the airport’s radar efforts here.
At the Springfield Beckley Municipal Airport crews will begin installing a new kind of radar in June that will allow air traffic controllers to see a combination of planes and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). The Air Force and the State of Ohio are footing the $5 million radar bill in first-of-its-kind testing that both parties hope will lead to Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) approval for beyond line of sight flight.
Right now UAVs can only fly with visual line of sight, or an unobstructed path between the UAV and the controller. At the Springfield airport that’s seven nautical square miles. With beyond line of slight that would increase to 200 miles and an altitude of up to 10,000 feet.
FAA approval is expected for the Air Force within six to nine months. Ohio’s application would follow. Approval for the state means private companies like Amazon could test in Springfield.
[Spring has sprung! And as budding plants begin to sprout, we couldn’t help but imagine how seeds would fare in a hypothetical yearbook.]
The airport is laying fiber along one runway now.
Guidance for UAV operators would come from an air traffic controller who is looking at the special radar on the ground in an trailer. Air traffic controllers in the tower would continue to focus on planes.
According to Wright Patterson Air Force Research Lab Deputy Director Art Huber, “Now knowing where they are and the vectors in space, what space they are going, what direction they are going, the operator can now tell the pilot in charge of a small UAV, ‘Hey, you have an airplane, such and such distance from you. Why don’t you turn in a new direction or airspeed or new altitude or whatever in order to stay away or avoid a collision.”
Eventually this radar could become portable for law enforcement and first responders.
You can read an update published in February 2018 about the airport’s radar efforts here.
Ann Thompson is a reporter at WVXU in Cincinnati, Ohio.
IRA FLATOW: Now it’s time to check in on the state of science.
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IRA FLATOW: Local science stories of national importance. And there’s a lot of interest in drones. Companies like Amazon and the military are investing in the tech. But how do you safely fly a drone in congested areas? Ohio is opening a test site at the Beckley Municipal Airport in Springfield to research one aspect of this question.
The Air Force and the state of Ohio installed a $5 million prototype radar system at the Beckley Municipal Airport in Springfield as a sort of air traffic control system for drone operators. Pending FAA approval, this radar will potentially help drone operators detect other aircraft up to 200 miles away.
Ann Thompson is here to fill us in on that story. She’s a reporter at WVXU here in Cincinnati. Welcome to Science Friday.
ANN THOMPSON: Hi, Ira. Thanks for having me.
IRA FLATOW: So what’s the issue with this radar system? What is it trying to solve?
ANN THOMPSON: All right. So here’s the issue. We’ve got an estimated four million– four million drones in the US by 2021. And so the FAA is under increasing pressure to keep the skies safe. Right now, drone operators have to fly line of sight, meaning they rely on ground-based observers and chase aircraft.
So Raytheon worked with the Air Force to develop, as you mentioned, and deploy a radar, which allows drone operators to detect and avoid other aircraft.
IRA FLATOW: Well, so how does the radar work? What information is it sending to the drone operator?
ANN THOMPSON: So it’s pulling together data from the air traffic control network– in this case, Dayton, Columbus, and London, Ohio– as well as transponder information from the airplanes and information from the drone ground control station. And what we’ve got is we have an air traffic controller in an RV who is–
IRA FLATOW: This is a pilot program. So it is literally–
ANN THOMPSON: Exactly. That’s right. So he’s in an RV.
IRA FLATOW: Yeah.
ANN THOMPSON: With this new, enhanced radar. It’s the same radar that the air traffic controller in the tower will see.
IRA FLATOW: Right.
ANN THOMPSON: So the tower air traffic controller dealing with the planes. This guy is dealing with the drones.
IRA FLATOW: And his idea is to tell the drone operators to stay away from the plane?
ANN THOMPSON: That’s right. So he would say, such and such a plane is coming, you know, to your left and you need to move out of the way.
IRA FLATOW: And I imagine sooner or later they’ll tell that to the airplane pilots themselves, there’s a drone in your neighborhood.
ANN THOMPSON: Yes. Same– same radar is being used in this case in the tower.
IRA FLATOW: All right. Let’s talk about the hobbyist droners. Are they part of this program? Or is this sort of a commercial and military experiment?
ANN THOMPSON: This is being used just by the military. The Air Force, Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. And it will ultimately include commercial testing for companies, like you mentioned, Amazon, after the state of Ohio gets its approval. But for the military, it’s making it very easy to test because they’d have to go out of state and this is just very close to them. This is a rural area, and there are lots of companies that could benefit.
IRA FLATOW: Yeah. So you can’t pick up your drone and go out to the [INAUDIBLE] site.
ANN THOMPSON: No, you can’t. Not yet.
IRA FLATOW: No. Is this the first of its kind around the country?
ANN THOMPSON: So there is something in New Mexico, at the Cannon Air Force Base, that is using an earlier version of this system. But it’s very different. It involves a transit corridor that passes through unrestricted airspace. And so aircraft one at a time or drones have to pass through this unrestricted to get to restricted airspace. And it’s working fine there.
But this would be a much bigger area. And then would be beyond line of sight. So it would be the first of its kind.
IRA FLATOW: Is this sort of a gateway project for Ohio in drone research? Does it want to become a hub?
ANN THOMPSON: It does. In fact, some years ago, it wanted to be one of the FAA test sites. But it didn’t get it. But we had all the technology, that they figured just go ahead. And there is so much interest in this area and technology that it is becoming that.
IRA FLATOW: And Amazon has chosen Ohio.
ANN THOMPSON: It has chosen Ohio. And it is building a new center at our airport. Some years ago, it tested in Wilmington, another airport that’s involved in drones, with drone technology.
IRA FLATOW: Well, Ohio, the Wright brothers, it seems like a good place to begin something, doesn’t it?
ANN THOMPSON: I think so.
IRA FLATOW: Ann Thompson is a science– is a reporter here at WVXU here in Cincinnati. Thank you for–
ANN THOMPSON: Thanks for having me.
IRA FLATOW: –being part of our show. After the break, fracking for oil and gas has led to a doubling of earthquakes in the state of Ohio. How finding the fingerprints of humanity in the Earth’s tremors may lead to less risky fracking– fracking. It’s going to be coming up after the break. Stay with us. We’ll be right back.
Alexa Lim was a senior producer for Science Friday. Her favorite stories involve space, sound, and strange animal discoveries.