Many stories and rumours have been told since the latest incidents caused by non-cooperative drones at commercial airports worldwide. There is no need to comment on individual incidents. It is a given fact that several commercial airports have been harmed by drone activities and suffered severe financial damage.

So far, the intention of these individuals was to cause chaos, to disturb the travel plans of thousands of private and business travellers, and to harm the airport operators and airlines financially. This situation is clearly not acceptable and it is obvious that airports need to protect themselves, secure daily operations and prohibit harm to the freedom of travellers.

Enable unmanned traffic management

Drones will be a paradigm change for global air traffic management (ATM); modern unmanned traffic management (UTM) solutions will bring economic growth and technological leadership to those nations who are open to such innovations. Nevertheless, it is essential that all stakeholders share this vision and support the importance of secure UTM operations by all means necessary.

In the military environment, drones have shown their potential to change the doctrine of many armed forces. Real-time target surveillance is now normal, and in the future, drones equipped with artificial intelligence might significantly change combat scenarios.

Rheinmetall Air Defence has proved its capabilities for decades in delivering groundbased air defence. Such experience and know-how is essential to protect airports from the threat of non-cooperative drones.

In order to detect drones at large distances, it is crucial to deploy the right sensor mix and detection technologies at the right spot. So called stand-alone solutions may not fulfil the expectations of air navigation service providers, airport operators or police forces in countering the drone issues.

Rheinmetall has developed a system architecture that can be adapted to the respective concept of operation and tailored to the operating authorities, such as airport operators, air traffic management agencies, police forces, ministries of defence and others. Detection, verification, and tracking technology is ready and available; authorities must now come to understand how to make use of it in the complex ATM environment.

There is major hype and growth in the market regarding drone detection solutions – but how to best choose, use and generate benefits from such systems? For Rheinmetall it was clear – drone detection systems must be designed in a way that they can be integrated into the existing ATM infrastructure by combining various technologies. Rheinmetall's aim is to generate a complete local air picture, capable of displaying all cooperative airspace participants but also noncooperative participants. Once such noncooperative drones have been detected, verified and classified, operators have all the relevant information and decision options to react accordingly.

Situational awareness is the key. Information must be shared and communicated to all stakeholders involved. Rheinmetall's Skymaster command and control system offers the scalability to integrate non-lethal effectors to stop drones from entering no-fly zones. Fully integrated directed jammers can be assigned to non-cooperative drones in a fully automated way. To minimise disruption time, catch-and-carry drones can be quickly deployed and used to eliminate the drone in a controlled manner by deploying a net or applying electronic countermeasures.

Rheinmetall has tested and demonstrated such applications on many occasions – most recently with the German air navigation service provider DFS at an airbase in Manching, Germany. For the first time, a drone detection system was successfully integrated into a UTM system with proven counter drone effects, successfully detecting, identifying, tracking and removing the threat.