Dangerous unknowns 

Unauthorised drone flights at airports have repeatedly led to flight cancellations, delays and enormous economic damage. Most importantly, drones flying close to manned air traffic endanger the lives of passengers and aircraft crews.  

The challenge of drone detection 

Due to their small size, drones are virtually invisible to DFS radar systems. That is why various manufacturers have developed different drone detection systems that promise protection against uncooperative drones: If it is possible to detect drones in the vicinity of airports early and reliably, the danger can be greatly reduced.  

Drone detection at airports is not an easy task, however. The technology must function reliably, because that is the basis for air traffic controllers to initiate appropriate safety measures and for police authorities to defend against such drones.

thumbnail to film drone detection

Different systems put through their paces 

In 2020, DFS, together with the airport operators Fraport AG and FMG Flughafen München GmbH, tested various drone detection systems (DDS) for four months at Germany's busiest airports (Frankfurt and Munich). The objective was to find out what the detection technology currently available on the market could do. These
capabilities were largely unknown until then.  

The detection systems already in use at various airports have mostly evolved from military applications and proved to be ineffective and not very reliable in the tests. This reflects the enormous demands placed on the performance of these systems in the airport environment. Different topographies, building structures and surrounding vegetation make each airport unique. In addition, the detection systems must be able to distinguish drones from other moving objects at airports, for example vehicles, birds or helicopters. The systems must also be able to distinguish between a wide range of drones, which are available on the market in all shapes and sizes.  

Radar, radio, acoustic and camera sensors were used for drone detection. A significant result of the test project was that there is no universal solution that can be implemented uniformly at all airports. The solution could be a mix of different sensor technologies, each technology's individual strengths offsetting the weaknesses of the others. The detailed results were sent to the German Ministry of Transport.