Bringing Covert Aircraft Out of the Shadows

July 2014
Topics: Civil Aviation Security, Counterterrorism, Remote Sensing, Sensing and Signal Processing (General), Border Security, Homeland Security, Counterintelligence
A complex web of sensors provides officials from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) with visibility in deep valleys along the U.S. border, exposing "small dark aircraft" as they smuggle contraband into the country.

Every day along remote stretches of the northern U.S. border, "small dark aircraft" slip from Canada to the United States undetected, possibly carrying drugs, people, or weapons. This is especially true along the 3,000-mile, sparsely populated stretch between the Great Lakes and the Pacific Ocean.

"Ninety percent of the time, it involves drug smuggling, or other run-of-the-mill crime," says Winston Smith, portfolio manager for border systems in the Homeland Security Systems Engineering and Development Institute (HSSEDI™). HSSEDI's mission focuses on the other 10 percent of cross-border traffic. If just one time the payload held a components for a nuclear weapon, the consequences could be devastating.

"Terrorism is the reason the Department of Homeland Security was created. It only takes one terrorist action to create a huge problem."

With sponsorship from the DHS, a MITRE team has led a three-year effort to design and evaluate a sophisticated monitoring system, enabling officials to find, track, and potentially intercept unidentified aircraft in U.S. airspace. Working with the Stevens Institute of Technology and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, MITRE staff deployed a network of sensors across a remote, mountainous region in the Pacific Northwest. The prototype system provides U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) with a view into mountain passages that previously concealed suspicious aircraft and activity.

Testing Technical Sensors in Harsh Winter Conditions

The program incorporates a ground-based radar system, prototyped by MITRE, that’s capable of tracking moving targets close to the ground—along with an infrared camera, acoustic sensors, and a solar and fuel cell power system. The radar and the acoustic data provide real-time tracking cues for the camera, which captures the images border security staff use. The system provides detection, tracking, and classification of the air target detected.

Late in 2013, MITRE researchers completed logistics and prototype system development. They then began a long-duration test (LDT) of the system using test aircraft to see how it performed in the field under tough winter conditions. The LDT prototype system has provided crucial baseline measurements. The test results will help the team gauge the types of sensor performance enhancements, amount of ruggedization, and number of system integration steps necessary to leave the system unattended in the difficult field terrain of the northwest border. MITRE oversaw systems engineering, integration, and testing for the project.

Fresh Eyes in a Dark Valley

During a demonstration in December, the MITRE team assembled a "visualization station" at a CBP regional headquarters. Those attending the briefing could see the live detection and tracking occurring continuously in real time. The aircraft they saw was a MITRE test aircraft, flown into the valley for the demonstration. Soon after, a CBP officer trained to use the system extracted data from the previous night that clearly showed small craft flying into the valley—something CBP had been unable to achieve using its existing methods.

Continued testing has been encouraging, and the technology potentially offers a significant new tool for U.S. Border Patrol agents to use to perform their mission of protecting the nation's borders.

"SDA is a very challenging and complex program, involving multi-sensor integration and multi-agent collaborations," said Weiqun Shi, one of the technical leads working on the project. "As a trusted partner supporting DHS border security mission needs, MITRE takes the leadership role in planning and managing the program, working across institutional boundaries, and bringing in the most advanced sensor fusion technologies to solve one of the most challenging border security problems."

—by Molly Manchenton

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