UMass Amherst Engineers Designing Dual-Use Radar Systems for Drone Detection and Severe Weather Warnings

Mike Zink with radar at Marston Hall
Michael Zink with radar at Marston Hall

AMHERST, Mass. – Researchers at the University of Massachusetts Amherst College of Engineering are developing a multi-purpose radar system that can detect very small drone aircraft and also serve as a severe weather warning system for airports and urban settings. The system is designed to scan the airspace closest to the ground where drones and severe weather are not currently visible to existing weather radar and aircraft surveillance systems. The project is funded with an 18-month, $200,000 grant from the National Science Foundation.

Michael Zink, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering and co-director of the Center for Collaborative Adaptive Sensing of the Atmosphere (CASA), says that CASA researchers have already demonstrated that a dense network of short range radars can be used to track tornadoes down streets and anticipate areas where flash flooding might take place. “With this new grant, we want to show that we can use the same system to also monitor the airspace for low flying drones that might breach secure facilities or threaten public safety,”says Zink. 

According to industry estimates, there could be as many as 3 million drones in the skies globally by the end of 2017. As the number of drones increases, so will the chances that they will pose a danger to public safety. In Massachusetts alone, at least 80 near-collisions with aircraft have been reported to date. “There is a growing market for technologies that can detect the presence of a drone. Solutions range from using microphones and cameras, to intercepting the radio communications between the drone and the operator. We believe that a radar based detection solution will provide the earliest warning of drone intrusions,” says Apoorva Bajaj, innovation manager at CASA.

Across the nation, National Weather Service radars scan the skies for developing weather, but because they are located 100 miles and more apart, the curvature of the earth means they can’t also see what is happening in the first few hundred feet above the Earth. CASA has developed and deployed an array of seven short range weather radars in the Dallas-Fort Worth area of Texas that are capable to seeing severe weather such as tornadoes that form close to the ground to provide public officials with timely and highly accurate storm information. The system is being used operationally by 50 cities and counties in the region and a mobile app developed by CASA delivers severe weather alerts based on user preferences and location.

Since drones can move at very high speeds compared to weather, the researchers plan to use phased array antennas, capable of using multiple radar beams to scan the atmosphere.  A second key aspect of the system is that it uses dual polarization technology that could help distinguish between hard moving targets such as drones and birds and their flight patterns and also helps specify the types of precipitation that is in the air.

Bajaj says one of the goals of the project is to develop a library of information on what different objects look like. “We will collect the radar signatures from different types of drones and from other objects such as birds,” he says. These can be used to develop algorithms that will help the radar quickly and accurately identify objects moving in the air space, he says.

Zink says the new system will be developed and refined using existing radars located on the UMass Amherst campus. He also says the new system will be able to provide airport managers and others to know whether a drone is approaching a sensitive area, but it won’t be capable of stopping or grounding it. “We will provide actionable information, but others will have to decide how to respond,” he says.

Both Zink and Bajaj say the project could have future commercial applications for airports, urban areas or other places where accurate weather and drone-intrusion information is part of providing for public safety.