DARPA Sets out to Develop Tracking Tech for UAS in Large Cities

The U.S. Department of Defense’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has launched its Aerial Dragnet program, which seeks new technologies to provide persistent, wide-area surveillance of unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) operating below 1,000 feet in large cities.

DARPA says although Aerial Dragnet’s focus is on protecting military troops operating in urban settings overseas, the system could ultimately find civilian application to help protect U.S. metropolitan areas from UAS-enabled terrorist threats.

As off-the-shelf UAS become less expensive, easier to fly and more adaptable for terrorist or military purposes, says DARPA, U.S. forces will increasingly be challenged by the need to quickly detect and identify them – especially in urban areas, where sight lines are limited and many objects may be moving at similar speeds, according to the agency.

“Commercial websites currently exist that display in real time the tracks of relatively high and fast aircraft – from small general aviation planes to large airliners – all overlaid on geographical maps as they fly around the country and the world,” says Jeff Krolik, DARPA program manager. “We want a similar capability for identifying and tracking slower, low-flying unmanned aerial systems, particularly in urban environments.”

The output of the Aerial Dragnet system would be a continually updated common operational picture of the airspace at altitudes below where current aircraft surveillance systems can monitor. The system would be disseminated electronically to authorized users via secure data links, says DARPA.

Because of the large market for inexpensive small UAS, the program will focus on combining low-cost sensor hardware with software-defined signal processing hosted on existing UAS platforms. The agency says resulting surveillance systems would thus be cost-effectively scalable for larger coverage areas and rapidly upgradable as new, more capable and economical versions of component technologies become available.

The Aerial Dragnet program seeks teams with expertise in sensors, signal processing and networked autonomy. A Broad Agency Announcement solicitation detailing the goals and technical details of the program was posted on FedBizOps and is available here.

A “Proposers Day” is scheduled for Sept. 26, 2016, in Arlington, Va.


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