Why Drone Detection Radar Systems are Vital for Securing Critical Infrastructure

Dark drones may evade other perimeter security systems, but not Spotter radars.
March 8, 2024 by
Spotter Global, Jamie Mortensen

The most dangerous threat is the one you don’t see coming. In modern times, “dark drones” are such a threat. 

Critical infrastructure sites around the world have begun implementing drone detection technologies. Commercial drones are required by law to emit an RF signal that can be easily detected with an RF detector and thus are unlikely to be a threat. “Dark drones”, however, emit no RF signal and operate instead off of pre-programmed flight paths, through long spools of fiber optic cable, or through other stealth means. Such dark drones have already been used under the cover of darkness and low-visibility conditions to enter the airspace over critical infrastructure undetected, carrying explosive payloads or exposed copper wires to interfere with sensitive electrical equipment. 

To prevent harm to critical infrastructure, protectors of vital locations must be equipped with sensor technology that can see everything, including stealthy dark drones. Radar is the only sensor technology that is able to detect the dark drones reliably over large areas. Recognizing that drones can attack from any direction, including a steep-angled attack from directly above a critical infrastructure site, Spotter Global has patented a 3D dome coverage radar system. Specifically designed to detect dark drones and defend critical infrastructure, this single radar system provides comprehensive airspace coverage, providing 3D situational awareness that could only otherwise be accomplished with sixteen stationary panels with scanned pencil beam radars. 

See the datasheet for Spotter’s AX250 3D Radar System

The Growing Threat of Drones to Critical Infrastructure

In recent years, there have been several incidents where drones have accidentally or deliberately breached critical infrastructure perimeters. Notable examples include: 

  • October 2014: Multiple drones illegally flew over the restricted airspace above several power plants in France causing concern. [1]
  • December 2018: Two drones disrupted operations at Gatwick Airport in the United Kingdom, causing widespread chaos for several days and significant financial losses. [2]
  • February 2022-Present: Ukraine has reported repeated attacks on power stations and other critical infrastructure by Russian “kamikaze” drones. [3
  • March 2024: Russia uses drones connected to fiber optic cables that is impervious to jamming [4, 5]

These incidents highlight the vulnerability of critical infrastructure sites to drone attacks and underscore the need for robust security measures specifically designed to detect and mitigate such threats effectively.

The potential damage that drones can cause cannot be underestimated. In addition to physical damage from collisions or explosive payload delivery, drones can also be used as tools for surveillance or gathering sensitive information about critical infrastructures' vulnerabilities.

The Need for Effective Drone Detection and Mitigation

Drones present a unique challenge to perimeter security. 

Traditional security measures such as fences, cameras, or human patrols struggle to detect let alone mitigate active drone threats. Unlike a typical ground threat, drones are small, airborne, and agile with some reaching speeds of 100 mph and many capable of carrying payloads greater than 40 lbs. 

Larger aerial threats, such as planes or missiles, are generally picked up by large, military-grade radars that coordinate with powerful mitigation systems. Drones however, are much smaller and often manage to slip past large radar systems undetected as they are either mistaken for birds or fly at such low altitudes that their signatures are obscured by ground clutter.

Advances in drone technology, including the use of ultra light fiber optic spools reaching up to 7 miles or 10.8 km in length, allow drone pilots with minimal experience to execute FPV (first person view) drone missions at great distances and often to devastating effect without being detected by RF Detectors.  

Given the destructive potential and the rapidly increasing number of drones in public airspace, there is an urgent need for more effective drone detection systems.

How Small Drone Detection Radar Systems Work

As the targets become smaller and more difficult to detect, radar detection systems need to become more sophisticated, using AI technology to identify threats in seconds to prevent harm. Large radar systems like you see at airports are powerful and effective in identifying large objects like a plane in the air, however they are not good at identifying or tracking small objects. 

The benefit of compact, more localized radar detection systems is that they can be more precise, so precise as to cut through ground clutter, distinguish the difference between birds and drones, and thus provide much more reliable detection at shorter ranges. 

When a drone enters the compact radar's coverage area, it reflects some of the emitted signals back towards the radar system. As these signals move at the speed of light, the system can quickly analyze these reflections to determine if they correspond to a moving object that matches the characteristics of a drone. Birds and other nuisance alarms are quickly identified and dismissed so as to save the valuable time and resources of security personnel.

Even if these drones emit no RF signal, drop in from high altitudes, or sneak in at low altitudes trailing a thin line of fiber optic cable back to their pilot outside the radar’s range, the drone itself won’t get within the dome of protection offered by the radar without being detected and identified.  
Once a potential threat is detected, the system provides real time information about its location, altitude, speed, and direction of travel. This data allows security personnel to assess the situation quickly and respond accordingly.

Types of Drone Detection Radar Systems

There are several types of short- to mid-range drone detection radar systems available on the market today. 

Some radars differ in their signal emission and detection methods, such as frequency-modulated continuous wave (FMCW) radars that emit continuous waveforms with varying frequencies over time, doppler radars that measure target motion relative to surroundings, and phased array radars that use multiple antennas to create a narrow detection beam. 

Each type of radar system has its advantages and limitations, and organizations must carefully consider the specific needs and requirements of their sites when selecting a drone detection radar system.

However, the most important metrics are the false alarm rate, range of the radar, and gaps in the coverage for detecting targets of interest with a high probability. Different small- to mid-sized drone detection radar systems have detection ranges ranging from 100m to 2km, typically with some variability for target size (i.e. a vehicle may be detected at 1,700m and a smaller human or drone threat detected within 1,400m). 

Advantages of Drone Detection Radar Systems over Other Technologies

Compared to other technologies used for drone detection such as cameras, acoustic sensors, and RF sniffers (a.k.a. RF DF), drone detection radar systems offer several distinct advantages.

Firstly, as radar systems rely on precise signals sent out to and returning from the coverage area, radar systems can detect stealth or “dark” drones that emit no radio frequency signature. This is particularly important for the detection and identification of drones that are operating with malicious intent. Commercial drones are required to emit standard radio frequencies and law-abiding, non-malicious drone pilots will almost always pilot drones that meet the required legal standards. Malicious parties, however, intent on not being discovered will be more likely to make use of dark drones to threaten critical infrastructure and other secure locations. 

Secondly, radar systems are not affected by environmental conditions such as darkness, fog, rain, dust, or snow as much as other technologies. They rely on radio waves rather than visual cues or sound waves, making them highly reliable in various weather conditions.

As another advantage, radar systems provide a wider coverage area and detection of longer distances than other drone detection methods such as video or audio sensors. This is particularly important as many critical infrastructure sites span large areas, reside in remote locations, and/or provide vital services that require constant and comprehensive protection.

Furthermore, drone detection radar systems are less prone to false alarms compared to other technologies. Cameras may trigger false alarms due to moving shadows or insects crossing their field of view. Acoustic sensors may mistake background noise for the sound produced by drones. Radar systems, on the other hand, have advanced algorithms specifically engineered to filter out irrelevant signals and are known to do so effectively.

It should be additionally noted that many small radar systems are built with integration capacities that allow them to sync with PTZ cameras, video management systems, and automated perimeter security deterrence measures, allowing the radar’s filtering capabilities to be applied across a more unified data stream. 

Case Studies of Successful Drone Detection and Mitigation

Several real-world examples have demonstrated the effectiveness of drone detection radar systems in providing early warning against potential drone threats:

Since 2015, Spotter has been deploying drone detection radars systems at power plants and substations. The first commercial installation was a power plant that was done in conjunction with Honeywell Building Security division. Click here to request the case study. 

In 2018, during the Winter Olympics held in Pyeongchang, South Korea deployed an advanced drone detection system utilizing multiple radars strategically placed around event venues. The system successfully detected unauthorized drones attempting to breach restricted airspace during the games' opening ceremony.

Similarly, a major oil refinery in Texas implemented drone detection radars as part of a comprehensive security solution after experiencing multiple incidents involving unauthorized drones flying near sensitive areas within their facility's perimeter. The deployment resulted in early detections that allowed security personnel to intercept intruding drones before they could cause any harm.

Spotter has continued to deploy radar systems at a variety of critical infrastructure sites, including many top tier substations enabling customers to collect data on the frequency and potential threats to their sites.

These publicized case studies, and many unpublicized incidents, highlight how drone detection radar systems can play a vital role in securing critical infrastructure by providing early warning capabilities and enabling swift response actions.

Challenges in Implementing Drone Detection Radar Systems

While drone detection radar systems offer significant advantages, there are challenges organizations may face when implementing these technologies.

One major challenge is the integration of radar systems with existing security infrastructure. Organizations must ensure that the drone detection radar system they choose can seamlessly integrate with the security measures, such as cameras, video management, and alarm systems, that already exist on their property. Only then can the radar be used fully to suppose a site-customized, comprehensive security ecosystem. And as different radar companies have integration capacities and partnerships with different security technology companies, some research, and perhaps a consultation with a security system integrator will be required.

Another challenge is the cost associated with implementing and maintaining drone detection radar systems. These technologies require specialized equipment, installation, and ongoing maintenance to ensure optimal detection performance and longevity. Organizations must carefully evaluate their budgetary constraints and long-term operational costs as well as what maintenance guarantees radar companies offer before investing in such solutions.

Spotter Global, one of the most popular and long-standing radar companies with more than 400 drone detection radars provided to critical infrastructure protection worldwide, offers an extendable three- to five-year warranty on all radars and provides regular security technician support to clients.

Finally, regulatory considerations may pose challenges for organizations seeking to deploy drone detection radar systems. Different countries have varying regulations regarding the use of radars or radio frequency devices for surveillance. Compliance with these regulations is essential to avoid legal complications.

Future Developments in Drone Detection Technology

The field of drone detection technology continues to evolve rapidly as researchers and developers strive to stay ahead of drone development and expansion. 

Coverage areas for radars will continue to expand but without the reduction of false alarm rates the larger coverage will be rendered useless as no one pays attention to a security system that is constantly alarming.

One area of development focuses on the further reduction of false alarms through integration of multiple sensing technologies. This will lead to lower cost of ownership and ability to be more responsive to alarms as the quality of the alarms improve. 

Also, it is expected that as regulations change, drone mitigation will be permitted in more circumstances and a greater number of mitigation options will become available and deployed at critical infrastructure sites. 

Importance of Integrating Drone Detection Radar Systems with Other Security Measures

While drone detection radar systems provide valuable early warning capabilities against potential threats posed by drones, they should not be seen as standalone solutions. A threat detected is not necessarily a threat confirmed or resolved. Therefore, integrating these systems with other security measures, especially drone countermeasures, is crucial to creating a comprehensive security approach. 

Drone countermeasures are, of course, rapidly evolving alongside drone and drone detection technologies. Prominent methods for mitigating active drone threats include radio jamming to force drones to land, ballistics, net guns, and even the use of trained hawks. However, these methods are of limited efficiency, especially in times when drones have been deployed in swarms, making it difficult to stop all of them before they can reach the property and critical assets. Additionally, many countries have legislation limiting or preventing the use of radio jamming, net gun use, and other methods as drone mitigation measures.

For now, to support the effective use of drone countermeasures, drone detection radar systems ought, whenever possible, to be combined with video surveillance cameras that allow security personnel to visually confirm the presence of a drone and gather additional information about its activities, such as pinpointing its location more exactly for the effective deployment of approved countermeasures. Also, creating alarm zones and integrating them with radar and access control systems can trigger automatic responses such as locking down certain areas or activating alarms when unauthorized drones are detected in the airspace. 

The Vital Role of Drone Detection Radar Systems in Securing Critical Infrastructure

In conclusion, securing critical infrastructure from the growing threat posed by drones requires site-customized security design, comprehensive system unification via seamless integration, and advanced technologies specifically designed for early detection and mitigation. Drone detection radar systems offer a reliable solution that can detect and track drones in large volumes of space in real time, providing valuable information to enable swift response actions as well as customization and integration capabilities to help pull together a comprehensive security design.

The case studies presented demonstrate the effectiveness of drone detection radar systems in countering potential threats to critical infrastructure sites. However, organizations must also consider challenges such as integration complexities, cost implications, specific site needs, and licensing when implementing these technologies. 

As technology continues to advance rapidly, future developments in drone detection technology hold great promise for even more accurate and efficient detection and mitigation solutions. It is essential for individuals and organizations responsible for critical infrastructure to invest in these advanced technologies and integrate them with existing security measures to ensure comprehensive protection of our critical infrastructure against evolving threats posed by drones. 


What are drone detection radar systems?

Drone detection radar systems are specialized devices that use radar technology to detect and track unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) or drones in the air above and around a property, often extending detection hundreds of meters beyond site perimeters. These systems are designed to identify and locate nearby or approaching drones in real-time, providing advance warning and other critical information to security personnel.

Why are drone detection radar systems important for securing critical infrastructure?

Drone detection radar systems are vital for securing critical infrastructure because they can help prevent unauthorized access to sensitive areas. Drones can be used for a variety of purposes, including surveillance, smuggling, and even attacks. By detecting and tracking drones, security personnel can quickly respond to potential threats, take appropriate action, and have more accurate information to include in security incident reports. 

How do drone detection radar systems work?

Drone detection radar systems use radar technology to detect and track drones. These systems emit radio waves (speed of light) that bounce off objects in the environment, including drones. By analyzing the reflected waves, the system can determine the location, speed, and trajectory of a target and with advanced filtering can distinguish between nuisance alarms (such as birds) from real drone threats. 

What types of critical infrastructure can benefit from drone detection radar systems?

Any critical infrastructure that is vulnerable to drone threats can benefit from drone detection radar systems. This includes airports, power plants, government buildings, temporary or permanent military installations, substations, public events, and more. 

What are some of the challenges associated with drone detection radar systems?

Drone detection radar systems are, generally, more expensive than other security measures, require complex technical expertise for installation and maintenance, have varying capacities for integration with other security system features, and may come with regional regulatory considerations. 

Spotter Global, Jamie Mortensen March 8, 2024
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