University of Massachusetts Amherst

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CASA Adds Drone Detection to Its Early Warning Monitoring of Severe Weather

Apoorva Bajaj

Apoorva Bajaj

MIchael Zink

MIchael Zink

According to industry estimates, there could be as many as three-million drones in the skies globally. As the number of drones mushrooms, so will the chances that they will pose a danger to public safety; in Massachusetts alone, at least 80 near-collisions between drones and aircraft have been reported to date. Now, according to the UMass News Office, researchers in the UMass Electrical and Computer Engineering Department are continuing to develop 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. Read News Office release or article on

“There is a growing market for technologies that can detect the presence of a drone,” says Apoorva Bajaj, innovation manager at ECE’s Center for Collaborative Adaptive Sensing of the Atmosphere (CASA), which is developing the groundbreaking radar system. “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.”

The UMass News Office says that the CASA radar 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 CASA, says that CASA researchers have already demonstrated that a dense network of short-range radars can be used to track tornadoes with detailed accuracy 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. 

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 employs dual-polarization technology that could help distinguish between hard-to-detect moving targets such as drones and birds and their flight patterns. Such technology can also help to specify the types of precipitation that are in the air.

Zink says the new system will be developed and refined using existing radars located on the UMass Amherst campus. He also concludes that the new system will be able to provide airport managers and others with the capability to know exactly when and where a drone is approaching a sensitive area and thus threatening the public safety. (February 2018)