Digital Defenses to Protect Perimeters

Aug. 26, 2015

Over the last decade, hundreds of intruders have hopped fences, crashed cars through gates and even snuck past security to jump a plane at the nation’s busiest airports. In fact, an Associated Press investigation revealed there have been 268 perimeter security breaches since 2004.

The reality is that perimeter security poses a significant challenge for any airport. Most airports protect their borders with layers of security that includes fences, cameras and patrols. The challenge perimeter security presents at any given airport is related to the physical size of the airport and the local topography, weather and geography, according to John O’Connor, assistant director of Airport Security at Denver International Airport (DEN).

“Airports like DEN, which has approximately 32 miles of physical perimeter fencing, is located in a more rural area and in a local climate that incorporates all four seasons, have different challenges than an airport like San Francisco International Airport, which is located in a more metropolitan suburban area with a temperate climate and surrounded by water,” O’Connor says.

Cost becomes a factor too. The cost of perimeter security adds up quickly when you include man-hours (contract security personnel, local police personnel, etc.); physical barriers (fences, barbed wire and gates); and technology (radar, cameras, intrusion detection devices, etc.)

“The size of an airport’s perimeter and associated fencing will also drive the cost function of perimeter security. There is also quite a difference in terms of cost in maintaining perimeter security at an airport that is 800 acres in size as opposed to Denver’s 32,000 acres,” says O’Connor.

Enter GroundAware from Huntsville, Ala.-based Dynetics. This all-digital ground-based radar detects intrusions in real time and automatically provides actionable information, mobile alerts and integrated live video to security stakeholders via a single interface.

This system serves up rich situational awareness that affords security personnel the real-time information they need to respond to perimeter-based threats. While usually people think of radar as picking up fast-moving objects, like fast-moving weather or airplanes, the GroundAware system detects slow-moving objects such as people, animals, ground vehicles, and is capable of distinguishing between these types of targets.

S Band Radar

According to Dynetics literature, GroundAware is “software-defined Web-based, built with off-the-shelf components and designed by radar experts to make the system easy to configure, deploy and use.”

Dynetics has been building radar since the 1970s, getting its start with air and missile defense applications. A few years ago, the company CEO challenged the Dynetics research and development team to create a ground radar surveillance system designed to protect perimeters. They decided to work in the S band because radar in that band functions in all weather conditions and for slow moving objects at ground level.

“With old radar systems that have been repurposed for perimeter security, weather, be it wind, rain, etc. causes the systems to pick up any movement as a target worthy of an alarm,” says Tom Gates, product marketing and management at Dynetics. “The S band is good in any weather condition.”

The resulting system, GroundAware, utilizes open and modular architecture to maximize flexibility, allowing it to be configured and customized to meet specific customer needs. The software layers, transmit/received characteristics and digital signal processing can be tailored to the user environment. Users set up alarm zones defined as green boxes. Denver set these alarm zones along the perimeter. When a target enters a defined alarm zone, the system automatically sends an alert back to the security operations center where they can review the data and determine a course of action.

“All of that is completely configured and connected to a camera so that when a target enters that alarm zone, the system automatically captures the target and tracks it in real time,” says Gates. “And if you have a decent camera that can pan and tilt and zoom, you can then make visual contact. You know exactly where the target is because the radar picks it up.”

Users define exactly what they want to be notified about. For instance, they might say they only want an alarm to trigger if animals, people or vehicles come into this area. “If it’s in an area where animals are not a problem, they can say they only want to know if there are people or vehicles,” Gates says. “Or they might say they only want to know if something is coming at them from a specific direction. If they are moving away from the area, for instance, they likely do not need to know about it.

GroundAware utilizes Doppler radar so it picks up the movement of legs, hips and arms. “That way we can tell an animal from a person and a vehicle from an aircraft,” Gates says. “It can detect the difference between two sets of legs on an animal and one set of legs on a human.”

All information can be sent in a text message to a mobile device. They can click on a link and see all everything from the size of the target, the speed it’s traveling at, the direction its coming, the distance it is away from the radar and so on. The system can detect objects as much as 5 kilometers away, a vehicle out to 3 kilometers and a human to about 2 ½ kilometers. “What this gives an airport is a very long-term, long-range notice that something or someone is coming at them, which gives them time to respond before something happens,” says Gates.

“The open-ended technology allows us to integrate with cameras, video management systems, access control systems—virtually any kind of command and control system and other kinds of sensors,” Gates adds.

In addition to setting up the system to activate in alarm zones, there is also a way of setting up zones to ignore areas. While DEN chose not to do this, this is a feature an airport might like to have in places where there is a lot of construction activity going on. “You could literally draw an ignore zone so that you wouldn’t see anything in that area,” he says. “It’s on a day-to-day basis, during work hours, that way if you had a lot of trucks or heavy equipment in a given area, you could draw an ignore zone and you wouldn’t see any of the targets in that zone.”

The system also doesn’t get the false alarms other radar systems working in the X or KU band are plagued by.

And it’s very intuitive to use. Dynetics typically spends three days on site with a customer going through a very simple training. With this system, security personnel can go about their business, and no one has to watch anything. The alerts come to them and they can check it at that time. “We use red to highlight the area that the object was spotted, and audible alarms to bring attention to the alert,” Gates says. “This way you are not asking security guys to learn a whole new system.”

“It is literally a Google Maps interface and we did that intentionally because there is virtually no user training required,” he says.


Installation is fairly easy. DEN installed its test system in a remote area along their perimeter. “DEN has one of the largest perimeter fences in the country,” O’Connor says. “The fence is approximately 32 miles in length. We are trying to see if this new technology will enhance or improve our detection/response capabilities along our perimeter fence.”

O’Connor says they were able to install it on an airfield structure using a man lift. The unit requires a 110-volt power source and Internet access through a server. “The unit was physically installed in about 1 ½ days,” he says.

All of the systems software and hardware components are integrated within an enclosure system to provide maximum installation flexibility. “The radar unit is just slightly larger than an average flat-panel television,” says O’Connor.

Denver’s system was installed approximately 70 feet off the ground. Gates explains radar requires line of sight to work. “It can’t see through solid objects any better than a camera can,” Gates explains. “Radar beams have to bounce off of targets. The higher you can mount the radar, the better, because there are too many obstructions on the ground.”

The radar is very low power and can plug into a wall outlet. It also takes very little bandwidth from an Internet standpoint. In Denver the system is installed using existing infrastructure. A camera system in contrast can take a lot more data than that, especially if it’s an HD camera.

“It is preferable to have a wired connection,” Gates says. “But we have done both, using 4G and wireless extension capabilities. That way if the unit is in a remote area and you don’t have the connectivity, you can still use the radar.”

To the test

Denver International hopes to learn more about the use of this system and its effectiveness in various weather conditions during its pilot program.

O’Connor was first introduced to GroundAware at a technologies conference. He says based on what he learned there he felt it was prudent for the airport to obtain a demonstration unit to evaluate the system on-site via a pilot program. The goals of this pilot program are to ascertain the system’s effectiveness based on typography and weather to determine whether it will be an additional asset to DEN’s layered perimeter security approach.

While O’Connor admits they are currently working through some of the bandwidth issues related to information transmission, the airport intends to retain the demo unit for six to eight weeks to make an adequate assessment of the technology.

“This system offers the airport a technology alternative for perimeter fence security that will (hopefully) enhance current technology, processes and procedures,” he says.

When there are miles of perimeter to secure, a digital ground-based radar system might improve security. Adding GroundAware as a new layer of security to perimeters across the nation’s airports could make breaches to perimeter security a thing of the past.

 As Gates points out, “Airports need to know as far out as possible when someone or something is coming toward them so they can respond to a potential threat before it becomes a real one.”