Sensing the UAS Future

Gryphon Sensors has found a way to leverage its military roots into commercial markets. The team is currently working to integrate its radar knowledge into commercial applications.
By Patrick C. Miller | January 14, 2015

Tony Albanese sees developments in the world of unmanned aerial systems as the beginning of a renaissance with enormous potential. 

“There’s going to be so much going on in the next 10 years in this industry,” says Albanese, the president of Gryphon Sensors. “It’s going to change the way commerce works. It’s going to change the way a lot of things work, but it has to be done safely. It’s critical to get it done that way.”

Getting UAS integrated safely into the national airspace is the primary reason SRC Inc.—a major defense contractor headquartered in North Syracuse, New York—created Gryphon Sensors and chose Albanese to head it. SRC has extensive experience in developing radar systems for the military, ranging from airborne systems to ground surveillance radars, and from avian surveillance to weapon location applications.

As SRC’s former executive vice president of defense and environmental solutions, Albanese brings experience in the defense and air traffic control industries, including radar system engineering, program management, domestic and international business development, and operations and manufacturing management.

His familiarity with applying technology in the commercial world should help the Federal Aviation Administration solve the dual challenges of UAS airspace integration and commercialization, which Albanese describes as a massive problem.

“The No. 1 mission of the FAA is safety first,” he says. “With tens of thousands of UAS being delivered into the U.S. every month, this problem’s only going to get worse before it gets better.”

Compounding the problem is the nature of small, low-flying unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) and the challenge of separating them from the environmental background.

“This mission is extremely difficult because we’re focused on the very small UASs,” Albanese says. “When you set up a radar to detect them, you’re also detecting birds that are basically the same size. It complicates the problem for the radar processor to sort through that data and determine what’s real and what’s not.”

SRC is supplying the military with similar solutions. However, applying what SRC does for the military to the civilian world isn’t as easy as it might seem.

“We’re spinning off to a commercial entity so that we can create separation from the military,” Albanese explains. “As you can imagine, the military’s very sensitive to the commercial use of technology that can get widespread exposure and that would create an opportunity for adversaries to determine vulnerabilities to military technology.”

SRC moved some of its expertise to Gryphon Sensors to create new systems that don’t look or function anything like those currently used by the military. Albanese believes SRC can leverage its success in the military world to assist the FAA in the civilian world.

“There’s already a precedent in place with the ground-based sense-and-avoid program,” he notes. “The FAA, quite frankly, has been very comfortable with and understands the benefit of radar. We feel that there will be a tilt toward the use of radar for this mission.”

Another reason SRC formed the new subsidiary was to avoid the defense contractor mindset of process and procedure that tends to add costs and cause delays with government contracts.

“By creating the subsidiary, we can avoid the process-heavy costs and delays to focus on the commercial business,” Albanese says. “It also allowed us to take a number of people and isolate them from the rest of the business to get them highly focused on achieving our goal—more of a skunkworks type of atmosphere for attacking this problem.”

In addition, he notes that the business model which has been successful for SRC requires a different approach for a commercial venture such as Gryphon Sensors.

“You really have to make more investments. You have to take more risks. You have to be very price sensitive and you have to be quick and nimble,” Albanese explains. “Sometimes government contracting doesn’t train you that way. It’s extremely difficult to sell commercial items from within a government business framework.”

Could the relationship with SRC prove to be a two-way street in which Gryphon Sensors technology has military applications? While Albanese says there are no plans for the subsidiary to sell to military markets, he didn’t rule out the possibility.

“If you’ve establish something as a commercial product, move the intellectual property into SRC and then they modify it—enhance it for military application—it’s a much easier path,” he says.

Over the long term, Albanese envisions UAS with onboard sensor systems providing the ability to avoid obstacles in close proximity and maintain separation in more heavily trafficked areas close to the ground.

“As computing power grows, you could have deliveries scheduled in an urban area,” he says. “You could be flying many UASs simultaneously, keeping proper separation, making sure the airspace is clear of commercial aircraft. But you still have to worry about emergency response teams—helicopters and that sort of thing—to make sure it’s free and clear.”

There are other issues on the UAS horizon that have yet to be tackled. For example, Albanese says he was contacted by a motion picture studio complaining about private UAS operators recording its scenes during movie production and posting them on the Internet—the ultimate spoiler.

“When you detect the UASs in that environment, what do you do about them?” he asks. “There are lots of things you can do. There aren’t too many that are legal right now. Jamming is not looked at very favorably by the FCC (Federal Communications Commission).”

UAS have also demonstrated the potential to create more serious security issues, another area in which Albanese sees opportunities for Gryphon Sensors.

“In France, they’ve already had at least three incursions into nuclear facilities by UAS,” Albanese notes. “Chancellor Merckel of Germany had a UAS fly right up to her podium. The threats are there.”

Albanese sees potential for Gryphon Sensors technology in UAS precision agriculture.

“You could have a mobile ground-based system that essentially goes in and clears the airspace so you could determine where to irrigate or where to spread fertilizer or pesticides,” he says.

Other UAS areas of interest to the company include search and rescue, package delivery, news gathering and law enforcement. Still, Albanese is realistic about the remaining problems and the amount of time required to solve them before UAVs are in widespread use.

“The economic engine of the United States is going to drive this to fruition,” Albanese emphasizes. “These vehicles have tremendous use, but they have to be safely integrated.”