Security On The Runway

Security On The Runway

Don’t forget to focus on security at the perimeter

Security in airports has always been a high priority, with high visibility. However, the perimeter surrounding the airport is still, in too many cases, neglected.

If an airport has full-fence coverage, it is usually an inadequate fence, without any detection capability. Airports are investing billions of dollars on the obvious security measures we see as members of the travelling public, such as screening, cameras and X-ray machines. Yet the fastest way to the runway and airplanes—the perimeter—is often left open.

Terrorist threats at airports have almost become the standard by which we measure threat scenarios, but what about random threats?

In July 2012, a man in Utah scaled a razor-wire topped perimeter fence at the St. George Municipal Airport using just a rug, attempting to steal an idle 50-passenger jet. Fortunately, this plane never left the ground, but it did raise obvious concerns about airport perimeter security.

Another example is that of a truck driver working in an airport’s segregated area who mistakenly drove in the wrong direction into the runway. This scenario could easily occur and turn an otherwise minor security violation into a catastrophic safety event. Such mistakes at airports can be the relatively small triggers that cause huge fires, resulting in a massive, negative, worldwide effect.

As we know, any security chain is no stronger than its weakest link. So, each segment and sector of the perimeter must be secure enough to ensure the entire perimeter is protected.

Concept of Operations

Typically, security specialists recommended starting with a full security concept, no Band-Aid approach to weak elements of the site. This step requires professionals to analyze threats and match them to the right concept of operations (CONOPS) by defining areas demanding high-security versus lower-security priority sections, identifying the location of the command and control center, determining whether more than one is needed and identifying where first responders are located and how long it will take them to respond to an alarm. If the perimeter has been breached, how long will it take to respond effectively and intercept an intruder?

Once these elements have been defined, a tactical plan can be developed to use the best combination of technologies and processes for each section of the perimeter, and these can be tailored to the perimeter intrusion detection system (PIDS).

The Recommended Solution

The simple answer to the challenge of perimeter security at an airport—or any similar critical perimeter— is a combination of smart fences and barriers, supported by a mix of long-range surveillance cameras and smart cameras equipped with outdoor-ready intelligent video analytics (IVA). Last, and equally important, is to have in place a fast and responsive mobile force with a centralized physical security information management (PSIM) system.

Additional sensors and tools may be needed to close specific gaps unique to each airport. Ideally, an airport should have a minimum of a two-layered PIDS solution installed. Some airports, such as the Indira Gandhi International Airport in Delhi, India— choose four layers for better confidence.

Recommended Sensor Technologies

Taut wire, a hybrid system of sensors weaved into a barbed wire fence, is the Cadillac of fences. This is the only fence that, in all weather conditions, has guaranteed performance with demonstrated high probability of detection (POD) and an almost zero false alarm rate (FAR). This is an excellent choice of technology where false alarms cannot be compromised. It can serve as a stand-alone barrier with no additional verification tools, such as cameras, although additional layers will increase performance.

Fence-mounted sensors. A variety of technologies support these applications, including microphonic copper cable, fiber optic sensors, vibration sensors and even seismic sensors. All of these systems are ideal addons to existing fences because, in the majority of instance, most of the investment has already been done.

Customers must be aware that fence-mounted sensor performance requires, in most cases, a secondary verification tool. Performance is not always guaranteed and sometimes depends on the quality of the installed fence. The same sensor will perform completely different on a loose fence versus a rigid, tightly installed fence. In the case of airports covering a huge landscape, sensor use may create a quite a few nuisances and false alarms per day. Some of the available sensors can locate an intruder within a sector to the level of a few meters. For airports, this ranging feature is usually not critical because the sites are relatively open and flat, and thus, with the inherent delay caused by a fence, typically 100 to 150 meters resolution of detection is plenty.

Buried cable sensors. This is a virtual fence implemented by a smart cable buried less than one foot underground. The cable creates an invisible electromagnetic field, capable of detecting any intruder entering that narrow virtual corridor. This is not an inexpensive solution; however, it is an ideal solution for places where a fence cannot be installed, whether for aesthetic reasons or environmental concerns. The fact that it is a concealed detection makes it unbeatable and ideal for protecting the internal quarters within an airport where a “fenceless” fence is desired.

Buried cable also is an ideal solution to protect aircraft parking areas and hangars, where the tarmac needs to be trenched for creating a virtual fence and where a real fence cannot be erected. Some of the solutions in the market can pinpoint the intruder along the corridor with a resolution of a few meters. This may be important, taking into account that this virtual fence does not delay the intruder.

Microwaves. This sensor is another type of virtual fence based on electromagnetic transmitters above the ground that create an invisible detection beam. Any intruder going through the field will disturb the beam and cause an alarm. Two types of microwaves are available: bi-static, composed of a transmitter on one side and a receiver on the other side, and mono-static, in which the same unit does both. A single pair of bistatic microwaves can cover 100 to 300 meters.

The technology is easy to install but requires constant grass cutting. It is ideal for places that may be open to restricted traffic, whether a temporary basis, where infrastructure construction is underway, or for longer term. Like any other virtual fence, it misses the deterrence and delay function.

Smart CCTV. Outdoor cameras, equipped with outdoor intelligent video analytics (IVA), are an excellent sensor to protect and complement every perimeter as well as the internal sections and infrastructure within the airport, especially if designed by outdoor experts with professional outdoor algorithms.


Airport security decision makers need to recognize and emphasize the importance of an integrated solution that marries everything into one coherent, manageable system. All security systems depend on human intervention and therefore should be based on the overall reliable alarms, notification and situation awareness.

Given the critical nature of any event at an airport, quick reaction and immediate response depends on the quality of the head end—the command and control center. Today’s PSIM applications are at the heart of any real-time decision process.

PSIM connects and integrates all sensors and correlates multiple inputs—cameras, gate control, access control, PIDS sensors and other applications — into a single synchronized display. A graphical information systems (GIS) engine is used as a platform to arrange layers of data, ensuring accurate location and cross reference between the fielded sensors, the maps and the mobile forces.

Securing the worldwide air traffic is a “game” that requires full teamwork—intelligence, counterterror experts, airport authorities, airline personnel and more. Security managers must change their focus from increasing the perception of protection with highly visible screening measures and focus on creating a complete and functional security solution.

This article originally appeared in the January 2013 issue of Security Today.


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