Science and Technology News

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Hill engineer, AFMC team develop winning detection system

by Bill Orndorff
Ogden Air Logistics Complex Public Affairs

1/25/2013 - HILL AIR FORCE BASE, Utah -- Collaborative work by a team based at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, to detect small aircraft, has won them the top award in the 7th annual Air Force Research Laboratory Commander's Challenge.

Joann Luu, a Human Engineering Development System Software Engineer for F-16 simulators with the 519th Software Maintenance Squadron at Hill AFB, was part of the six-member team.

The challenge: develop technological solutions aimed at thwarting potential threats in urban environments posed by small, unmanned aerial vehicles. The scenario is based on a failed plot by a Massachusetts man to fly a large remote-controlled model airplane, filled with C-4 plastic explosive, into the Pentagon in 2011.

"The judges were looking for a different and innovative way to do this," Luu said. "We spent two months understanding the problem, brainstorming and researching concepts before we ran with any one solution. We wanted to be sure we weren't going to re-invent the wheel and that it was going to be worthwhile for the program."

She was selected to be the team's software expert, based on an application and resume, and a panel telephone interview that assessed her communication skills as well as her background and qualifications. Luu applied in mid-March 2012, and was asked to report to Wright-Patterson for the project by April 1.

Luu and the other team members -- 1st Lt. Joshua Thomas, team leader, and Adam Tuxbury, concept of operations lead, Hanscom AFB, Mass.; James Brewer, hardware and network lead, Tinker AFB, Okla.; Daniel Gallagher, acoustics lead, Wright-Patterson; and Robert Merrill, visual lead, Arnold AFB, Tenn. -- were given six months, guidance from a mentor and a $75,000 budget to prepare their challenge entry.

The two competing teams were made up of junior force members with less than five years of professional experience. Luu had worked for Lockheed Martin for two years before coming to work for the Air Force more than two years ago.

"The idea behind the Commander's Challenge is to try and spark the innovation of the young people within the DoD," said Lt. Col. David Shahady, lead judge, in an AFRL video posted on You Tube. "What we're looking for is taking a very big complex problem and giving the team a very limited budget and lots of stress and pressure and then the spirit of competition to try and come up with a really innovative concept to solve a really big real-world warfighter problem."

The team's solution included "smart" phones running an Android Application to help automate the tracking of small aircraft once a user has detected it.

"People will see something of interest in the sky, and if they see it as a threat, they could take out their phone, turn on the app and aim it at the target," Luu said. "The app puts a cross-hair on the camera screen to center on the target, and the phone's location as well as compass data is sent to a command-and-control station. The station will also send out a text message to anyone else on the network with a cell phone, alerting them of the threat."

The team also integrated a set of acoustic nodes and visual tracking systems for automated detecting and tracking.

"We took the extra step of fusing the data, which is a difficult process," she said. "Using a mathematical approach, we took the data from the cameras, cell phones and acoustic nodes and did intelligent calculations to isolate the target. The other team simply overlayed their data without any true integration."

The competition against the other team, based at Eglin AFB, Fla., would be in September at the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center in Twentynine Palms, Calif.

"The competition is held in a set up of artificial buildings that are designed for military training," Luu said. "We did our pre-testing in local parks for RC hobbyists and parking lots. One team member is an RC hobbyist who brought his own plane. We also paid others to fly their planes for us."

The team was also allowed to contact experts and companies familiar with detection and surveillance for advice. She said much of the testing involved taking the detection equipment outside.

"In the lab everything worked fine because it was all wired in and the wireless network was working well. When you take it outside, there is interference from telephone and electrical wires," Luu said. "We also had issues we couldn't control like weather conditions and traffic."

And those factors were introduced during the competition at Twentynine Palms as the judges had people making noise, driving cars around the model town or operating lawn equipment to see how robust the team's set-up was. The judges launched RC aircraft in varying sizes and made from different materials at different levels in the model town. In addition, the team had only one day to set up and test its system on site before competing the next day.

"The judges shadowed us to see our setup and listen in on our conversations to see how we interacted with one another," Luu said. "They looked at what we did when things went wrong and how we handled the situation.

"There was a lot of pressure, but we were calm. When things broke down, we had a Plan A and a Plan B. We helped each other fix things rather than try to blame someone for a problem. We got along extremely well as a team and that was a huge factor."

Maj. Aaron Almendinger, AFRL Challenge Program manager, agreed.

"The Wright-Patterson team did a great job working together and developing solutions to the small UAV detection problem," he said. "From my perspective, they were very easy-going, and effective. When things didn't go as planned -- nothing ever does -- they stayed cool, calm and professional and worked through to a solution. I think these traits helped them be very effective."

The team received the traveling trophy, which is now displayed at Wright-Patterson, and individual trophies.

"I did this because I thought it was a cool project," Luu said. "It's one of the highlights of my career -- definitely very memorable. I appreciate the support from Tony Henderson (519 SMXS director) and Karl Rogers (309 SMXG director) to let me be part of this." She has since briefed the project's concept to Lt. Gen. Bruce Litchfield, commander of the Air Force Sustainment Center, and Gen. Janet Wolfenbarger, commander of Air Force Materiel Command.

"One thing I can take back to SXMG from this experience is that one does not have to be an expert to make a difference," she said. "It's encouraging to know that upper leadership has faith in their junior workforce to solve an urgent real-world problem by fostering innovation."

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