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
"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