DAHLGREN, Va. — What do NASA space crews and Navy Sly Fox mission engineers have in common?
Both leave the comforts of the ordinary to explore a higher, unfamiliar realm while testing possibilities and expanding capabilities. Their dispatches about discoveries, innovations, and experiences continue to fascinate people from all walks of life.
“As we move forward into the future, unmanned systems will allow for less operator involvement with features such as autonomous navigation, flight, and obstacle avoidance,” was one transmission among a slew of dispatches that tell the latest story.
“CANARES is a great stepping stone leading to this future and I’m glad to be a part of it.”
So, what is CANARES and who sent the dispatch?
Although it sounds like an excerpt from a NASA astronaut's blog describing work on the Canadarm2 robotic arm during a spacewalk outside the International Space Station — this quote came from a Navy junior scientist.
Specifically, the dispatch revealed Jamshaid ‘JD’ Chaudhry’s insight into a live demonstration of CANARES by the Sly Fox Mission 22 rapid prototyping team in September, sponsored by Naval Surface Warfare Center Dahlgren Division (NSWCDD).
CANARES — also known as the Collaborative Aerial Network for the Autonomous Remote Engagement System — teams an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) with an Unmanned Ground Vehicle (UGV) through a Command and Control Station. The UGV, named the Weaponized Autonomous System Prototype (WASP), provides an aerial perspective to improve mission situational awareness with a wider view that yields a tactical advantage.
WASP by itself is capable of navigating to a contact to provide its user with a first-person view. The warfighter can then identify the viewed contact for tracking and engaging using an Autonomous Remote Engagement System. Due to the limitations of that first person-view, however, Sly Fox Mission 22 was tasked with integrating WASP with a UAV to add an aerial perspective.
Several hundred Navy civilian and military personnel watched the seven-member Sly Fox Mission 22 team, including Chaudhry, demonstrate CANARES. The fully-integrated UAV, WASP, and command and control station detected, tracked, and engaged target after target on the Potomac River Test Range.
Throughout the development phase, the Mission 22 team applied the NSWCDD philosophy to “build a little, test a little, and learn a lot.” As the team created the code at the modular level, it was tested before integration into the final system.
"I couldn't have asked for a better team and mentors,” said Joe Gills, NSWCDD scientist. “There was a small budget, a short timeframe, a lot of stress, and high expectations, but every member pulled through and played a key role in developing CANARES. Sly Fox allowed me to experience the entire systems engineering life cycle and gave me an opportunity to network and work with technical experts across several defense agencies. The systems engineering principles and technical knowledge that I gained will help kick-start my career here at NSWCDD, and I look forward to many more successful projects after Sly Fox Mission 22."
The team integrated the full system and began testing CANARES after confirming that the modular components of the software functioned with each other. Beginning with a ground-based communications test, the team verified that video data from the UAV and commands from the GUI (graphical user interface) were routed through the UGV to their correct destinations in a timely manner. The junior scientists and engineers then verified several flight requirements for the system during UAV in-flight testing on the range. Finally, the team ran the full system test to verify CANARES’ capabilities as designed.
“Being a part of Sly Fox has been beneficial on multiple fronts,” said Michael Parkison, a software engineer. “The technology we've worked with over the last six months will be a game changer for the warfighter in coming years, and the hands-on experience we've acquired equips us as engineers to jump into that new world head-first.”
Lt. Akwasi Fosu, a Navy officer on active duty in NSWCDD’s Warfare Systems Engineering and Integration Department, saw the demonstration and agreed with Parkinson — Mission 22 technology is a game changer.
"The demonstration of the ability to develop, deploy, and integrate sensors on different types of unmanned systems in real time through a single GUI was very impressive,” said Fosu. “As unmanned vehicles mature in capabilities, such efforts to coalesce the controls and interfaces to make them more intuitive for warfighters are going to become more urgent across the services. Given the short time frame and the limited budget the young engineers were afforded, their results are all the more remarkable."
The team of mentors — senior NSWCDD scientists and engineers — ensured a strong focus on technical rigor as they taught the Sly Fox team how to perform under pressure with limited funds and a six-month deadline.
“The Sly Fox program serves as an outstanding experience accelerator for members our workforce,” said Dale Sisson, NSWCDD deputy technical director. “By presenting the Sly Fox teams with real-world challenges and schedules, we are able to allow them to gain valuable experience into what it takes to support our warfighters.”
Just as NASA expedition astronauts take time to get to know each other before launching to the International Space Station, Sly Fox members do likewise. They learned about their teammates’ strengths and weaknesses as they worked to make integrated sensors in a myriad of advanced and interoperable unmanned systems a reality for warfighters.
The benefits of transferring technical, project management, and leadership knowledge to junior engineers and scientists across organizations has been reflected in the careers of Sly Fox mission members since the first Sly Fox mission was launched in 2002. The inaugural team successfully developed the Passive Anti-Ship Missile Detection System within the designated six-month timeframe and proved that the Sly Fox program was an excellent way for young engineers and scientists to simultaneously develop technical, teaming, and leadership skills.
Although team members returned to their normal science and engineering positions at NSWCDD after Mission 22 concluded on Sept. 22, they are still reflecting on their Sly Fox mission experiences and sharing perspectives on lessons learned.
“My experience with Sly Fox Mission 22 is one I will never forget because it provided me with an invaluable amount of knowledge about the entire acquisition process that I know will be useful throughout my career,” said Michelle Craft, mathematician. “A key part of Sly Fox that helped me learn so much was the people I met along the process. Working with personnel from all areas of the base both on the team and throughout the mission process really provided me with helpful insight into NSWCDD and how we run programs of record.”
"Sly Fox is a fast-paced environment that forces you to go outside your comfort zone,” said Salima Fenaoui, electrical engineer. “You are thrown at a project and have to quickly adapt and learn to complete it. I have learned an incredible amount in the last six months on how to manage a project from beginning to end and how to design an interface keeping the user in mind. "
“One of the lessons I've learned from Sly Fox is how individual personalities affect the team dynamic,” said Allen Woods, computer engineer. “People tend to settle into different roles on the team based on their personalities, but each satisfies a team need. As long as team members are properly communicating with one another, the result of this combined effort is a useful product.”
“Being a member of Sly Fox Mission 22 has been a unique experience that has given me the opportunity to be a part of an exciting project, as well as get exposure to a lot of the work that happens behind the scenes to pull it together,” said Christopher Toney, electrical engineer. “I've gained technical hands-on skills as well as programmatic skills, and most importantly, I've had a lot of fun with the team and mentors along the way.”
The Sly Fox program is an NSWCDD Naval Innovative Science and Engineering (section 219) funded rapid prototyping program intended to develop the science and engineering workforce — mostly junior scientists and engineers — while applying their talents to known technology gaps. Like the previous 21 missions — including efforts in directed energy, radar systems, unmanned systems, and cyber threats — Sly Fox Mission 22 took advantage of the diverse skills of its team members to tackle a mission that is important to NSWCDD, its customers, and the warfighters.