When confronted with the challenge of a mounting national security concern, a diverse crew of students from the Naval Postgraduate School banded together to swiftly devise an ingenious and enduring solution, and then proved that it can work.
Within 48 hours, a group of five graduate students across the physics, electrical engineering, and defense analysis departments came up with a new way to acoustically detect small unmanned aerial systems (sUAS) when they participated—and won—the Army Futures Command’s “A-Hack-of-the-Drones” hackathon competition held in Austin, Texas, Sept. 28-30, 2018.
“Only at NPS can you get an ad hoc team of highly experienced, capable and intelligent career military professionals together who, on short notice, can fuse together, work through a solution, and present it to the most senior levels of the service and get buy-in,” said Special Operations Forces Chair Col. Michael Richardson, who rallied the students to participate in the event.
Not content to rest on their laurels after a resounding triumph at the hackathon, the group then built a prototype to test in austere field conditions at NPS’ most recent Joint Interagency Field Experimentation (JIFX) at Camp Roberts, California, in late October.
Through a test series of trial and error, the group successfully demonstrated a sUAS detection system which, if adopted by the military, could dramatically increase advance warning of incoming threats.
“The NPS team came up with a conceptual application of a technology at the hackathon, and now Army Futures Command is looking at how we can take that application and expedite its development,” said Dr. James Mancillas, a science advisor with AFC who attended the JIFX event to observe and validate the students’ system.
Concern across the military for inexpensive, off-the-shelf sUAS’s is hardly an academic thought experiment.
On Aug. 4, 2018, two explosives-laden drones threatened Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro, his wife, and the country’s top leadership in an alleged assassination attempt while the president was giving a speech in a crowded sports arena in Caracas.
The Venezuelan military quickly deployed electronic counter-measures: one sUAS veered off to explode at a safe distance; the other careened into a nearby apartment complex.
To protect America’s deployed Soldiers, Airmen, Sailors and Marines, the services are looking for a more innovative solution to effectively counter sUASs. It’s the kind of challenge the recently established AFC was created to take on.
Officially activated in August, AFC is the Army’s most significant modernization effort since 1973. Unlike the three other four-star led Army commands which manage current operations, AFC is tasked with ensuring the service is technologically capable of successfully fighting the next fight.
"Over time, we will expand our reach across the United States, to work with small businesses, innovators, entrepreneurs, inventors, venture capitalists, academic institutions and the defense industry to create ideas and develop solutions for our Soldiers," AFC commander Gen. John Murray recently stated. "We intend to develop the technologies and solutions that will enable us to modernize the force quickly, effectively and cost-effectively, wherever and whenever they might be.”
"We want to build, fail, learn and build again to get advanced capabilities into the hands of our Soldiers at the speed of relevance," he added.
When approached by U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) with the sUAS problem, AFC partnered with the Department of Defense MD5 National Security Technology Accelerator program to host its inaugural event: A-Hack-of-the-Drones.
Held in AFC’s new headquarters, the three-day hackathon competition by design attracted an eclectic mix of approximately 200 military researchers, university faculty and students, and local entrepreneurs to find new ways to counter sUAS, either through detection, nullification, elimination, or cyber-based effects.
Micro Electro-Mechanical System
As a starting point, Richardson hit up two Defense Analysis (DA) students, Air Force Lt. Col. Clay Schuety and Maj. Lucas Will, who he knew were working on sUAS capabilities for their graduate studies.
The duo enlisted further technical know-how to give muscle to the undertaking: fellow DA student Army Maj. Jon Munson and Electrical Engineering student Marine Corps Capt. Caliph Lebrun.
Something was missing; however, a specific technology that could directly answer the hackathon’s challenge.
“About a month ago, I attended an innovation workshop and I met a student from the physics department who was telling me about this Micro Electro-Mechanical System (MEMS) device that he’s working on,” Schuety recalled. “When Col. Richardson told us about this competition, I said ‘Oh my gosh, this is perfect! I need to get Todd [Coursey] involved in this because he’s got this piece of equipment that would be perfect for drone detection!’”
The MEMS device, about the size of a fingernail, is essentially a tuning fork which can be set to a specific frequency; in this case, that of a sUAS. Navy Lt. Todd Coursey is working with the technology for his NPS graduate research, drawing on previous research into similar acoustic detection of underwater objects and sniper fire.
“We decided to see if we could repurpose the technology and focus on counter-UAS detection,” he explained. “It works on narrowband frequency, so it’s stationary until it encounters a resonance frequency and starts vibrating, which causes a change in voltage and thus a sensitivity to an incoming sUAS.”
This has a dramatic advantage over broadband microphones, the technology currently used to identify sUAS, which have a maximum range of 100 meters, according to Schuety.
“The initial lab results have shown that MEMS could potentially be a thousand times greater,” he said. “That increased distance really boils down to increased reaction time: with broadband microphones, you might have a couple seconds warning that a drone might be coming in; with MEMS, we’re talking maybe 30 to 45 seconds.”
Schuety reached out to Coursey, who enthusiastically agreed to join the group. This NPS A-team—they named themselves Echo Intelligence—formed the night before A-Hack-of-the-Drones kicked off.
When the Echo Intelligence team arrived at the Austin event, they immediately sketched out how best to apply the MEMS technology.
“What if we could put this on every single Soldier; what if we could create a network across the entire force with these small systems to help us identify these drones in a faster way, in a cheaper way, as a solution that could be scaled across the force?” Schuety said.
The idea was appealing in its simplicity and elegance—and soon attracted potential investors.
“Before the hackathon, I didn’t know anything about NPS or the military, but in talking with this team, this technology just made the most sense,” said Sundew Shin, founder and CEO of the local tech startup Wednus S&C, and one of four businessmen who joined Echo Intelligence at the event.
“We were able to form a collaborative team with some of the local venture capitalists and private industry folks and develop a concept of using this baseline technology in a new and innovative way to detect drones,” Schuety said. “Then we pitched it.”
‘Pitching it’ meant briefing Gen. Murray at the hackathon’s conclusion.
Echo Intelligence presented their concept to a leader seasoned in the challenges of technological adaptation. Each team member, drawing on their individual strengths and operational experience, answered Murray’s questions—from the science behind the concept—to the challenges of deploying it across the force.
“They were exactly what you’d expect: a precise military focus on results and working through them,” he recalled. “Some other teams weren’t very collaborative: they didn’t engage anyone else in that room. The NPS team did; that’s actually one of the great aspects of that team,” Mancillas said. “They had a technology and they were looking at how to transition it, how to develop an application. That’s really what they did that no other team really did well.”
Of 16 competing teams, Echo Intelligence was one of three selected to receive a $15,000 award to continue development of their concept in collaboration with MD5.
“I think this reflects really, really well on NPS as a research institution,” Schuety said. “We’re primarily here at NPS for research opportunities and to go back to the force more lethal and ready to solve our nation’s problems, but our victory also highlights a really interesting part about NPS: We were able to collaborate across departments within NPS, which was phenomenal.”
“That really enabled a unique perspective down there in Austin,” he continued. “I think it highlighted everything that NPS is doing, and that is incredible.”
Proving the Art of the Possible
One month later, the team reconvened at Camp Robert’s McMillan Airfield in the desolate reaches of central California, along with NPS faculty and AFC representatives, to put the technology to the test at JIFX. Facing stiff crosswinds, hovering drones set off prototype sensors through repeated experiments.
“We’re here to assess that in reality, the concept has some physical reality and to assess its scalability and cost points, which will give us a general assessment of whether or not we think this is viable,” Mancillas said. “From what we’ve seen [at JIFX], we can confirm that we think it is indeed viable.”
The challenge now, Echo Intelligence members said, is to transform the prototype into a workable, cost-effective solution with the assistance of private industry collaborators. The resulting technology can then be returned to AFC which will be able to expedite its implementation in the military.
“We’ve proved the art of the possible: we know it’s possible,” Coursey said. “We now have to transfer what we know is possible into an actual product that can be used by Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Marines in the field.”
“That’s why we’re all here.”
Additional editing by CHIPS Magazine.