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University of Alabama Students Wrestle with How to Take Down Drones

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screen-shot-2017-02-15-at-10-12-15-amThe primary concern that most people have with drones is how to get them up in the air and keep them there. Not so with Northrop Grumman Corp (NGC); they wanted to find out how to take them down. Granted, the inexpensive models that are purchased for children (and adults with a bit of kid still in them) are easy enough to take down: just wait long enough and they will crash and break. And Northrop isn’t just some drone bully that wants to make that happen faster. Instead, they are a leading global security company and drones are just one of the potential threats they wrestle with.

In addition to working on this problem within the company, NGC wanted to engage a group of students to think creatively about drones as an issue in security that will become increasingly prominent. So, they turned to a University of Alabama at Huntsville senior design class, comprised of students who are participating in Northrop’s mentoring program, and asked: aside from shooting it, how can one prevent entry to a protected, or Keep Out Zone (KOZ) by a drone?

screen-shot-2017-02-15-at-10-15-30-amThe class is being led by Dr. Phillip Farrington, Professor of Industrial and Systems Engineering, in conjunction with Dr. Earl Wells, Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering, and Dr. Joy Robinson, Assistant Professor of Technical Writing and New Media. In addition, the class has three advisers who come from NGC to guide them. A final twist that makes this particular course so interesting is that it brings together people from the College of Engineering, the College of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences, and the Systems Management and Production (SMAP) Center. The hopes are that this kind of collaborative project could become an ongoing component of the relationship between NGC and UAH.

And the benefits are not only to the company but also for the students, as Dr. Farrington explained:

screen-shot-2017-02-15-at-10-13-23-am“It’s a really timely project because you see small UAVs all over now, and some could become a potential threat, and this is to disarm a threat that is possibly hostile. It provides a good foundation for the students because when they graduate, it will be very rare that they work in a situation where they are only working with engineers from the same discipline. It is more likely that they will work with both engineers and non-engineers. This creates a realistic situation, a very real-world problem…[and] this is engaging Northrop with the students they could very likely hire after they graduate.”

A senior design team is researching the tools needed to intercept drones. ID's for small group photo: Daniel Bernues, Teron Walker, Alyse Adams, William Klingbeil, Bob McCaleb (Northrop Grumman), Faith Buckley, Zack Horvath. (Michael Mercier/UAH).

A senior design team is researching the tools needed to intercept drones: Daniel Bernues, Teron Walker, Alyse Adams, William Klingbeil, Bob McCaleb (Northrop Grumman), Faith Buckley, Zack Horvath. [Photo: Michael Mercier/UAH]

The hope for all is that the lessons learned from the project will be applicable in a variety of different situations, not just the particular problem proposed in this project. As a former professor of design myself, my ears pricked up when the project lead, William Klingbiel, discussed the failure the occurred in early testing the previous semester. If there are two things that I said so often my students would roll their eyes each time they are: If you’re not prepared to fail, you will never do anything of value and that it is important to learn to fail faster. The recognition of that failure and its early value demonstrates a level of maturity in the thinking process of an undergraduate that reflects how vital learning opportunities such as the one presented to these students can be.

stem_cluster2-webBut learning about failure hasn’t been the only lesson for Klingbeil:

“Personally, my way of approaching problems has completely changed through this project. My default approach to a problem is what is the most efficient path to the most complete solution. When we proposed the solution that I felt met that goal, it ended up being rejected by the NGC panel. The interest in this project was most certainly in gaining a deeper understanding of drone technology, and what methods can be employed that maybe aren’t as obvious.”

The drone to be tested will be created by the team at the SMAP Center, including code written by computer programming engineers for maximum autonomy, and organization and test plans by industrial systems engineers, while the drone itself will be constructed by Horvath and Klingbeil, as mechanical engineers, who will 3D print the hard case and will assemble all physical components. The SMAP Center will offer not only 3D printing services, but also an enclosed area for testing and information regarding flight tech.and previously employed methods the center has used in related applications.

So it seems that no matter the solution developed by the team, the real goal here is deep, immersive, cross-disciplinary learning. And they’ve got that in spades. Discuss in the University of Alabama forum at 3DPB.com.

[Source: UAH]

 

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