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Young Commander’s Challenge team develops multi-layered drone defense

  • Published
  • By Benjamin Newell
  • 66th Air Base Group Public Affairs

HANSCOM AIR FORCE BASE, Mass. -- Junior engineers and program managers here designed a developmental layered base defense system capable of warding off or destroying suspicious unmanned aerial vehicles as part of the Air Force Research Laboratory 2016 Commander’s Challenge.

A team of six Hanscom Airmen and one team member from AFRL, Rome, New York, competed against teams from six other bases to develop a system that could potentially defend installations from small, cheap and proliferating UAVs. The program kicked off in June 2016 with all teams reporting to Wright-Patterson AFB, Ohio, for a mission briefing. The competition concluded with a fly-off on the 2.9-million-acre Nevada Test and Training Range in December 2016.

Capt. Christopher Giacomo, program manager with Air Force Life Cycle Management Center-Hanscom’s Force Protection Division, led the team. Giacomo and his team focused on defending against drone incursion, following AFRL guidelines requiring Airmen with less than 10 years’ experience to complete a project in six months with less than $50,000 in funding.   

“Cost, schedule and performance are the biggest things for a PM,” said Jennifer Pomphrett, program manager with AFLCMC-Hanscom’s Cyber Sustainment Division. “Here, I used more decision-making skills that helped keep us on track, kind of like program managers on weapons systems we work on here at Hanscom.”

AFRL sponsors the annual Commander's Challenge, asking teams of engineers and other balanced specialties to design, develop and demonstrate a proposed solution to warfighter needs, within tight time and budget constraints.

The Department of Defense has recognized off-the-shelf aircraft capable of directed and independent flight as potential security threats. The Defense Advanced Research Project Agency, the Air Force and other agencies have sought solutions to the threat posed by small drones.

The team assessed common threats and created a layered defense system, which used RF scanners, cameras and radar to detect those threats. With the team’s proposed solution, security forces might be able to use the command and control system to activate jammers capable of freezing or disabling aircraft, without kinetic effects. The team also designed a 4-foot diameter, 2-foot tall, hex-rotor UAV outfitted with a customized magazine-fed paintball gun capable of firing shells loaded with nets. The paintball gun is manually aimed with a head-tracking display, and the nets deploy mid-flight, carrying the potential to entangle and disable the plastic rotors on most small drones.

The team demonstrated its capabilities to detect and defeat a number of threats at the fly-off. It did not bring home the trophy, but the team said it learned valuable lessons about working in small teams and rapid development.

“We came in on time and under budget,” said Hanna Timberlake, test engineer at Hanscom’s Space Fence program office. “That was very important for us. We used a spiral development plan, starting with something small that worked, and kept building and building, so that we would be sure to have something that worked, even if we ran out of time or money.”

The team also demonstrated aspects of its prototype at the 2017 Hanscom Innovation Event, April 26-27, showing Hanscom acquisition experts how a small, in-house team could advance capabilities without breaking the bank.

Giacomo, Pomphrett, and Timberlake worked with Emily Coppin, program manager with AFLCMC-Hanscom’s Battle Management Intelligence Branch; 1st Lt. Justin Kellett, systems engineer with AFLCMC-Hanscom’s Electronic Systems Development Division; Derek Stanley, systems engineer with AFLCMC-Hanscom’s Force Protection Division; and Paul Sikora, an engineer at the Rome facility.

Hanscom plans to field a team for this year’s challenge. Interested Airmen with less than 10 years’ experience in engineering and systems design should contact Patrick Hart. The 2017 AFRL challenge asks competitors to invent a device capable of autonomously or manually resupplying deployed special operations forces, without placing pilots in danger.