ECBC tests use of drones to de­tect bat­tle­field threats


Spe­cial from the U.S. Army

— The U.S. Army Edge­wood Chem­i­cal Bi­o­log­i­cal Cen­ter (ECBC) joined with tech­nol­ogy de­vel­op­ers from pri­vate in­dus­try and other Army and joint or­ga­ni­za­tions to test a new in­te­grated sys­tem of chem­i­cal and bi­o­log­i­cal agent sen­sors Aug. 15 through 26 at Dug­way Prov­ing Ground’s West Desert Test Cen­ter in Utah.

The test took place at a U.S. Army Test and Eval­u­a­tion Com­mand tech­nol­ogy demon­stra­tion called the SK Chal­lenge. ECBC’s team par­tic­i­pated af­ter nearly a year of prepa­ra­tion. Sci­en­tists and engi­neers from across ECBC worked to­gether to de­velop a un­manned aerial ve­hi­cle they call Deep Purple and mod­i­fied an un­manned ground ve­hi­cle known as the Mo­bile De­tec­tion As­sess­ment and Re­sponse Sys­tem, or MDARS, for the event.

These sys­tems op­er­ated as plat­forms for chem­i­cal and bi­o­log­i­cal sen­sors which were tested against a va­ri­ety of sim­u­lant agents to see if the sen­sors could cor­rectly iden­tify them. ECBC sci­en­tists and engi­neers mod­i­fied ex­ist­ing sen­sor pack­ages to fit in­side a ther­mosshaped con­tainer called the Ar­ray Con­fig­urable of Re­mote Net­work Sen­sors (ACORNS) that is af­fixed to the bot­tom of Deep Purple or is


mounted on the roof of MDARS. Those sen­sor pack­ages in­clude the Tac­ti­cal Bi­o­log­i­cal Gen­er­a­tion II De­tec­tor, called TACBIO, which rapidly de­tects the pres­ence of an air­borne bi­o­log­i­cal threat, and the Joint Chem­i­cal Agent De­tec­tor, which is an au­to­matic chem­i­cal war­fare agent de­tec­tor.

In many ways, Deep Purple was the star of the show for ECBC. It is a car­bon fiber quad copter drone made up of com­mer­cial offthe-shelf parts de­vel­oped in part­ner­ship with the Johns Hop­kins Physics Lab­o­ra­tory for the De­fense Threat Re­duc­tion Agency. It is unique be­cause it is ca­pa­ble of car­ry­ing a 5-pound pay­load of sen­sors.

ECBC’s Ad­vanced De­sign and Man­u­fac­tur­ing Branch used its 3D print­ing ca­pa­bil­ity to in­clude a num­ber of in­no­va­tions. They in­clude hol­low arms hold­ing the pro­pel­lers which house wires in­ter­nally. Also the team printed its air­frame us­ing printed cir­cuit boards rather than func­tion­ally in­ert car­bon fiber to al­low direct, real-time com­mu­ni­ca­tion be­tween the pay­load and the drone op­er­a­tor. The in­for­ma­tion pro­vided by the sen­sors can be passed to sol­diers in the field and com­mand and con­trol in real time from as far away as two miles.

The test­ing took place en­tirely at night in or­der to catch just the right desert wind ef­fects, which only oc­cur af­ter 11 p.m., and the team worked in­tently ev­ery night un­til 5 a.m. Upon each agent re­lease, the drone would lift straight up, green and red lights blink­ing, and head off into the desert night to in­ter­cept the agent sim­u­lant cloud. Like­wise, the un­manned ground ve­hi­cle trav­eled down dirt roads fol­low­ing the vec­tors pro­vided by a laser de­tec­tion sys­tem op­er­ated from a nearby trailer.

“We are tak­ing the op­por­tu­nity of the SK Chal­lenge to see how well Deep Purple, MDARS and the sen­sors op­er­ate as re­li­able and re­spon­sive chem­i­cal and bi­o­log­i­cal early warn­ing sen­sor tech­nolo­gies,” said ECBC team leader and prin­ci­pal in­ves­ti­ga­tor Alan Sa­muels. “We saw that the chem­i­cal sen­sors mounted on Deep Purple worked well at in­ter­cept­ing the cloud and iden­ti­fy­ing the sim­u­lants. How­ever, our bi­o­log­i­cal agent sen­sor, TACBIO, is too large for Deep Purple and only worked on MDARS. It needs to be minia­tur­ized for that pur­pose. The SK Chal­lenge proved its value to ECBC by re­veal­ing what our sys­tem does well and where it needs more work. We’ll come back next year hav­ing built upon what we learned this time.”

The an­nual SK Chal­lenge of­fers par­tic­i­pants a low-cost op­por­tu­nity to op­er­ate tech­nol­ogy they have un­der de­vel­op­ment in a col­lab­o­ra­tive en­vi­ron­ment, ac­cord­ing to Rus­sell Bartholomew, one of the event or­ga­niz­ers and a test of­fi­cer in ECBC’s newly es­tab­lished BioTest­ing Branch at Dug­way.

“It’s a cost-shar­ing event that at­tracts par­tic­i­pants from DoD or­ga­ni­za­tions, pri­vate in­dus­try, and in­ter­na­tional part­ners alike. They get to work to­gether us­ing their in­di­vid­ual tech­nolo­gies in con­cert, and the U.S. Army Test and Eval­u­a­tion Com­mand gets to see what tech­nolo­gies are out there and how far along they are in their de­vel­op­ment,” he said.

The abil­ity of ECBC’s sci­en­tists not only to re­motely direct these plat­forms, but to also col­lect the sen­sors’ in­com­ing data in a sin­gle in­for­ma­tion shar­ing sys­tem, was just as much a new cut­ting edge tech­nol­ogy as op­er­at­ing the au­ton­o­mous drones.

“This is a sys­tem of sys­tems, ev­ery part has to be able to com­mu­ni­cate with ev­ery other so it works as an in­te­grated sys­tem,” said Steven La­gan, a team mem­ber from ECBC’s Mod­el­ing, Sim­u­la­tion, and Anal­y­sis Branch. “We get data on the lo­ca­tion and move­ment of the sim­u­lant cloud from sta­tion­ary sen­sors, which we can then send to our sen­sor-mounted ve­hi­cles. The sen­sors then com­mu­ni­cate to us the iden­tity of the agent, which we share with all the other par­tic­i­pants, and if this were real, the chain of com­mand, through a com­mon op­er­at­ing lan­guage.”

Cre­at­ing a com­mon lan­guage that could be used by all the par­tic­i­pants and the sen­sors alike was a project of just as a great a mag­ni­tude as cre­at­ing and per­fect­ing the drones and un­manned ve­hi­cles.

“We’re work­ing with lots of dif­fer­ent com­po­nents from all over the coun­try, ev­ery com­po­nent is like its own project,” said Max Bot­tiger, a team mem­ber in ECBC’s Bat­tle­field In­for­ma­tion Branch. “We had to in­vent pieces of soft­ware code com­pat­i­ble with the Army’s com­mon op­er­at­ing lan­guage to make it all work to­gether. We wrote all the pro­grams from top to bot­tom as well as lat­er­ally.”

ECBC Di­rec­tor Joseph Cor­riveau came out from ECBC head­quar­ters at Aberdeen Prov­ing Ground, to see the tech­nol­ogy demon­stra­tion for him­self and was im­pressed.

“A di­verse set of pro­fes­sion­als work­ing to­gether made this hap­pen. Not only the bright­est peo­ple from pri­vate in­dus­try and other Army and joint or­ga­ni­za­tions, but sci­en­tists and engi­neers from many dif­fer­ent branches, di­vi­sions and di­rec­torates within ECBC,” he said. “There is a huge push from the Depart­ment of De­fense to get on the fore­front of this tech­nol­ogy. This shows that we are col­lab­o­rat­ing to po­si­tion our­selves well ahead of the rest of the world in chem­i­cal bi­o­log­i­cal de­fense.”

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