People Are the Future of Unmanned Systems
The U.S. Army is working to ensure the future of autonomous air platforms by reaching out to the emerging talent in the academic world. Earlier this year, soldiers signed a memorandum of understanding with the University of Alabama in Huntsville to engage students with work in this field as part of their education. The program aims to develop an innovative and prepared workforce in the future. Graduates not only will have had a more specific focus for their studies, but they also will be prepared better for the job market. Shaping studies now helps ensure that necessary skills are available to and even present in the Army later, according to officials from both the military branch and the institute of higher education.
Through the memorandum, the groups will share goals and ideas so students can work on technology while gaining critical skills. Lt. Col. Robb Walker, USA, director of external programs in the Army’s Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) Project Management Office, explains the approach is about talking to each other and explaining to the academics what the Army is pursuing.
The University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH) agreement is the most recent in a string of similar partnerships. The Army also has memorandums of understanding (MOUs) with Middle Tennessee State, Alabama A&M, Mississippi State, the University of Texas at Arlington Research Institute and Auburn University. Army officials do not seek out schools to participate; universities contact the project office to express their interest. “We sign these MOUs with these universities ... to further the education of future American engineers, scientists and other professionals who can promote development of the next generation of unmanned aircraft systems,” Col. Walker states. No personnel exchanges take place as part of the agreements, though the Army does host meetings with members of the universities, including one in February for the deans of the engineering departments of the various schools. Col. Walker explains that the Army does not direct them to do any specific work, but in these meetings defense personnel can explain what they are looking at for the future. Academics take that information back to their institutions and decide what they want to study from that list, if anything.
Army employees also talk to students at the universities, if invited, to encourage students and efforts. From there, universities decide how they want to promote the projects. Ideas put forth to the academics include both overseas and domestic operations. “UAS is a growing business,” Col. Walker says. “It’s changed the way we’ve fought wars. I think it’s only natural it’s going to change the way we operate here in the United States.”
The February meeting focused mainly on defense, but other discussions involve additional government agencies that explain their nonmilitary applications for unmanned platforms. “I think the future of UAS is kind of wide open,” the colonel shares. In addition to continued military use, potential other uses involve first responders, disaster relief and agriculture. Col. Walker believes that as the Army taps into the ideas of students, their creativity will broaden the perspective for such systems. However, he states that, from an Army project office perspective, “Our bottom line with MOUs is to benefit the warfighter.”
Just as the understandings feature an absence of personnel exchange, they also exclude money transfers. “We don’t fund them to do anything,” Col. Walker states. The focus is on a collaborative effort, similar to a working group. Students benefit by having real-world projects to put on their resumes, showing they actually worked on the UASs.
At the UAH, the Rotorcraft Systems Engineering and Simulation Center (RSESC) initiated the MOU with the Army’s UAS office. Sue O’Brien, the acting director of the center, says, “I felt it was crucial for UAH to have this partnership given the important role for UAS in protecting the warfighter today and in the future, and it falls in line with RSESC’s mission.” She explains that her organization’s expertise applies to the engineering design, analysis, fabrication, integration and flight testing of a wide variety of vehicles such as aircraft, rotorcraft, satellites and spacecraft.
The RSESC has a multidisciplined engineering staff that includes more than 35 engineering students to support research and test efforts. Work involves autonomous sensor technology, system design, operations, integration and simulation research. “The agreement is intended to further the education of future U.S. engineers, scientists and other professionals,” O’Brien explains. The Army’s UAS office and the UAH “will work together to explore opportunities under existing law to support the development of courses at the graduate and undergraduate level as well as research in the field of unmanned aircraft,” she adds.
The UAH faculty placed emphasis on giving students practical UAS experiences before entering into the official partnership with the Army. Work is underway on a variety of projects as diverse as researching micro unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and supporting foreign military sales. The school is investing internal funds to promote micro UAV work on campus.
Gary Maddux is the director of the largest center at the university, the Systems Management and Production Center. He explains that ongoing UAS research at the university as well as prior collaboration with the military helped lay the groundwork toward the formal agreement now in place. Maddux says the UAH wants students to gain skills that will make them legitimately marketable after completing their degrees. By giving them the opportunity to fly the vehicles and to understand concepts of flight, controls and payloads, the university helps them to meet the requirements of the UAS community. “In my opinion, that’s what a university is supposed to be doing, making sure when people walk out the door they have a job to walk into,” Maddux states. “Some professors and deans think they’re supposed to raise another generation of professors and deans.”
The UAH also has a program called Students Working at the Army in Parallel to give its students and those from nearby institutions on-the-job training within project offices with the intent that the Army would hire them as civilian employees once they graduate. If the Army does not hire them, they are still well-prepared to work within the defense community. Maddux says the program has a 75 percent success rate of transferring graduates into the defense industry. The other 25 percent generally further their education or work in government outside of defense.
Norven Goddard, a principal research scientist with the UAH Systems Management and Production Center, explains that encouraging more students to participate through different projects helps inspire more ideas. The same concept also has a broader range. As the university continues to work on the miniaturization of unmanned vehicles, it has tied its efforts into the hobbyist world, which is opening up new technologies. People who play with the platforms in a nonprofessional capacity are demanding better function and advancements. “Hobbyists are driving manufacturers to put out products, and that way you’ve got the masses involved,” Goddard says. “They’re coming up with new ideas.”
The UAH is applying the approach to its own facilities. Researchers are working with campus police to try some technology from the military and apply it to amateur-developed UAVs to see if they can resolve issues of safety.
Goddard explains that research into the UASs has pointed personnel in two directions in terms of autopilot systems. The first is to use what they can buy on the market, then customize with appropriate sensors. The second is to develop the autopilot systems themselves using an open source approach. Developers also are looking into swarm technology, because as the platforms become smaller they lose weight and power. Builders need to find ways to extend range, which can be accomplished through swarms. The work is not specific to the Army, but has application there. The MOU “institutionalizes our linkage to the Army,” Goddard states, adding that the universities also have chances to collaborate and share instead of remaining focused on their own pockets of research.
All this ties back into the main purpose: as students become familiar with these real-world technologies they become more qualified to work in the unmanned systems field, simultaneously reducing the need for employers to invest in more training for them. Goddard says he finds students multiprocess better than older generations. They also pick up on using and experimenting with the UASs quickly, because of their vast experiences with video games.
By harnessing those skills to direct them into useful programs, students are positioned to become productive immediately upon completing their studies. Goddard confirms Col. Walker’s emphasis that the MOUs are not about exchanging money or specific equipment, or about contracts for specific work. Rather, they are tools to help universities prepare their students to keep the UASs advancing for years to come.
Though six agreements already are in place, Col. Walker says the program is in its infancy, and the Army wants to expand it. Any school interested in learning more can send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Odeal Richardson, systems engineer, external programs, Army UAS Project Office, explains that experts have developed a list of capability gaps in the service’s UAS program. If interested parties email the above address, they can request a copy of that list even if no formal partnership results.