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News > Hanscom engineers bring innovation to AFMC Commander’s Challenge
2010 AFMC Commander's Challenge
TWENTYNINE PALMS, Calif. – The team from Wright-Patterson Air Force Base ensure their system, DRAGN, is working properly before the final demonstration at the 2012 AFMC Commander’s Challenge Sept. 8. During the competition, two teams design, develop and demonstrate a solution to an urgent warfighter need. (Courtesy photo)
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Hanscom engineers bring innovation to AFMC Commander’s Challenge

Posted 11/7/2012   Updated 11/7/2012 Email story   Print story


by Tech. Sgt. Jennifer Foster
66th Air Base Group Public Affairs

11/7/2012 - HANSCOM AIR FORCE BASE, Mass. -- Two Hanscom engineers were among 12 junior Air Force Materiel Command personnel chosen to participate in the 2012 AFMC Commander's Challenge, a two-team competition where each team designs, develops and demonstrates a solution to an urgent warfighter need.

Each team is given $75,000 and six months to solve a real world problem by rapidly developing, testing and demonstrating an innovative and cost effective solution. This year's challenge took place from April 4 through Sept. 26.

More than 40 people applied to join one of the two teams based out of Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, and Eglin Air Force Base, Fla. Each team was geographically separated to encourage diverse thinking. Adam Tuxbury, concept of operations and innovation lead and 1st Lt. Joshua Thomas, team and command and control lead, were both selected from Hanscom to participate in the competition with the Wright-Patterson team.

The challenge was to detect and track small, slow and low flying aircraft in an urban environment. Systems already used to detect manned aircrafts or larger remotely piloted aircraft usually involve radar and cannot be used with the surrounding buildings of an urban environment. The answer to this problem would help in security both overseas and domestically.

"Our team solved this problem by first figuring out what an urban environment entails and then exploiting its resources and working around its obstacles." said Thomas.

While Eglin chose to use a bird tracking radar to track RPAs above the buildings and a multiple microphone array for detection, Wright-Patterson used an Android smartphone application, traffic and security cameras and an array of single microphones and for detection and tracking, according to Thomas.

"I found it interesting that while we were separate and did not have any communication between the teams, both came up with similar solutions," said Thomas. "Both teams used optical tracking and acoustic detection."

Tuxbury's role on the team involved ensuring the system and subsystems would function properly in the real world and the technologies would complement each other. He was excited to be part of the challenge that gives junior engineers an opportunity to develop something from the ground up.

"There is a wide age gap in the workforce and an increasing desire to change the way the Air Force does business to make it more agile and effective with fewer resources," Tuxbury said. "Both of these issues bear heavily on the junior workforce, who will be expected to take on responsibilities of a large group of retiring engineers and acquisition professionals, while at the same time answering that call to do things differently."

For Thomas, his role included keeping the project on schedule and budget, as well as developing the Command and Control system, which was the critical link between each of their subsystems. The C2 system integrated the android, optical and acoustic subsystems into one central location to give the commander a situational awareness of his Area of Responsibility and central, intuitive control over the system.

Although both teams came up with innovative solutions, in the end, Team Wright-Patterson won with their system, DRAGN, which stands for the Distributed Responsive Array of Ground Networked sensors.

"We showed that our system excelled at detection in the crucial region below rooftop level, where no other system that we are aware of is able to track effectively," said Thomas. "We think it was this aspect of our system that won the competition for Team Wright-Patt."

For Tuxbury, the seconds just before and after the winner was announced was the most exciting moment of the challenge, while entering the demonstration site for the first time came in a very close second.

"During demonstration, the competition was really heating up and we had to overcome some Wi-Fi connection issues," said Tuxbury. "The solution to this was to literally run around this city in the desert, up and down mock fire escapes and buildings with multiple cell phones and bottles of water, searching for the best signal possible in order to show the judges the best data possible. Even though it was only a demonstration in a mock city, it was in a physiological sense more 'real' than anything I've done working for the Air Force."

Tuxbury added the experience showed him the direct influence he has over the results in a program and that creativity, hard work and responsibility are not dead.

"I hope to carry the Commander's Challenge momentum back to my acquisitions job to change the way my programs do business and breathe innovation and urgency into what I do," he said.

Thomas learned that it is possible to complete the acquisition process in a compressed timescale and with a small budget.

"The most exciting moment during the challenge was seeing our full system work during our test," he said. "We had spent six months of hard work developing a very complex system and it came down to the final demonstration. Seeing the judges' faces as they were looking at our system detect and track the RPAs as it entered the AOR made the hard work worthwhile."

Thomas added that he highly recommends the program and any junior engineer, whether military or civilian, should take the time to engineer a solution to a real world problem.

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