By Brandon OConnorOctober 24, 2019
During their four years at the U.S. Military Academy, cadets prepare to lead Soldiers in combat.
Through their courses and military training cadets, learn to be leaders of character who are ready to become platoon leaders upon graduation from the academy. Those same courses, along with research projects, enable cadets to have the ability to develop ways to keep themselves and the Soldiers they will lead safer while in combat.
Hunched over laptops in a lab in Mahan Hall, four cadets in the Mechanical Engineering department are working to make sure their future Soldiers have the resources needed to be safe while out in the field.
Class of 2020 Cadets Ruth Talbott, Davonte Carter Vault, Weikang Soon and Johnathan Willis have taken on the department's Autonomous Drone Delivery from Airdrop System as their capstone project, which each West Point cadet is required to complete during his or her firstie (senior) year.
The ADDAS project is sponsored by the Combat Capabilities Development Command Soldier Center and is in its third year with new cadets taking it on each year as a capstone.
Andrew Kopeikin, an assistant professor in the Civil and Mechanical Engineering department and co-advisor for the ADDAS project, described it as an "Amazon Prime for the Soldier out in the field" who needs small items such as batteries, ammo or medical supplies to be precisely delivered to his or her location.
Currently, supplies are delivered to Soldiers in the field using Joint Precision Airdrop Systems. JPADS are automated parachutes that can deliver cargo crates to a location after being dropped from an airplane.
The current system can deliver supplies to a location within 75 meters of the intended target, Kopeikin said, which created the need for a more precise system for Soldiers operating in areas where covering that distance isn't feasible.
"If you're in an urban setting for instance or a mountainous scenario, plus or minus 75 meters may not be accurate enough for you to actually get the cargo that you want to the person of interest," Kopeikin said.
To solve the problem, the CCDC Soldier Center enlisted the help of West Point cadets. The idea was to design a system to deploy drones from the JPADS crates that could then deliver supplies more accurately to Soldiers in need.
During the first year of the project, cadets worked to prove the concept that drones could even been deployed from JPADS. The cadets designed a deployment system and quad rotor drones that could autonomously deliver supplies. Whereas the JPADS could only get supplies within 75 meters or so, by using the drones, supplies could now be delivered to within a few meters of the target. By pairing the two devices together the range and area where supplies can be delivered is increased along with the ability to be precise.
After proving that the concept was possible, for the second year of the project the cadets worked to improve upon the autonomous capabilities of the drone and remove any human interaction from the process.
"Last year, we actually demonstrated that we can navigate the vehicle to a precision point, have it descend and right before it hit the ground drop that payload of whatever it is to the Soldier and then the UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle) will fly away to a different location," Kopeikin said.
This year, the project enters its third year and the current group of cadets are building upon the work of the last two years, while at the same time moving the project in a new direction. For the first two years, the project used quad rotor drones, which have the advantage of being able to travel to a precise location but are disadvantaged by their limited range and battery life.
The project this year is focused on developing a JPADS deployment system for fixed-wing drones, which could then be used for surveillance and intelligence missions in areas that have been impossible to reach in the past, Kopeikin said.
The idea is that in areas such as Africa where missions may take place far away from bases where assets would typically be launched, the JPADS could be used to deliver drones to autonomously take flight and perform reconnaissance.
"A couple of years ago, there was a team of four Soldiers who died because they didn't have the reconnaissance assets and they didn't know the enemy was in the area even though they requested it," Talbott, who is the project manager this year, said. "It just wasn't possible. We're taking this similar aerial deployment of drones and instead of doing aerial resupply missions with quad copters, we're handling another proof of concept of aerially deploying fixed wings for reconnaissance missions."
The first semester of the project will be used to design a drone system that meets the needs of the project and also redesign the current JPADS deployment system to work with a fixed-wing aircraft, which has to be launched differently than a quad rotor.
"Although we can drop the drone from far away and we can make it as big as we want, when it gets to the ground the Soldiers who are there are going to have to be able to pick it up, recover it and carry it around," Carter Vault said. "We're trying to find a small enough form factor that can provide a stable platform while fitting within the confines we've been provided."
Their current goal is about a 40-inch wingspan, Talbott said.
The second half of the project will require them to build both the drone and deployment system before performing a proof of concept test in Arizona in the spring.
The technology that has been developed through the first two years of the project was recently put on display at the Association of the United States Army annual meeting in Washington D.C. where Talbott was able to present the work that has been done so far.
"I got to meet a lot of awesome people," Talbott said. "I got to get experience explaining the project to two different experience levels, but also getting ideas from people who have a lot of expertise in different levels of either drones or programming."
Working on the project has required the team to learn more about flight systems as they program the drone to work autonomously, aerodynamics to enable to drone to take flight from the JPADS and provides a culmination of their mechanical engineering curriculum.
"It's important because Soldiers lost their lives because they didn't have something like this," Talbott said. "We're trying to figure out a way where we can prevent a tragedy like that from happening again, because it's not like there aren't reconnaissance assets out there, it's just that they weren't able to employ them for the people that needed them."