Kirtland team zaps drones at Commander's Challenge

Justin Simpson, a member of the Kirtland Air Force Base team, aims a signal-jamming device at an unmanned aerial system as judges and range personnel watch Dec. 12 during the 2016 Air Force Research Laboratory Commander's Challenge at the Nevada National Security Site near Las Vegas, Nevada. Teams were given six months to develop a complete system to aid in base defense. Kirtland's system is able to detect, identify and track unmanned aerial systems with the capability of engaging through signal jamming and capture using a net gun.

Justin Simpson, a member of the Kirtland Air Force Base team, aims a signal-jamming device at an unmanned aerial system as judges and range personnel watch Dec. 12 during the 2016 Air Force Research Laboratory Commander's Challenge at the Nevada National Security Site near Las Vegas, Nevada. Teams were given six months to develop a complete system to aid in base defense. Kirtland's system is able to detect, identify and track unmanned aerial systems with the capability of engaging through signal jamming and capture using a net gun.

KIRTLAND AIR FORCE BASE, N.M. -- Drones have long been a safety concern for the U.S. military, with great reason, as Islamic State militants are confirming.

According to several news sources from the Washington Post and the New York Times, the Islamic State has been using consumer-model drones to drop explosives on Iraqi forces.

How to combat the unique challenge of drones was the focus of last year’s Air Force Research Laboratory Commander’s Challenge.

The competition takes a look at issues facing the warfighter and invites teams to design systems that meet the challenge. The second aspect of the challenge is to give younger researchers the experience of working on a project from concept to finished material.

“It’s open to anyone with less than 10 years of federal employment or military service. There were even psychologists on teams, so it’s not just for engineers,” said Shawn Sennert, AFRL transportation manager.

He is an Army veteran, and his job was unmanned aerial vehicle manager. Sennert was part of the seven-person team to represent Kirtland Air Force Base for the competition.

The team was composed of people from across the base and included many Kirtland mission partners, along with their mentors. The challenge started in June and went through December, with the final competition Dec. 8-16 in Nevada.

“This year’s challenge was to detect, track and capture a UAV after deciding if it’s hostile or not,” said head mentor and Kirtland program manager John Holbrook.

The Kirtland team members approached the problem of detecting class 1 and 2 unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) with radar and then using a video tracking system to follow their movements.

“As mentors we often do the sanity check with the team as they present to us, making them think deeper and problem-solve,” Holbrook said.

Sandia National Laboratories had ranked commercial drones into classes.

A class 1 is relatively small, like a toy drone, weighs less than 4 pounds, flies under 300 feet and can handle a payload of less than 2 pounds. A class 2 system can weigh from 4 to 40 pounds, can fly up to 3,000 feet and handle a payload of up to 20 pounds.

To disable the UAS, the Kirtland team used a jamming device.

“Overall this was a great challenge with lots of support from Kirtland,” Sennert said.

He added one of the hardest parts of this year’s challenge was to get approval to fly a drone on base due to the safety concerns of being near an active runway and Air Force commercial drone policies.

In the challenge, six teams competed and represented several Air Force bases.

Holbrook said this is a change started two years ago. When the AFRL Commander’s Challenge started, it was a Kirtland team versus a Wright-Patterson AFB team, and members were placed on temporary duty to either location for the competition.

Kirtland’s team did not win this year, but has won past Commander’s Challenges.