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Chemical Weapons

Army Explores Use of Unmanned Vehicles to Detect Chem-Bio Threats

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ECBC SK Challenge

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. 15-26 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.

For the event, scientists and engineers from across ECBC worked together to develop an unmanned aerial vehicle they call Deep Purple, a carbon fiber quad copter drone made up of commercial off-the-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 five-pound payload of sensors.

3D printing was used to incorporate a number of innovations into Deep Purple, including hollow arms holding the propellers which house wires internally, and printed circuit boards for the airframe rather than functionally inert carbon fiber to allow direct, real-time communication between the payload and the drone operator.

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.

SK Challenge at Dugway Proving Ground

An interdisciplinary team of ECBC scientists and engineers receives data on a simulated chemical agent release and directs unmanned aerial and ground vehicles carrying sensors to intercept and identify it at the SK Challenge at Dugway Proving Ground. Credit: ECBC

ECBC additionally tested a modified unmanned ground vehicle known as the Mobile Detection Assessment and Response System, or MDARS, for the event.

“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, Ph.D. “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 Bio-Testing 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.”

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.”