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Northrop Grumman teams with UAH on student drone project

From military ops to package delivery, drones are popping up everywhere, and Alabama college students are at the forefront of developing even more ways to control, use and defend against them.

At the University of Alabama in Huntsville, a senior design class tackled a project for defense contractor Northrop Grumman Corp., which asked the students how they would take out an enemy drone without shooting it down. In other words, a cyber takedown.

This year’s project followed a similar one last year, in which the company wanted ideas on how to physically capture a drone. The team’s work included interactions with various engineering disciplines, presentations in front of company officials and live demonstrations of their proposed strategies.

UAH Northrop Grumman
A UAH senior design class explains their strategy for drone defense to Bob McCaleb, Northrop Grumman corporate lead executive, at Olin B. King Technology Hall on campus. From left are Daniel Bernues, Tevon Walker, Alyse Adams, William Klingbeil, McCaleb, Faith Buckley and Zack Horvath.

There are several reasons behind Northrop Grumman’s collaboration with UAH, said Mark Thornton, a program manager for the firm.

“We wanted to establish a relationship with the university, because it’s a big part of the community here in Huntsville,” he said. “A lot of UAH engineering students come to work at Northrop Grumman, and we wanted to give back to the university on one level, be involved on another level and get to see students and know them ahead of graduating.”

TARGETING DRONES

“A lot of times, there’s a misperception that universities are focused on basic research or on solutions that are years away.”



From a technology standpoint, Thornton said, UAH’s engineering activities are interesting to the company. In this project, students aimed to exploit programming vulnerabilities built into various drone types to disable them.

“We wanted to challenge the students to come up with innovative approaches, something different than physically capturing or shooting down the drones,” he said.

This type of electronic capture is important to the military because of the potential risk to nearby populations if drones are shot down.

“If you can jam it, confuse it electronically or disrupt the signals from the ground, a lot of these devices have the mode that if they are confused, they gently land somewhere,” Thornton said.

CHALLENGING STUDENTS

“We would like more talent, and it’s a lot easier to recruit from the local base than it is to recruit nationally.”



Dr. Phillip Farrington, professor of industrial and systems engineering at UAH, said the Northrop class project is similar to the type of work these students will soon face in the real world.

“Senior design is an opportunity for students to transition from student engineer to working engineer,” he said. “This gives them a chance to learn more about Northrop and to do a very realistic project similar to what Northrop is doing now.”

In his classes, Farrington said he’s always tried to focus on application-oriented research.

“A lot of times, there’s a misperception that universities are focused on basic research or on solutions that are years away,” he said. “And while we do that, there’s also a lot of focus on how you take that research and solve problems that need to be solved today.”

Thornton said that’s one of the benefits of Northrop Grumman’s participation in the project: Seeing the latest technologies, techniques and disciplines that are being taught in today’s university classrooms.

Another benefit is strengthening the pipeline of talent into the company’s job rolls.

“This is absolutely critical for us because we have needs all the time, holes on every program in town. We would like more talent, and it’s a lot easier to recruit from the local base than it is to recruit nationally,” he said.

Thornton, himself a UAH engineering graduate, said it’s been gratifying to be back in the setting that provided a solid foundation for his own career.

“The best thing that ever happened to me at UAH was to be involved in the senior design program,” he said. “We had to work as a team and compete against others, and that was a great microcosm for what we were going to see later.”

Northrop Grumman employs around 1,200 people in Alabama, and its base in Huntsville positions it to serve customers such as NASA, the U.S. Missile Defense Agency, and the U.S. Army Space and Missile Defense Agency.

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