Since March, the United States has been combatting a modern pandemic that has forced major organizations, like Naval Surface Warfare Center (NSWC), Carderock Division, to alter their work habits. Although the global health crisis has canceled many events around the world, the Technical Director’s (TD) Cup proceeded in a new, virtual format.
The TD Cup, which is a cross-Warfare Centers competition, aims to enhance workforce development for employees with less than five years of work experience in machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI). While the competition has been held in Panama City, Florida, since its inception in 2017, this year’s TD Cup was moved to local venues for each participating team in light of global health concerns.
Team Goose Busters represented Carderock at this year’s competition and featured employees from multiple departments across the command. Engineers Stephanie Blease, Alexandra Lechner, Isaac Downey and Mei Ling McAfee were selected to represent Carderock’s team, and were joined by their team mentor Benjamin Gordon. During Sept. 14-18, team Goose Busters performed trial runs of their unmanned ground vehicle (UGV) at Carderock’s Olney Support Center in Olney, Maryland.
The objective for this year’s TD Cup was to clear an amphibious landing path of Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) for Marines. Each team was responsible for modifying a base UGV platform and was tasked to utilize and customize software and hardware to accomplish the given mission. The IEDs, which were represented by backpacks with protruding wires, needed to be disarmed and the distractors, represented by cardboard boxes, moved a certain distance away from the assault lane.
“Our goal was to put together a semiautonomous UGV to navigate through a complex terrain,” Blease said. “In doing so, we had to implement different sensors, making sure it was able to identify targets and non-targets. In our case, targets are boxes or book bags with wires, and non-targets can be cones or other objects.”
Yet, before the team was ready to compete, there were major obstacles that needed to be addressed. One of them being the arrival of their robot.
“The lockdown affected when we received our robot,” McAfee said. “Our robot comes from a company, Clearpath Jackal, that is based in Canada and understandably, the manufacturing process was delayed because of the pandemic.”
In the spirit of comradery, NSWC Crane lent the team a spare robot in March that Goose Busters used until their own robot arrived at the end of July. This gesture was warmly received by the team, which kept them on schedule to deliver their experimental design.
Some of the unique ideas the team added to their robot included a five-axis robotic arm with wire-cutting capability; a small raspberry pi camera; a stereo camera; and a lidar system. Each piece of equipment played a critical role in the team’s navigation, classification and neutralization challenges.
Although the team only had a little over a month to incorporate their additions onto their robot before September’s competition, they undoubtedly managed to create an optimal machine.
“We tried to improve different components,” Downey said. “We placed a light bar on our robot to indicate what state the robot is running in: autonomous, manual or idle. There was a lot of fabrication work and cable work that was done, as well as CAD (computer-assisted design) modelling to determine the best place to put our sensors.”
One of the most difficult challenges the team faced was the departure of their teammate Alexandra Lechner.
“We started out as a team of four, but one of our team members left government employment for another job opportunity around the beginning of August,” Gordon said. “After her departure, the rest of the team had to pick up the pieces of the project she had been working on, which was mainly the object recognition and classification side of things.”
On Sept. 17, Goose Busters performed their competition run at Carderock’s Olney Support Center with Carderock’s Technical Director Larry Tarasek, who has been a key supporter throughout the year, in attendance.
Huddled together by a tent, Downey, McAfee and Blease operated their robot by using computer monitors and Bluetooth to communicate with it, and manually controlled their device by using a PlayStation 4 controller. With these functions in place, they were able to adjust speed levels and guide their robot through the hay-baled obstacle course.
Three judges assessed the team and their robot as it attempted to complete the mission. Each judge was assigned to evaluate a certain part of the trial run, which included obstacles hit, targets neutralized, manual control and time elapsed. Of the 15 targets – 13 of which were eligible for neutralization – the team managed to identify nine, neutralizing seven of them in the process.
Gordon, who managed all administrative components for the team with Marine Corps Vulnerability and Project Lead Rodney Peterson, said he appreciated the hard work of NSWC Panama City, who outlined obstacle course specifications and the scoring rubric for the competition. While Gordon handled the team’s expenditures, communication with other WCs and scheduling, he also served as technical support for the team.
“Although I wasn’t allowed to do any actual work myself, if the team had conceptual questions or needed some ideas on what direction they should be going, I was able to provide that guidance,” he said. “Since the competition was moved locally, I was responsible for setting up the course and organizing the judging. It was quite a unique experience, especially buying 200 bales of hay, but the experience was invaluable because I got to see the project from an organizational point of view rather than a technical one.”
The 2020 TD Cup was Carderock’s first involvement in the competition, and Tarasek is keen to continue participating at the event.
“I thought it was a great opportunity to create a team of Carderock engineers from across the command that could put together an unmanned capability and compete against some sister Warfare Center Divisions,” Tarasek said.
With the help of senior leadership, Tarasek was able to provide the command an opportunity for young engineers to meet other employees outside their code and gain some exposure to project management.
“Working with Rod Peterson and Steve Ouimette, we put a really good team together,” he said. “We have folks from across the command who, in some respects, have not worked together before, and now they are. This is the way we are going to innovate and collaborate in the future.”
While planning for next year’s competition has already begun, Goose Busters have set the standards for future Carderock teams. As Carderock’s TD said, “COVID hit, and it didn’t slow them down, kudos to all of their hard work.”