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NSWC Crane student interns conduct unique payload applications research for autonomous unmanned sailboat drone

By Sarah K. Miller, NSWC Crane Corporate Communications | April 29, 2020

CRANE, Ind. – A team of Naval Surface Warfare Center, Crane Division (NSWC Crane) student interns from Indiana University – Purdue University, Indianapolis (IUPUI) conducted research to enhance communications of autonomous unmanned sailboats during the 2019-2020 academic year. This research was part of their Capstone Senior Design Project.

The technology used in unmanned and autonomous drones is rapidly evolving. People initially think of autonomous vehicles on land and flying drones in the sky, but unmanned and autonomous technology is also increasingly used at sea both commercially and for research. This team of students researched how sailboats are not entirely visible on open water through technology such as radar, which can pose as a safety concern.

Dr. Corey Bergsrud, an Engineer at NSWC Crane and project sponsor, says the team of students is learning an important area of technology.

“As more autonomous systems are populating the ocean, they need to be able to ‘see’ each other,” says Dr. Bergsrud. “They are studying electromagnetic technology, its elements, and its applications to these sailboats. Their approach to find ways to communicate involved making efficient use of the sail, which could create a large aperture and increase likelihood of being seen at sea.”

The student team included five IUPUI students. Their research is called “Active and Passive Sail for Improved Communication Networking at Sea.” Katie Pfeiffer, the student project lead, says sailboats and other small vessels are facing a communications challenge.

“Small vessels aren’t being seen at sea because sailboats don’t have or aren’t required to have the standard Automatic Identification System (AIS), which are only on industrial and commercial ships,” says Pfeiffer. “So the question was -- how do we communicate with them?”

Pfeiffer says the goal was to research a low-power, low-cost communications solution.

“On the passive side, we were looking into the reflectiveness of materials, chemicals, and massive radar cross section that could be simulated and modeled,” says Pfeiffer. “On the active side, we were looking at how to communicate with vessels. Sailboats don’t currently have easy ways to do that, which can pose as a threat to them at sea. It’s a security measure for people so larger ships aren’t crashing into the sailboats.”

Pfeiffer explains they researched various technologies to make the most use of the sail itself.

“We were looking for a flexible solution, and integrated technology that could be waterproof and fabricated into the sail,” says Pfeiffer. “We researched various radiation patterns and how radar picks up those patterns in order to send and receive signals.”

Dr. Bergsrud says he is excited about how much the team has progressed in their research.

“It’s a great feeling knowing where they started from to seeing them grow to where they are at today,” says Dr. Bergsrud. “I’m proud of how much they’ve accomplished and what they’ve learned. They’re advancing their skillsets, improving on the concept itself, and identifying gaps. All of these efforts can later be expanded upon with further research and development.”

This team of students were in either the Science Mathematics and Research for Transformation (SMART) Scholarship-for-Service internship or Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) Student Employment Program (SSEP) while students at IUPUI. The student team also included Michael Peterson, Lauren Vance, Austin Parkes, and Zachary Cochran.

“This has been a valuable engineering experience,” says Pfeiffer. “Many of us didn’t know how to use technology such as ANSYS and software defined radio programming, so we were diving in headfirst into learning. It’s been very important to get this basic research and engineering experience that typical college classes don’t provide.”

Dr. Bergsrud says their efforts on this project will benefit them when they start at NSWC Crane full time.

“This project has involved learning a wide variety of professional skills that will be directly applicable once they begin their careers full-time at Crane,” says Dr. Bergsrud. “They are becoming highly skilled in project management, applied research, modeling and simulation, and learning to collaborate with the subject matter experts at Crane, industry partners, and academic partners. They will be able to hit the ground running.”

Pfeiffer says the student research project provided valuable knowledge that can be applied to her future career at NSWC Crane.

“This project has allowed us to get a head start in hot tech topics relating to Crane’s mission areas, like the electromagnetic tech, radar, electronic warfare, and spectrum warfare,” says Pfeiffer. “We are able to get hands-on experience before we all start full-time, which is extremely valuable.”

About NSWC Crane

NSWC Crane is a naval laboratory and a field activity of Naval Sea Systems Command (NAVSEA) with mission areas in Expeditionary Warfare, Strategic Missions and Electronic Warfare. The warfare center is responsible for multi-domain, multi- spectral, full life cycle support of technologies and systems enhancing capability to today's Warfighter.

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