JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO-LACKLAND, Texas —
An upstart team of cyber and drone specialists emerged victorious at the 2016 Commander’s Challenge held this past December in Las Vegas, Nev., taking down every single drone thrown at their unique defense system.
Team SmartHawk, based out of Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland’s Cryptologic and Cyber Systems Division, was one of six teams competing at the Commander’s Challenge, an annual Air Force-wide competition focused on finding solutions for varying, real-world threats the military faces each year.
The competition concentrated on countering the surging threat of hostile drones flying over friendly bases, said Jerome Ramirez, CCSD Engineer.
Even though Team SmartHawk officially tied for first place with the event host, the Air Force Research Lab at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, Ramirez doesn’t intend to cede to the Vegas rule of giving the tie to the house.
“We might have tied, but we’re considering it as a win anyway,” Ramirez laughed. “We poured a lot of time and manpower into this event.”
Team SmartHawk’s top finish was especially sweet for Ramirez’s team, who were the first-ever base team admitted to the competition without an AFRL, and were considered an underdog at the contest.
“It’s a lot of bragging rights for us,” Ramirez explained. “But, it’s also … good to see the other bases recognizing all the cool units we have that are attached to Lackland. This win opens the door for other teams out there without AFRLs that can now think about competing and contributing to initiatives like these.”
The challenge was held at an undisclosed location just outside of Las Vegas. In the Nevada desert all six teams launched a full-scale demonstration of their unique counter-drone systems for judges who tasked the competitors with navigating through 10 scenarios of varying difficulty.
Each team spent the better part of a calendar year developing a complex series of digital, radar and operational devices meant to locate and apprehend hostile drone devices. The teams had to face down a series of multi-rotor copters, fixed-wing drones, and other smaller devices, all at multiple elevation and approach vectors. Some scenarios involved a single drone cruising in at a low level, while others involved multiple bogeys, with one being a loitering decoy and the other being a more serious threat.
Team SmartHawk went 10-for-10 in all challenges, said Staff Sgt. Mike Ingold, CCSD technical applications production supervisor. Ingold team’s focused on shutting down the communications, navigational and operational systems and all digital aspects of the drones, rather than focusing on purely physical confrontation.
“We worked hard to have a comprehensive, sustainable system,” Ingold said. “We were also lucky enough to make sure we tested all of our tech here at JBSA-Lackland before the challenge.”
As well-prepared for the challenge as Team SmartHawk was, the group still faced a bit of uncertainty in the contest.
“There was always going to be a bit of stress come game time as to whether everything was going to work, but everything went fantastic,” Ingold explained. “To spend months buried in this thing, to have it not work would have been a huge disappointment – but it was great to see everything working in the real-world.”
That success came as no surprise for members of Team SmartHawk, which went into the contest with a take-no-prisoners mindset.
“Our take was to escalate all scenarios with any device in our ‘kill zone’ straight to ‘taking them out’ mode,” Ramirez explained. “We didn’t play any guessing games here – if anything got within 1000 feet, we took it down.”
For Team SmartHawk, news about what happened in at the contest isn’t staying in Vegas.
“All of our higher-ups are extremely impressed and excited about what’s to come,” explained Ramirez, who had spoken with Air Force Maj. Gen. Robert McMurry Jr., Air Force Research Laboratory commander, about JBSA-Lackland’s potential as a research hub. “This opens up doors, it opens up eyes and it starts conversations about our future here at JBSA-Lackland.”
This kind of Air Force-level head-turning could potentially mean more funding for CCSD, or even place JBSA-Lackland on the short list to receive an AFRL in the future, Ramirez added. While that sort of investment is purely speculation at this point, Team SmartHawk is content to hang their hats on the practical contribution they’ve made to Air Force drone-response strategy.
AFRL across the Air Force will save the most effective technology from the contest, potentially start prototypes and keep testing these new systems. Eventually, the Air Force will consider incorporating these systems into base defense operations at home and abroad.
With the Air Force’s budget for counter-drone capabilities expected to continue growing, according to U.S. Department of Defense projections, contributions like Team SmartHawk’s tech will prove indispensible in keeping the Air Force one step ahead of these future drone threats.
“This could potentially save lives,” Ramirez said. “These drone initiatives that the Air Force is mounting – they are a race to the finish line, and we intend to get there as fast as possible.”