HUNTSVILLE, Ala. - Drones are increasing in popularity, and many in the Tennessee Valley may own them.
But defense technology company Northrop Grumman is doing research about how to down enemy drones, if they're being used for something sinister. They challenged UAH seniors to figure out how to take down a drone without actually shooting it down, or using a method that involves contact.
The UAH group, while partnering with Northrop on the project, came up with a way to exploit the programming vulnerabilities built into many types of drones to attempt to overtake them. They use radio signals and even wifi to attempt to confuse the drones, and either regain control of them or force them to land.
"We're sending different code signals, packets of information, to try to confuse it," explained senior and project manager William Klingbeil. "We tell it that its controller is not giving it the right information, and kick in its fail-safe mode which is to automatically land, in most cases."
Klingbeil said the group has successfully landed a drone a few times, and Tuesday they took it outside for the first time. It's important to test it in an outdoor environment, where there are more opportunities for interference and more of a real-world scenario, he explained.
The group has been developing its approaches to the various drones since August, and will present it in April in a competition-style evaluation.
"They'll get points the further away they intercept the drone," commented lead instructor Dr. Phil Farrington.
But this project will take students further than just the field, where they'll soon begin testing their project off-campus with appropriate permissions. They have been using the UAH SMAP (Systems Management and Production) center resources and test site so far.
"This class is really meant to take them from being student engineers to being working engineers, so by having them do their reviews in front of Northrop in a realistic environment, they walk out better prepared," said Farrington.
Northrop Grumman even provides mentors to the students, who meet with them often. Some of these students may even see job offers, after getting an inside look at how Northrop attacks these kinds of problems and seeks solutions.
This all focuses on something that's an actual real-world problem that Northrop Grumman is working on with its own teams.
"We are very interested in seeing what the students come up with," said Mark Thornton, a Northrop Grumman program manager. "Our idea is to protect people, government installations... We're just glad to be here, glad to be working with UAH. It's not only a good thing to do, but it's a fun thing to do. These students are great."
University leaders said this project is much bigger than it sounds, tying multiple university departments and offices together in cooperation.