Cadet gains insight on unmanned aircraft

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West Point cadet John Delano may have spent his summer internship studying the high-flying missions of small unmanned aircraft systems, but his vision was more focused on ground operations.

Delano spent three weeks with engineers at the Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems Product Office to gather data that he will use in helping to develop the next generation Ground Control Station for the Puma and Raven.

The 21-year-old, Richmond, Va., native is a systems engineering major who is entering his senior year at West Point.

“Working in an actual business environment is a good learning experience,” Delano said. “And this business environment has taught me a lot because I really didn’t have any connection with unmanned aircraft systems until I came here. I was pretty unfamiliar with the systems.”

Yet, both are popular with Army troops. Raven and Puma UAS are both lightweight, man portable, hand-launched systems that provide aerial observation. The Raven, with a wingspan of 4.5 feet and a weight of 4.8 pounds, is designed for rapid deployment and high mobility, and is used for low-altitude reconnaissance, surveillance and target acquisition. The Puma, with a wingspan of 8.5 feet, features vertical descent for use in tight areas, and is capable of conducting intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance and target acquisition, battle damage assessment, maritime patrol, search and rescue, and drug interdiction missions over water or land.

Both systems rely on a Ground Control Station, which displays real-time videos and images captured by the payload cameras. It also replays videos for target evaluation, and can transfer videos and information to the operations network.

“The idea was to bring me in to take a fresh look and provide a new perspective of the ground control systems and how to improve them,” Delano said.

“This is an opportunity to use what I’ve learned in the classroom. I’ve also been learning from all these engineers, most of them are former Army pilots. I’ve learned about their experience in the Army and as Army aviators.”

Delano’s mission has been to design ways to reduce the cognitive load on the Ground Control Station so that the small UAS is easier to operate.

While at Redstone, Delano has been able to fly simulations of the Raven and Puma, spoken with pilots who regularly fly missions with unmanned aircraft systems, toured the small unmanned aircraft systems warehouse and worked in the SUAS software engineering lab at the Aviation and Missile Research Development and Engineering Center.

“I’ve had to familiarize myself with the system. I had to see how they fly it,” he said. “I’ve learned the technical aspects of the SUAS, and I’ve focused on the Ground Control Station and how it works.”

Providing a hands-on learning experience for West Point cadets benefits both the cadet and the organization where they are assigned, said Lt. Col. Nick Kioutas, product manager for Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems, Program Executive Office for Aviation.

“Cadet Delano understands the latest Army doctrine and tactics. He is helping us to develop the next generation Ground Control Station, which will utilize Android tablet technology to make the small unmanned aircraft systems easier to use and cheaper to operate,” Kioutas said.

“Additionally, he will take the task of further developing the GCS back to West Point where a team of cadets from other disciplines such as Human Factors Engineering, Psychology and Computer Science will help develop the solution.”

Delano’s continuing “on-campus” assignment makes his summer internship different from the experiences of other cadets. While most cadet interns take what they’ve learned back to the classroom to share with fellow cadets, Delano’s internship also involves a Capstone Project.

“My research, hopefully, will benefit the planning for future systems,” Delano said.

He will be taking a lot of technical information and power point presentations back to West Point. During the next school year, Delano will work with teachers and cadets in other disciplines to determine a better design for the Ground Control Station. He will then make a report and demonstrate the design in April.

“In a tactical environment, Soldiers have to stop and set up the system so they can fly it,” Delano said. “That can be counter-intuitive to what they want to do to carry out the mission. We want to make it so they don’t have to stop so long to launch the SUAS. We want to get it launched quicker.”

Kioutas said Delano’s Redstone experience opens up a world of opportunities for the cadet to make a difference in his Army career, and to learn and grow from being involved in teams dedicated to the Army mission and the Soldier.

“I hope he got to understand that the Army is a much larger enterprise than the Soldiers in operational units, and that the best enterprise is focused, with a whole host of dedicated Soldiers, and Army civilians and contractors providing our Soldiers with the best equipment and services possible,” he said.

An Eagle Scout and a three-season high school athlete who competed in cross country, indoor track and outdoor track, and other extracurricular activities, Delano knew that West Point would be a good fit for his career aspirations.

“My cousin went to West Point and played football there,” Delano said. “I went to a few games and decided that I would apply. But I only play West Point intramurals.

“Being at West Point is a lot of work. There are a lot of additional requirements beyond academics. You have to learn time management skills and self-discipline. It’s not easy, but it will pay off in the long run. It’s a challenging and rewarding experience that I’d recommend to anybody.”

This isn’t Delano’s first summer internship. He has also spent his summers between his West Point years touring World War II battlefields in Europe, undergoing troop leader training and attending Air Assault School. But this summer has put him closer to relatives. His grandparents live in Huntsville and an aunt lives in Birmingham.

When he graduates, Delano hopes to branch into transportation, to be either a truck or boat platoon leader. He is also interested in logistics and ordnance. But those aspirations could change based on this experience at Redstone.

“SUAS is an interesting program and I will definitely recommend that other cadets come here,” Delano said. “You get to utilize the engineering skills you’ve learned as well as familiarize yourself with a system you may be working on in your military career.

“Knowing how Army units utilize these systems may help me someday when I’m a company commander. I will know how to deploy and utilize these systems.”

Sharing the Redstone experience with cadets not only ensures better Army systems in the future but also creates more awareness of Redstone capabilities among the Army’s leadership, and strengthens the ties between the Soldier in the field and the engineers who are developing new equipment for them.

“The internship program lets young future leaders know what we do at Redstone,” Kioutas said. “The understanding of what goes on at Redstone will filter out to cadet Delano’s peers and get a whole generation of young officers interested in leading within the acquisition corps or logistics field.

“Cadet Delano’s understanding of the vast resources that support the Soldier on the battlefield improves the feedback loop from the field, which in turn helps improve the products and services that are sent to the field.”

Though his focus has been on system engineering for the SUAS, Delano also was exposed to the Army’s acquisition process while at Redstone. Eventually, later in his Army career, he may transfer into acquisition.

“The technology here is pretty neat,” Delano said. “But I’ve also learned about acquisition and working in an acquisition community. It’s more complicated than I thought to acquire and sustain an Army system. And there are a lot of acronyms, and especially acquisition acronyms, that I’ve learned.”

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