A black, 5-foot drone buzzed over The Quad on the University of Missouri-Kansas City campus Friday morning when officials announced that the school had won nearly $15 million in federal funding to research and develop counter-drone technologies.
The money is from the U.S. Department of Defense's Office of Naval Research. It came in the form of a four-year, $7.2 million fundamental research grant and a $7.7 million implementation contract to UMKC for researchers there and elsewhere in the University of Missouri System.
With the grants, the university is to use its academic resources to develop technologies to reduce national security threats from small, unmanned aerial vehicles like the one that hovered over the campus outside the UMKC School of Computing and Engineering.
This funding is the largest non-health federal research grant in the history of UMKC, which is the lead institution on the project, said Barbara Bichelmeyer, interim chancellor and provost.
About 25 UMKC faculty members, graduate students and undergraduate students will work the project along with a team of researchers from Missouri University of Science and Technology at Rolla and the University of Missouri at Columbia.
"UMKC has long been known for its strength in research in health sciences. Today recognizes that we are moving in a new space in safety and national defense," Bichelmeyer said.
Anthony Caruso, an assistant vice chancellor of research at UMKC and a professor of physics and electronic engineering, made the push for the grant. He had handled federal grant money for homeland security before.
He previously led a team of 20 faculty and students to create a portable nuclear radiation detector, which protects people from potential risks from radioactive materials. For that innovation, he and his team were awarded an R&D 100 Award by R&D Magazine, which features the latest technology, products and equipment used in laboratory research.
Now, Caruso said, he's eager to take on the national security threat posed by unmanned drones, which were once just an unintended airspace nuisance but have grown to demonstrate acts of terrorism.
"The counter-drone problem is considered a grand challenge — maybe even a wicked problem — begging for a comprehensive study of present- and future-art countermeasures," UM President Mun Choi said. "This program will address and improve on countermeasures, significantly impacting the defense enterprise for Missouri."
Caruso said part of the drone problem has to do with how inexpensive the crafts are to purchase and the ease with which they can be used. He said drone threats range from intelligence gathering to delivery of a weapon — toxic gas or worse.
They also pose a threat to commercial and military aircraft in that intentionally or unintentionally they could get caught in the air intake of a jet engine.
"A few-hundred dollar drone could destroy a billion-dollar stealth bomber," Caruso said.
While there are some counter-drone technologies on the market, Caruso said, they are pretty low powered. "There are no cost-effective protections from this potentially devastating threat..."
The solution the UMKC team is looking to develop will focus on advancing high-power microwave electronic countermeasure technologies.
Caruso said he hopes to have a demo of the technology by the end of the four-year grant period and in the following two years a full-scale model. He expects that within six years counter-drone technology developed at UMKC will be available to the public.
"Not only do we need to protect military installations but other high-value assets as well, like stadiums and airports."