UWF students developing military working dog technology
PENSACOLA — Half a world away from the University of West Florida campus, Islamic State terrorist leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was killed in a raid staged by the U.S. military in Syria.
Soon after, the world learned that Conan, a military working dog, played a central role in neutralizing al-Baghdadi, news that was particularly relevant to three UWF students.
Throughout the summer, the three students worked on a camera system designed to improve the link between military dogs and their handlers, so that handlers can know what their dogs are doing when out of sight.
The three young men are working on the project for a military unit headquartered in Northwest Florida — it can’t be named due to security considerations — as part of a Department of Defense initiative to get young minds working on military and intelligence community challenges.
”It was very interesting, at least for me, to see the use of military working dogs in that situation,“ said Ty Faist, a sophomore majoring in international studies, regarding the death of al-Baghdadi. ”It’s not something that you hear about very often. It’s usually something that’s behind the spotlight.“
Faist, 23, along with Trey Hillard, 29, a senior majoring in computer science who spent eight years in the military, and the recently graduated Quinton Fallon, 21, who earned a degree in cybersecurity, spent the summer working with the local military unit as part of a nontraditional college course called “Innovative Solutions for Industry.”
The course is UWF’s means of participating in Hacking For Defense (H4D), a U.S. Department of Defense initiative that teaches students to work with the nation’s defense and intelligence communities to rapidly address emerging threats and security challenges.
“As part of Hacking For Defense, you’re paired up with sponsors from different government agencies or entities,” Faist said. “They will give you a mission statement, basically saying, ’This is something that isn’t quite right for us, or this is something we’re having an issue with.’ Your job is to go out and figure out how to solve that issue through a series of interviews with people connected to the problem, and attempting to develop, if you can, a potential solution to it.“
The program is a natural fit for this area, given the prominent presence of the military, said Donovan Chau, the UWF professor who also serves as the school’s director of research engagement. Chau, who brought H4D to campus a little more than two years ago, also serves in the Navy Reserve.
“It’s not your traditional course,” Chau said. Students are recruited from across a wide variety of academic disciplines and recently have come from political science, computer science, journalism and art.“
“The idea behind the course,” Chau explained, “is taking a startup technology company kind of methodology ... and applying it to real-world problems.”
As such, there are only an handful of lectures. For the rest of the time — and the time spent is considerable, according to Faist and Hillard — student teams meet with the group that posed the problem and with other groups that might have a similar issue, to develop an approach for addressing it.
“It’s lots of work for the students,” Chau said. “That’s one of the reasons we offer it in the summer, because it’s just above and beyond what any normal class would be.”
In addition to their detailed discussions with the local military unit, the three UWF students developing what they’re calling the Guided Fur Missile Tactical Camera System, spoke with police departments and sheriff’s offices in Florida, Alabama and Louisiana and also with a couple of search and rescue organizations.
They’re still in the prototyping stage — in fact, the trio have formed a business, TQT Industries, to see the idea through to full fruition — but what they are working toward is an extreme-low-light and infrared-sensitive camera that delivers a continuous video feed to a mobile device used by the dog’s handler from as far as hundreds of yards away.
Once that’s buttoned up, the team plans to explore further development of the system to let the dog and its handler interact over the digital link.
Even though the course is over, the team and its new business have applied for some government funding to continue their work. In the meantime, according to Chau, the university has decided to provide some seed funding.
“There’s quite a bit of opportunity coming up for this team,” Chau said. The military unit and the law enforcement teams with which the team has met are very much interested in the Guided Fur Missile.
“We’ve already been told they’re ready to go ahead and purchase and start testing,” Chau said.
According to Hillard, “Local law enforcement, SWAT and EOD (Explosive Ordnance Disposal) units are really interested in this capability, because it gives them eyes inside a building so they don’t have to be in it.” And, Hillard added, “the enhanced situational awareness of what exactly the dog is either looking for, or looking at, provides the handler with a lot more information.”
“To me,” Chau said, “this shows that the real innovators are the students. They’re the ones that are young and think very differently than the faculty members. There are really no bounds to what these students can do once you give them ... the opportunities to work on real-world problems.”
Overall, Chau said, the goal is for UWF to become a go-to institution for area military installations, which are becoming aware of H4D.
“They’re slowly learning that we have this program and we would love to have the opportunity to speak with anyone who would be interested in working with us,” Chau said.
“We have talented students here,” Chau added. “Many of them already have military affiliation. They’re either military dependents or spouses, or they are veterans or reservists and the like. A lot of them want to give back to the country, even though they’re no longer putting on the uniform. ... It’s helpful that they understand what it’s like to be in the military. That’s one of the distinguishing characteristics of our student body.“