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  • Largest Non-Health Research Funding

    Department of Defense awards $14.9 million to develop counter-drone technologies
    The U.S. Department of Defense’s Office of Naval Research has awarded a $7.2 million grant and a $7.7 million contract to the University of Missouri-Kansas City to develop technologies to reduce national security threats from small, unmanned aerial vehicles, more commonly called drones. Drones were flown in the UMKC quad during an event announcing the research funding. These are the largest non-health research awards received at UMKC. The team of investigators also includes researchers from Missouri University of Science and Technology and the University of Missouri. The grant was announced at the UMKC School of Computing and Engineering. Speakers were Barbara A. Bichelmeyer, interim chancellor and provost; Mun Y. Choi, president of the University of Missouri System; Missouri Rep. Gail McCann Beatty, House Minority Leader; and Anthony Caruso, UMKC assistant vice chancellor of research, physics and electronic engineering professor and principal investigator on the grant. UMKC Chancellor-Designate Mauli Agrawal attended the event. Travis Fields, left, assistant professor of engineering and UMKC’s drone guru, pilots a drone while Caruso and Mun Choi, UM System president, check it out. Drones are commercially available to the general public and present an increasing threat. Once viewed simply as an unintended airspace nuisance, drones have demonstrated acts of terrorism that have increased in recent years. Drone threats range from intelligence gathering, to delivery of a weaponized payload, to being caught in the air intake of a jet engine. The threat from drones, whether intentional or unintentional, is disproportionate in cost and complexity compared to the damage they can cause. For example, a few-hundred-dollar drone could destroy a billion-dollar stealth bomber. Currently, no cost-effective protection from this potentially devastating threat exists. “A prominent threat example is the low cost and ease of automation for deploying drones to collect video data or the transport of an unwanted material to a location five miles or greater from their launch point.”—Tony Caruso, lead investigator on the grant The four-year grant award will focus on advancing high-power microwave electronic countermeasure technologies. In addition to Caruso, the faculty team includes Plamen Doynov and Paul Rulis of the UMKC College of Arts and Sciences; Deb Chatterjee, Travis Fields, Ahmed Hassan and Faisal Khan of the UMKC School of Computing and Engineering; Daryl Beetner and Victor Kilkevich of Missouri S&T Electrical and Computer Engineering and Scott Kovaleski of MU Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. The grant also will fund 10 new Ph.D. students, and provide positions for 12 new undergraduate researchers. UMKC School of Computing and Engineering features a drone lab with drones of all shapes and sizes. The goal of the efforts is to evaluate and demonstrate the capability of the counter-technologies developed through the grant award.  “These awards demonstrate the value UMKC research brings to our community and our state, in terms of stimulating our economy, showcasing our region’s scientific and technological leadership and safeguarding our citizens.” —Barbara A. Bichelmeyer, UMKC interim chancellor and provost This UMKC-led effort with Missouri S&T and MU also includes team members from the Kansas City National Security Campus; Radiation Detection Technologies in Manhattan, Kansas; BAE Systems in Nashua, New Hampshire and Austin, Texas; Eagle Harbor Technologies in Seattle, Washington; Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in Livermore, California; Metamagnetics in Westborough, Massachusetts; Scientific Applications & Research Associates in Colorado Springs, Colorado; the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, D.C.; Naval Air Warfare Center Weapons Division, China Lake, California; and, the Naval Surface Warfare Center Dahlgren Division in Dahlgren,Virginia.  “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. This program will address and improve on countermeasures, significantly impacting the defense enterprise for Missouri.”— Mun Y. Choi, president of the University of Missouri System   In previous awards from the Office of Naval Research, Caruso led a team of 20 faculty and students to create a portable nuclear radiation detector, taking the product from concept through prototype to production. R & D Magazine awarded the team an R & D 100 Award, the “Oscar of Invention,” for the detector, which improves homeland security by protecting people from potential risks from radioactive materials. The team included investigators from the University of Missouri and Kansas State University. The Caruso group is also working on countermeasures for high-power microwaves under the Office of Naval Research, Counter Directed Energy Weapons program. To learn more about the increasing threat of drones, read this Q & A with Tony Caruso. Mar 02, 2018

  • Operation: Air Supply

    Researcher designs covert and cost-effective parachute drops
    When dropping supplies for military operations, every second and every detail matter — details like cost and accuracy. But it’s these details that have proven to be extremely difficult to overcome, especially when it comes to the precision of the drops. Even a gust of wind can have catastrophic results that directly affect the safety and security of troops stationed abroad. This is an intense situation with serious consequences, and it’s one Travis Fields, Ph.D., assistant professor at the UMKC School of Computing and Engineering is surprised to find himself exploring often. “During my graduate work, I definitely did not imagine all the ways the work I was doing could be translated and applied,” says Fields, whose research focuses on the applications of drone technology. His work is certainly sought after and has garnered interest from several high-profile government agencies, including the U.S. Army Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center (NSRDEC) and NASA. Grant funding from these organizations has allowed Fields and his research partner from the Naval Postgraduate School, Oleg Yakimenko, Ph.D., to collaborate on innovative parachute technologies to accurately drop supplies from safer altitudes. Dangerous Drops The Department of Defense started out performing the drops from very low altitudes to ensure they do not miss the target. Over time, the team is working to scale up and drop from higher altitudes. Its next test, targeted for December 2019, will make a 30-foot drop. “Unfortunately, this puts the aircrew in harm’s way, and there are many cases of aircraft filled with bullet holes,” Fields says.  An alternative is to use a parafoil system like the canopies used by skydivers. These systems have sophisticated control algorithms that enable high accuracy; however, they are expensive — often upward of $80,000 — and are usually reserved for the direst situations. Currently, there are no great low-cost, yet accurate, delivery options that can be employed from safe altitude Nevertheless, the DOD still needs effective methods to safely get supplies to troops on the ground. “As we have continued to push the limits and boundaries of our operational bases, aerial resupply has become the only way to provide goods,” Fields says. Another complication that hinders successful supply drops is rugged terrains of hard-to-reach drop zones and unpredictable weather. “Winds are the major factor that impact aerial delivery,” Fields says. “Winds change constantly, and if the predictions are off the true wind by even a few miles per hour, the payload can be off by hundreds to thousands of feet.” In short, accuracy is crucial in these missions and can save lives. “Most — if not all — incidents have come from using unguided systems that missed the target,” Fields says. “By having gliding capability, we hope to hit the right location and avoid such issues. Safer Landing With cost and accuracy needs in mind, Fields, Yakimenko and SCE students are testing a cruciform, or cross canopy system, that is manufactured with two rectangular nylon panels that are sewn together. This process, according to the researchers, is significantly easier and less expensive than trying to create the complex shape of the parafoil. “This system, which is probably an order of magnitude cheaper than those based on a parafoil, demonstrates a capability to rely on a calculated aerial release point and uses a limited control authority to steer toward a desired point of impact,” Yakimenko says. The package is fitted with an airborne guidance unit that features sensors and Raspberry Pi, a credit-card-sized computer, to provide real-time situational awareness. Additionally, the Raspberry Pi controls a motor that pulls on a particular suspension line of the parachute and allows for more accurate gliding to reach the desired target. As Fields and his team continue to test this novel system, they have been fortunate to have unique experiences and increasing grant support along the way. Test Runs Fields and his team recently had an opportunity to do testing from UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters at the Army Yuma Proving Ground. “It was a great opportunity and enabled us to show that our system really is steering and could be a more cost-effective method for aerial delivery,” Fields says. To date, Fields has secured $75,000 from NASA’s Established Program to Stimulate Competitive Research to further explore unmanned systems and models. NASA even provided the team with five days of fully supported testing in its vertical spin tunnel at the NASA Langley Research Center, the only one of its kind in the Western hemisphere. Additionally, the primary partner in the research, the U.S. Army NSRDEC, has provided $418,386 since its initial award in 2015. “I definitely did not imagine all the ways the work I was doing could be translated and applied.”– Travis Fields, Ph.D. The funding, Fields says, is essential to the research and has helped the team run experiments at Camp Roberts in California on several occasions. Camp Roberts is an Army National Guard base with a restricted airstrip, McMillan Airfield, used for unmanned aircraft. While there, the team uses both fixed-wing and large multirotor unmanned aircrafts to carry packages up to 4,000 feet and then deploy the systems. To gain additional insight into the parachute guidance performance, the team uses a quadcopter to chase after the parachutes to collect video footage of the descent. This helps diagnose what the system is doing and adjust for future tests. The team will conduct its December test at a skydiving in Eloy, Ariz. “Going to places like Camp Roberts and Eloy is absolutely crucial for us to test our steering and guidance methodologies,” Fields says. “Out there we can go higher and farther away than in the national airspace around Kansas City, which currently limits operations to 400 feet without a waiver.” Though the tests are only the beginning of developing and implementing this technology, Fields is happy to report positive results. “We have performed two tests from 4,000 feet above ground where we were within 10 feet of the target, and a test from 6,000 feet where we were near 300 feet from the target,” Fields says. He adds that the success their work has seen is directly attributable to the support from the UMKC School of Computing and Engineering and the passion the students have. Yakimenko agrees. Assistant Professor Travis Fields, Ph.D., conducts research using unmanned aircrafts, which drop 10- to 15-pound payloads up to 1,600 feet above the ground in restricted airspaces. “I enjoy working with the undergraduate and graduate students from UMKC because of their desire to be involved in real-world, defense-related applications, as well as their creativity, readiness, thoroughness and willingness to stay for several days in a desert, where we usually conduct our tests,” Yakimenko says. “I know I can always rely on Dr. Fields’ team.”  The team’s system has great potential to increase precision delivery capabilities for critical military missions, particularly when costs inhibit more complex parafoil-based deliveries. Fields’ system features descent profiles that are not currently achievable with other glide systems, which means his system can achieve more accurate drops, more successful missions and save more lives. “This low-cost approach opens up the potential for semi-precision delivery in a variety of scenarios well beyond military use, including aid relief for situations like the hurricane in Puerto Rico or any other major disaster or crisis,” Fields says. “I believe this will be a transformational technique for aerial delivery operations in both military and humanitarian relief efforts in the years to come.” This story originally appeared in Vanguard, the UMKC School of Computing and Engineering research magazine.  Mar 01, 2018