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NIWC Atlantic Interns Build Lightboard to Test Airfield Lighting Control Systems

31 October 2023

From Kris Patterson, NIWC Atlantic Public Affairs

Five Naval Information Warfare Center (NIWC) Atlantic interns recently built a simulation platform to test the functionality of Navy and Marine Corps airfield lighting control systems (AFLCS), which will have a significant impact worldwide.

Five Naval Information Warfare Center (NIWC) Atlantic interns recently built a simulation platform to test the functionality of Navy and Marine Corps airfield lighting control systems (AFLCS), which will have a significant impact worldwide. 

This past summer, the group created a lightboard, a lab-testing tool to enhance the NIWC Atlantic Shore Air Traffic Control (ATC) Systems team’s testing process that ensures the reliability of lighting systems at every Navy and Marine Corps aviation facility across the globe.

Testing usually involves software and hardware manipulation of the Visual Information Display System (VIDS), an ATC system that assists controllers in obtaining weather data, communicating with others in the ATC facility, controlling airfield lighting, and other functions.

An airfield’s lighting system helps ensure the safety of air traffic by serving as visual guidance for pilots during take-off, landing and while flying in the designated airspace. 

Using reverse engineering, the interns rebuilt a 15-year-old lightboard, transforming it into a new and improved, fully-functioning device. 

The interns used AutoCAD to design the new lightboard, collaborated with NIWC Atlantic’s On-Demand Manufacturing (ODM) lab to cut out and laser etch its base, and followed additional guidance from the ODM lab staff regarding design improvement.
The group devised a grid-like design for the overall system and arranged the board’s internal lighting circuit wires by section based on their role, then installed and tested them for functionality. 
“The interns learned about cable management, a vital skill needed for engineers that work with wires,” said Elizabeth Tello, project engineer for the Shore ATC Systems team and lightboard project mentor.
The lightboard is composed of over 200 LED lights representing multiple airfield elements such as runways, taxiways and lighting beacons.  The board’s circuits are capable of varying at five brightness levels, which mirrors the lightning circuits at actual airfields. 

The board’s lights are aligned on the left and right sides with each side illuminating those respective parts of the runway for safe landings.

“The main objective for creating the lightboard was so that the team could connect a Vault Control Unit (VCU) or Remote Control Unit (RCU) to simulate airfield lighting behavior,” Tello said. 

A VCU is a box that interfaces with VIDS to provide remote capabilities to air traffic controllers in the ATC tower. An RCU is a smaller version of the VCU.

If the VCUs and RCUs successfully interface with the interns’ lightboard, the boxes will then be deployed across the world to different Navy and Marine Corps aviation facilities, providing necessary controlling capabilities to ATC controllers. 

“We know for a fact that if a box leaves our facility, it is capable of doing its job at a site effectively,” Tello said. 

Not only has the success of the interns’ lightboard changed the way the ATC Systems team tests VCUs and RCUs, it also adds a layer of verification. 

“It used to be that testers would have to look at the VCU knobs and listen for confirmation,” Tello said. “Now, they would only have to look at the lightboard and know that the system is working.” 

In addition to recreating the lightboard, the interns performed VCU corporate production batch testing of newly assembled boxes at an outlying facility. From there, the boxes will be shipped to a NIWC Atlantic facility where they will go through a final configuration before being deployed to Navy and Marine Corps installations. 

The four college interns were participants of the Naval Research Enterprise Internship Program (NREIP), and the high school student interned through the Science and Engineering Apprenticeship Program (SEAP). 

Both internship programs provide academically talented students pursuing careers in science, technology, engineering or math (STEM) the opportunity to take part in real naval research in Department of Navy (DON) laboratories for eight to 10 weeks during the summer.

NIWC Atlantic’s most recent NREIP cohort consisted of 26 students from 19 different colleges, and the SEAP cohort consisted of 17 students from 14 high schools. The interns participated in projects that delved not only in ATC, but also in cybersecurity, electronic warfare, mobile applications, maritime operational research tools and other disciplines. 

“All interns are placed on projects that support the Warfighter and/or a military branch,” said Jenifer Pinckney, NIWC Atlantic Office of Naval Research Internship Program co-coordinator. “They bring fresh ideas, allowing them to solve known project problems that otherwise couldn’t be resolved by the project team. These interns arrive with so much ambition and eagerness to work that most taskings get completed ahead of schedule. This allows the project to move to more detailed, complex taskings.”

The interns “develop technical skills that are not necessarily taught in school,” said Owen Wall, a Clemson University Electrical Engineering student who worked on the lightboard project.
Madison Mobley, University of South Carolina Aerospace Engineering student, who also worked on the project, agreed. 

“As an aerospace engineering major, I am not required to take any classes in electrical engineering, so my knowledge in this field was limited,” Mobley said. “Through research and my peers, I was able to learn enough to understand and help solve the electrical issues that my project required me to fix.”

The interns are introduced to software, hardware, equipment and processes they may not have been familiar with prior to the internship, like AutoCAD, a computer-aided design software that allows users to draw and edit digital 2D and 3D designs more quickly and easily than if done by hand. 
“AutoCAD was new to me,” said A.C. Heaton, a Clemson University Electrical Engineering student on the project. “I gained some additive and subtractive manufacturing skills.” 
Additive manufacturing involves 3D printing, while subtractive manufacturing involves machine-shop printing. 

The interns learn “how to apply theoretical knowledge to the real world,” said Aubrey Myers, a Clemson University Mechanical Engineering student. “It helps us develop hard and soft skills that we will continue to utilize as we integrate into the workforce.”

Dorian Townsend, a student of Early College High School and the only high school intern on the lightboard project, said he has already been able to implement the skills he has learned in real life scenarios. 

 “The most intriguing skill I learned was how to read a wiring diagram and comprehend the components of AFLCS,” Townsend said. “This helped me gain a better understanding of how ALFCS works internally. I now apply what I learned to my current job as a Classroom Audio and Visual intern for Clemson's IT department."

At the end of their internship, each student is expected to give an “Ignite Brief” to their entire intern cohort and command leadership about their projects. The interns on the lightboard project broke down their brief into two – one highlighting the electrical aspects of the project, which included the circuit analysis calculations for lighting design, and a second brief describing the mechanical aspects, which included AutoCAD design work and creating the lightboard base.

Tello, who is a Clemson University Computer Engineering alum herself, said she was impressed with the caliber of the interns, their work throughout the internship and their final presentations, noting each student’s knowledge, skills, self-motivation and willingness to learn.

 “The entire team shares stellar qualities which demonstrate the highly competitive nature of the program,” Tello said. “The lightboard was quite challenging to perfect, but they managed to do so. It shows how everyone was extremely motivated to overcome obstacles during the internship, and that they were all incredibly excited to learn different things and new skills.”

All of the interns on the lightboard team expressed an interest in becoming full-time government engineers after graduation.

“In my opinion, they will succeed anywhere they choose to go,” Tello said. “If they decide to work at NIWC Atlantic, they would be fantastic engineers that would do really great work.”

Heaton, who recently graduated, applied to and was hired at NIWC Atlantic, and started his new career this month.  

“I can’t tell you how excited I was to get an email with my onboarding date,” Heaton said. “I’m pretty pumped.” 

According to Townsend, if Heaton’s new job is anything like the internship, Heaton will enjoy his new career. 

“No workday seemed like a bad day because our coworkers were always there to assist us,” Townsend said. "My favorite part about interning at NIWC Atlantic was the people I worked alongside. Everywhere I turned, someone was willing to help me and answer my questions. With the team I worked with specifically, no question was a stupid question. No matter the problem, my mentor and team always looked out for me and included me in everything."

Mobley echoed Townsend’s sentiments. 

“The work is rewarding, the projects are challenging, and NIWC Atlantic’s mentors and colleagues make it such an enjoyable experience,” Mobley said. 
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