Huntsville defense contractor Dynetics and the advanced weapons agency it works for announced January 17 the successful test of a new, low-cost drone that comes in swarms, called the X-61A Gremlins.
The Gremlins program is contracted by Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). It expects to make relatively cheap UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicle, commonly called drones) that can be launched from the air in swarms and recovered from the ground.
The test Gremlin was not recovered because it crashed after its main parachute failed, but
Dynetics and DARPA declared the test a success of the test. The test took place back in November, at the Dugway Proving Ground near Salt Lake City.
“This flight marks a historic milestone for Dynetics and the Gremlins program,” said Tom Keeter, Dynetics Gremlins program manager. “The GAV flew beautifully and our command and control system kept us in total control of the GAV for the entire flight. The loss of our vehicle validates our decision to build five GAVs for Phase 3; we still have four remaining. Overall, I am proud to see all the hard work pay off and we are excited to continue this momentum towards the first airborne recovery in early 2020.”
The test involved one captive-carry mission aboard a TMB Inc. C-130A and an airborne launch and free flight of the X-61A, which lasted one hour and 41 minutes. The testing demonstrated that the GAV could be launched from the C-130 and that the GAV’s wing deployment, cold engine start and transition to stable, powered flight all operated as designed. The test allowed for the collection of data on the GAV’s subsystem operation and verified that the air and ground-based command and control systems were working. During the flight, the GAV deployed its docking arm and at the end of the flight, its ground (parachute) recovery system.
The Dynetics team was one of four teams awarded Phase 1 in 2016. Phase 2 was awarded in March 2017 to two of the four companies, with Dynetics receiving Phase 3 clearance. The Dynetics Gremlins team consists of Kratos Unmanned Aerial Systems, Williams International, Applied Systems Engineering Inc., Kutta Technologies Inc., Moog Inc., Sierra Nevada Corp., Systima Technologies Inc. and Airborne Systems.
“The flight test validates all the engineering design work, analysis and ground testing we have performed in the past two and a half years,” said Brandon Hiller, chief engineer for the X-61A. “We have a lot of confidence in the vehicle’s performance and overall design going forward, and the telemetry data from the flight compares exceptionally well to our modeling predictions.”
In December, Huntsville-based Dynetics was sold to Leidos for $1.6 billion, a deal that is expected to be completed early this year. Founded in 1969, Leidos has grown into a global, 34,000-employee enterprise. Leidos operates in four key lines of business — civil, defense, health and intelligence.
Huntsville is a technology and engineering city, famous for its rockets and spaceline. But as the locals know, it’s not just rockets; there’s also an up-and-coming ecommerce business dominating the online landscape.
Blue Summit Supplies is an ecommerce solution to the bloated, outdated practices of the traditional office supply industry. It has a growing catalog of reliable and affordable office supplies and small business necessities. Since its founding in 2016, it has grown into the largest third-party seller of office supplies on Amazon.
But how did Blue Summit Supplies come about?
It all began with a rocket engineer, a French bulldog, and a few boxes of envelopes.
Like many Huntsville residents, Owen Franklin, CEO and founder of Blue Summit Supplies, spent the first decade of his career working as an engineer. He had always dreamed of building rockets and had worked hard to make this dream a reality. However, after spending years as an engineer, he realized he wanted to do something both more autonomous and more challenging. Something that would allow him to make a positive difference in the world in some capacity, without feeling constricted by red tape.
So, he decided to start a business.
It was natural inspiration that helped him decide which business. He was looking for office supplies at a big-box office supply retailer and, after encountering office supply store sticker shock one too many times, began to dissect how office supply pricing worked. His findings? That something ‘just wasn’t right.’
“People are truly getting ripped off here,” he realized. He didn’t understand why things were done in a way which offered minimal tangible value to customers, so he began tinkering and experimenting with a process of his own. He started out with a few boxes of simple white envelopes and used them as a vehicle to play around with more efficient supply chain strategies. He took the initiative to forge fruitful supplier relationships, which enabled him to work directly with competitive factories all over the world.
The wheels began to turn, the idea gained traction, and the task became one of scaling up. Owen’s business was growing, and he wanted to grow it further. He wanted his fight for better value to benefit as many customers as possible.
Armed with the guidance and support of his wife and mentors, Owen made it his mission to reinvent the way business was done in the office supply industry. He launched Blue Summit Supplies in 2016 with his first order of 500 boxes of envelopes. From there, he spent countless hours working from his couch to build the brand from scratch – with his faithful French bulldog, Larry, always at his side.
Now, Owen has grown the company into the largest third-party seller of office supplies on Amazon. The catalog has grown beyond envelopes and now includes binders, folders, miscellaneous school supplies, and tax season necessities among other high-value, low-cost office supplies. In under 12 months, he has added a dozen jobs to the Huntsville area with no plans of slowing down. He operates a satellite office with three employees in Chicago, but when asked if he plans to move Blue Summit Supplies to a ‘bigger’ city, Owen is adamant about staying local.
Instead of leaving Huntsville for ‘bigger and better,’ he wants to bring bigger and better here. Blue Summit Supplies’ success means more resources to give back to and grow our community, through both jobs and philanthropy. Right now, Blue Summit Supplies regularly contributes to organizations like Hwy 231 South and Mojo’s Bikes or Bust with plans to expand our giving efforts in the coming years as our resources grow.
“Health systems across the U.S. are looking for ways to improve the overall health of the communities they serve while cutting costs,” the online healthcare portal reported. “One emerging trend to reconcile these seemingly competing goals is investing in primary care and express care sites.”
Significantly representative of this trend, said Becker’s, was Huntsville Hospital’s December announcement of a joint venture with Urgent Team Family of Urgent Care & Walk-In Centers that creates a branded network of walk-in urgent and family care centers throughout North Alabama.
Urgent Team Walk-In Urgent Care locations in Huntsville, Madison, Decatur, Florence and Muscle Shoals have been rebranded as Huntsville Hospital Urgent Care centers. All of the centers are open seven days a week and provide treatment for injuries, illnesses and conditions that are urgent, but non-life threatening.
“Our strong reputation for clinical care and service combined with Urgent Team’s proficiency in offering a quality, patient experience in a retail setting further positions our health system to become the leading on-demand network in North Alabama,” said Huntsville Hospital Health System Chief Operating Officer Jeff Samz.
Investments such as this, noted Becker’s, “could be the key to lowering costs, improving patient satisfaction and reducing hospitalizations or unnecessary emergency department visits, according to an op-ed published in the New England Journal of Medicine.”
The four other examples cited by Becker’s were: a statewide network in Delaware, a Cincinnati hospital that bought seven Walgreens clinic, 15 hospitals that have networked with pharmacies in North Carolina, and a joint venture by an Atlanta hospital and a nine-clinic urgent care group.
Huntsville’s Von Braun Center for Science & Innovation has been around for more than a decade, but it’s revving up for one of its biggest projects yet, a groundbreaking collaboration with the Alabama Community College System.
“This state is really working on opening up pathways to the aerospace industry,” says Chris Crumbly, executive director of the VCSI and senior director for space and defense programs at the University of Tennessee Space Institute. “We can create a lot more jobs with what we have planned.”
When Crumbly came to the VCSI in January 2018, he took the helm of an organization that he says had been “dormant” for a few years. Established in 2006, the VCSI brought together universities and industry in a consortium to develop technology for the aerospace industry. That was successful at first, but around 2011, the VCSI board “put things on hold,” he says. In 2017, talk began about a new consortium, and Crumbly — a Teledyne Brown Engineering executive with 25 years experience working for NASA — was hired.
Crumbly estimates that $140 billion to $150 billion comes through Huntsville each year from the federal government. “That’s a lot of opportunity,” he says.
So he got to work, expanding VCSI’s group of members to include not only Alabama’s larger universities — Auburn University, the University of Alabama, Alabama A&M University, the University of South Alabama, the University of Alabama at Birmingham, the University of Alabama in Huntsville and Tuskegee University — but other institutions inside and out of Alabama. In addition, the VCSI Center for Minority Collaboration was developed to reach out to Historically Black Colleges and Universities.
Along the way, the VCSI landed several projects, but Crumbly believes he’s on the cusp of its biggest project yet.
“I became acquainted with some of the advanced manufacturing work at the community colleges of Alabama and some in Tennessee,” he says. “I started looking at the Alabama pathways training and realized we had been underserving our pipeline in creating folks who can do advanced manufacturing.”
In other words, there was some technical training that could be given through community colleges that would bolster the technology workforce needed in Alabama.
“This is not a research investment,” Crumbly says. “It’s a workforce development investment.”
Crumbly took his idea to Jeff Lynn, vice chancellor of workforce and economic development for the Alabama Community College System, and Jimmy Baker, chancellor of the system, and they bought into it in a bigger way than Crumbly expected.
“I had intended to do a pathfinder with Drake State Community and Technical College, with Calhoun Community College, with Wallace State Community College, some schools I had a little understanding of what they were doing and how they could play in the advanced manufacturing workforce,” Crumbly says. “Jimmy said, ‘Why don’t we take all 24 of our schools at once?’”
So every school in Alabama’s community college system is now a part of the VCSI consortium.
“What we’re doing is we’re really looking at the dramatically changing technology in aerospace,” Lynn says. “The beauty of it is that Alabama, particularly Huntsville and Mobile, is in the center of it.”
VCSI and the Alabama Community College System are looking toward creating a new associate’s degree in what they’re calling systems engineering technology. Students would learn to operate some of the advanced manufacturing equipment that’s becoming so prevalent in industry.
“What we’re hearing from our industries is that we need a two-year degree for technicians,” Lynn says. “That’s the wave of the future.”
Crumbly likens the need to the 1980s, when computer-assisted design (CAD) was becoming prominent.
“We did not have enough engineers trained in CAD to go and do it,” he says. “So the community colleges said, ‘We’re going to create computer-aided draftsmen.’ That’s the model I was following with systems engineering. How can we create something like what we did with the CAD technicians, but do it with these digital engineering concepts? This job doesn’t exist, yet.”
A curriculum is in the works, “based on things that are already taught in the community colleges,” Crumbly says. “A lot of the same coursework would be taken, and then you’d move on to some advanced courses.”
A person with a systems engineering technology degree would be able to do work that would free up engineers for other work, Lynn says. “It would really speed up the technology from the vision of an engineer or a research unit to fruition and getting out there and using it,” he says. “We think there’s a space, a gap, where that is needed. We think this model will catch on and quickly run across the United States and the world, even, when they see the possibilities. We’re somewhat of a pioneer in it right now.”
Being a pioneer isn’t easy, and, in this case, it’s going to take some money, whether that’s from the aerospace industry, the Department of Defense, NASA or other sources.
“I think there are some things we can do in-house without grants, but to really get this going we need money,” Lynn says. “I think it’s very doable. We have some lofty goals, but the model is going to take a significant amount of money from our investors.”
And there is already some interest in this new venture, including U.S. Rep. Robert Aderholt’s office helping to identify some appropriate grants for the venture, Crumbly says.
“We’re starting to see some interest from the industry that they would hire these people,” Crumbly says. “We’re trying to create interest in a way that maybe even the industry would put some seed money into it so we could create a pathfinder program at one of the colleges, perhaps one of them near Huntsville in North Alabama.”
Aerospace could be just the beginning, Crumbly says. “Metal doesn’t mind if it’s on an airplane, a rocket or a car,” he says. “It still needs to be fabricated.”
And VCSI wants Alabama and its community colleges to be at the forefront, as they were in the ’80s.
“Had we not created CAD technicians, we’d be way far behind where we are now in computer-aided design and manufacturing,” Crumbly says. “Community colleges can really expand our workforce and help engineers do what engineers do. We’re just starting to get the word out. If we can just get one school and one company to buy into this concept, I think it will be widespread. … Industry hasn’t completely bought into this as a way to do business. It’s coming, but it hasn’t grabbed hold, yet.”
Alec Harvey and Dennis Keim are freelance contributors to Business Alabama. Harvey is based in Auburn and Keim in Huntsville.
Unmanned aerial vehicles, better known as drones, are finally making their way into the agencies of state government, and Huntsville-based Avion Unmanned is in the front of the formation.
The company recently announced it has signed a “participating addendum” with the state of Connecticut, allowing the company to contract with state agencies for the variety of services provided by UAWs, from emergency services, law enforcement support, aerial inspection and mapping data services, support to agricultural and gaming, as well as agency media relations and marketing.
The legal and regulatory hurdle approved by Connecticut comes after Avion’s acceptance by the National Association of State Procurement Officials (NASPO) ValuePoint Cooperative Purchasing Organization.
Avion is one of just a handful of companies that have made such pacts with state governments, according to UAV Magazine , which names just one other company, DroneUp LLC, a Virginia company that has inked participating agreements with the states of Virginia and New Mexico.
Avion Unmanned is a division of Avion Solutions, a Huntsville engineering company founded in 1992, based in Cumming Research Park, doing advanced research and engineering for the U.S. Army, among its largest clients.
Last month, Avion unmanned achieved a benchmark in the fledgling UAV industry by launching its training services. The company’s Online UAS (unmanned aircraft systems) Training Portal is designed to prepare groups and individuals in the commercial sector, as well as law enforcement, to fly drones. The portal offers self-paced remote training that lines up with recently released Federal Aviation Administration regulations.
As the New Year unfolds, a seven-story addition to the Huntsville, Alabama, skyline will continue rising above the downtown campus of Huntsville Hospital, Alabama’s second largest hospital. Once complete, the new 380,000-square-foot Orthopedic and Spine Tower will stand out as the largest project on the campus in nearly four decades. Huntsville’s own Chapman Sisson Architects designed the facility and Alabama-based Robins & Morton is serving as construction manager for the project.
The basement will provide a parking garage for physicians, and the ground level will house patient registration, a kitchen and lobby, in addition to a retail restaurant. Levels one and two will each feature 12 operating rooms, a post-anesthesia care unit and pre-op space with the second floor featuring an additional 14 observation rooms. Floors three through five will house a total of 72 patient rooms, with mechanical penthouses on both the third and seventh levels. Floor six will house shell space for future buildout and expansion.
To date, concrete work on the structure’s basement and first level is complete. Robins & Morton’s onsite team is currently forming and pouring the second level of the tower, as well as the first level of the central energy plant. The onsite team will pour more than 20,000 cubic yards of concrete throughout the project’s lifespan, supported by 2,500 tons of rebar. Structural buildout will include another 3,298 tons of precast concrete and 55,200 square feet of glass for the facility’s exterior.
Robins & Morton projects the facility’s structural completion milestone, known in the trade as its topping out, to occur in summer 2020. The tower is slated for completion in 2021.
Rocket scientists at the University of Alabama in Huntsville are figuring out how the use of nuclear power would affect the components of a manned mission to Mars.
Working under a NASA grant, UAH researchers are examining — not the design of a nuclear engine but, rather — the results and costs of choosing nuclear thermal propulsion (NTP) for such a ride.
Nuclear power would provide the fuel-efficient energy needed to go the distance, but a hydrogen rocket would still be needed for the tremendous thrust needed to propel a spacecraft into orbit.
You’re talking about a nuclear reactor strapped to a rocket engine, straddled by human riders.
“We’re trying to figure out – assuming you can make the engine – can we fit it to the vehicle and make it work,” says Dale Thomas, UAH’s eminent scholar in systems engineering, who is the principal investigator for a UAH research grant with NASA’s NTP Program Office.
“The heartbeat of the program at this time is demonstrating that the reactor elements can be manufactured such that they will function in and survive the intense environment internal to the engine,” says Thomas.
Initial testing is underway at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in the Nuclear Thermal Rocket Element Environmental Simulator facility.
One of the first problems that NASA asked UAH to research is the heating effect that the NTP engine’s gamma ray and neutron emissions will have on the hydrogen stored in the propellant tanks.
“Hydrogen, which must be in its liquid state to be used as NTP propellant, must be chilled to near absolute zero,” Thomas says. “And it turns out that hydrogen is a great absorber of neutrons, and a good absorber of gamma rays.”
Because it’s difficult to turn the reactor off and on due to the thermal effect on its materials, it has to idle when not in use. While idling, the reactor continues to generate heat. Perhaps hydrogen can be directed through the core to carry that heat to radiators coated with a thermoelectric compound that generate electricity, Thomas suggests.
Huntsville — the hub city for businesses doing business with the Department of Defense — is a natural home for The Catalyst Center for Business & Entrepreneurship’s new Veteran’s Accelerator, a business accelerator focused on military veterans.
According to Veteranownedbusiness.com, Alabama has 45,099 veteran-owned businesses, which makes veteran majority-owned businesses about 11.8 percent of the businesses in the state.
The Catalyst Center for Business & Entrepreneurship provides supportive programs and resources to veterans for starting or growing a business.
Services include customized coaching, financial education and training for veterans who are interested in starting a business or growing an existing one. Services also focus on Service-Disabled Veteran Owned Small Businesses, a federal program to enable service-disabled veterans to gain access to economic opportunity by leveraging the federal procurement system and expanding participation of procurement-ready small businesses.
The Veteran’s Accelerator is a membership consortium of Veteran Owned Small Business and Service-Disabled Veteran Owned Small Businesses, with a steering committee comprised of veterans and business leaders to provide guidance and advice on matters of interest to its members.
The fourth quarter of 2019 has been good for space entrepreneur Jay Skylus, the CEO of Huntsville headquartered Aevum Inc., whose primary target is launching privately owned satellites.
Aevum has yet to do its first launch, but it’s promised in 2021, and the U.S. Air Force recently showed enough faith in the operation to award to Aevum, in the last four months, three contracts totaling as much as $12 million.
In September, the Air Force awarded Aevum a $4.9 million contract to lift experimental satellites to low Earth orbit. In August followed a small business innovation research contract for Aevum’s launch and space logistics service. And in October, the Air Force assigned Aevum part of an eight-company, $986 million award for rapid launch services.
Aevum’s business is to provide a relatively low-cost way of putting private ventures into space. Usually that means small communications satellites circling in low earth orbit. And the method of delivery, engineered by Aevum and its CEO, is to use drone rockets.
Aevum’s Air Force contracts are based on its plans to launch its drone rockets from Jacksonville, Florida’s Cecil Spaceport. Skylus told the Jacksonville Daily Record that the selection of the Spaceport came “after an extensive evaluation process of all FAA-licensed spaceports that began in 2017.”
According to Forbes, Aevum currently has five employees and “after receiving some angel investment so far, Aevum is working on a Series A funding round, and Skylus says he is feeling optimistic about the company’s prospects. ‘We’re obviously extremely jazzed about the results of our efforts this year. It’s been a great year.’”
Aevum’s mission statement says its ultimate goal is to make telecommunications satellites affordable enough so that the internet can reach the most remote populations on earth: “Right now, there are over 3.4 billion people around the world whose stories cannot be heard because they do not have access to basic digital technologies like the internet.”
Skylus graduated from the University of Alabama in Huntsville in 2013 with a baccalaureate in math and physics. His LinkedIn post says he “began studying combustion dynamics in 2005 using internal combustion engines. To fund his development, Jay Skylus operated a successful automotive hardware business on internet forums. His work was featured on the cover of a popular magazine in the UK earning him additional sponsorship from the auto industry towards his development.”
Modern businesses and governments depend on data security for survival. And as cyber threats continue to become more sophisticated, there’s a crisis-level shortage of cyber professionals qualified to address those threats. That’s why Alabama is launching its new Alabama School of Cyber Technology and Engineering (ASCTE), a public, residential high school based in Huntsville and open to students from across the state.
The new high school, created by state legislation SB212 and signed into law by Governor Kay Ivey in April 2018, is scheduled to open in August 2020. It will be the state’s third magnet school, joining the Alabama School of Fine Arts in Birmingham and the Alabama School of Mathematics and Science in Mobile.
With Huntsville’s concentration of high-tech and engineering professionals, the school is a natural fit.
“We like solving challenges in the Rocket City,” says Claire Aiello, vice president of marketing and communications at the Huntsville/Madison County Chamber of Commerce. “Local companies have expressed a need for these workers, and we are answering the call to help Alabama supply more cyber systems and engineering professionals to this very needed specialty.”
The Business Case for a Cyber High School
Alabama doesn’t need a technology magnet school because its current high schools are failing. On the contrary, “public schools in Alabama are performing at unprecedented levels,” says Matt Massey, president of the new school and former superintendent of Madison County Schools, a graduate of Citronelle High School in Mobile County and Troy University. “This is not because our public schools aren’t working. The need is because we’re facing a crisis of cyber threats in this country and Alabama wants to start earlier to help fill those needs.”
Cybersecurity has become increasingly important for industries of all types. For instance, while enemies of the state historically attacked governments and government offices, “they are now going after the industries that are important to the country, such as financial networks and utility networks,” Massey says.
As a result, companies such as Alabama Power and its parent, Southern Company, have expressed interest in partnering with ASCTE to help develop the next generation of cyber professionals. As new businesses and government entities relocate to Alabama, many have shown interest in partnering with ASCTE as well, Massey says, because the need for qualified cyber and engineering professionals is widespread.
Globally, 82 percent of employers report a shortage of cybersecurity skills, and 71 percent believe this talent gap causes direct and measurable damage to their organizations, according to McAfee research. Currently, there are 4,400 unfilled cybersecurity jobs available in Alabama, and more than 300,000 in the United States, Massey says.
School Building from the Ground Up
Alabama’s solution to the cyber workforce challenge will be the first school of its kind in the United States. Creating something completely new is exciting and promising for future generations and for the success of security of the country, but it’s also challenging, Massey says.
ASCTE’s four-member executive committee meets monthly, and its 19-member board of trustees meets quarterly to make decisions and keep the process moving. Plans are to open the school in a temporary location beginning in August 2020, and to move into a permanent location by 2022.
Decisions about the number of students will depend on the level of interest, but Massey predicts that ASCTE will start with about 150 students in ninth and possibly tenth grades, and that it will grow to about 350 students in ninth through 12th grades, when it reaches full capacity.
Fundraising is an important part of the process, and many high-tech companies are lining up to donate. Huntsville-based companies such as Davidson Technologies and Torch Technologies have made large donations, and at the 2019 Paris Air Show, accounting firm Deloitte gave $100,000 to the school’s foundation.
Massey, who came on board in June 2019, is in the process of hiring his leadership team and will begin hiring teachers in the coming months. Once teachers are hired, the team will work together to develop the school’s curriculum. While some high schools focus on cybersecurity, ASCTE will be unique, because it will include the engineering piece of the puzzle.
“We’ll be teaching students to implement cyber protections throughout the engineering process, designing products and programs with cybersecurity in mind throughout,” Massey says. “Cyber protection is traditionally seen as the icing on the cake, added when a product or program is already developed. But instead of icing on the cake, our students will learn to bake cyber protections throughout the whole process. That’s the long-term solution, to engineer with cyber protections.”
Students at ASCTE will have a wide range of options for high school experiences and work opportunities after graduation. For instance, as the FBI relocates a large piece of its headquarters to Huntsville, there will be potential opportunities for students to gain experience in digital forensics for law enforcement. With close proximity to Redstone Arsenal, ASCTE and military leaders are discussing a potential ROTC program focused on cybersecurity. And a variety of high-tech employers in the Huntsville area are interested in working with students and providing hands-on educational opportunities.
“Our students will be exposed to internships, co-ops and field experiences throughout their high school careers,” Massey says. “Many will go on to college, but our high school curriculum will also offer a gateway to industry, and some local industries will be interested in supporting them through college. We’ve got industry that is knocking our doors down because they want our students in their company. Our students will have lots of options.”
Reaching Students Across Alabama
Those students will represent a cross-section of Alabama’s population, Massey says. While all students will go through an application process, school leaders are committed to securing a student body that will represent all regions of the state.
But ASCTE won’t just welcome applicants from across the state; it will also work with public school districts throughout Alabama to ramp up their own cyber and engineering courses.
In fact, that task is a requirement according to the legislation that established the school. It requires the magnet school and its personnel to “assist teachers, administrators and superintendents across the state in replicating cyber and engineering studies in their own schools.”
Massey looks forward to helping boost cyber technology and engineering instruction across Alabama. “We can’t solve this problem just with our own students,” he says. “Our goal is for this school to serve as a flagship school for the state.”
Student applications are expected to be available in January 2020, with selections made in March before the school opens in August.
Learn more and stay updated with news about the school at ASCTE.org.
Nancy Mann Jackson and Dennis Keim are freelance contributors to Business Alabama. Jackson is based in Madison and Keim in Huntsville.