Beach: Ammunition redux

First-of-a-kind optic-based system sorts out reusable ammo

When Defense Department officials told Glenn Beach they wanted him to develop a system in 90 days that would sort reusable ammunition in Kuwait to support troops in Iraq, he stepped up to the challenge. But when the time frame changed to 60 days, he was sweating bullets.

As program director at Cybernet Systems, a small research and development firm in Ann Arbor, Mich., Beach’s response to a request for proposals for such a system got DOD officials’ attention.

“I got a call saying, ‘We’re having a problem in Iraq,’ and things snowballed from there,” he said. Beach had some experience in the area. He had planned a related technology that identifies mortar shells, but the time crunch was an adjustment.

Beach and his co-workers used computer vision technology to create a real-time, small-arms ammunition inspection system. It automates what had been a manual process of sifting through found and unspent ammunition for usable bullets. The inspection equipment matches ammunition against previously captured images of bullet colors, shapes and printed characters, much like how fingerprint-matching systems search for identical ridges. The device supplements ammunition production, which was at maximum capacity.

Using cameras to examine bullets is not new, but the resolution capability of the Cybernet device is. The machine’s four cameras detect minute defects, preventing bad ammunition from reaching U.S. soldiers.

A core team of about five Cybernet employees had no trouble getting motivated. The project was interesting, and the short deadline was a team-building exercise. Plus, the employees liked feeling that their work would directly help soldiers in the field. They also knew they would be earning bonuses, time off and kudos.

Beach’s supervisors were sympathetic. “The good thing about Glenn is he’s not shy about coming forward with ideas and issues,” said Charles Cohen, Cybernet’s vice president for research and development and Beach’s boss. “If there are problems, I will know about them right away.” Cohen helped by picking up some of Beach’s other job responsibilities.

The team confronted rocky terrain while charting its strategy. For example, Cybernet had trouble obtaining enough ammunition to validate the inspections. The military has “better places to send bullets than to us,” said Charles Jacobus, Cybernet’s president. “They actually sent bullets from Iraq to us. That was a little bit weird.”

Time turned out to be the biggest test, and everyone feared not getting the technology overseas on schedule. “That came close to happening,” Beach said. But when the team got the optics machine working — a day before shipping it — they knew they had achieved the mission. The timetable was such that the company shipped the materials to Kuwait a day late. Beach had to tinker with the software on-site in Kuwait when the equipment arrived there a week later. “It was down to the wire,” he said.

Little did Beach know, obstacles remained. Steve Rowe, a software engineer, accompanied Beach to Kuwait on that first visit. “Our shipment was delayed almost a week because someone had written the word ‘ammunition’” on the box, Rowe said. Officials had to inspect for explosives. What was to be a 10-day trip to northern Kuwait ended up taking nearly three weeks.

The installation involved three phases: setup, testing and demonstration. The first part ran smoothly; unpacking the components required just a bit of heavy lifting. Then, the team checked all the pieces to make sure nothing was damaged and that the cameras had not gone out of focus. Everything had shipped nicely. Phase 2 involved testing the algorithms, which was more troublesome. The team had adjusted the machine to identify five types of bullets. However, a mishmash of ammunition turned up in the actual piles. There were British and Soviet rounds and bullets in silver casings, none of which had been anticipated. So, on the spot, the team built a silver-recognition module into the software.

Another blip: Cybernet’s test ammunition was clean, but actual ammunition is not. The bullets were caked with mud and blood. “This ammunition had been through war,” Rowe said. Dirt drifted beneath the machine, where a broom could not fit. The team improvised and built a catch-tray.

The team dealt with other mechanical issues on subsequent trips, when more durable supplies were available. Built like a playground slide that swishes bullets down, around and out onto a conveyor belt, the machine would sometimes drop a round, out of reach. To fix this, the Cybernet team clamped aluminum to the slide’s edges. Bullets also have a tendency to bounce, so the team installed a small, paintbrush-like tool at the top of the slide to ease the ammunition down onto it.

Before the team could fix the mechanical difficulties, they had to demonstrate the technology to an intimidating audience. “We were hoping to do a demonstration for a general,” Rowe said. “We had 40 or 50 people — the general and his entourage. While we were there, we met three generals, four or five colonels, a couple of majors.”

The reaction was overwhelming. Everyone wanted to know where he or she could get another machine.

Beach has returned several times to Kuwait to perfect the system. Back home, he uses a duplicate system to troubleshoot problems. The foreign setting presented a puzzling situation: Kuwait was dustier than anyone imagined. When staff would sweep at the end of each shift, particles would cloud the optics-based system. No one could see the bullets as they zoomed down the slide. Now, coverings protect all four cameras, and the team uses cans of pressurized air to clean the lenses.

During each expedition, Beach was on something of a vacation, Rowe said. Accustomed to working 18-hour days, Beach had to follow the military’s 12-hour clock.

Rowe said Beach’s knowledge allows him to support any team member. “He knows enough about software engineering to do a decent job on his own. One could argue that I didn’t need to be in Kuwait.”

Because of Beach’s idea, Cybernet has simplified an arcane process. Most of the company’s expertise is in research and development, not in actually deploying systems. Now, the government can apply Beach’s vision system to sort other objects of varying colors, shapes and texts. The technology can be used in any manufacturing industry, and Cybernet executives have already promised to build more machines.

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