Tim Kesecker, who earned his bachelor’s degree in computer science from West Virginia University in 1985, was recently named to Popular Mechanics’ list of “10 Innovators Who Changed the World in 2013,” for his work on the X-47B, an unmanned aircraft that can take off and land on aircraft carriers out at sea.
The project was part of the U.S. Navy’s Unmanned Combat Air System, or UCAS, demonstration, and was spearheaded by Northrop Grumman. Most runways are fixed, but the carrier is movable, not just geographically, but also physically. Not only can it be in a location one day and then move, but it is also being tossed by the ocean at all times.
“It was always very challenging,” Kesecker said. “There was always a question of whether it could be done.”
In order to meet the ultimate project goal, Kesecker’s team mixed new technology with existing aircraft components. They developed a precision navigation system that sends information via transponders on the aircraft carrier to the plane so it knows where the carrier is at all times, down to an inch. These detailed positions are sent at a rate of 100 messages per second, which allows the plane to adjust its attitude as quickly as it would with a pilot.
The aircraft design was based on previous Northrop Grumman prototype aircraft for a single-engine “cranked kite” and incorporated landing gear and other aircraft components from existing systems.
Kesecker led the team when it was time to start flight testing the aircraft. He brought the project to the Naval Air Station at Patuxent River, Maryland. There, the team used the replica carrier runway to test the plane and its technologies. However, until the actual demonstration events on the U.S.S. George H.W. Bush in May and July 2013, the plane had never had a sea-based takeoff or landing.
“Everything was a first,” Kesecker said. “Defining naval aviation history was the motivation for our team.”
The plane, which was purely experimental, was intended to be retired in October 2013. However, the success of the demonstration events has resulted in the U.S. Navy and Northrop Grumman continuing to fly the aircraft to further the technology development and perform additional demonstrations. The technology demonstrated by the X-47B will be the basis of the U.S. Navy’s future Unmanned Carrier-Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike system.
Kesecker started working with Northrop Grumman Corporation in Melbourne, Fla., primarily focused on U.S. Air Force programs and transferred out to San Diego, Calif., in 2010 to work in Northrop Grumman’s Unmanned Systems Division on the UCAS-D project. His work with the Air Force’s projects gave him the knowledge he needed to lead the team on this project.
Kesecker used the skills he learned at WVU to apply a systems engineering approach to the program management functions of monitoring, reporting, budgeting and scheduling the execution of the project. He was responsible for integrating 12 Integrated Product Teams, which designed, developed, integrated and tested the system and lead the team through the relocation to Maryland for final flight testing.
A Martinsburg, W.Va., native, Kesecker said that the honor “represents the work of the entire team it’s a springboard to more responsibility and leadership.”
Being able to represent his home state on the Popular Mechanics’ list, “means a great deal to me. West Virginia is part of me. I wear my WVU colors often, that’s something everyone knows about me.”
But more than just representing West Virginia, Kesecker said he and his team understood the greater honor of working with the military in “preserving freedom and advancing human discovery.”
“It’s not the same as other jobs. It gives a different meaning to what we do every day.”
CONTACT: Mary C. Dillon, Statler College of Engineering and Mineral Resources
Follow @WVUToday on Twitter.