AFRL leader had front row seat to world’s best technology

When the Air Force’s most advanced F-22 stealth fighters lost their cockpit displays crossing the international dateline over the Pacific, the phone of C. Douglas Ebersole began to ring.

Ebersole was an aerospace engineer at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, which at the time in February 2007 was in the middle of a major snowstorm.

“I got the call at home and they said, ‘Hey, you’ve got to got to get into the office right away,” he remembered.

Ebersole, 58, of Beavercreek, was the point man at the Air Force Research Laboratory, ending his 35-year career late last month, the last two years as the civilian executive director of the agency. His successor hasn’t been announced.

Brig. Gen. William T. Cooley became AFRL’s military commander last Tuesday.

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Ebersole has had a front row seat watching technology AFRL has worked on show up on the front lines.

In January 1991, when F-117 Nighthawk stealth attack jets bombed Baghdad at night and escaped unscathed in a barrage of anti-aircraft fire, Ebersole watched the campaign unfold on television. He had more than a passing interest in the once secret jet: He was the lead flight technology engineer on the program at AFRL.

Those kinds of groundbreaking projects are what AFRL has focused on in its labs and directorates at Wright-Patterson and in Florida, New Mexico, New York and Virginia, according to scientists.

He was on the hook a decade ago to find out what was wrong with the F-22 and fix it. Working with engineers and aerospace giant Lockheed Martin, they found a fix within a week and the planes continued to Japan, he said.

“Sometimes, you learn from your mistakes, right?” he said

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The Wayne High School alumnus has Purdue University and University of Dayton engineering degrees, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology masters of business administration degree and was a senior executive fellow at Harvard University.

From his former vantage point as the highest-ranking civilian leader and assistant to the AFRL commander, he helped oversee a $4.9 billion budget and 6,300 scientists and engineers.

Outside funding rises

More than half the AFRL budget is derived from customers such as contractors and government agencies to fund lab research.

Outside funding rose to $2.7 billion last year, compared to about $2 billion in 2014, he said. The demand is particularly strong at the Information Directorate at Rome, N.Y., he said.

“Hopefully, the trend will continue,” Ebersole said. “That brings a lot of work into AFRL and I think it demonstrates the value that maybe these external customers see, which might be tied to telling our story a little bit better.”

In recent years, stop gap funding measures in the absence of a fiscal year budget for months have caused “turbulence” in steering the future of the agency, he noted.

“There’s some areas we want to place some big bets and it’s just hard to do that if you don’t have that solid five-year budget plan coming out” of Capitol Hill, he said. “That’s probably the biggest part is just not knowing the future.”

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Wright-Patterson is headquarters to AFRL and has four of nine directorates: Aerospace Systems, Materials and Manufacturing, Sensors, the 711th Human Performance Wing.

AFRL has placed “big bets” on future hypersonic and directed-energy research and autonomous systems, resulting in remotely piloted drones to fly in tandem with manned aircraft.

Among its marque programs, the agency has tested hypersonic vehicles for a future high-speed strike weapon and has focused on creating a laser weapon that can fit on a fighter jet by the next decade.

Pushing for more patents

AFRL has urged researchers to pursue more patents. The push was started after a high-level Air Force leader thought AFRL wasn’t producing as many patents compared to their counterparts in Army and Navy research labs, according to Ebersole.

“That’s something I was the champion for here in AFRL, and we’ve made progress there, and we’ve really tried to decompose what is the problem,” he said.

Since then, AFRL recognized researchers with a wall of fame of sorts inside the agency, taking note of patented research work.

“The first thing that became evident was we weren’t celebrating it,” he said.

The agency hired “tech scouts” to comb the laboratories and work with researchers to discover what work coming out of the lab might lead to patents and invention disclosures, the first step to a years-long process to obtain a patent.

“Sometimes a researcher doesn’t see novel,” he said. “He or she doesn’t really realize the work that they’re doing is patent-able.”

Along with tech scouts, the agency hired paralegals to work on the paperwork for invention disclosures and patents.

“One thing about researchers (is) they may not want to write a patent, write an invention disclosure, but they love talking about their work,” he said. “…And that’s been the game changer is to just do the work a Ph.D. white coat researcher doesn’t want to do because he or she just wants to do his work.”

In fiscal year 2015, the agency recorded 108 invention disclosures, and 101 the following year, figures show. So far this fiscal year, which started Oct. 1, the agency has reported 84.

Last fiscal year, AFRL had 49 patents, the most recent numbers available.

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The science and technology agency also has pushed taking technology developed in the lab and putting it on the commercial market to lower costs and build the defense industrial base.

AFRL has an entrepreneurship program for scientists and engineers who may leave the agency and set up small businesses for work started in the laboratory.

During Ebersole’s tenure, AFRL also opened a satellite office in downtown Dayton this spring to put researchers outside the fence into collaboration with technical experts. This month, nearly 40 academic and industry researchers around the world will explore challenges in autonomy with AFRL scientists inside the Dayton office for three months.

The next project will explore augmented reality, joining virtual reality with a real-world environment.

Top leaders interest in AFRL

The agency’s research has interest among the highest-ranking Air Force’s leaders. In February, AFRL representatives met with Gen. David L. Goldfein, the four-star commander of the military branch, and Acting Secretary of the Air Force Lisa S. Disbrow.

AFRL leaders have met with the top two Air Force leaders every six months or so since the first session in August 2014.

“It really has been able to communicate the value of AFRL to the most senior leadership in the Air Force,” Ebersole said. “The fact that we have that communication loop with them, it does allow us to get re-vectored. It allows us to get aligned with the warfighter.”

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