“That’s when the Air Force Sustainment Center contacted us to perform the research and development needed to make this a more practical system for the sustainment enterprise,” said Christensen. “We worked with them to develop this concept under the SBIR [Small Business Innovative Research] program. Through this process, we identified small business partner Aptima, who took on the effort with Lockheed Martin as their subcontractor.”
The Air Force Research Laboratory partnered with Dayton, Ohio-based small business Sentinel Occupational Safety Inc. to refine and market the Confined Space Monitoring System for use in both the military and commercial sectors. The technology provides an additional layer of safety for crews performing repairs and maintenance in tight spaces. U.S. AIR FORCE ILLUSTRATION
Christensen explained that the 711th Human Performance Wing performed research and development to help mature the technology, including bench-level test and evaluation and full-scale testing on a C-130 aircraft wing. Additionally, they redesigned system components so that they could be more practically and functionally worn inside tight workspaces.
Through collaboration with the AFRL Materials and Manufacturing Directorate and the NextFlex flexible hybrid electronics consortium, they developed a flexible arm band gas monitor that is durable, fireproof, and comfortable to wear. The end result was a next-generation prototype that was more compact, functional and ready for final development.
With this advanced prototype in place, the AFRL team’s next step is to demonstrate the system in a maintenance environment. Although COVID-19 travel and workplace restrictions have presented a bit of a challenge, Christensen said the team is looking to hold a virtual demonstration with the maintenance crews at Robins Air Force Base in early 2021. He said that a virtual demonstration actually offers some advantages over a traditional in-person event by allowing more stakeholders to participate, getting hands-on experience with the monitoring software and viewing live data as crews perform maintenance actions in real time.
After the final demonstration, Christensen says the technology will be fully transitioned to Sentinel Occupational Safety to proceed with final development for both military and commercial use. He said working with small business provided AFRL the perfect win-win solution for getting this technology to the user community. By maturing the technology, AFRL reduced the investment risk for Aptima, which then formed the Dayton-based subsidiary company to take on the technology development and commercialization.
“It’s a perfect example of AFRL working with small business to create local jobs,” said Christensen, who explained that the partnership also gave AFRL a way to get the technology into the hands of maintenance crews more quickly.
“Transitioning this technology was looking to be a challenge. Since this system is not specific to any particular aircraft, there was no one office designated to pursue its development. By going the small-business route, we ensured that the technology would be developed with the goal of marketing it for the benefit of both the military and commercial sectors,” Christensen said.
Beyond the initial goal of making the Confined Space Monitoring System available for military aircraft maintenance, Christensen said the technology could prove useful for commercial aircraft maintenance, ship production, and even the mining industry. Any application that requires the user to be in a tight space with the need for continuous monitoring could benefit from the system’s added safety and efficiency.
“This really is an exciting technology that we’re proud to bring to life through our thriving small business partnerships,” said Christensen.