AFRL Regional Research Hub makes headway

Students work during the summer with Purdue’s Mach 6 quiet wind tunnel. A more advanced Mach 8 quiet wind tunnel will be part of the new hypersonics research building to be constructed at Purdue. Purdue University/John Underwood

Credit: John Underwood Photographer

Combined ShapeCaption
Students work during the summer with Purdue’s Mach 6 quiet wind tunnel. A more advanced Mach 8 quiet wind tunnel will be part of the new hypersonics research building to be constructed at Purdue. Purdue University/John Underwood

Credit: John Underwood Photographer

Initial projects to be announced in near future

The Air Force Research Laboratory’s pilot initiative to establish regional research networks in the Midwest and Mid-Atlantic (AFRL Regional Research Hubs) is progressing as operational processes are established by the lead institutions, Purdue and Cornell universities.

With the initiative launched in February, the AFRL Regional Research Hub is on track with its goals to connect AFRL innovative research with regional innovators to leverage these ecosystems to accelerate technology translation and affect both defense and commercial markets.

With this vision in mind, the Regional Research Hubs in the Midwest and Mid-Atlantic intend to integrate diverse stakeholders by facilitating new teams, processes and exchanges to create a culture of mission-driven vertically cohesive innovation by leveraging the research, translation and workforce development strengths of its members.

Mick Hitchcock, special projects lead with AFRL’s Small Business Directorate, said his team has been looking to set a firm foundation for the Hubs to ensure its products deliver financially viable technology options to ensure future U.S. Air Force and Space Force dominance.

Choosing a project

With workshops conducted at Cornell and Purdue, Hitchcock said they will be announcing the initial projects in the near future.

”We’re working through what it takes to operate the hub, how the hub is interacting with [its] membership [and] how projects come to be — relative to selection by the hub and AFRL participation,” Hitchcock said.

Brian McJilton, director of the AFRL Small Business Directorate, said that the novel business model processes jointly developed by AFRL and hub members will be piloted by the first few projects to determine their effectiveness in streamlining operations, information exchange and security among hub members and AFRL. “It’s not only the relationship between … AFRL and Purdue and [AFRL] and Cornell, but their respective ecosystems of members in the Midwest and the Mid-Atlantic,” McJilton said. “So it’s really kind of testing out that business model … process.”

McJilton reiterated the needed focus on establishing and collectively working through this engagement framework. “To make sure, at least from a research and development perspective, we’ve got this thing working correctly, the machine’s oiled and working well,” he added. “AFRL is bringing out some ideas of ‘shovel-ready’ projects to stimulate exploration of translation opportunities with regional members.”

McJilton said Purdue has reached out to its members including universities, industry and even government laboratories, and Cornell has done the same to solicit ideas. “So this is where we’ve been meeting and coalescing ideas to align interest areas,” McJilton said. “And that’s kind of filtering down our list of what those shovel-ready projects are going to be as we move forward.”

Human capital strategy

A unique aspect of the hub is the AFRL focus on university engagement, Hitchcock said. “The AFRL involvement is not just to manage engagement; it is about experiential sharing where the [scientists and engineers’] S&E work within elements of the hub itself,” Hitchcock said. “So our S&Es aren’t just on the sidelines. They will be actual team members with hub members at hub sites that will be doing the research.”

Hitchcock added that this type of involvement is intertwined with the AFRL human capital strategy, where doors are opened for AFRL S&Es to physically work at the university labs and have that interaction to learn more about each other’s culture. “So it’s a huge workforce development opportunity for all organizations within the hub,” Hitchcock said. “I think, if successful, that [it’s] going to really set a precedent for future engagements.”

McJilton said the connection with human capital is by design. In addition to science and technology strategy, the inclusion of workforce development is crucial, and will equip civilian and military members with unique experiences out-side AFRL, as well as deepen and broaden AFRL partnerships and expand access to key talent. Since the Regional Hub spans all of AFRL’s technical directorates or TDs, senior technical leaders and S&Es in each TD are actively engaged with specific points of contact, or POC, for each Regional Hub, McJilton said.

“That way, if there [are] ideas that are emanating out of a TD, the POCs can help bring those to the surface to be shared at the regional hub level, as potential project areas of interest,” McJilton said. “We’ve had some outstanding engagement across the enterprise, and I think many great ideas have been placed on the table. There is growing excitement within AFRL, and discussion around opportunities for the TDs to leverage the hubs.”

Each hub is meant to provide a partnership environment for AFRL and the hub partners. And the process must work for each hub location’s ecosystem.

NSIN

The Small Business Directorate has been working with the National Security Innovation Network, or NSIN, which will provide additional avenues for the Hubs to reach out nationwide. NSIN is part of AFRL and has 15 employees within the Small Business Directorate.

The employees are scattered throughout the National Capital Region, West Coast, East Coast and the central U.S., as well. Their focus is to sponsor DOD engagement with universities and industry against DOD needs, McJilton said.

Because of the partnership with NSIN, McJilton said, “we are leveraging their hire-a-thon process to identify the collaboration lead at each hub.”

The hire-a-thon includes all the universities in their connection network, small businesses and other government organizations, McJilton said, which allows AFRL and the hub to use that pool, such as to identify potential candidates to serve as collaboration leads at the hubs. \

Dr. Richard Vaia, chief scientist, Materials and Manufacturing directorate at AFRL, who also works with McJilton as the senior leader champion for the entire AFRL Regional Hub pilot, discussed three initial foci for the hub: mutual understanding of defense drivers and commercial market potential; acceleration of scientific potential to translation; and experiential learning via embedded personnel.

Vaia said there is mutual interest from commercial market ability and defense needs. “It’s not just about mutual maturation of technology, but how to synergize commercial market potential and defense application to ensure availability and stability of solutions in the supply chain,” Vaia added. With a high potential for translation, he said the research activities should focus on addressing hurdles for translation.

”[With] multiple hub partners and a broader ecosystem, the hub affords the opportunity to making sure the very best folks with the best facilities are converging on a singular activity to accelerate,” Vaia said. Lastly, he said it would be ideal to involve embedded personnel through colocation.

“At the end of the day, this is about acceleration,” he added. “This occurs best through mutual understanding, which happens through relationships. The hubs provide an opportunity to get S&Es colocated — versus what I would argue is many times the norm of getting together periodically to share information, and then go back into a local facility to conduct research tasks in isolation. The hub is intended to explore and identify routes that require colocation to get things done faster.”

The hub will not replace the acquisition process, but rather compliment traditional approaches in novel ways.

“Macroscopically, the hub pilot and its novel processes are not simply intended to accelerate the risk reduction of technologies, but to reduce the risk of novel relationship and partnership approaches that will enrich how the Department of the Air Force science, technology, and system level capability assessment is done,” Vaia said. “So the needs of the warfighter [and] the future force are absolutely critical, and is the common guide star to all hub activities. We should not be developing new technologies that are not critical path to future leapfrog capabilities that are needed to ensure our air, space, and cyber superiority in 2027, 2030, and beyond.”

For more information on the AFRL Regional Research Hub pilot program, visit https://afresearchlab.com/lab-life/afrl-regional-hub/.

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