Air Force researchers show off groundbreaking technologies

This wasn’t your high school’s science fair.

Air Force Research Laboratory scientists and engineers around the country showcased everything Tuesday from robotic “snakes” that peer into the wings of an aircraft to hypersonic rockets on science missions launched around the globe.

The presentation of about 15 groundbreaking research concepts at the AFRL’s Materials and Manufacturing Directorate at Wright-Patterson was a practice of sorts for sending the projects to the Pentagon on May 18, Department of Defense Lab Day.

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“I view this first and foremost as an education event in educating our senior leaders in terms of what is coming down the road, what are we researching, what’s the art of the possible,” said Morley Stone, AFRL chief technology officer. “Science and technology is changing so much so fast, it’s really important to continue that education process so they understand where are the frontiers going.”

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“…The breath of the research that we’re doing is enormous,” said Maj. Gen. William T. Cooley, newly installed AFRL commander.

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Among the research included one project to produce relatively cheap, reusable unmanned aircraft to bulk up the size of a shrinking Air Force fleet. Another has explored “gene editing technology,” which could potentially boost the endurance of airmen on long range missions, among other uses, researchers said.

Low Cost Attritable Aircraft Technology (LAACT), a proposed low cost drone, would work in tandem with current aircraft such as F-22 and F-35 stealth fighters. The drone may spy on battlefield adversaries, carry weapons or jam communications. Researchers have aimed for a price tag of about $3 million each based on buying a fleet of 100, according to AFRL.

“If you team up a bunch of these aircraft with an F-35 or an F-22, or some of our surveillance assets, you’d basically be able to cover more space at a lower cost point,” said Bill Baron, LCAAT project manager. “In a lot of cases, we don’t have enough airplanes and as you look to the future, most likely our fleet sizes are going to continue to be more limited so this is a way to provide a force multiplier.”

The Air Force Office of Scientific Research has explored military applications of “gene editing” technology.

“It’s cutting-edge technology being used throughout the scientific field,” said Heather Pangburn, lead toxicologist at the 711th Human Performance Wing’s Air Force School of Aerospace Medicine. “There’s many avenues that it can be applied to,” from treatment of disease to improving crop to increased milk production in cows, she said.

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Patrick Roach, AFOSR chief of physical and gene editing technology in Arlington, Va., said: “What we find with this technology intriguing is the fact that we may be able to create entire new proteins with it, or add and help aerospace medicine in the future, maybe look at enhancement of new materials that are stronger (with) greater tensile strength and help synthetic biology in a way that’s never been done.”

One day, for example, that may mean the technology could aid airmen to stay alert on long missions rather than rely on chemical substances, he said.

“That’s a long way off,” Roach said. “We don’t know all the deleterious things that might be there. You’ve got to look at those. We’ve got to be very careful going forward making sure that we don’t produce something that was unintended.”

The Air Force does not plan to test the technology on humans or animals, he said. He anticipated more research with organizations such as the National Institutes for Health.

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In the skies of hypersonic flight, the Air Force has launched seven sound rockets in Australia, Hawaii, and Norway to explore hypersonic vehicles, said 2nd Lt. Malia Stephens, an AFRL aerospace research engineer at Wright-Patterson.

The project is called HiFIRE, short for called Hypersonic International Flight Research Experimentation, in a scientific collaboration with Australia.

“We fly at hypersonic speeds and take data so you think of it like a wind tunnel in the sky,” she said. “Today, we don’t have a lot of hypersonic data because we don’t have a lot of hypersonic flying vehicles, so you can’t simulate what’s in a wind tunnel on the ground accurately as you can it its flying in the air.”

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