USAFA Research center to compete against other service academies



by Amy Gillentine
Office of Research


10/25/2013 - U.S. AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo.  -- For the first time, all three service academies will compete to develop the most innovative projects to address challenges warfighters face.

Sponsored by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the research-driven competition will eventually feature three teams from each service academy.

The Air Force's Academy will start with 10 teams; the projects range from developing unmanned aerial systems to serve as wingmen for the F-22 Raptors, to miniaturized swarms of UAVs that perform reconnaissance and intelligence missions.

Other projects include developing an efficient means of creating black silicon for solar panels and night-vision goggles, developing a new propulsion system that increases the efficiency of unmanned aerial vehicles, and developing a dual-mode turboprop design that allows aircraft to loiter and then switch to a different engine to make a quick getaway.

DARPA's calling the contest a pilot project, and awarded the Academy $233,500 for the teams to compete, said Dr. James Solti, the Academy's deputy director of the Office of Research.

"After this year, they'll evaluate if they want to continue, expand it with more money or end it," he said. "DARPA is in the business of finding solutions to the warfighter's most challenging problems. And they're hoping this contest will identify the current challenges and ways to address those in the future."

Impact and Innovation
DARPA only has two requirements for the competition: impact to the warfighter and innovation.

"Impact to the warfighter is two-thirds of the judging," Solti said. 'There are problems the warfighters find vexing; the competition is to propose solutions. There doesn't have to be a product, necessarily, just a potential solution for answering a challenge."

DARPA is looking to the future, he said, and hoping the service academies can help navigate the challenges that might arise.

DARPA's requirements are one of the things that makes the competition both challenging and interesting, said Dr. Tom McLaughlin, director of the aeronautics research center.

Aeronautics has four projects in the initial competition, more than any other research center.

"DARPA does way-out-there things," he said. "They want projects that make you stretch. They aren't trivial projects. They want innovation, and usually they want it quick."

In the past, those requirements made it hard for the center to get involved with DARPA projects, he said. But the competition is designed to keep cadets involved without adding to their workload.

It's exactly the kind of thing that engages cadets, McLaughlin says.

"If you give a cadet a real world project, something they know other people care about, they'll pour heart and soul into it," he said. "It won't be like a mere academic project - it's solving a real problem and that's what engineers like to do."

Academy projects, which also include a math solution to missile defense and developing an autonomous robot for some warfighter functions, meet those goals, Solti said.

"The Navy has already developed robotic firemen on ships," he said. "And here, the research is designed to see what other functions an autonomous robot can do."
The research projects last the entire academic year, he said, and will be the cadets' capstone projects in their junior and senior year.

Solti said it's hard to tell what will capture the DARPA judges' attention: a poster might be more captivating than a model, and a working autonomous robot might be more interesting than either.

But for McLaughlin, it's also an opportunity for cadets to receive individual training.
"And you can just watch them grow," he said. "It's palpable. I can teach 35 students in a class, but that one researcher to two cadets - that really allows them to stretch, to mature."

The Academy is also participating in a second DARPA challenge: the Cyber Stakes.
Three teams of three cadets will participate at the three-day cyber challenge, which could include both offensive and defensive competitions.

"It could be competing to see who the best hacker is," Solti said. "Or it could be protecting networks from attacks - keeping email and servers up and running."
Solti believes the Academy has an edge going into the competition. With a research budget of around $60 million, it has a more robust program than the other two academies, which have research budgets of $25 million or less.

Still, he acknowledges the competition will be tough.

"But we're in it to win," he said. "This is about bragging rights, but it's also about coming up with solutions to real problems."

Initial USAFA research projects:
· Raptor Force Multiplier: Uninhabited combat air vehicles flying in concert with F-22 Raptors to multiply the force.
· Swarm Uninhabited Recon Glider: Miniaturization will allow for tiny intelligence, reconnaissance and surveillance systems to be deployed in large swarms.
· Centralized Compression Distributed Expansion with Ejector Proposal: Using a UAV with patent-pending technology that distributes thrust in a way that allows for a larger payload and range.
· Centrifugally Engaged Turboprop: A dual system that allows an aircraft to both loiter efficiently and then dash faster than a conventional system.
· Precision Airdrop: To develop new ways to accurately deliver supplies to troops on the ground.
· Improving the Ballistic Missile Defense System's Efficiency: Develop intercept prediction tools that will allow more missiles to be intercepting by launching fewer interceptors.
· Black Silicon: Developing ways to create black silicon that would increase efficiency of solar panels.
· UAS-based Delivery of a Quadrotor for ISR capability: This addresses the short-range and endurance of current small unmanned systems by investigating the possibility of airborne delivery of small systems form a long-range platform.