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Engineering Week feature series: Academy’s engineering cadets accelerate technological change

Engineering Week

Mike Anderson (left), an assistant professor of mechanical engineering at the U.S. Air Force Academy, advises Cadet 1st Class Spencer Flint in a Fairchild Hall research lab, Feb. 22, 2021. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Seth Stang)

Engineering Week

Cadet 1st Class Zachery Lorch, a computer sciences major at the U.S. Air Force Academy, is seen here after parachuting onto the school. He and scores of faculty and cadets are taking part in Engineering Week, Feb. 21-27, 2021, an annual event across the U.S. to highlight engineering advancements of students and military cadets. (Courtesy photo)

Engineering Week

Cadet 1st Class Peter Liu, an astronautics major at the U.S. Air Force Academy, is one of several cadets working in the school's astronautics department to develop and analyze structural models for the FalconSAT satellite, built and tested by cadets. Liu is seen here working in an Academy laboratory in November 2020. (U.S. Air Force photo/Joshua Armstrong)

U.S. AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. – Engineering Week at the Air Force Academy continues with the school’s top mechanical engineer saying the work of cadets and faculty has big implications in the tech-transfer realm.  

Col. Cory Cooper, head of the Academy’s mechanical engineering department, said Engineering Week is a testament to the ingenuity cadets bring to the classroom and to the applied mechanics field every day.

“Their work has the potential to fulfill a wealth of human and societal needs and should not be understated,” he said. “Engineering Week is a terrific way to bring attention to those efforts. If there is one thing I'd like to say about our hard working cadets and faculty, it's that they do not accept the status quo and ultimately, their research has the potential to improve the war-fighting capabilities of our total force."  

Gen. Charles Brown, the chief of staff of the Air Force, sent a letter to Airmen across the Air Force Feb. 22 advocating them to rely on agility, empowerment and innovative ideas to maintain the Air Force’s advantage in what he called “an increasingly competitive environment.” Cadets and faculty at the school are more than eager to meet Brown’s request, especially when it comes to innovation, Cooper said.

"As General Brown instructed in his four action orders, we need to 'accelerate change or lose,'” he said. “Every cadet and faculty member in the department is excited to do their part to accelerate change for the Air Force and Space Force. Our design and research projects show how our cadets are stepping up to reshape the operational and support roles of the Air Force to empower Airmen and Guardians at all levels. Our inventive cadets and faculty are motivated by their dedication to their nation and desire to maintain our strategic advantage in a very competitive warfighting environment."

Space Systems: Taking Complexity in Stride
Cadet 1st Class Peter Liu, an astronautics major, is one of several cadets working in the astronautics department to develop and analyze the structural engineering model for the next FalsonSAT satellite. FalconSAT is the Academy's satellite engineering program where cadets design, built, test, and operate the satellites. The Academy’s Space Systems Research Center administers the program under the oversight of the astronautics department.

“Cadets’ work in the astro department provides a hands-on perspective into the engineering design behind complex space systems,” he said.

Liu takes this complexity in stride.

“This involves machining, designing individual mass simulators, assembling components, putting structural engineering models through vibration testing and using data for further revisions,” he said. “Ultimately, this work will lead to a space-certified FalconSAT X structure.”

Engineering Week gives the Academy a great opportunity to expose students and faculty members at other universities to advances he and other cadets make in the school’s engineering departments, Liu said.

“We have a lot of cool and innovative projects,” he said. “It’s always neat to see the learning process and hands-on experience that goes into them from cadets and faculty. There are many research mentors and subject matter experts in the astro department and my research experience here has been excellent.”

Computer Sciences: Opportunities No One Else Has
“Engineering, specifically computer science and cyber science, is being able to create anything your imagination wants,” said Cadet 1st Class Zachery Lorch, a computer sciences major. “The Academy teaches you skills that are extremely relevant in our current society.”

Maj. Alexander Roosma, a computer and cyber sciences instructor, said engineering is “problem solving.”

“We solve many problems every day,” he said. “Engineering comes in when the scale and criticality of solutions demand more rigor than an off-the-cuff, gut feeling. This is also where problems get really interesting and really fun to work on.

Roosma manages the Academy’s Computer Science 110 course. He said he appreciates the opportunity to educate students about the capabilities of the computer sciences field.

“In the core course required for every freshman, we equip the students to take their following courses and academic paths to the next level,” he said. “Whether it’s a biology major predicting the shapes of protein with an artificial intelligence model or a behavioral science major using virtual reality to combat anxiety, establishing an awareness of available tools can enhance many other disciplines.

“As much as I enjoy watching students discover a passion for computer science, it’s even more rewarding to see those who go on to other academic disciplines with computing skills,” Roosma said. “They are going to break new ground and finally solve the unsolved problems in their respective fields by using a new approach and tools.” 

Lorch said the Academy’s engineering programs have taught him to “love learning and tinkering.”

“I love coding applications, soldering a new micro controller and the joy of getting my first robot to race around the room and solve a maze,” he said. “Computer science also taught me to lead projects and get a working solution under time constraints. I’ve met some of the greatest Air Force officers and they make me excited to continue computer science into the Space Force and beyond.”

Lorch and other cadets are designing an augmented reality interface that relies on artificial intelligence to identify unexploded ordnances and help soldiers and civilians navigate dangerous terrain.

“The project required every single one of my computer science classes at the Academy,” he said. “It’s amazing that I can call up a certain teacher who is an expert in one area or another to get the exact help I need before moving onto a different field of computer science.

Lorch said Engineering Week is “super important.”

“It’s important for people to know what the Academy is doing and for our internal staff to get reinvigorated about what we do here,” he said. “We have opportunities no one else has. A lot of our capstone projects come from outside stakeholders, so if Engineering Week shows people the Academy is a viable research institute than all the power to it.”

Engineering Week is particularly important to the computer sciences field, Roosma said.

“Almost all interesting problems require input from multiple disciplines,” he said. “Any time we learn the type of problems other disciplines are tackling, our ability to contribute outside our primary field improves. This is especially important to computer sciences, where the capability and tools we develop often go toward solving problems in other disciplines that otherwise wouldn’t be solved.”

Engineering Solutions: Protecting the U.S. from Bad Actors
Mike Anderson, assistant professor of mechanical engineering, directs the cadet’s mechanical capstone design programs. He said cadet capstone projects include aerial systems; intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance for small combat teams; protecting satellites from orbital debris; and more.

“As we know, low-Earth orbit is full of ‘space junk’ and the problem is getting worse,” Anderson said. “Mechanical engineering cadets are creating novel designs for ‘Whipple Shields’ that use complex lattice structures to deflect and absorb impact energy from particles that can strike a satellite at 7 kilometers a second. The long-term goal is to 3-D print these shields in space so we can retrofit unprotected satellites.”

Annually, Anderson said, the Academy manages $25 million of research at its Center for Aircraft Life Extension, roughly $400,000 on eight capstone design projects, personal faculty research and small projects related to an experimental mechanics’ course.

One hot engineering topic is the proliferation of drone technology.

“It poses a threat to our deployed forces and high-value targets in the homeland,” Anderson said. “The Defense Department and civilian law enforcement agencies are in urgent need of technologies to defeat unmanned Aerial systems – or ‘UAS’ – that might be used by bad actors to perform acts of terror.”

Anderson said mechanical engineering cadets take novel approaches to defending U.S. assets against those “bad actors.”

“They’re designing a fixed-wing pursuit aircraft that will carry a net launcher to shoot at the threat UAS,” he said.

Late last year, scores of cadets took part in a months-long counterdrug exercise hosted by the Academy’s geospatial science department when they teamed up with faculty members, the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency and the Forest Service to shut down mock marijuana grow-sites hidden in Jack’s Valley. Those 50 cadets, including Cadets 1st Class Charles Galloway, Wolf Lucas and Austin Williams, combined satellite and drone imagery with other intelligence to locate and identify those grow sites.

Lt. Col. Gene Richter, deputy director of the school’s geospatial science program, said the cadets analyzed videos, photos and other geospatial information and assessed the information for NGA intelligence analysts to validate and exploit. The majority of the exercise took place with cadets working from their computers instead of in the field or in a classroom.

“You can see the depth of talent our cadets possess and the scope of expertise our faculty brings to the classrooms and labs every day,” Cooper said. “They’re multi-talented, multi-capable and while most of our researchers have yet to graduate, they’re already changing the Air Force and Space Force for the better. As far as I’m concerned, Engineering Week is every week at the Academy.”

[Editor’s note: Look for part one of the Engineering Week series at https://www.usafa.af.mil/News/Features/Article/2513952/engineering-week-feature-series-engineering-touches-every-corner-of-your-life]