Technology aids Academy researchers, cadets

  • Published
  • By Amy Gillentine
  • Office of Research
While other undergraduates spend time on projects that will never leave the laboratory, Air Force Academy cadets perform research directly supporting the Air Force mission.

Their tools range from 3-D printers and computer testing, to social simulators and hours of research and testing in the laboratories.

In engineering mechanics, cadets work on projects to replace anti-personnel landmines with something safer for civilians. In the Warfighter Effectiveness Research Center, cadets work with a new simulator program to help Airmen work with people from other cultures. In the Aeronautics Department here, cadets shape designs for flight simulators to aid pilot education.

Anti-Personnel Landmines
When President Barrack Obama announced the U.S. would no longer use anti-personnel landmines outside the Korean Peninsula, it left a hole in American defense. Cadets fill that gap through "smarter" replacements for the dangerous landmines.

"Landmines kill about 5,000 people a year, most of them children, women and the elderly," said Cadet 1st Class Joshua G. Cuany, one of five cadets on the capstone project. "So we're working with the Air Force Research Laboratory and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency to find a replacement, an alternative we can use deep behind enemy lines, without harming innocent civilians."

Cadets are working to design a system that replaces the capabilities of anti-personnel landmines while conforming to international treaties. Landmines scatter the roadsides in nations around the world, remnants of conflicts long over. The cadet design won't leave anything in place, making it safer for civilians living in those nations.

The concept is to make mines smarter with advanced sensors and computer controls, allowing them to discriminate between combatants and noncombatants. Another feature is making mines mobile to make them easier for forces to clear.

Through research with the Army Research Laboratory, cadets learn the Army uses landmines to protect against damage to military vehicles. Their concept only engages vehicles, Cuany said.

For cadets, the project combines the ability to apply everything they've learned at the Academy with a new dimension of a real-life application.

The fact that human lives are involved also is a huge motivator, Cuany said.

"Those affected by our work range from Third World civilians to high-level politicians to friendly and hostile militants," he said. "Our team is motivated to create an effective product that positively affects as many lives as possible. Knowing this project has real and significant implications for millions of people ... motivates us to put in a lot more effort than if the end product was simply proof that we could design a mechanical system."

Social Simulator
While cadets often conduct research at the WERC, they sometimes become research subjects.

The WERC recently received Strategic Social Interactions Modules Program from DARPA, a video-game style monitor allowing participants to interact with virtual people on the screen. The avatars listen when people ask questions and react to friendly gestures. Cadets are the test subjects, but the results teach Airmen to work with people from other cultures.

"It's the 'good stranger' concept," said Lt. Col. Chris McClernon, director of the research center. "Participants try to get the strangers, people from another unidentified country, to give them a piece of fruit or participate in other social ways. You soon find that what works in the U.S., something as simple as shaking hands, won't necessarily work here."

McClernon demonstrated, waving his hands and speaking loudly to the duo on the screen. They looked perplexed at first, shrunk away at his offered hand but finally smiled and offered the fruit. Success, McClernon said, comes from reacting to body language.

"It's an interesting problem," he said. "And it's about training cadets for future interactions. They can't assume everyone is going to respond the same way Americans do."

Researchers from the Rayetheon, University of California at Santa Cruz, Princeton Labs, SoarTech and DARPA developed the simulator. They chose the Academy as a testing bed for the new technology. Cadets and faculty in the WERC test various research questions with the technology. Future simulations will cover more emotions, McClernon said.

"These guys, they won't get angry," he said, pointing to the video screen. "We're working on developing that program."

High-Performance Computing
Researchers in aeronautical engineering are resolving a longterm flight simulator problem for Air Force Global Strike Command.

"The simulators are supposed to show how the B-52 reacts to flight conditions while refueling from a KC-135, but the simulations don't have the wake effects of the B-52," said Cadet 1st Class Ryan Novack. "It's very turbulent up there. Air flowing behind, under and around the planes makes it really rough."

Currently, training pilots don't know about the potential rough ride until they actually experience it, but Novack and team member Cadet 1st Class Jacob Laheta think they can give pilots realistic training before they enter the cockpit. Novak is working on the KC-135 simulation, creating a model that includes downwash from the aircraft's approach. Laheta took on the B-52 simulation to see if he can replicate the current model using CFD.

"There's an experimental side to this as well as the computational one," Novack said. "Some cadets are working on the problem in the subsonic wind tunnel, using a method to bounce laser light off airflow particles, showing how they move in the real world. That way, we validate what we're doing on the computers."

The problem isn't without its challenges, but both cadets are confident they'll deliver a solution to AFGSC by the end of the semester.

"This is a significant project," Laheta said. "We're doing something for the Air Force now, not a future project that could never happen. We're solving a problem for AFGSC and the Air Education Training Command. That's not something every cadet gets to do."