Magazine article National Defense

Research Aims for 'Game-Changing'technologies

Magazine article National Defense

Research Aims for 'Game-Changing'technologies

Article excerpt

(Air Force)

AIR FORCE RESEARCH IS FOCUSED ON a multitude of high technology quests, including a drive to perfect a more economical alternative to fossil fuels.

Across the board, it is looking for ways to get more return for its investments in science and technology. The goal is to develop technologies that are more attuned to the service's mission and to improve its next generation of weapon systems, officials say.

"I believe it's in the interest of America to have the Air Force begin again to drive the technology of America," says Air Force secretary Michael Wynne.

The officer who oversees science and technology efforts, Maj. Gen. Ted Bowlds, says the Air Force will be seeking to strike a balance between near-term needs and long-term goals.

"With the budget we've got, we've got to go out and build partnerships. We work very hard to do that," says Bowlds, who is the commander of the Air Force Research Laboratory at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio.

"You don't want to get your research too near-focused, because then, 10 years from now, when you're looking for that next nanotechnology, it's not going to be there," he says.

Much of the near-term research is being driven by the war on terrorism. "The enemy tends to be very dynamic, very agile, and problems present themselves for which you need a quick solution," says Bowlds.

The lab has an annual budget of $1.5 billion, which is supplemented by $1.8 billion through customer-funded research and development efforts. Funding generally is divided into three major areas: aviation, space and information technologies.

Aviation projects receive half the budget while the rest is spread between space and cyber-technologies, says Bowlds.

Among the current priorities are hypersonic systems. The lab recently brought back online an old wind tunnel that had been in storage for 10 years.

"We spent a fair amount of money refurbishing it and putting in a new data system so we could resume hypersonic testing into Mach 2, Mach 3 types of speed ranges," says Bowlds.

The lab is investing in a number of hypersonic technologies, including airframes and engine components for high-speed turbines, ramjets, scramjets and rockets.

In the space domain, there has been a push to improve situational awareness, so that the commander on the field will understand how the space environment is behaving. The goal is to be able to detect new launches, to track systems and objects in space, and to understand the health of assets in space.

In the field of information technology, scientists are working on a "joint battle space information sphere," to improve how raw data from the battlefield is controlled, moved around, merged and then delivered in a cognitive manner to troops on the ground, explains Bowlds.

The lab is pursuing several avenues of research to improve the capabilities of unmanned aircraft. "The thing that we're doing in the UAV realm is trying to open up the thinking," says Bowlds.

Currently, UAVs either can loiter in the sky for a long time or can fly out to a trouble spot quickly. The lab is moving ahead on a project that would allow a drone to do both.

"We're working with Boeing on a 'morphing wing' concept, so that when it has to dash, it folds the wing up and makes the dash, and when it gets there, it folds the wing out and starts to look like a U-2 [spy aircraft]," explains Bowlds.

Autonomous aerial refueling - the concept of having a drone fly up behind a tanker, take an offload of gas and continue on its mission - is another technology that is progressing. Tests using global positioning satellite systems to guide Lear jets have been conducted, and the hope is that one day UAVs will have unlimited staying power in the skies, says Bowlds.

Scientists also are improving the man-machine interface for these technologies, striving to break boundaries in how humans interact with a drone. …

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