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 October 2006 

Lawrence P. Farrell Jr.Air Force Lab Aims for Relevant Research

October 2006

By Lawrence P. Farrell Jr.

The Air Force recently flew a B-52 bomber powered by an alternative fuel derived from natural gas.

This development highlights in many ways the challenges and achievements of the Air Force science and technology community. At a time when our military services are transforming into high-tech forces, scientists and engineers working at Air Force laboratories not only are pursuing the next big breakthroughs in technology, but they also are improving existing weapons — even old ones such as the B-52 — to make them more relevant to the current battlefield.

As I have noted in the past two editions of "President's Perspective," the role of science and technology as key elements of national security cannot be overemphasized. In the August issue, I highlighted the importance of healthy funding for defense-wide science and technology, especially for basic research. Last month, I focused on the work of the Office of Naval Research.

In the Air Force, the bulk of these efforts occur within the Air Force Research Laboratory, which is headquartered at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, with laboratory sites located strategically around the United States.

The lab, with a $1.5 billion annual budget and a workforce of 9,500, oversees programs in a wide range of technical specialties — air vehicles, directed energy, human effectiveness, information, materials and manufacturing, munitions, propulsion, sensors and space vehicles.

AFRL's role in the alternative fuel project for the B-52 has put the lab in the spotlight, given the growing national attention to the problem of rising fuel costs and dependence on foreign oil.

In a test flight last month, the B-52 flew with two of its eight jet engines using a specially blended fuel made of conventional petroleum — based on JP-8 and a Fischer-Tropsch jet fuel produced from natural gas.

Another example of a research effort increasingly becoming more relevant to the fight against irregular enemies is the directed energy program.

A laser device developed by AFRL scientists at Kirtland Air Force Base, N.M., will be the first man-portable, non-lethal deterrent weapon intended to protect troops and control hostile crowds. The weapon employs a two-wavelength laser system. The laser light temporarily impairs aggressors by illuminating or "dazzling" individuals, removing their ability to see the laser source.

The lab's success stories are too numerous to recap in this column, but allow me to draw attention to a few:

• Wounded airmen and soldiers being airlifted from Iraq needed an effective pain control system during transport. AFRL scientists came up with a patient-controlled analgesia infusion pump that can be used to request and safely self-administer pain medication.

• Under a Small Business Innovation Research contract, AFRL and Concurrent Technologies Corporation identified an alternative process for removing plated nickel coatings from aircraft landing gear. This reduces labor costs by at least 30 percent and helps prevent worker exposure to the stripping bath.

• AFRL is making significant contributions to bioengineering through the investigation of a new class of polymer, or "biopolymer" that is based on DNA and derived from bio-waste materials. Electro-optic and electronic devices fabricated from the new biopolymer demonstrate enhanced performance compared to state-of-the-art devices made with current, organic-based materials. This new class of polymer has the potential to compete with — or even replace — many fossil-fuel-based plastics for applications ranging from eyeglasses and food containers to higher-technology applications such as light-emitting diodes and transistors.

• Researchers recently completed a successful flight test of an automated aerial refueling system, known as inner-loop control laws. In a future test, a flight control computer will use precision Global Positioning System, inertial navigation systems, and tanker-datalink signals as sensor inputs to the control laws. A Learjet will fly next to a KC-135 tanker, matching the tanker's movements. Automated aerial refueling technologies will benefit unmanned air vehicles by extending their range and allowing their deployment with manned fighters.

• AFRL engineers executed wind tunnel tests of the V-22 Osprey — a 6 percent-scale model — to improve their understanding of the vehicle's flight characteristics. Their intent was to examine the V-22's flight dynamics at extreme attitudes and determine its flight limitations. The collected data will aid in generating a simulation designed to help pilots better understand the V-22's stability and control. This will allow them to achieve maximum aircraft performance without compromising safety.

These success stories, once again, reinforce the notion that the research work that is taking place in the nation's laboratories is vital to our military. Many of the technologies developed at AFRL also have civilian applications in areas such as commercial aviation, space exploration and biological sciences. Other Air Force-directed basic science breakthroughs have made major contributions to everyday applications, such as the atomic clock and the global positioning system.

It is important to remember that these investments, although they might not generate immediate payoffs, will yield enormous dividends over time, and must be nurtured accordingly. The U.S. lead in defense technology depends greatly on our military research establishment. Check out other "success stories" at the Air Force Research Lab Web site.

Please e-mail your comments to LFarrell@ndia.org

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