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    Readiness through research

    Readiness through Research

    Photo By Tech. Sgt. Janiqua Robinson | Capt. Kavi Muraleetharan, Air Force Research Laboratory mechanical and aerospace...... read more read more



    Story by Tech. Sgt. Charles Dickens 

    Airman Magazine   

    A ding of clinking glass test tubes, whirring machines and ink pens furiously scratching notebooks fills the air. A crowd of white lab coats, purple gloves and safety glasses surround a single workbench as a potential technological breakthrough is made.

    While this may sound like the beginning of a science-fiction film, it’s just another day for the scientists at the Air Force Research Laboratory on Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio.

    “We get to develop, test, and eventually field the awesome technology that the Air Force provides to the Department of Defense and the United States,” said Air Force Capt. Kavi Muraleetharan, Air Force Research Laboratory mechanical and aerospace developmental engineer. “A lot of the projects are aimed to transform how the Department of the Air Force does business.”

    The Department of the Air Force’s scientific research organization, commonly referred to as AFRL, conducts cutting-edge studies and experiments in a variety of areas to include aerospace technology and science. Ultimately, the work they do is in support of total-force Airmen and Guardians worldwide.

    “It's really easy to sit in the lab, separated and disjointed from the warfighter, and work on really interesting problems, but we are not a university,” explained Dr. Victoria Coleman, the Air Force’s chief scientist. “We support long-term research because, at the end of the day, we're going to solve a real-world problem that affects the outcome of a mission that affects the life of a fighter pilot or a crew member.”

    “I want to make sure that while I'm here, and hopefully after I leave, there will be much better connectedness between the science and technology enterprise and the war fighting enterprise, because that's what we're here for,” Coleman emphasized. “We're not here to write papers. We're not here to do experiments. We're here to support our warfighter. For me, it's a key priority to bring together those scientists and engineers out to the edge and make sure that they understand the real day-to-day hardships that a warfighter has to go through in order to fulfill their mission.”

    Some of the things AFRL is currently, or has previously, fielded to support warfighters at home station and in deployed locations are non-invasive brain stimulation to enhance cognitive performance, detonation engines to improve efficiency, toxic shock syndrome prevention, hardened aircraft shelter acoustic sensor testing, and everything else in between.

    One area that is studied extensively focuses on Airmen themselves and their overall performance.

    “There are so many different environments Airmen are in,” said Dr. Candice Hatcher-Solis, AFRL biological scientist. “You have the arctic environment with extreme cold to dry, desert heat. You have Airmen in high-performance aircraft. All these different environments can have effects on the body, so there’s a lot of research that needs to be done, and is ongoing, to sustain and enhance performance for all Airmen.”

    Hatcher-Solis stated that her current focus area involves the use of non-invasive brain stimulation to enhance sustained attention and general performance of Airmen accomplishing their daily tasks. The Airmen would wear a device equipped with electrodes that stimulate certain areas of the brain to modulate brain activity.

    “I study how we can enhance learning, memory, attention and arousal, starting with effects on the brain at the molecular level, all the way up to testing devices and developing devices in the laboratory, and then transitioning those to field studies where we’re able to take these technologies on location in an operational environment and see if it really helps Airmen and Guardians do their job,” Hatcher-Solis said. “For example, we have tasks that simulate what an intelligence surveillance and reconnaissance analyst would do on a day-to-day basis; we’re able to see if these stimulation paradigms that we’ve developed in the lab actually work to enhance their performance.”

    “The overall goal is to transition a device to Airmen to improve their performance,” Hatcher-Solis said. “We need to understand how the stimulation is working to optimize its effect. For example, with a non-invasive brain stimulation, we found that it’s more effective than caffeine at improving alertness, mood and performance.”

    Airmen could get a better result than they do from their daily caffeine booster while also eliminating the inevitable crash. Additionally, brain stimulation research is being used to determine how to help Airmen learn faster, retain information longer, promote skill retention and provide fatigue relief from a long workday.

    Hatcher Solis is a civilian working at the AFRL and can take on these innovative projects regularly. To encourage technically proficient Airmen to innovate, the AFRL uses the Edison Grant program, which was co-developed with the Air Force Chief Scientist’s office.

    The idea is that military members will create a proposal for an experiment and if approved, will partner with a lab to execute those experiments. Muraleetharan was selected as one of the recipients for the grant in 2022.

    “I was awarded an Edison Grant,” Muraleetharan explained. “It was a call for proposals to the entire Department of the Air Force; for Airmen and Guardians, enlisted and officers, who are in a science or engineering-related field, or have a background in STEM. The grant allows scientists-in-uniform to lead an experiment for novel ideas.”

    While the research being done by Hatcher-Solis focuses on enhancing the performance of Airmen, Muraleetharan focused more on the technological side of experimentation: reimagining standard detonation engines.

    “A rotating detonation engine is a high-performance, pressure-gain combustor or engine concept to try to improve the efficiency and work of an engine,” Muraleetharan said. “Historically, these have normally been annular or circular in design. That’s how typical engine design has been. We want to start exploring innovative and interesting ideas to improve their form factor and efficiency and make something that could transform how we develop and field these technologies.”

    Though some of the experiments at AFRL focus on technological advances, others take a look at gaining a better understanding of long-standing issues and how to best mitigate them.

    Maj. Erin Almand, Air Force Academy professor, received an Edison Grant to research Toxic Shock Syndrome, a life-threatening complication caused by bacterial infection that can affect anyone through skin wounds or surgery, as well as women using tampons and other menstrual or birth control devices.

    “Most of the previous studies look at what happens at the zero-to-eight hour marks, and look at things like absorbency,” Almand said. “We want to see what happens when women are using them longer than that, as many of our pilots are. Is there a way to do it safely?”

    Almand said that the ultimate goal of her experiments is to be able to provide recommendations for military members.

    “Toxic shock affects one to three out of 100,000 U.S. women 19 to 44, but that is a significant number over a large population,” Almand said.

    In addition to researching keeping Airmen safe from infections, Edison Grants also lead to experiments designed to protect others from poor acoustics.

    Hardened aircraft shelters are reinforced hangars for military fighter aircraft around the world. Though they still hide and protect fighter aircraft, they were not designed with fifth-generation aircraft in mind, and vary dramatically in wall thickness, shapes and sizes. With maintenance crews performing work on aircraft like the F-35 Lightning II, there is a need to ensure the safety of aircraft and crew working inside these shelters.

    “From one shelter to the next, the noise levels can vary,” said Dr. Alan Wall, 711th Human Performance Wing physical acoustics researcher. “This has to do with the geometry of the shelter: the composition of the walls, ceiling, floors and perhaps the most critical — the interaction with the jet itself to what’s called the jet-blast deflector, a concrete structure at the back of the shelter that takes the flow off the jet engine and diverts it away from the shelter.”

    Wall explained that aircrews need to ensure they are using recommended levels of hearing protection, as well as ensure sound vibrations within the shelter are not damaging the aircraft itself.

    “We go to the site, bringing an F-35 with us to park inside the shelter, and we cover the aircraft with microphones,” Wall said. “These microphones are acoustics sensors directly on the panels, or skin, of the aircraft. They could be in 30 different locations — wherever the structural experts tell us that the acoustic pressures can’t exceed a certain level. Then the aircraft is run up from low engine power, and the acoustic data is recorded in real time — evaluated on the spot.”

    Wall said that he and his team are working toward a solution to apply to the various shelters, as well as developing future modeling and simulation to stave off the process and cost of needing to test each individual shelter.

    “Our goal is to be able to predict the answers based on information about the HAS that can be sent to us, which equates to a large long-term cost saver for the Department of Defense and each partner and foreign military sales country receiving the F-35.”

    Though not every experiment may be a success, even after funding, Muraleetharan stressed that good can come from all funded projects and ideas.

    “Everyone has a way to solve the problems that we have, but we might not be getting to the solution as fast as possible,” Muraleetharan said. “If we try out new things and transform the way we do business, we can solve some of the problems we have by just moving fast, developing technology faster, testing faster and getting these technologies and solutions to the warfighter as fast as possible.”

    “The goal with experimentation is to test something new and potentially game-changing,” Muraleetharan said. “If we try out new ideas that don’t progress, we still learn what doesn't work and what to evaluate next. Failure is part of research and just motivates us to try again to solve the problem in a different way. If we can transform the way we do business, we can test faster, develop technology faster, and transition these technologies and solutions to the warfighter as fast as possible.”



    Date Taken: 09.21.2023
    Date Posted: 09.26.2023 12:46
    Story ID: 453966

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