May 1, 2012

AFRL design challenge encourages engineering innovation

by Laura Dempsey
Wright-Patterson AFB, Ohio

The Air Force Research Laboratory played host, mentor, cheerleader and critic to teams from all three service academies and 17 universities at the annual AFRL Design Challenge.

The challenge took place April 16-20 at Wright State University’s Calamityville, a National Center for Medical Readiness training facility in Fairborn, Ohio.

AFRL collected input from the Lab’s most important customer – the war fighter – in settling on a problem with real-world application and rapid transition potential. In August 2011, teams were given the war fighter-focused engineering design challenge, $20,000, and nine months to come up with a demonstrable solution.

“It’s a total win-win”, said Dr. Alok Das, AFRL Senior Scientist for Design Innovation, the event’s sponsor. “AFRL gets the benefit of some very creative ideas that address a real military need, while the students get an opportunity to work under real-world conditions. They gain experience in rapid prototyping and engineering a solution to a customer need, knowing that their design could truly make a difference.”

This year’s challenge was to design a system allowing a team of four Special Operations Force personnel to scale buildings or mountain faces under a variety of conditions. The teams were given system parameters – for instance, a system maximum weight of 20 pounds, with a goal of 5 pounds. Teams were judged on both objective measures (weight, size, velocity achieved) and subjective measures (ease of operation, useability, stealth, innovation and elegance).

April 16, the three service academies – The United States Air Force Academy, The United States Naval Academy, and West Point – were pitted against each other in the first phase of the Design Challenge, the Service Academy Challenge. For the cadets and midshipmen, most of whom are senior engineering students, the design challenge constituted their Capstone Project. There was a grade involved, but paramount in the students’ minds was snagging the traveling trophy to take home to their school.

The second phase, the Design Challenge for the Universities, was conducted April 17-20. Team were made up of seniors who selected this project for their Capstone Engineering requirement. These students were motivated by the class grade and bragging rights for the winner, but also by the potential for a $100,000 grant to further develop their innovative idea for the Air Force.

During the competition, the teams briefed judges, safety officers and Pararescue Jumpers from the 123rd Special Tactics Squadron Air National Guard Unit in Louisville and from Air Force Special Operations Command (Hurlburt Field) on their process and final design. They were quizzed and congratulated, then grilled by the PJs, who were charged with physically testing the teams’ systems on the 90-foot high, sheer concrete face of an abandoned cement silo at Calamityville.

“I was impressed by the enthusiasm of these young engineers,” said Lt Col David Shahady, lead judge. “These student showed remarkable creativity and accomplished an incredible amount of practical engineering under a very demanding schedule.”

After a long day of testing, failure, simulations, restarts and successes, the U.S. Air Force Academy team was deemed to have the most promising design, beating the Navy and Army academy teams. A key element of their solution was a gun-launched device that would reach the top of the climbing surface and explosively set a concrete anchor for the lead rope. They also developed a carbon fiber ladder, which could be used in leap-frog fashion with periodically placed wall anchors to allow a climber to scale the wall.

Choosing the winner from among the University participants was difficult, as there were several very innovative prototypes successfully demonstrated. In the end, Utah State University’s concept won the day. The USU team’s design used vacuum suction pads to enable two climbers to quickly scale the wall and then drop a rope for the remaining two climbers to ascend with a powered winch won the day. The second place winner, University of Minnesota Duluth, employed an innovative solution that included a vacuum-operated wall climbing robot that set an anchor at the top of the wall.

“The breadth of solutions was impressive,” noted Devon Parker, who coordinated the competition with Lt Col Brett Bolan. “These students overcame some significant engineering challenges to create workable devices.”

In addition to a trophy for the winning teams, all participants received a specially designed University and Service Academy Design Challenge coin from Major General William N. McCasland, AFRL Commander, with sincere appreciation for their efforts. AFRL will glean the most successful elements of these concepts and work to transition a field-testable prototype over the next several months. At the same time, AFRL will start gearing up for next year’s challenge with a new problem to be solved by the next class of young engineers.


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