The Air Force Research Laboratory has found a winning strategy for solving real world problems facing the war fighter.
Each year AFRL poses a clearly defined problem to several universities and service academies, challenging them to compete for a “best solution” based upon certain criteria including system weight, ruggedness, time to employ, effectiveness, cost and creativity.
AFRL wins by collecting the great ideas that emerge from the competitions, while being introduced to some of our country’s finest up-and-coming engineers. University students win by experiencing real-world problem resolution while getting a chance to save the lives of servicemen and women. In addition, they’re able to see how fun it could be to work for AFRL.
This year AFRL asked 16 universities, the West Point Military Academy, the Naval Academy, and the Air Force Academy to devise an easily packable, lightweight bridge system to help the warfighter cross chasms between 5 feet and 20 feet wide. In addition to safely crossing a gap, the best solutions also had to function as a ladder, and be used as a stretcher.
In late April, after nine months of work, the teams tested their devices during a weeklong event at the Air Force Enlisted Village in Shalimar, Fla. The university teams demonstrated their solutions during the first five days of competition while the military academy teams took stage on the sixth day. The university teams and the academy teams were judged separately.
Of the academy teams, the Air Force Academy cadets came out on top. Their design was the only one of the three to complete the demonstrations without failure. Their solution weighed just 16 pounds and was capable of crossing the full 20-foot gap. Its basic design comprised a rope bridge supported by two carbon fiber poles; their arrangement could be used as a ladder as well.
Utah State University placed first among the 16 university teams. Their winning design is a segmented plank-type bridge molded entirely of carbon fiber over a foam core. It had no-slip strips on one side that enabled a person to use it as a ramp to scale a 30-degree incline. It proved very stable on horizontal gaps, allowing an average-weight male easily cross a 20-foot chasm – yet fully assembled it weighed just 27 pounds.
Utah State also brought a second prototype design for evaluation. The second was a mesh (webbed netting) supported by carbon fiber poles, capable of crossing gaps up to 20 feet. It has a packed volume of 2.7 cubic feet, weighs 35 lbs, and can be used as a bridge, a ladder, and a stretcher.
Some of the other designs included accordion-like expanding trusses, molded segmented arches, light-weight trusses with rolling trolley carts, and various truss and cable systems. Many of the designs employed carbon fiber components, taking advantage of the high-strength/light-weight properties of carbon fiber. One team integrated carbon fiber segments with aluminum joints to construct a ladder assembled from identical pieces. This 20-foot assembly could be broken down into 20-inch sections.
According to Design Challenge program lead Devon Parker, “Several university teams gave us great solutions that we think could be developed into a product we can field. One thing that always amazes me is how much these students are fired up about this program. Their motivation comes from knowing they’re working on a real-world problem, and their efforts could end up in a fielded product that saves lives. These are the engineering students of the future and we’re giving them an invaluable experience to help them be better prepared for life after graduation. If their efforts help the Air Force solve a nagging problem along the way, then it’s a win-win.”
AFRL has already begun developing a deployable solution from the best of the competing teams. This team is taking advantage of the real value in this competition – the myriad solutions presented. Good devices are important in winning the event, but techniques and methods of attacking the problem also aid in developing a “best” solution to the problem. Careful attention is paid to recording not only the performance of the team’s device, but also the way various teams work to tackle the design challenge. After the event, AFRL design teams use all this information to create a deployable solution. One design may win the competition, but the final product produced by AFRL researchers often combines elements of various teams.
Retired CMSgt. Mickey Wright was an integral part of the AFRL team that supported the challenge. He served as a combat controller during his 30-year career with the U.S. Air Force and is now a contractor with Rally Point Management, which partnered with AFRL to plan and execute the annual design competition. Mr. Wright helped define the challenge, organize and run the competition itself, and provide post-competition analysis of solutions and their feasibility for the Air Force.
According to Wright, “While the universities look at this as a challenge, our airmen look at it as a life-saving device when they are in the worst of conditions, from peacetime rescues to fierce firefights. Our troops know this product will aid them in real-world situations across the globe, so we want to ensure we properly field test the devices, many of which have never left the university laboratory.”
An added dimension to this year’s AFRL Design Challenge was use of The Air Force Enlisted Village as host. The AFEV is a nonprofit organization that provides affordable housing for the surviving spouses of enlisted servicemen and women.
“This event was a tremendous success,” said AFEV Director Sharon Behnke. “The students and participants were extremely courteous, and our residents were pleased to see some of the nation’s best and brightest engineering students showcasing their talents.