WRIGHT-PATTERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Ohio – Whether it is the Air Force or Department of Defense seeking solutions for hypersonics, human-machine systems, energy security strategies development or other technical challenges, faculty and graduate students from the Air Force Institute of Technology at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base may play a role in finding them.
In 2016, the Office of Research and Sponsored programs within AFIT’s Graduate School of Engineering and Management received and managed external funding for 217 research projects sponsored by numerous organizations including the Air Force Research Laboratory, National Air and Space Intelligence Center, DOD High Energy Laser Joint Technology Office and the National Security Agency.
“Since AFIT is an Air Education and Training Command organization, we do not have our own funding line for research through the normal appropriation process so we rely on sponsors who do have funding to work with us to sponsor our research activities,” said Dr. Heidi Ries, AFIT Dean for Research.
In the sponsor program’s early years some twenty years ago, Ries recalls having to aggressively go out to potential sponsors to inform them about AFIT’s research capabilities and what kind of technical expertise and support AFIT could provide them.
“The research itself is necessary as part the graduate program degree requirements,” Ries said. “When we didn’t have a large sponsor program, the minimum academic requirement for thesis could be met, but we could not afford projects with direct benefit to other organization’s missions. As the sponsor program has grown and our research reputation has increased, we are now sought out as a research partner in many areas. Our students are highly motivated to contribute to Air Force relevant projects though working with sponsors.”
Dr. Michael Caylor, the director of Sponsored Programs, said that AFIT faculty submitted more than 250 proposals to potential sponsors last year resulting in a record $25 million in external funding.
“At the end of the day, we are able to leverage our students and faculty’s time with sponsored research funding to cost effectively deliver research results that people in the broader Air Force care about and it is already in their budget to try to achieve,” Ries said.
Not all research projects are necessarily sponsored by funding. In some cases, the sponsorship is in-kind such as allowing access to data or equipment.
The largest sponsor for AFIT research is the Air Force Research Laboratory headquartered here.
“AFRL is a critical value to AFIT programs and we provide a great benefit to them as well because of the crossflow we are able to provide,” Ries said. “Another great benefit is the accessibility, our students can just walk out the doors of AFIT and over to AFRL’s Sensors Directorate or the Materials and Manufacturing Directorate and use their facilities.”
Ries said most of the time, the student’s research projects are a portion of a larger project.
“Many of the projects contribute over time because they have made an improvement here, and an improvement there,” Ries said. “Whether its radar imaging, signal processing, nuclear deterrence, test and evaluation and efficiencies, all those contributions add up over time. We tend to be more on the front end of the research so the students will do a proof of principle and then that concept gets handed over for development.”
Ries said that an important role for the student is their exploration of possibilities and narrowing the options down to the best choices for solutions or further development.
One notable contribution from the results of sponsored research projects is development of physics-based models for directed energy systems with emphasis on atmospheric propagation effects. AFIT’s Center for Directed Energy assists a number of DoD programs for directed energy weapons development to effectively utilize the models.
Another significant project delivered a new model for determining cargo aircraft fuel tinkering and fuel purchase locations, resulting in $144 million in fuel costs saving per year.
As the sponsor program grows, students participating in an AFIT pilot program will be able to reap the benefits of sponsorship for their research projects.
The Integrated Master’s Degree program was developed for competitively selected students who are working on their master’s degree with a follow-on assignment to AFRL. Students begin the program by taking classes for approximately nine months in residence at AFIT and then will be officially reassigned to AFRL to work on a research project. Once the research is complete, students will then defend their thesis at AFIT. This fall the program will be in its third year.
“The most important impact to the Air Force is that our students will take skills learned through their research experience with them to their next job,” Ries said. “That is a huge impact in terms of effective management of acquisition programs or execution of other missions. Over the years we have made the research program more relevant so students are able to engage in more important projects and can take that knowledge with them.”