AFRL collaborates with Purdue University on autonomy challenge project

WRIGHT-PATTERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Ohio (AFRL) – Air Force Research Laboratory researchers are collaborating with Purdue University students on an autonomy challenge project, projected for completion in May 2021.

“Collaboration with Purdue is an on-going effort that began in 2020 when AFRL established an Educational Partnership Agreement (EPA) with Purdue,” said Andrea Gilkey, a senior engineer with AFRL. “Through this EPA, multiple threads for collaboration are being developed and the student outreach effort is just one of these facets.”

In 2020, AFRL leadership met with the Aerospace System Directorate’s Air Force Women in Science and Engineering (AFWISE) members. AFWISE members highlighted the need to increase employment opportunities for minorities within the directorate. Through AFRL’s collaboration with Purdue, researchers are able to directly connect with students and open doors for hands-on learning and future career opportunities.

“The goal is to excite and inspire women and minority students about the opportunities at the Air Force Research Lab,” said Cynthia Evers, the Aerospace Systems Directorate Deputy Chief Engineer. “In providing this mentorship, we hope to encourage scientific curiosity, develop needed skillsets, and support diversity in future candidate pools.”

AFRL researchers offered students the opportunity to work on a relevant autonomy topic, focused on demonstrating an unmanned aircraft system (UAS) rendezvous with a moving ground target. Purdue turned this opportunity into a two-semester undergraduate course.

“This project has provided valuable real-world project experience to the students and has been mutually beneficial,” said Gilkey. “While AFRL is able to collaborate with potential, future employees, these students in turn now have something valuable to put on their resumes besides just coursework completed.”

This project involved 23 students completing computer vision, trajectory planning, formal verification, and autonomous vehicle control tasks. The project spans two semesters and will conclude with a live demonstration at the Purdue campus in West Lafayette, Indiana. AFRL researchers are providing feedback, mentoring students and offering guest lectures to showcase diverse AFRL topics.

“It is motivating to see the students so excited,” said Gilkey. “I am very proud of the AFRL team helping out. We assembled a team in short order and everyone has stepped up to make sure we keep things on track while still supporting our own project needs.”

This collaborative project will be assessed in the coming months, opening the door for AFRL to engage and positively impact young minds.

“Mentoring opportunities like this benefit the Air Force both now and in the future,” said Evers. “Of course we are looking to get the students excited about the mission of the Air Force and investing in our future workforce, but opportunities like these also provide our current employees a different perspective on our work and another reminder that our job is not only to deliver technology but also to develop our people.”

illustration of project

Air Force Research Laboratory researchers provided Purdue University students with this challenge project illustration. This image represents a problem that students must devise a solution for. (Courtesy photo by Andrea Gilkey)