AFRL commander shares 2021 wins, 2022 plans in Lab Life podcast

WRIGHT-PATTERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Ohio (AFRL) – “Launching into 2022,” Air Force Research Laboratory Commander Maj. Gen. Heather L. Pringle wants lab personnel to continue to embrace their “inner unicorn”—their “inner nerdiness and geekiness.”

“We’re wearing it loud and proud,” Pringle said in AFRL’s Jan. 24 Lab Life podcast episode 61, acknowledging the term of endearment she gave to the lab personnel in an episode last year for the incredible and unique talents they bring to their work.

During episode 61: “Launching into 2022,” Pringle highlights some of the 2021 successes AFRL is carrying into the new year and some of the exciting work to come.

Two AFRL technologies were featured in Popular Science magazine’s 100 Greatest Innovations of 2021. The Tactical High Power Operational Responder (THOR) won in the technology and security category, and Skyborg, AFRL’s unmanned aerial vehicles, won in the aerospace category.

“That’s nothing anybody ever seeks out, but it’s just a fun recognition for the hard work that the scientists, engineers, professionals and all the unicorns across AFRL do every day,” Pringle said. “Just getting that kind of recognition to a broader audience, it’s not often that you get to share that kind of work with the public eye.”

Other national attention AFRL received in 2021 included being designated as the Quantum Information Science Research Center for both the Air Force and the Space Force. The lab also rolled out a new Space University Research Initiative, which involves collaboration with industry and universities to develop space science and technology. In terms of transformational technology, AFRL’s WARTECH process resulted in the Department of the Air Force announcing a fourth Air Force Vanguard, Rocket Cargo, which aims to deliver large capacity cargo anywhere around the world on short timelines.

Adapting to the changing world

Pringle also spoke about AFRL’s ongoing supportive response to the Covid-19 pandemic. Epidemiologists in AFRL and its 711th Human Performance Wing have been monitoring Covid by doing things such as conducting aircraft decontamination research and analyzing samples to see if our service members across the world are positive. Pringle recently checked in on the epidemiology lab as they handle the recent surge, and she said they are upping their production right now, but their morale is high.

“Their role continues to be very relevant today, as it was last year,” she said. “COVID-19 has not gone away. And here we are at the beginning of 2022. It’s been a long road. We still have a lot of important work to do. So, we get the mission done. We have the right technologies, the right precautions in place. But it’s just important that we maintain our vigilance and keep up with the precautions as the local conditions in each of our AFRL locations dictates.”

When Lab Life hosts Kenneth McNulty and Michele Miller asked about how AFRL is supporting other priorities, such as new Secretary of the Air Force Frank Kendall’s focus on China, Pringle said the Air Force and the Space Force play the role of “technology brain trust.”

“So, we have to be part of the technology solutions that help our warfighters for future fights or future competitions,” Pringle said. “And we are very much following the secretary’s priorities. We’re aligned, and we are supporting all his initiatives. With the strategists, the acquirers and the warfighters, our technologists come in, and we’re helping ensure that the best cutting-edge technologies are delivered to the field on the timelines that the secretary wants. So, we’re looking back in our vaults, we’re reevaluating technologies, we’re looking for new opportunities, we’re partnering with industry and pulling out all the stops to meet the secretary’s intent.”

Feeding into these priorities, Pringle’s commander’s intent for the lab continues to execute and accelerate the tenets of the Science and Technology Strategy for 2030; ‘One Lab, Two Services’ mantra and being the best AFRL team possible. To build on this mantra, Dr. Andrew Williams was hired as fulltime deputy technology executive officer for space S&T, following Dr. Kelly Hammett, who performed some of the role’s functions parttime while he was dual-hatted as the director for AFRL’s Directed Energy Directorate.

One particular area of space S&T Pringle anticipates increased focus on this year is climate.

“AFRL has a long history of doing research and development on all the various impacts on air operations and space operations. We also need to better understand space weather, for example, and how that affects operations out in space. And even looking at how can we be more efficient with our use of energy. We certainly are operating in these challenging environments, and so gaining that better understanding of the factors that affect our ability to operate is all part of what AFRL does.”

Transforming the enterprise

Another area of focus for Pringle is digital transformation of the lab enterprise. Pringle commissioned a digital transformation strategy at the end of 2021 and said that standing up a digital war room will be one of the first tasks of 2022, with a focus on data.

“You’re not going to have a digital transformation unless you have the right data stored, accessible, transparent and shareable, and so that’s what we will be focused on to increase state of discovery,” she said.

She cited increasing and leveraging the use of collaborative tools, such as MS Teams and Google Pilot, as contributing to successful partnerships with academia, industry and external partners. Other digital tools like social media and online events such as AFRL’s Hack-A-Sat have broadened AFRL’s reach to STEM and non-government communities.

“It’s not just about the workforce that we have today and the work that we are doing today,” Pringle said. “It’s about what do we need in the future? We don’t know what the future holds, and so we need to build that steady stream of STEM talent to be excited about solving the tough problems that we have in AFRL and getting them excited about the work that we’re doing.”

Plans for 2022 also include a human capital strategy that enriches the current workforce by attracting talent, being an organization that is flexible to rising and unexpected challenges and instituting new hiring incentives to inspire applicants and new diversity inclusion and equity initiatives.

“We’re really going to focus on the workforce experience,” said Pringle. “What’s it like being on the bench at AFRL, and what can we do to enhance their work and their work experience? So, we’ll be measuring that, getting feedback and addressing that in a wide variety of ways. We know that in order to innovate, we need to have a diverse, innovative workforce.”

In addition to its annual awards and fellows ceremonies, the lab will also attempt to once again “inspire” its workforce with what Pringle says is one of her favorite annual events. Modeled after TED Talks, AFRL Inspire calls on the workforce to submit stories about their challenges and successes, and if chosen, tell their stories to an audience about how they approached, overcame and solved these challenges.

“That’s really exciting for the rest of the workforce to see—that it is hard work, but we’re getting through it and other people are working through their own challenges. And so, it’s really a great event to build camaraderie. It also helps us learn.”

“I’m just so proud to be a part of AFRL,” Pringle said. “We may have some plans and some bold, risky objectives out there in human capital and digital and developing new science and technology in new areas, but we truly don’t know what’s going to happen this year. And the good news is that our workforce is ready and inspired, and I know they’re already hitting the ground running.”

For those interested in listening to the full episode, this Lab Life podcast is available on multiple platforms or listen below.

Stream or download at the Defense Visual Information Distribution Service website at

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collage of podcast speakers

In the Jan. 24, 2022 episode of the Air Force Research Laboratory’s Lab Life podcast, AFRL Commander Maj. Gen. Heather L. Pringle talks all things AFRL with hosts Michele Miller and Kenneth McNulty, including: successes, supporting the warfighter and Covid efforts, climate research, digital transformation, human capital strategy and annual events to look forward to. (Courtesy photo)