AFRL grant launches Center of Excellence at FAMU-FSU College of Engineering

WRIGHT-PATTERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Ohio (AFRL) – With a $3 million research grant from the Air Force Research Laboratory, or AFRL, and its basic research directorate, the Air Force Office of Scientific Research, or AFOSR, a university-led Center of Excellence, or CoE, has been established at the FAMU-FSU College of Engineering with a focus on fundamental research to meet the mission needs of AFRL technology directorates.

The Florida Center for Advanced Aero-Propulsion, or FCAAP, located in Tallahassee, Florida, will house the new AFRL-funded CoE, a consortium known as AEROMORPH. A kickoff event for the CoE was held Oct. 5, 2023, at the center and was attended by officials from consortium members, including AFRL and university leaders from Florida State University (FSU), Florida A&M University (FAMU) and the University of Florida (UF).

Dr. Gregory Reich, director of the Multidisciplinary Science and Technology Center at AFRL’s Aerospace Systems Directorate, said the AEROMORPH CoE represents another critical step in the development of shape-adaptive systems for DOD use.

MUTANT display model

AFRL’s MUTANT display at the Air and Space Force Association’s Air, Space & Cyber Conference at National Harbor, Maryland, Sept. 11-13, 2023, highlights the research effort to significantly increase missile range and lethality against highly maneuverable targets with a better flight control system. The MUTANT program’s approach is a form of active morphing involving high-rate pivoting of the missile forebody, referred to as articulation. This area of research has developed over the last 15-20 years with basic research support from the Air Force Office of Scientific Research, or AFOSR, and will continue with research conducted at the newly launched AEROMORPH Center of Excellence at the Florida Center for Advanced Aero-Propulsion, or FCAAP, located in Tallahassee, Florida. (U.S. Air Force photo / Cherie Cullen)

“This area of research has developed over the last 15-20 years with support from AFOSR, including Dr. Les Lee and the Mechanics of Multifunctional Materials and Microsystems Portfolio, AFRL through Commander’s Research and Development Funds, or CRDF, and Seedlings for Disruptive Capabilities Program, or SDCP, in projects such as MERLIN and MUTANT, and can trace its roots back to DARPA programs Smart Wing (1995-2001) and Morphing Aircraft Structures (2003-2008),” Reich said. “These DARPA programs highlighted key knowledge and technology shortfalls that led to new fundamental research in structures, materials, mechanisms, controls and system development.”

According to an AFOSR operating instruction, a university CoE is defined as a joint effort that connects AFOSR, another AFRL technology directorate and an outstanding university or team of universities to perform high-priority collaborative research. A CoE should extend the research capabilities of AFRL and provide opportunities for a new generation of U.S. scientists and engineers to address Air Force research needs, the instruction states.

Dr. Pat Roach, AFOSR Chief Scientist, said the future begins with basic research.

“Our commitment to the AEROMORPH CoE illustrates how having the strategic foresight early on can create the foundation for future technologies that support the warfighter,” Roach said. “It is a perfect example of how AFOSR’s mission to discover, shape, champion and transition high risk basic research can profoundly impact the future Air Force and Space Force and can lay the groundwork for an integrated capabilities approach.”

AEROMORPH is not an acronym but simply the name of the CoE. CoEs are funded in equal parts by AFOSR and AFRL and typically try to address some fundamental challenge identified by AFRL. By policy, this CoE is funded at up to $1 million per year for three years, with an option to add another two years, with AFOSR funding half and the other half funded by AFRL’s Munitions, Aerospace Systems and Materials and Manufacturing technology directorates.

“Thus, they transition the ‘valley of death’ between basic research and applied research by having equal participation on both sides,” said Dr. Alex Pankonien, an aerospace research engineer based in AFRL’s Aerospace Systems Directorate. “Even more interestingly, on the AFRL side, this specific challenge was identified by three different directorates, and we’re all working closely together to shape how the CoE addresses it.”

As part of this CoE, researchers from FSU, FAMU, UF and AFRL will leverage their expertise in munitions, aerospace systems and materials and manufacturing in the multidisciplinary facility to develop technologies for next-generation high-speed flight vehicles.

The specific vision of this Center of Excellence is to develop fundamental concepts and transformational technologies that are fully integrated across Sense-Assess-Response and capable of implementation at supersonic and hypersonic speeds.

“In short, this means AFRL needs paradigm-shifting, new ways to lower the size, weight, and power associated with ‘feeling’ unsteady flow phenomena (sense), rapidly computing what to do with that information (assess) and morphing the flight vehicle’s structure appropriately (response),” Pankonien said. “We’re inspired by early advances that we’ve seen in ‘physical reservoir computing’ and think this indicates that some of the work we typically expect from conventional computers can be done by metamaterials, more local to the flow that we’re trying to control.”

Strengthening research communities

The CoE is an opportunity to document scientific understanding and develop future scientists who contribute to AFRL’s mission.

“The CoE seeks to discover novel feedback concepts for high-speed morphing structures through a holistic evaluation of synergies and innovations achievable within the sense-assess-respond framework, in addition to developing future science and technology researchers with cross-training between the fields of morphing aerospace science, adaptive and sensing materials, information theory and feedback control,” said Dr. Gregg Abate, AFOSR program officer for the CoE.

Under this construct, scientists and engineers from AFRL’s technology directorates can collaborate with primary investigators from the CoE either at the university lab or their own.

“AFRL leverages the knowledge gained through CoE research to build and strengthen research communities that are important to AFRL’s Munitions, Aerospace Systems and Materials and Manufacturing Directorates,” said Lead Senior Mechanical Engineer Dr. Benjamin Dickinson, who is based in AFRL’s Munitions Directorate at Eglin Air Force Base, Florida. “Beyond this, AFRL will leverage knowledge gained from the CoE to accelerate achievement of AFRL technology goals.”

“The CoE is intended to create general understanding at the basic research level,” Dickinson said. “As such, it does not support any particular AFRL program. However, since the CoE originates from AFRL, it is natural that AFRL technology directorate goals and potentially existing programs inspire and motivate CoE research topics.”

Focus on warfighters

Close collaboration with AFRL’s technology directorates through workforce development and joint projects will facilitate the transition of fundamental research to the next-generation warfighter as AFRL drives the future fight through science and technology.

AFRL continues to balance its diverse science and technology, or S&T, portfolio with priorities near, mid and far, while simultaneously growing partnerships across academia and industry. These partnerships are essential to cover an enormous breadth of technological demands and bring the force multiplication of an international S&T base to the future fight.

Inventing stuff that makes the future

“Everything is made of stuff” is an oft-repeated phrase from AFRL Materials and Manufacturing Directorate’s Chief Scientist Dr. Rich Vaia. The Materials and Manufacturing Directorate, for its part, has contributed Dr. Phil Buskohl, a research scientist based there, as its CoE lead. Buskohl’s groundbreaking new concepts, including information processing in materials and material-structure architectures that sense-compute-act, are expanding what adaptivity/morphing is, as well as providing new concepts for control-actuation systems.

“Rethinking how we collect and process the loading environment of high-speed vehicles in a way that leverages the complexity and nonlinearity of the underlying physics is an exciting direction of this CoE,” said Buskohl.

Buskohl noted how recent advances in adaptive materials, robotics, additive manufacturing and material design methods have opened the door to novel abstractions and mechanical computing concepts that harness interactions with their local environment.

“The CoE pulls on several of these threads, but also adds an information theory perspective which should help identity where and how to identify physical computing opportunities in the flight system,” Buskohl said.

CoE research to have military, civilian applications

“The systems have potential commercial use for advanced aircraft as well as energy systems to advance wind power and gas turbines,” said Dr. William Oates, a mechanical engineering professor and researcher who is leading the collaborative effort on the university side. “We want to develop technology that tightly integrates computations into aerodynamic morphing structures for better control and agility.”

Prime opportunity for academic engagement, pipeline for highly skilled researchers

In addition to the research-specific goals of advancing the intelligence and agility of next-generation aircraft systems, the center will provide unique opportunities for student development.

“AFRL views Center of Excellence programs as a prime opportunity for academic engagement and a pipeline for highly skilled researchers,” Abate said. “We are extremely happy and excited to start this CoE and look forward to working with FSU, FAMU and UF in the coming years.”

As a renowned, world-class institution that delivers results, AFRL’s aim is to uphold and advance this legacy, while being second to none in meeting the challenges of a historic strategic competition.

About AFRL

The Air Force Research Laboratory, or AFRL, is the primary scientific research and development center for the Department of the Air Force. AFRL plays an integral role in leading the discovery, development, and integration of affordable warfighting technologies for our air, space, and cyberspace force. With a workforce of more than 12,500 across nine technology areas and 40 other operations across the globe, AFRL provides a diverse portfolio of science and technology ranging from fundamental to advanced research and technology development. For more information, visit: