AFRL teams with NISN, University of Colorado, for cost-saving capstone focused on first responders
WRIGHT-PATTERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Ohio (AFRL) – Haythem Mansour has a problem. But he also has “a very big passion for anything science” and he’s having a really “good time” with his problem, Mansour said from his science hub in Colorado.
Mansour, a mechanical engineering senior at the University of Colorado Denver, leads one of two student teams assigned to a capstone project sponsored by the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) and National Security Innovation Network (NSIN). The teams’ problem, presented by AFRL’s Dr. John McIntire, is the loss of communication and navigation abilities first responders often encounter with indoor emergencies.
McIntire, a security research analyst for AFRL’s Sensors directorate, thought the old problem could benefit from some young-mind innovation. So did Brandon Greene, NSIN’s regional director for its Rocky Mountain Region. Both teamed with CU Denver knowing the school’s reputation for brilliant engineers.
Mansour and his classmates did not disappoint. They were given two semesters to develop solutions, with research starting fall 2021 and a final prototype presentation expected in May 2022. The first prototype surfaced in November.
“They were really moving fast,” McIntire said. “They’re very talented and motivated.”
Both Greene and McIntire expect to be at the teams’ final presentations in May and they are already discussing further development for the anticipated prototypes. “It looks like (the students) have come up with something that has not been looked at before,” Greene said.
NSIN helped make the research happen via its Capstone program, which matches existing university capstone courses with U.S. military commands to help solve real-world national security challenges. The NSIN partnership, a first for McIntire, has provided resources and opportunities beyond what he had during previous joint AFRL projects with universities. He has been especially impressed by the commitment Greene and other NSIN facilitators have shown to keeping great ideas alive after capstones end.
“They have been very proactive,” McIntire said. “They want to see stuff move forward as much as I do.”
The resources NSIN contributed were welcome to the AFRL world where competition for research dollars is always fierce. The portion AFRL committed to the venture with CU Denver is easily a bargain, McIntire pointed out, when compared to traditional research models that usually cost at least four times as much, or more.
Ventures with university students may not look “as sophisticated” as the old way of doing things, McIntire admits, “but you get some very innovative solutions. The bang for the buck there is just incredible.”
Included in the bargain is another valuable benefit: exposing the young problem-solvers of today to ways they can be the leaders who meet the complex security threats of tomorrow. Felicia Harlow is helping make that happen. She works with McIntire as an AFRL senior security research engineer and mentored the CU Denver students with him.
Harlow is also part of what she called the “mass exodus” the Department of Defense will soon see when a large crop of elder engineers needs to be replaced after retirement. But unlike her generation, the students Harlow hopes will take her place “have a lot (more) choices” when graduating into a hyper-technology world.
Persuading students to “take their talents” to national defense, Greene said, is one of NSIN’s main goals. Ideally, Greene added, a Capstone student who was previously bound for a tech giant like Amazon says, “I had such a good time with this DOD project. Instead of Amazon, let me go see if I can do that” for my country.
Mansour said he asked to be part of the first responder project because he “wanted to do something for the benefit of the public,” and he “loves doing good for people.” The alure of the AFRL name was also a big attraction, he admitted, but his previous impression of working for the government was based on “bad stereotypes.” He didn’t give it serious consideration until he worked with people like McIntire, Harlow and Greene. Mansour not only took part in a recent NSIN Hirethon, an accelerated recruitment program for DOD organizations, he encouraged his teammates to participate.
Eli Payne, another mechanical engineering student assigned to Mansour’s team, went into the project with an interest in manufacturing. He is still leaning that way, Payne said, though his AFRL experience will travel with him post-graduation. His future will benefit from the capstone, and it connects the DOD to his future.
“It’s given me more confidence,” Payne said. “We did this. We developed something kind of cool; something kind of innovative … and it’s given me a lot of good connections.”
Another resource made available by NISN is access to a network of students at other schools with similar interests and challenges. It’s one of many advantages that came with the DOD sponsorship, according to Chad Hawkinson, the CU Denver lecturer instructing students working on the first-responder problem. Hawkinson was able to step aside, for example, and let McIntire teach a class on patents.
“Dr. McIntire is a wonderful resource,” Hawkinson said. “He brings a lot of experience … that’s been extraordinarily helpful. He’s been among the most engaged sponsors (of all CU Denver capstones).”
Some of academia’s best to benefit from the type of engagement described by Hawkinson are already working at premier DOD innovation arms like AFWERX and SpaceWERX, and “they are so far ahead of their peers in so many things,” Greene said. “They are blowing their supervisors’ minds with what they are able to accomplish.”
Greene taught future officers at the Air Force Academy before joining NSIN. He has long witnessed the powerful union of youth and innovation, and he knows the defense strategies of the last century have become insufficient and unsustainable.
Solving the problems of an unpredictable future needs to include deep engagement with the Haythem Mansours of the academic world. That is how, Greene said, “we regain our competitive edge.”
The Air Force Research Laboratory (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 11,500 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: www.afresearchlab.com.