Team Eglin takes Research Lab competition

REDSTONE ARSENAL, Alabama – Teams from Air Force Materiel Command bases around the country came together to answer the Air Force Research Laboratory Commander’s Challenge–precision, austere resupply. Move 50 pounds of supplies 30 miles and deliver them to a 20 X 20 foot drop zone.

“So, the idea is you’re 30 miles away … you’re in a combat zone, we’ve got people behind enemy lines outside of a forward operating base, and we need to get them supplies before we can get them support,” explained Capt. John P.K. Walton, this year’s AFRL Commander’s Challenge program officer.The contestants were given six months and a small budget to solve the problem.

Teams came up with a variety of hardware—remotely controlled helicopters and ultralights, autonomous vehicles and gliders, and supply canisters that use the principle of autorotation to slow their descent.

Software was developed. Apps were written from scratch to send, receive and track supply requests.

Four teams gathered at the Army’s Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville, Alabama, February 26, for a week-long fly-off to see whose concept would come out on top. However, the new hardware, software and procedures were secondary in the goals of the challenge.

“By far, the more important return on investment is all of you,” Maj. Gen. William T. Cooley, AFRL commander, told the participants at the awards banquet March 2, marking the end of the fly-off.

In an earlier interview, Cooley explained that the challenge is specifically set up for the junior work force.

“The investment we make is developing these future leaders, technologists, contracting officers and engineers from across the workforce,” Cooley said. “This is a formative experience for many of them to really have an opportunity to make a difference and rise to a challenge in a competitive environment.”

The development of team-working skills and acquisition knowledge gained does not mean there was not some pretty impressive innovation going on.

“I am always amazed at the innovation and the capability that we see from our work force when we take the shackles off and give them the opportunities to apply their talents, their education, their skills, their practical insights, and bring their enthusiasm to make a difference,” Cooley said.

Cooley cited the work of Senior Airman Rob Dome, a precision measurement equipment laboratory technician at Eglin Air Force Base, Florida, as an example.

“I was particularly impressed with a senior airman who worked in PMEL and nearly single-handedly built a helicopter from commercially available parts.” Cooley said of Dome. “Kudos to the leadership who gave him the opportunity–he has tremendous talent and capability to bring to the Air Force and this Commander’s Challenge gave him an opportunity to really shine.”

Dome and Team Eglin were not alone in their innovation.

“Every team came up with something I wouldn’t have thought of,” Walton said. “We intentionally say ‘I don’t want my ideas—I have my ideas—I want your ideas,’” he added.

Team Kirtland developed a small, autonomous vehicle designed to be dropped near the drop zone—for the purpose of the demonstration, by an unmanned ultralight aircraft—that makes its own way to preprogrammed GPS coordinates carrying supplies and its own remote control so it can be used by the warfighters after they’ve retrieved the supplies.

Team Hanscom came up with an autonomous glider that can be dropped from other aircraft. Meer explained the purpose of the glider is to provide stealth.

Team Hanscom matched their new glider with an application they designed for use on Nett Warrior, an operating system used by the U.S. military in the field on hand-held devices. The app lets a warfighter order supplies and keep track of the order while it is on route to them.

Team Bug 2, the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base team, also designed an application which they billed as “agnostic across delivery platforms.”

The app designer team member, 1st Lt. Michael Ledford, National Air and Space Intelligence Center, was also singled out by Cooley for praise.

Ledford developed the software after taking a course in application design. It allows a soldier to order supplies while letting him know if his request exceeds the available vehicle payloads. It keeps the warfighter informed on the status of the order and its exact location while it is enroute. It also lets the requester send updated information should he have to move or the situation changes.

Team Eglin, the winning team, joined their remote-controlled helicopter with a patent-pending supply canister that has its own set of blades that use autorotation to slow the canister in its descent.

All of these programs proceeded from brainstorm to demonstration in a six-month time frame on a limited budget.

Hard work was key.