Pentagon Channel Documentary Focuses on Futuristic Military Technology
By David Mays
Special to American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, May 9, 2007 On a military installation near Dayton, Ohio, not far from where Orville and Wilbur Wright designed a powered aircraft that would be the first in history to successfully fly, scientists are working around the clock to develop amazing future technology for tomorrow’s war fighters.
Breakthrough work of the Air Force Research Laboratory at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base is the focus of a new edition of Pentagon Channel’s monthly documentary, “Recon.”
“Inventing for the Future” debuts May 11 at noon Eastern Time and will be made available via podcast and video on demand.
“Today, thousands of American men and women are in the midst of a war zone,” said Recon host Air Force Master Sgt. Daniela Marchus. “They’re better equipped and trained than ever before, but there is always room for improvement.”
Those improvements are under way at AFRL thanks to a team using everything from chemistry to aerodynamics to nanotechnology to better equip servicemembers.
“The United States Air Force science and technology not only leads the Air Force but really leads the country and the world in promoting relevant science and technology advancement,” said Dr. Mark Lewis, chief scientist of the U.S. Air Force. “Number 1, we want to provide the warfighter with technology that meets their immediate needs. Number 2, we want to provide them with technology that will meet their far-term needs. That means we’re always looking at evolving our current systems, finding ways to make it better. But we’re also looking for the revolutionary concepts that might be complete game-changers.”
One of these game-changers may be a program called “X-51,” which explores hypersonic flight.
“That is flight in excess of five, six times the speed of sound,” said Lewis. “Now, to put that in perspective, a jet fighter will fly at one and a half, maybe twice the speed of sound, Mach 2. What we’re interested in is a range of aircraft and spacecraft that can operate in the atmosphere in the speed range of approximately Mach 6, 7, 8.”
Another breakthrough AFRL project explored in this Recon is development of the next generation of unmanned aerial vehicles which have been extensively used in operations Enduring and Iraqi Freedom.
AFRL sensorcraft project manager John Perdzok envisions “a platform that can do the air-to-air surveillance, also provide surveillance to the ground and to do that somewhat seamlessly so the platform can perform whatever function is needed at the time and to do that over very large quantities of airspace and ground space.”
AFRL also is actively working on problems servicemembers are experiencing in war zones as the fight goes on. One such problem is known as “brown-out” which is blinding conditions helicopter pilots face when landing in arid regions like Iraq and Afghanistan.
“Once you set up for the approach, you’re really just setting yourself up for a controlled crash,” said Air Force Maj. Michael Grub, who is featured in the documentary and showed Pentagon Channel producers dramatic video of these terrifying scenarios. “Once you’re engulfed in the dust, you’re in the landing attitude, and you just continue until you hit the ground.”
These damaging landings so alarmed Lt. Gen. Michael W. Wooley, commander of Air Force Special Operations Command, that he contacted AFRL asking for urgent help. A team of scientists working with the pilot who had experienced “brown-outs” first-hand took just three months to come up with a solution.
“It’s an incredible technology, really,” said Grub. “They’ve taken an 11-megapixel camera, take a picture of the landing zone, use the aircraft’s navigation system, which for us is extremely accurate, takes a picture, maps it out in space, and then overlays your position onto the landing site. We were seeing guy’s shoelaces at one football field distance … at night.”
In addition to solving battlefield crises at lightning speed, “Inventing for the Future” demonstrates how AFRL scientists are leading the way in alternative energy production, such as batteries that can be recharged in the field no matter how remotely a servicemember is deployed, synthesized fuels that can power tomorrow’s military jets, even complex microbiology that could help save servicemembers’ lives.
“Clearly we’re interested in protecting our airmen and airwomen from chemical and biological attacks,” said Lewis. “But it’s much more than that.”
“The mission of AFRL basically is we lead the discovery and integration of affordable warfighting technology in air, space and cyberspace,” said retired Air Force Col. Jack Blackhurst, who works with AFRL’s plans and programs directorate. “We’re the single agency that looks long-range at what might be possible for the Air Force in the future.”
“In 1903, the Wright brothers started a revolution, one that gave them access to the skies,” Marchus said. “We’ve come far in our development of aircraft, but the process started by the Wright brothers more than a century ago continues.”
(David Mays works at the Pentagon Channel.)