Team Celebrates 60 Years of Advancing Technology
By Ian Graham
Special to American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Dec. 7, 2009 The technology that lets you listen to CDs, the GPS that got you around a traffic jam this morning, and even the mouse you just used to click on this story all are direct results of research conducted or sponsored by the Air Force Office of Scientific Research.
For nearly 60 years, AFOSR has pushed the limits of technological research. The resulting accomplishments have led to the creation of numerous revolutionary capabilities -- breakthroughs that have been the cornerstones in critical areas that directly support the Air Force mission -- from lasers and stealth to space weather and self-healing materials.
Brendan B. Godfrey, director of AFOSR, spoke during a Dec. 2 interview on the Pentagon Channel podcast “Armed with Science: Research and Applications for the Modern Military” about the office’s plans for continued success and the development of the next generation of outstanding scientists and engineers.
“We strive to identify and support revolutionary and far-reaching research that has a diversity of applications, attacking things that, frankly, we have no idea how to do,” said Godfrey, who holds a doctorate in physics. “If we know how to do them, we let somebody else worry about them.”
Fifty-seven of the scientists the office has sponsored in the past 60 years have gone on to win Nobel Prizes for their accomplishments. Godfrey said it’s something AFOSR’s people are proud of, but they aren’t out looking to win awards.
“We don’t set out to fund Nobel laureates,” he said. “It’s easy to fund somebody after they’re famous, but we’re quite skilled, I think, at picking out people that are going to make an impact before they’ve made it.”
The group has a long history of contributing to major advances in technology. Its funding and networking played a role in the creation of the laser, the transistor, global positioning systems, the computer mouse, stealth technology and high-pressure flight suits.
More recently, the office has worked to create three-dimensional holograms that can be changed in real time.
“We’re not far away from 3-D holographic movies – movies where you can actually step inside the action,” Godfrey said.
AFOSR looks in the long-term to keep the military ahead of its adversaries technologically. It stays on the cutting edge by networking with and funding the world’s leading researchers and trying to move their research from the laboratory to the commercial and military sectors. Currently, for example, there’s research being done in cooperation with Purdue University to create rocket fuel using aluminum nanoparticles and ice.
Godfrey said it can be particularly difficult, because by the time the public hears of a scientific breakthrough, the innovation could be years old. “We want to know where science is going, not where it’s been,” he said.
The group now is focused on three major research areas, Godfrey said. The first is working to improve aircraft and spacecraft, seeking better fuel and propulsion systems, and studying bats to learn about aerodynamics and maneuverability in close quarters.
“We know more about how bats fly than anybody else in the world,” Godfrey said. “They’re very good at maneuvering at high speeds in tight quarters, and this is what you’re going to have to do with micro-aerial vehicles as they fly around inside cities.”
AFOSR’s scientists also want to create a more complete picture of the battlefield for warfighters – “ubiquitous battlefield knowledge,” Godfrey called it. Improved microwave and laser technology can improve battlefield communications, and potentially could be used as a weapon. New sensors are being developed that can read and display multiple bands of the frequency spectrum, and studies are being done to better understand phenomena in the ionosphere and in space to improve satellite communication and longevity.
The third main research area focuses on computers, cybersecurity and decision-making – everything from creating algorithms to control large numbers of small, remotely piloted aircraft to researching human cognition to better understand how humans and computers can interact.
AFOSR has undertaken many successful ventures, but many others have not turned out as planned or have resulted in accidental discoveries with limited relevance for the Air Force. Technical risk is an accepted part of all AFOSR basic research, Godfrey said.
“[The research we do] isn’t easy – you don’t know if it’s going to work,” he said. “But you’ve got to try.”
He referred to Thomas Edison’s response when asked about the thousands of failed attempts at creating the light bulb: “Every one of them worked,” Edison said. “Every one showed me how not to make an electric light.”
“If AFOSR succeeded in every piece of research that it funded, I should be fired,” Godfrey joked, “because it would mean that we’re not reaching forward far enough -- that we’re not taking enough risks.”
(Ian Graham works in the Defense Media Activity’s emerging media directorate.)