The Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL), headquartered at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio, was formed in October 1997 through the consolidation of four former Air Force laboratories and the Air Force Office of Scientific Research.

Dr. Richard A. McKinley, who leads the Non-Invasive Brain Stimulation (NIBS) team in the 711th Human Performance Wing at AFRL, explores how electrical stimulation to the human brain affects cognition, fatigue, mood, and other areas, with the end goal of improving warfighter awareness, memory, and focus. (U.S. Air Force photo by J.M. Eddins Jr.)

AFRL's mission is leading the discovery, development, and integration of warfighting technologies for U.S. air, space, and cyberspace forces. The lab consists of scientists, researchers, and entrepreneurs who perform basic and applied research, and advanced technology development in these areas.

AFRL accomplishes its mission through eight Technology Directorates (Aerospace Systems, Directed Energy, Improving Human Performance, Information, Materials and Manufacturing, Munitions, Sensors, and Space Vehicles), the Air Force Office of Scientific Research (AFOSR), and the 711th Human Performance Wing. It also operates the Major Shared Resource Center at Wright-Patterson, one of four high-performance computing centers in the Department of Defense (DOD). The center tackles large-scale problems previously beyond the reach of processing platforms, and provides an array of services.


Aerospace Systems – Among the technologies in development within this directorate are scramjet engines, alternative fuels, unmanned vehicles, hypersonic vehicles, collision avoidance systems, and aircraft energy optimization.

Directed Energy – Located at Kirt-land Air Force Base in New Mexico, this directorate develops and transitions technologies in four technical competencies: laser systems, highpower electromagnetics, weapons modeling and simulation, and directed energy and electro-optics for space superiority. The AFRL pioneered the first and only megawatt-class airborne laser and is the world leader in ground-based space imaging using adaptive optics.

Improving Human Performance – This directorate is the first human-centric warfare wing to consolidate human performance research, education, and consultation in a single organization. The 711th Human Performance Wing encompasses 75 occupational specialties including science and engineering, occupational health and safety, medical professions, technicians, educators, and business operations and support.

Information – This directorate is the premier research organization for Command, Control, Communications, Computers, and Intelligence (C4I), and cyber technologies. It explores, prototypes, and demonstrates high-impact, affordable, and game-changing technologies that transform data into information, and subsequently knowledge, for decision-makers and command and control forces.

Materials & Manufacturing – Air Force product centers, logistics centers, and operating commands rely on this directorate's experience in materials, nondestructive inspection, systems support, and advanced manufacturing methods. The directorate develops materials, processes, and manufacturing technologies for aircraft, spacecraft, missiles, rockets, and ground-based systems and their structural, electronic, and optical components.

Munitions – Located at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida, this directorate develops conventional munitions technologies to provide a strong technology base upon which future air-delivered munitions can be developed.

Sensors – This directorate's mission is to lead the discovery and development of future capabilities, providing integrated Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR); combat identification; and spectrum warfare effects.

Space Vehicles – Headquartered at Kirtland Air Force Base, the Space Vehicles Directorate is the Air Force Center of Excellence for space technology research and development. The directorate develops and transitions space technologies to provide space-based capabilities. Primary mission areas include space-based ISR, space situational awareness, space communications, position navigation and timing, and defensive space control (protecting space assets from manmade and natural effects).

Using a quadcopter drone and a first-person-view video headset, Fast Lightweight Autonomy (FLA) would reduce operator workload and stress, and allow humans to focus on higher-level supervision of multiple formations of manned and unmanned platforms as part of a single system. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Brandon Shapiro)

The Air Force Office of Scientific Research (AFOSR) continues to expand the horizon of scientific knowledge through management of the Air Force's basic research program. AFOSR's mission is to support Air Force goals of control and maximum utilization of air, space, and cyberspace. AFOSR accomplishes its mission by investing in basic research efforts for the Air Force in relevant scientific areas.

Early Technology Breakthroughs

In 1951 and 1952, AFOSR awarded research grants to Dr. Joseph Keller to explore ways in which airborne vehicles would be less susceptible to radar. Soon afterwards, his work helped lead to radar reflectivity solutions for stealth applications.

Air National Guardsmen set up a remote operational video-enhanced receiver for video from overhead aircraft to provide situational awareness. AFRL is investigating the use of artificial intelligence (AI) to scan a live video feed faster and more accurately than any human, and then warn commanders of imminent danger. (Photo by Master Sgt. John Nimmo Sr./Louisiana National Guard)

In the early 1960s, AFOSR awarded a contract to Dr. Douglas Engelbart and the Stanford Research Institute for research on augmenting human intellect and the potential for computers to assist people in complex decision-making. His 1962 report to AFOSR served as a roadmap for developing computer technologies — particularly in the area of human interfaces. This was followed in 1964 with his design of the first computer mouse, a wooden casing with two metal wheels that provided a way to “point and click” on a display screen. His team also was involved in the development of ARPANET, the precursor of the Internet.

Superconductivity has been a key field of endeavor for AFOSR research for more than 50 years. In 1964, an AFOSR-funded team at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD) discovered a new category of superconducting materials. High-transition-temperature superconductors are used in Air Force telecommunication systems, resulting in more secure communications and superior radar systems.

AFOSR was a pioneer in what is now termed biomimetics — the study of the structure and function of biological systems as models for the design and engineering of materials and machines. One of the first biomimetic breakthroughs occurred through the efforts of AFOSR's European Office of Aerospace Research and Development, which funded research that resulted in the biological equivalent of lens coatings. This program found that the surface of the compound eye of certain insects and crustaceans is covered with geometrically spaced, dome-shaped protuberances. These protuberances, because of their shape and spacing, efficiently reduce reflections from the surface of the eye, thus allowing the eye to capture more available light and see better in dim light. Several large-scale models of these projections, made of semiconducting material, were built to study the mechanism of this system with the use of microwaves. It was found that by varying the size and spacing of the projections, nearly all the microwaves can be reflected, thereby reducing the band of frequencies to a very narrow band. This early research precipitated further endeavors towards the application of this discovery to optical and radio sensing devices and to the design of more sensitive and selective antennas.

The first suggestion that energetic protons could be an effective method for medical treatment was made in 1946 by a researcher at the Harvard Cyclotron Laboratory (HCL). The first treatments were performed with particle accelerators built for physics research. This was followed by AFOSR-supported investigations in Sweden regarding the effect of irradiation by high-energy proton beams on brain tissue, which helped lead to the refinement of proton beam therapy, whereby techniques were developed to target certain areas of the brain for irradiation. The most important application of the proton beam is its use as a microsurgical tool.

An early 1960s AFOSR research program resulted in the Code Division Multiple Access (CDMA) System that provided precise ranging and timing data, and allowed all satellites within a constellation to broadcast on the same frequency without interfering with each other.

While operating under an AFOSR grant in 1967, Dr. Byron Knowles of Texas A&M University conceptualized a design for a low-cost Global Positioning System. In 1973, the results of this GPS design were integrated with other system initiatives and eventually resulted in the NAVSTAR GPS program. Today, the Air Force operates the largest GPS constellation in history with more than 30 satellites.

Swept wing design in supersonic aircraft reduces performance loss resulting from the shock wave interaction with the wing. This same concept was studied by AFOSR to make rotor blades in axial flow compressors more efficient, which led to increased performance. This new development improved compressor efficiency by almost 90 percent. Use of these blades resulted in aircraft engines with fewer stages and higher thrust-to-weight ratios. Better thrust-to-weight ratios meant more powerful engine performance with an accompanying 20 percent increase in range due to reduced fuel consumption for longer loiter times. This technological breakthrough in engine component design solved a problem that aerodynamicists had struggled with for years. Swept blade technology is now commonplace in current engine design. This technological advance has saved millions in fuel costs.

A base-layer shirt with an embedded sensor is used to monitor human performance at the AFRL's 711th Human Performance Wing as part of the STRONG program in which researchers in physiology, bio-signatures, physical training, nutrition, and sensors assess cognitive and physical performance in order to develop training, supplementation, and technology for performance enhancement. (U.S. Air Force photo by J.M. Eddins Jr.)

Today's Technologies

In 1993, Professor Frank Karasz of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst successfully synthesized a new polymer that allowed “high-definition” information to be seen on flat-panel displays. This technology lead to today's HD televisions.

AFOSR has provided research funding for fast, bendable electronics on two fronts: organic/polymeric materials and inorganic/semiconductor applications. Because organic materials are flexible and can be printed onto large areas, they have potential uses in conformal electronics over large structural areas or antennas. The organic/polymeric electronic materials research effort is now investigating materials that can be applicable to “stretchable” electronics. With advances in inorganic membrane research, flexible — or bendable — electronics can be fabricated from more traditional inorganic materials. The ability to synthesize and manipulate extremely thin films of solid-state materials enables wholly new approaches for improving performance and reducing size, weight, and power in defense and commercial systems.

Studying laser and optical technologies for medical applications, AFOSR focuses on diagnosing and treating wounded military personnel, with significant spinoff civilian applications often further funded by tire National Institutes of Health or commercial companies. One significant area funded by AFOSR is Optical Coherence Tomography (OCT). Today, OCT is the standard of care in diagnosing eye diseases. It is also becoming indispensable in diagnosing and understanding cardiac disease, understanding diseases of the airway — including early diagnosis due to smoke inhalation — as well as burn and eye trauma injuries.

Geospatial Information Interoperability Exploitation Portable (GIIEP) “go kits” feature self-contained communications equipment and other hardware that allows for real-time and near-real-time full-motion video, digital imagery, and in-flight chat capability with federal, state, and local emergency operations centers supporting emergency situations. (Civil Air Patrol photo by Steve Cox)

Since 2005, AFOSR-funded work has resulted in the development of many new artificial muscle types, including electrochemical carbon nanotube and conducting polymer muscles, as well as fuel-powered muscles. The latter, powered chemically by alcohol or hydrogen, operate similarly to natural muscles, but they are limited in that they cannot function at extreme temperatures and have low efficiencies for energy conversion. Nano-based muscles, which are 30 times stronger than natural muscles, are made of very thin sheets of nanotubes that, on a weight basis, are strong as steel in one direction and as elastic as rubber in two other directions. They are being viewed as a means for endowing soldiers with superhuman strength through the use of exoskeletons. Artificial muscles may also be used to actuate “smart skins,” which would give Air Force aircraft the ability to change their appearance.

An AFRL-developed transparent coating causes water to bead up into drops and roll or bounce off a surface. This technology will help protect and sustain Air Force systems by preventing corrosion and reducing ice formation on optical elements and aircraft. (U.S. Air Force photo)

The Counter-electronics High Power Microwave Advanced Missile Project (CHAMP) is an unmanned system capable of flying into a contested area and disabling an adversary's electronic systems. It employs a high-power radio frequency technology that was developed over the past two decades at AFRL. CHAMP offers a proven capability that allows the Air Force to defeat electronic systems in an enemy structure without employing kinetic weapons like bullets or explosives. As such, CHAMP completely avoids damage to infrastructure and danger to life. The CHAMP system is highly adaptable and can be deployed from a variety of platforms, depending on mission needs.

BATMAN (Battlefield Air Targeting Man-Aided k(N)owledge) is an advanced research program that develops wearable technologies for Special Operations team members to increase their situational awareness. The project is continually looking at auditory, visual, and tactile interfaces to relay information more intuitively and help lighten the load for airmen, both in the physical and cognitive sense.

Advanced Capability for Understanding & Managing Effects Networks (ACUMEN) provides the capability to conduct near-real-time effects-based plan status monitoring, plan forecasting and impact analysis, plan improvement recommendations, and plan re-apportionment.

The Air Space Cyber-User Defined Operational Picture (ASC-UDOP) is an AFRL-developed visualization application that allows users to graphically configure and manipulate data streams from a variety of sources pertaining to the air, space, and cyber domains.

The Joint Targeting Toolbox (JTT) is a suite of Web-based interoperable targeting tools used to support operations and intelligence targeting requirements at the national, theater, operational, and tactical levels.

Technology Transfer

The Air Force Technology Transfer Program (T2 Program), located at Wright-Patterson, was created to ensure Air Force science and engineering activities are transferred or intentionally shared with state and local governments, industry, and academia.

For information on the technologies available for licensing, or to learn more about various AFRL partnership opportunities, contact the T2 Program at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. , or visit here .

Tech Briefs Magazine

This article first appeared in the August, 2018 issue of Tech Briefs Magazine.

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