Air Force Scientists Look to Future to Ensure Airmen Have Advanced Technology

By Marisa Alia-Novobilski
Air Force Research Laboratory

Led by Dr. Benji Maruyama and comprised of a cadre of scientists and engineers, the members of the Air Force Research Laboratory’s Flexible Materials and Processing Team take comprehension of soft matter to a new level.

“We take a basic understanding of soft, flexible materials and use this as a foundation to build functional devices,” said Maruyama. “These include flexible batteries, sensors, hybrid electronic devices and more. Much of what we’re working on now the people in the field don’t even know they need yet. We’re building competencies for the future.”

Perhaps one of the most diverse research teams in the Materials and Manufacturing Directorate, the members of the flex team have backgrounds ranging from the basic sciences to engineering and applied disciplines across the research spectrum. Many researchers on the team split their time between flexible materials and other directorate research teams, enabling greater cross-functional research applications. The team’s two military members provide a direct tie to the warfighter, helping ensure work remains focused on Air Force critical needs.

A member of the Flexible Materials and Processes team at the Air Force Research Laboratory’s Materials and Manufacturing Directorate exhibits an additively manufactured electrical circuit embedded in a flexible material substrate. U.S. Air Force photo by Marisa Alia-Novobilski

Exploiting the benefits of additive technology, nanomaterials and autonomous research platforms while leveraging partnerships with industry and academia, the team masterminds a future-focused material research portfolio dedicated to ensuring the Air Force has the most advanced technology for the fight.

Though the projects within the team are diverse, all fall inside of three primary research themes. These are the human-machine interface, development of compliant and functional materials, and processing and novel device packaging and integration of materials for sensing, power and communications.

The scientists are focusing on various areas, including the next-generation of wearable sensors for human performance monitoring. Commercial products, such as activity trackers and other smart watches, focus primarily on sensing movement and heart rate and have limited sensing modalities and durability. The ability to sense physiological changes in a pilot’s stress or fatigue levels through sweat or electrolytes on the surface of skin, for example, can potentially eliminate harmful situations before they have a chance to occur in flight.

Another area of work has the team exploring adaptive materials, or those with the ability to sense and respond to external stimuli, through novel design tools. One way they are doing this is through a high-tech application of origami, the ancient Japanese art of paper folding. The team is using origami to amplify the mechanical response of materials that shrink or expand when exposed to light, heat, humidity or other stimuli.

One of the most notable, recent projects by the Flexible Materials and Processes team is the transition of 3-D printed conformal antennas to enable Link-16 radio communication on the MQ-9 reaper platform. The team’s expertise in additive manufacturing and functional materials enabled them to create a quick-turn solution to meet a communication need for the Air National Guard. (Courtesy photo)

The team has also transitioned to 3-D printing conformal antennas to enable Link-16 radio communication on the MQ-9 reaper platform in conjunction with the Air National Guard and other industry partners.

“The MQ-9 effort is one of the higher profile projects to come out of our branch,” said Dr. Abigail Juhl, a materials research engineer who focuses her work on additive manufacturing of tunable acoustic materials. “AFRL spent over a decade building competency in the printing of conformal antenna, so when the problem came along, within months we were able to create a solution to meet the needs.”

The team’s research is also showing commercialization potential in the field of flexible batteries, and they are in the process of acquiring a patent for their in-house developed technologies.

The flexible materials and processing team understands their role in ensuring the Air Force has the technology it needs as it moves into the future. Though much of their work focuses on basic research, the ability to evolve research focus in a nonlinear fashion enables them to address needs initially not anticipated, using knowledge gained during the initial exploratory process.

“We have to anticipate the battles the warfighters will face in the future, and we’re taking huge risks every time,” said Maruyama. “We have to know the opportunity space and become the experts.”

“It’s exciting, it’s challenging. It’s the best part of being on this team,” he concluded.


RELATED LINKS: Walter Reed’s 3-D Printing Innovations Help Warfighters Get Back to Life
3D Printers & The Military
Unmanned Technology Takes Center Stage at DoD Lab Day

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