CAPE CANAVERAL AIR FORCE STATION, Fla --
Five students from various American universities became X-Force fellows over the summer at the Air Force Technical Applications Center through a program sponsored by the National Security Innovation Network.
NSIN is a Department of Defense organization whose mission is to build a network of innovators to generate solutions to national security problems. AFTAC is the DoD’s sole nuclear treaty monitoring headquarters and the nation’s technical surveillance center of excellence. Together, the two agencies are dedicated to innovative collaboration.
The X-Force Fellowship Program gives matriculated graduate and undergraduate students an opportunity to work on and solve current and emerging DoD mission needs. Once the students are selected as participants, they are grouped into teams based upon their educational background and then paired with a mission partner that met NSIN’s stringent requirements to become an X-Force host.
AFTAC’s interns included Myles Ross, a senior at North Carolina A&T State University; Matthew Santalla and Bryan Urias, both seniors at Florida Polytechnic University; Gautham Viswaroopan, a graduate student at the University of Colorado, Boulder; and Andrew Bass, a freshman at Washington University in St. Louis.
“The fellows were tasked to develop an operational, end-to-end hardware/software test bed for AFTAC,” said James Stroup, AFTAC’s research and development portfolio manager for Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning and the project’s technical liaison. “This test bed, called the Open Source Nuclear Detection Systems, or OSNDS, provides our scientists, analysts and engineers with the ability to rapidly test new hardware and software solutions at little-to-no-cost in a real-world environment.”
Working out of a renovated building at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station a few miles north of Patrick AFB, the interns spent several hours a day on their project with the help and oversight of some of AFTAC’s technical experts.
“We needed to provide the fellows with a place they could work unencumbered and where they would be free to develop the right solution,” Stroup explained. “AFTAC’s main headquarters is a secure facility, so housing the students at an unclassified research facility at the Cape was ideal. Without the incredible work of AFTAC member Ed Darmiento and his team getting the facility online, this project would never have gotten off the ground.”
After several weeks of trial, error and success, the fellows were finally ready to field test their platform. But before they could execute that plan, the commander of the nuclear treaty monitoring center traveled from Patrick to the Cape to get a briefing from the students and hear about their progress.
“Wow – this is very impressive!” Hartman stated. “You took your concept and illustrated just how important this is to our joint forces and its applicability to the warfighter. Given AFTAC’s unique mission and the stringent protocols we have to operate under, you really captured how important tracking sensor operability is for us. I am really impressed.”
The young collegians beamed after hearing the high praise from AFTAC’s senior officer.
“From his reaction, I think the colonel was pleased with our work!” said Ross. “This was an incredible opportunity and it was great to be able to work with my peers from other universities. I would definitely recommend the X-Force program to others.”
When it came time to actually test their product, the team was invited to participate in a major Air Force exercise at Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska, and were escorted by 1st Lt. Hayley Weir, deputy branch chief and AFTAC’s internship manager.
Exercise Red Flag-Alaska is a Pacific Air Forces-sponsored exercise designed to provide realistic training in a simulated combat environment, and this year’s event saw more than 1,500 service members and 100 aircraft from more than 12 different units stationed around the world participate in the multinational training event. The exercise is also an opportunity for attendees to test and exchange tactics, techniques and procedures and improve their own interoperability.
As the nation’s sole nuclear treaty monitoring center, AFTAC uses a network of global sensors to measure seismic activity to detect detonations of varying magnitudes. The center is continuously seeking out methods and ways to fine-tune its seismic detection capabilities, and thought Red Flag would be an ideal location to gather and analyze valuable data.
“Red Flag is a frequent source of ‘noise,’ from live-fire scenarios to munitions detonations,” said Stroup. “Explosions generate seismic waves that can be detected many miles away, so the students positioned their system on the roof of AFTAC’s detachment building at Eielson and were able to collect sufficient detonation data for analysis.”
He added, “Their system performed exceptionally well at streaming data in real time back to the AFTAC headquarters – an incredible feat considering the short amount of time the students had to build a workable product.
Weir agreed with Stroup’s assessment and she didn’t hold back when describing the overall outcome of the students’ project.
“The test was a massive success!” Weir said. “Not only were the students a month and a half ahead of schedule during the planning phase, they also knocked it out of the park at Red Flag when it came time to test the system. These guys are sharp – they did their research, sourced their documents, and applied their knowledge to come up with a viable, low-to-no-cost system in a very short period of time. Whatever path they choose to follow, I’m confident all of them will be enormously successful. I hope their future includes AFTAC!”
Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David L. Goldfein recently said that victory in combat will depend less on individual capabilities and more on the integrated strengths of a connected network of weapons, sensors and tools. Hartman has taken Goldfein’s words to task and challenged the leaders in his own center to seek out ways to apply the same approach.
“AFTAC places a huge emphasis on attacking what we refer to as ‘wicked problems’ for our national and theater commanders,” said Hartman. “One of the ways we do that is to participate in operational exercises and technical demonstrations like Red Flag to identify future opportunities. It made complete sense to have these incredibly talented students spend their summer semester interning with us to field test their hardware and software solutions. I hope they’ll come back, not just as fellows, but as future AFTAC employees.”
Stroup had nothing but praise for everyone who was involved with the program.
“This was a total ‘team of teams’ effort from the beginning” he said. “As talented as these students are, this project’s success can be equally attributed to the willingness of AFTAC and NSIN to try something new. I’m incredibly proud of the work my co-workers accomplished and how everyone worked together brilliantly to ensure mission success.”
He added, “One of the greatest benefits of hosting the fellows is the raw human talent the students bring to the table. That, and the fact that it comes with no cost to the end user – the students’ costs and monthly stipends are funded entirely by NSIN. Without a doubt, this was a win-win for AFTAC.”