How the Air Force Takes Tech From R&D to Warfighter Readiness

At a recent Technology Scouting Workshop in Marina del Rey, the chit chat was all about accelerating technology commercialization in the region. But Capt. Jacob Singleton, one of the event's presenters, has to think globally.

Working out of Kirtland Air Force Base in New Mexico, Capt. Singleton has a dual role: program manager for the Air Force Research Laboratory's Center for Rapid Innovation which handles urgent operational needs within Air Force Space Command, Air Force Global Strike Command, and Air Mobility Command; and head of the Space Technology Accelerator program. We sat down to find out more.

Capt. Singleton, when people think of the US Air Force, they have an image of fighter jets engaged in deadly battle protecting national airspace, but its mission extends into space, right?That's right. The Air Force mission is to "fly, fight, and win" in "air, space, and cyberspace" and elements of our defense mission include the space domain. Not only is space one of our defining mission areas but the technologies we employ there are critical enablers for our other warfighting domains. In contrast to the space agencies, like NASA, who are involved in exploration to the moon, Mars and beyond, the Air Force is all about defense. So, yes, we fly into space—high inclination orbit, low earth orbit, and geosynchronous orbit—protecting vital communications including GPS and satellites.

Can you clarify your role for us?I have two hats: one as a program manager within the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) Center for Rapid Innovation, which deals with a small sliver of responsive research and development performed by AFRL where we are focused on transitioning mature TRL [technology readiness level] solutions to urgent warfighter needs. In this role, I have directly managed programs transitioning solutions to Air Force GLobal Strike Command (AFGSC), Air Mobility Command (AMC), and Air Force Space Command (AFSPC).

I also lead the Space Technology Accelerator program, which is independent and works with a range of technology maturity and specifically with early stage companies and entrepreneurs. It is under this hat that I attended and participated in the USC tech scouting workshop today. The significance of the current shifts that our organizations are undertaking to better work with this community cannot be emphasized enough.

In September 2017, Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson announced an urgent 12-month science and technology review, saying: "From time to time it is important to refresh our science and technology strategy, to step back from the programs and problems of today and project 10 or 20 years into the future [because] Americans need to understand, low readiness for a crisis doesn't mean we won't go…what it means is fewer will come back." Sobering words.They are both sobering and humbling words, but I love them because they remind me why I am in the service and the real mission I am a part of. The work the Air Force is involved in is part of an ongoing strategy for national defense. Our research and development is not performed for curiosity—it is directly tied to the lives of those who wear the uniform and defend our country. I am grateful to be among their ranks and to contribute in whatever small ways I can.

You're based with the Air Force Research Laboratory, which was formed in 1997 through the consolidation of four former Air Force laboratories and the Air Force Office of Scientific Research. Can you explain its mission?AFRL is an organization with technology directorates that are located across the country, in Ohio, New York, Florida, New Mexico, and California. Some of their mission areas include sensors, munitions, aerospace, propulsion, materials, directed energy, and space. At the Space Vehicles Directorate, our primary mission thrusts include: space-based intelligence, space situational awareness, space communications, position navigation and timing, and defensive space control (protecting space assets from man-made and natural effects). The directorate also leverages commercial, civil and other government resources to stay one step ahead in space and to ensure America's advantage.

What drew you to AFRL in particular?Upon graduating from Utah State most of my peers in the engineering program went straight into the technology industry [but] my plan was to leverage my technical education to support the military's mission as an officer in the United States Air Force. I was fortunate to continue with my graduate education with course sequences in Astrodynamics and Structures, and my thesis was on "electro-mechanical characterization of Carbon Nanotube Sheets in simulated space environments" (I characterized the mechanical and electrical properties of CNT sheets to evaluate the effects of atomic oxygen and thermal fatigue in simulated low earth orbit environments). The next best place to go was AFRL, where so much advanced technology R&D takes place. Most people don't realize that the devices they use today started as projects within DARPA or other defense labs maybe 20 years ago. I wanted to work on what's next, and that's what we do at AFRL.

And you were recently recognized in the Armed Forces Communications and Electronics Association International's 40 Under 40 Award winners. Congratulations.Thank you.

What's next in your career?As Air Force officers we move around a lot, taking new roles every few years, while the civilian workforce usually stays at AFRL. After a few years at AFRL, I'll be posted to take on other program officer assignments. Some people then leave the forces and go out into academia or industry, but I'm here to stay. I plan to continue in the Air Force as an officer working on large acquisitions to support missions.

Finally, "tech transfer" is a buzz term right now. How important is it for your unit to draw on intellectual property and expertise outside the Armed Forces, and how do you go about finding new ideas (or do they all come to you)? Because not everything is "built on the base," correct?True, and this is the significance of the technology accelerator program I'm running and my role in attending the panel here at the USC Tech Scouting Workshop today. This workshop has a large presence from our entrepreneurial community, which is who we are trying to strengthen our relationships with. Many technologies are emerging out of the commercial market and are being pulled independent of any military needs or requirements. However, many of them do have military utility and we would be simply foolish to ignore them.

If anyone reading this article runs a technology company with some innovations they feel would benefit the US Air Force, what's the process to get verified as a military supplier and argue their case in front of your team?As I explained here today at the conference, we want to work with any commercial incubator or accelerator programs. During these programs, participating companies can explore and validate the military utility of their commercial solutions while they focus on successfully entering the consumer market. Our strength is in bringing a new perspective to their product as a potential customer, letting them know what the Armed Forces needs and how they could adapt their product or service to make that happen.

So everyone should check the advisory roster on their local accelerator/incubator program to check whether there are people in uniform ready to take a look at what they've got. That's the idea. We are already working with accelerators focused on space technologies in California, Colorado, and New Mexico. Other AFRL directorates and AF organizations, including AFWERX, are working with accelerators in additional technology areas in Dayton, Ohio, and recently with TechStars in Boston.

This fall we will be working with an accelerator program at Catalyst Campus in Colorado Springs focused on innovative ideas for positioning, navigation, and timing technologies. We are also running a program in Albuquerque with ABQid focused on data analytics. Also be on the lookout for a program in 2019 in the Los Angeles area.

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