AFRL Wants to Capture College Creativity in Maturing AI for Autonomous Systems

An $88 million deal with the University of Dayton will hopefully “add a unique fresh look” at maturing artificial intelligence for Air Force autonomy applications.

The agreement between the Air Force Research Laboratory and the University of Dayton Research Institute—a program called Soaring Otter—expands on what Kelly Miller of the AFRL Sensors Directorate characterized as “existing research challenges.” Ranging from students to “extremely experienced technical experts,” Miller told Air Force Magazine by email that the university group’s “very diverse and capable teammates” factored into its selection.

“University partners are always a good way to get fresh ideas and re-energize the research, looking at different perspectives to solve a nagging problem,” Miller said.

Without naming any specific programs the research might benefit or offering any concrete expected outcomes, Miller said the researchers bring the “unique fresh look at complex problems” related to three of the five “transformational capabilities” the Air Force listed in its Science and Technology Strategy released in 2019:

  • Global persistent awareness, “which may include advances in ‘multimodal sensing’ and developing new laser and multistatic radars,” according to the Air Force
  • Resilient information sharing, “which may include developing mesh networks and ‘agile systems with real-time spectrum awareness’”
  • Rapid, effective decision-making, “which may include advances in artificial intelligence, machine learning, and predictive data analytics.”

Miller said Soaring Otter will involve “fundamental through advanced research areas” and “provide expertise in several areas including machine learning”—a branch of artificial intelligence—“to advance, evaluate, and mature Air Force autonomy capabilities.”

In its announcement of Soaring Otter, the university said technologies such as machine learning, artificial intelligence, and neural networks can help autonomous systems gather and process information and “then use the information to solve a problem or execute an action to achieve a goal.”

The name Soaring Otter symbolizes the program’s aim of “making major advancements, taking the technology to the next level, reaching the unexpected,” said Miller, who also acknowledged a personal interest in otters.

At the same time AFRL has brought in the University of Dayton to aggressively advance AI specifically for autonomy, the Department of the Air Force has taken up residence at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to help advise and do research as part of 10 AI research projects while exposing more people from around the Air Force and Space Force to AI.