Air Force Pilot Hearing Protection part of technology sharing program.

Commercial efforts pay off for Air Force

The portable satellite antenna, built as part of a giant inflatable ball, also is an example of how a dual-use technology developed with the Air Force Research Laboratory at Wright-Patterson can be used in both civilian and commercial roles, researchers say.

“It’s sort of neat to take something that looks sort of odd-ballish and most people would think would never work and transition it and make it into a real product,” said Paul A. Gierow, president of GATR Technologies, the Huntsville, Ala., company that makes the antenna.

AFRL doesn’t set out to make commercial products, but the spin-off technologies that come out of the laboratories have played a role in the creation of the Global Positioning Satellite systems, and dual-use technologies, such as ear protection equipment for air crews facing loud jet engines, according to Augustine T. Vu, AFRL chief of the domestic partnerships branch.

“I think the important thing is, is we’re actively engaged, we’re very interested in commercialization of technologies,” said Jack L. Blackhurst, director of the plans and programs directorate at AFRL. “It’s not our priority, but if it’s good for the country and it’s good for the company and spurs competition, generates jobs … we’re all for it.”

AFRL has looked more and more at research partnerships with industry, universities, and other nations because of the declining U.S. defense budget.

“Our key there is you have to go to where the technology is,” Blackhurst said. “… I think you’re going to see a greater interest, a greater motivation to do more partnering than perhaps we’ve done in the past, and that’s just to leverage the dollars that you have.”

AFRL doesn’t track if companies use technology commercially that may have been developed with the Air Force, agency officials said.

But the laboratory had 27 active patent license agreements that collected $108,000 in 2013, money that went both to Air Force programs and inventors, Vu said. AFRL has more than 60 patents pending.

The agency may partner with small business or global giants like General Electric, which makes jet engines in southwest Ohio for both the military planes and commercial airliners.

The Air Force devotes $300 million out of its acquisition budget to the Small Business Innovative Research program. Those funds have led to new technologies like the Ground Antenna Transmit Receive, or GATR Technologies inflatable antenna.

AFRL funding helped launch the company, Gierow said.

Special forces uses the antennas. So do some U.S. embassies. Relief workers also set them up at sites around the world when earthquakes, hurricanes or other disasters strike, he said.

AFRL had a major role in the development with Colorado-based Westone Laboratories of ACCES, or Attenuating Custom Communications Earpiece System, officials said. The custom-made hearing protection equipment softens the blow of loud jet engines for both pilots and those on airfields.

Much of the testing took place in a 100,000-watt sound chamber at AFRL facilities at Wright-Patterson.

The lab can produce the sound equivalent to a jet engine, said John A. Hall, a 711th Human Performance Wing program manager. “That’s like a Van Halen concert in one room,” he said.

Hall said he’s tested the most recent developments in ear protection by standing under an F-22 Raptor in afterburner to gauge how well the equipment works.

The test, he said, was successful.

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