Cornell University: Cornell to lead Air Force regional research hub

Cornell has been awarded a three-year, $8.9 million cooperative agreement from the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) to launch a regional research hub that will spark collaborations between partners in academia, government and industry from across the Middle Atlantic region.

The hub’s goal is to accelerate the translation of ideas into economic impact and jobs through intellectual property and new business opportunities that benefit both commercial and defense markets.

The initial partners of the Mid Atlantic AFRL Regional Hub include Princeton University, Binghamton University, SUNY Polytechnic Institute, the U.S. Department of Energy’s Brookhaven National Laboratory and the Griffiss Institute’s Innovare Advancement Center, as well as corporate partners such as GE Research, IBM, Google, Microsoft, Corning and Amazon.

After the launch, the hub plans to expand this core group to include other institutions in the Middle Atlantic region. The pilot initiative will also include a regional hub in the Midwest, led by Purdue University.

“The synergies arising from the adjacency of scientists, engineers and professionals in the hub will create a unique and sustainable ecosystem that will aid significant technological advances and enhance U.S. national security,” said Provost Michael Kotlikoff.

The hub will integrate the talent, scientific infrastructure and networks of all partners to identify barrier-breaking innovations for the U.S. Air Force and U.S. Space Force. It will establish transdisciplinary teams of scientists, engineers, business experts and entrepreneurs to bridge the gap between these discoveries and commercialization. Finally, it will provide experiential learning opportunities for students and postdoctoral associates, and connect AFRL scientists and engineers with private industry.

“The Mid Atlantic AFRL Regional Hub will foster research, catalyze technology transitions, accelerate the pace of commercialization and entrepreneurship, and facilitate workforce development, which align with Cornell’s mission to propel scientific discoveries to deployment,” said Emmanuel Giannelis, vice president for research and innovation and principal investigator on the project.

“We are excited for the opportunity to work with AFRL and all our partners to create this unique ecosystem that will nurture the next generation of innovators, promote local economic development and enhance national security,” Giannelis said.

The hub will be built on three core competencies: integrated distributed infrastructure for accelerated data development; technology translation pipeline; and workforce development. By design, these core competencies adopt a new research paradigm, which integrates technology translation efforts into the early stages of each project and offers a series of experiential learning opportunities as part of both student training and continuous education programs for the Air Force.

The hub will focus initially on two strategic research themes: measurements in extreme environments; and complex systems modeling. This plan will allow the hub to stay nimble, address current Air Force and Space Force interests and anticipate emerging technology challenges.

The Mid Atlantic AFRL Regional Hub will work to measure the performance and develop technologies for extreme environments using the high-energy X-ray capabilities of the Cornell High Energy Synchrotron Source (CHESS) to work on projects such as basic metals research, including understanding the performance of alloys produced with additive manufacturing, and the development of thermoplastic composites.

The other research area will use artificial intelligence and machine-learning models to enable intelligent automation and optimal decision support for complex adaptive systems.

Both initial research areas address fundamental challenges in a broad range of science and engineering — the need for robust materials design, and strategies to design and control complex systems in the presence of uncertainty. Accordingly, a major hub focus will be on developing effective AI and machine-learning models that can help solve problems through intelligent automation and optimization.

The hub continues a partnership with AFRL that began in 2019, when the university received a $7.1 million AFRL grant to launch the Materials Solutions Network at CHESS (MSN-C). That facility provides dedicated access to two X-ray beam lines for the Air Force and other Department of Defense researchers, as well as original equipment manufacturers, to improve the performance and safety of new and existing materials and designs for military components, targeting issues such as fatigue and residual stress.

According to Matt Miller, professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering in the College of Engineering, and principal investigator for MSN-C, the MSN-C partnership was a direct result of the steady flow of Cornell graduates who went on to work at AFRL. The regional hub is now poised to replicate the success of MSN-C in other technologies.

The regional hub also builds on a growing culture of innovation, entrepreneurship and translation across Cornell and all partners. More than 220 startups have been founded on Cornell’s technology innovations since 1980, and its new programs include Fast-Track Startup Licenses, the IGNITE gap fund for research labs and startups, and the Gateway to Partnerships program for corporate engagements. The McGovern Center is an incubator for life science ventures, and the Praxis Center for Venture Development supports startups in engineering, digital and physical sciences. The business colleges and e-learning programs throughout the region will enable the hub to broadly educate how to best integrate innovations into products for network-wide impact and job creation.

Hub research projects will be identified and sourced collaboratively with AFRL in a new approach to awarding research funding. This approach will enable Cornell and its partners to incorporate their latest and best programs in science and engineering, and integrate pathways to startups and larger corporations from the beginning of the project, accelerating innovation for both commercial and defense applications.

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