Air Force planners want to grow future runways from bacteria
The Blue Horizons Program at Air University is an Air Force chief of staff-chartered, future-oriented think tank that creates and tests prototypes of new strategic concepts and capabilities.
Three Blue Horizons fellows, with different technical backgrounds, including a former member of the Air Force Life Cycle Management Center at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, were among those who graduated June 3, 2019, as part of this year's class of 16.
As part of their research, Maj. MacKenzie Birchenough, a developmental engineer, and former deputy chief of the Commander's Action Group at AFLCMC; Maj. Laura Hunstock, a combat systems officer; and Maj. Kelly Martin, an intelligence officer, formed a team called, "Project Medusa," to develop a prototype landing strip to ensure continuity of airlift operations at austere locations during future military conflicts.
Fellows spend a year in specialized academics and focus research on a CSAF-directed question. Their research is on developing and testing prototypes of ideas that can help the Air Force meet future threats.
"As the United States turns its focus toward a potential near-peer conflict, the Air Force may no longer have access to its current mature basing structure," Birchenough said. "In future fights, contingency operations will depend on the ability of mobility platforms to operate out of austere locations and under compressed timelines," she said in describing the background for Project Medusa.
Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David L. Goldfein and Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force Kaleth O. Wright pose with graduates of the Center for Strategy and Technology's Blue Horizons class at Air War College, May 16, 2019.
(U.S. Air Force photo by Melanie Rodgers Cox)
Students actually go through an entire prototyping phase so that at the end of the year they can brief the CSAF on the problem they were able to address, what they did about it and then give a recommendation, with the ultimate goal of being able to transition it at the end of their year.
"We started out thinking about the differences between the way we fight today in the Air Force and what tomorrow's fight might look like," Hunstock said. "Knowing that we're going into more of a near-peer competition, one of the things we talked a lot about was how we're going to have to move away from our centralized basing that we use today and more into a dispersed and agile type of basing."
The team wanted to narrow the scope of the problem down, so they looked at the issue of not having the availability of runways everywhere that the Air Force might need to go.
"We wanted to try to find a way that we could get into those austere locations to rapidly create landing zones for our aircraft where we don't already have them," Hunstock said. "That also means with this type of basing situation, you're not going to have a month or two to go in and build your normal concrete runways. We need something that's going to take a lot less time and require less people and less heavy equipment."
While trying to think completely out of the box, which is what Blue Horizons fellows are asked to do, the team came up with an innovative idea that might seem on the edge of reality.
"The idea that we came to was using biomanufacturing to build runways, which can also be translated into things like ramp space or any hardened surface that you might need. By saying biomanufacturing, what we mean is that we're applying bacteria to the surface, feeding it and effectively growing a runway. This process could potentially replace the need to bring in cement, heavy equipment and dozens of personnel to create a concrete runway," Birchenough said.
"While our prototype is a small step toward enabling full runways to be built with something other than concrete, it demonstrates this technology is absolutely feasible outside of the laboratory and could be used to support the warfighter much sooner than expected," Birchenough said.
They started by testing different protocols with two foot by two-foot boxes, but their final prototype was a 2,500 square foot site to demonstrate the process on a much larger scale. Working with bioMASON, a biomanufacturing company in Durham, North Carolina, the team created the site near there.
The 2,500 square foot prototype turned out great, working exactly how they expected it to, Birchenough said.
"It showed that we could reproduce what we had done in the laboratory and on a larger scale. The really exciting thing about this process is that it utilizes the local soil and requires very little equipment. Basically, you need an agricultural sprayer and some water tanks, so there is very little in materials you need to bring to the site," Birchenough said.
The Project Medusa Team members received strong support from bioMASON, the Air Force Research Laboratory Materials and Manufacturing Directorate, and the Air Force Civil Engineering Center.
"We learned that while biotechnology sounds like it is part of a future science fiction type of idea, it's actually here and now, and it's absolutely leverageable for the (Defense Department) and we need to be investing in it at a much higher rate," she said.
The team was lucky to work with the Air Force Strategic Development Planning and Experimentation office as well as the Air Force Research Laboratory Materials and Manufacturing Directorate on the project, according to Birchenough.
The SDPE office contributed more than $500,000 toward Project Medusa, and made significant contributions across the entire Blue Horizons portfolio this year, Birchenough said.
A follow-on effort will begin this summer between bioMASON, AFRL, and DARPA that will continue to mature the technology and build up different soil samples to see how well the technology functions across different areas of responsibility.
"AFRL is excited to continue the support for the follow-on project," said Dr. Chia Hung, AFRL's Materials and Manufacturing Directorate research biological scientist. "We will continue to work with bioMASON in their optimization of the cementation process and we will also assist to identify unique requirements for different user cases. Based on what is learned from Project Medusa and will be learned from the follow-on, we will be better poised in helping to mature this technology for many users in not just the Air Force, but also other services within DoD."
The Project Medusa team briefed their recommendation to Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David L. Goldfein May 16. Six other teams of Blue Horizons fellows also made presentations.
"Our recommendation to CSAF was to invest in biomanufacturing with a faster transition to the user, to continue this effort with both AFRL and SPDE to make sure that this technology will have great use out in the operational Air Force, as well as making sure the feedback of the user is incorporated into it from the get go," Hunstock said.
This article originally appeared on United States Air Force. Follow @USAF on Twitter.