AFRL program turns junior workforce into rapid innovators

WRIGHT-PATTERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Ohio -- Junior force personnel within the Air Force Research Laboratorys Materials and Manufacturing Directorate are making the most of their opportunity to showcase innovation and leadership skills through the Junior Force Warfighters Operations in RX, or JFWORX, program.

JFWORX, initiated in 2014, arose from the directorates Company Grade Officer Initiative Program, which gave junior military officers the opportunity to grow their expertise through leading and executing mission-specific projects for the immediate benefit of the warfighter. The establishment of JFWORX expanded the program to encompass the entire Materials and Manufacturing Directorate junior workforce, including civilian members.

This unique program provides engineers, scientists, and others program management experience early in their career through the opportunity to direct a program from start to finish. Doing so helps build an understanding and appreciation of the entire process. JFWORX projects provide direct support to the warfighter in the field, and project managers acquire valuable experience in accurately meeting warfighter needs.

JFWORX is a fantastic program for developing well-rounded and experienced engineers and scientists, said Captain David Walker, JFWORX Operations Officer. Not only does the member get to run a complete project as he or she feels fit, but there is quite often a near-term, significant positive impact to the user.

The primary technical focus of the JFWORX projects is the rapid development of customer-centric projects that will provide real-world solutions. 

We encourage innovative thinking that will challenge our researchers to explore the best solutions at the lowest cost to the Air Force, while still meeting urgent customer demands, said Walker.

One successful project from the JFWORX program is the Roco Atlas Casualty Carrier, a lightweight and low-cost tactical ladder that can also function as bridge between structures as well as a stretcher to transport injured personnel. This durable ladder improved upon existing designs, typically made from titanium, by using a special type of aluminum that makes it light enough to carry in the field.  The accordion design makes it compact to transport, and the cost is vastly more affordable than that of comparable titanium models. The ladder is now available as a commercial-off-the-shelf product for both military and commercial use.

Another JFWORX success is the development of Tactical Fast Roping Gloves. These gloves are used by crews while rapidly sliding down a thick rope from a helicopter or other elevated surface. Typical gloves used for this purpose are very bulky, so as to insulate the user from heat that is generated through sliding friction.  This project is developing gloves that not only effectively protect the users hands, but also provide significantly more dexterity than current models. The initial prototypes were very well-received during simulated operational environment testing. The operators/testers noted the lack of friction-induced heat, especially considering the thinness of the lined gloves.

Other projects being explored through JFWORX include the following:

  • Tactical Saw Blade:  This specially-designed reciprocating saw blade improves over existing designs through the utilization of special coatings that increase wear resistance. Reducing the need for replacement saw blades helps eliminate excess bulk and weight for troops to carry in the field. The improved performance of the blade reduces cutting time, making field operations more efficient.

  • Water-Resistant Fast Rope:  A fast rope, used for rapid extraction from helicopters, can absorb moisture during water recoveries, making them difficult to retrieve back into the vehicle. This project seeks to develop a rope that can resist water and perform equally well in a water- or land-based mission.

  • Advanced Body Armor:  This project involves the development of improved, form-fitting body armor to more effectively protect military troops in the field.

  • Fire Suppressant Foam:  This effort seeks to develop a fire-suppressing agent and accompanying delivery system capable of extinguishing fires from a vehicle wreck or aircraft crash, while providing the needed temperature-lowering ability necessary to allow workers to access the fire-affected area safely.

  • Portable Blood/Medicine Storage:  This project involves the design of a cooler that can safely cool or freeze blood, pharmaceuticals, or related solutions in remote or austere environments for transport back to a properly-equipped storage environment.

  • Assault Zone Lighting:  This effort involves an urgent need to provide a tactical, portable airway lighting system for use in the field for emergency or semi-permanent battlefield runway use.

  • Cargo Aircraft Wheel Removal Tool:  This project aims to develop an improved tool to enable one-person operation for removal of wheels on large aircraft. The development of this product will save man-hours and enhance safety.

 All of the JFWORX projects are managed entirely by the researchers in order to test their critical-thinking and acquisition skills, said Walker. The unique ideas that have arisen out of the program so far have shown the talent of our junior force in terms of material design and customer-responsiveness.

Walker said he envisions new and expanded opportunities for the JFWORX program in the future.  

We hope to continue to build the program to a larger customer base, as well as increase the number of Junior Force members involved. This is truly a fantastic opportunity to work on some great projects and it is program unique to the directorate, Walker said.