WRIGHT-PATTERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Ohio -- The ability to adapt a mission at a moment’s notice is a key tenet of the Air Force drive for flexibility in air power. For warfighters in the intelligence community, a new, Lego-like pod prototype expects to make that flexibility even easier on the field.
Air Force Research Laboratory’s AgilePod is a multi-intelligence, open architecture, reconfigurable prototype pod destined to be a game-changer for the intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) and Air Force Special Operations communities. The Manufacturing and Industrial Technologies Division at AFRL’s Materials and Manufacturing Directorate took delivery of the pod prototype from contractor KEYW Corp. December 14 and is partnering with the AFRL Sensor’s Directorate ‘Blue Guardian Team’ to demonstrate its capabilities in the field this May.
“AgilePod brings distinct capabilities to the intelligence mission,” said Andrew Soine, an electronic systems engineer in AFRL’s Manufacturing and Industrial Technologies Division, Materials and Manufacturing Directorate. “The ability to reconfigure the system right on the flight line to adapt to changing mission requirements and a decreased logistical footprint are just the beginning.”
The pod prototype is comprised of a series of 30-inch square compartments ranging in length from 28 to 60 inches. The compartments can be assembled in different configurations—similar in concept to Legos—enabling diverse sensor communication packages.
Operators can pick the sensor equipment they need for a mission, configure the pod to accommodate their specific needs and deploy to collect multiple types of data. For example, high-definition video, electro-optical and infrared sensors and radar can be deployed in a single AgilePod, eliminating the weight that might accompany multiple pieces of equipment to do the same.
“This is a game-changing system,” said Mark DiPadua, the Mission Systems team lead in the division’s Electronic Sensors Branch. “But the benefits go beyond the end capabilities. Not only do we own the prototype, but we also have unlimited rights to the technical data for its design.”
As the pod was designed, manufactured and tested, technical data was digitally captured along every step of the process to create a traceable digital record of design decisions. By capturing the pod’s digital thread, researchers are able to use the information to more efficiently modify the prototype pod design for mission purposes. As future pods are designed, engineers using the technical data baseline will have greater insight to specific design decisions underlying the design and manufacturing process.
“There is a lot of interest from other Air Force communities in this platform, not only for its logistical benefits but because of the potential for the system’s technical data to be modified for other weapon system designs,” said DiPadua.
The AgilePod development also enabled the AFRL team to demonstrate the benefits of agile manufacturing processes in design. Additive manufacturing was used to manufacture several non-critical flight parts on the pod, ultimately lightening the load. Flexible tooling and the integration of multiple composite components also demonstrated flexibility and speed in manufacturing design.
“Agile manufacturing can help us make things more affordable and producible,” said DiPadua. “We captured this in the data throughout the program, in a much more detailed format than ever before.”
The AgilePod team is partnering with the Blue Guardian Team and the Air Force Life Cycle Management Center to demonstrate the pod on a series of risk reduction flights on a medium altitude MQ-9 surrogate aircraft in May 2017 as part of Project Harvest Reaper. Data from the demonstration will support a flight demonstration later in the year on a Special Operations Forces MQ-9. AFRL is also working to trademark the term "AgilePod."