Veena Meer isn’t an aeronautical engineer. She isn’t an expert in tools or fabrication. She doesn’t have a hard science degree. She can’t identify control surfaces on an aircraft. Yet she stands inside a tactical shed, behind the Hanscom Collaboration and Innovation Center here, holding a model aircraft she helped design and fabricate on a 3D printer.
Meer is Hanscom’s team lead for the Air Force Research Laboratory Commander’s Challenge. The team of six young program managers and engineers is at the halfway point of a competition asking junior acquisition experts to build a vehicle capable of delivering 50 pounds of supplies 30 miles behind enemy lines with a $50,000 budget. The vehicle can fly, or travel overland, but it must be complete by late January. The competition is scheduled for February, at an undetermined testing facility.
The Hansconian asked Meer a few questions about the challenge, and her responsibilities as team lead. We will follow up in the coming weeks with perspectives from other team members.
Tell us about your career up to this point, and how you were selected for the team.
Meer: I’ve been an Air Force employee for about six years, but I started at Andrews Air Force Base, Maryland, as a GS [General Schedule] employee in an equal opportunity office. My degrees are in business management, but I’ve only been in acquisition for about four-and-a-half years, all of that time here at Hanscom. My current job, which I got a six-month break from in order to focus on this challenge, is program manager for a cyber security system on the Air Force IT network.
I went to lunch one day with one of my engineer friends, and a group of people were talking about the challenge. They needed a program manager, and my supervisors let me participate. It was totally unexpected, but now that I’m in it, it’s such a great opportunity for me to see the physical results of our work. I don’t always get to see that when I’m in the PM role.
You’re at the halfway point right now. How is the project coming along?
Meer: Right, so, we’re just now turning a corner and getting to a point where we can see tangible results, and I’m starting to believe in the vision that we have for the final aircraft. It was difficult, at first, to build a schedule, which is my responsibility, based on no facts. We found ourselves relying on what you would think are more bureaucratic acquisition processes; research the problem, define requirements, analyze, design and test. Now that we have models, and we’ve identified what some of the more difficult parts of production will be, we’re really starting to make progress.
Explain your concept for the aircraft.
Meer: Well, it’s a competition, right, so we don’t want to give too much away! Our basic design is for a pretty simple remotely piloted aircraft, the size of a small diameter bomb. This aircraft is unpowered, so it can be delivered the 30 miles behind enemy lines by gliding from a high enough elevation, which means it can be carried to within 30 miles by a fighter aircraft, a helicopter or even a balloon. Then, and we haven’t decided this yet, we might have foldable wings, or sort of winglets that snap into place, and the pod carrying the 50 pound payload can be flown, or guide itself, into the 400-square-foot target.
Have you ever built anything like this?
Meer: Aside from required projects, like science projects growing up, I’d say my experience building things is limited, to none.
What have you pulled on from your previous experience during this project?
Meer: In my current job in C3I&N [Command, Control, Communications, Intelligence and Networks Directorate], I had to learn IT interface from the ground up. I never paid attention to that before. I don’t even like upgrading my phone, because then I have to learn a new layout. With this project, I have to keep up with the calculations, the fabrication, the actual physical aircraft mockup and most of all, the schedule. If I don’t know how much time each part could take, I can’t build us a realistic schedule, and I know how important that can be. So, knowing your project, your customer and what success looks like, that’s all really important. Detail focus is important, but you can’t lose sight of the end goal.
And what does success look like?
Meer: That’s a hard question, because, really, we define it! Success could be a wide range, but in my role, I know that if it’s not written down, if it’s not part of our schedule, it won’t get done.
Sometimes we get used to schedule slips and delays in acquiring weapons systems, but that’s not how this works at all. We must be done on time, and if we don’t schedule for success, we won’t make it.
What are your limitations here at Hanscom?
Meer: None of us have aeronautical engineering degrees, so that’s something we have to either learn, or consult on. They encourage each team to use the advantages of their location. Other teams have test ranges or, at AFRL, they’ve got great labs and flight engineers. Hanscom’s advantage is all this expertise in the local area, and we’re using that a lot. But, there’s this production process that, as program managers, we don’t ever do. It took time to find a place to cut metal, to fabricate the models, to put everything together.
What do you want to tell people about this challenge?
Meer: I know they had a difficult time finding enough team members for us this year, so I just want to advocate for this opportunity. This is a unique opportunity, because we’re all working in the tactical shelter together, every day. This project is our sole focus, and failure and success are totally up to us, and what we can adapt to. And you don’t know if you can do it unless you try. Hopefully next year, more people will sign up.