AFIT professor earns Harold Brown award

  • Published
  • By Katie Scott
  • Air Force Institute of Technology

Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio - Air Force Institute of Technology faculty member Scott Nykl received the 2023 Harold Brown Award for his groundbreaking research on computer vision-based relative navigation for autonomous aerial refueling.

He is the second AFIT faculty member to win this award, following Dr. Peter Collins’ selection in 2013.

The Harold Brown Award is the Air Force’s highest award given to a scientist or engineer who applies scientific research to solve a problem critical to the needs of the Air Force. It is awarded through the Air Force chief scientist's office. Named after physicist Harold Brown, who served as secretary of the Air Force from 1965 to 1969 and secretary of defense from 1977 to 1981, the award is administered by the Air Force chief scientist's office and presented to the recipient by the Secretary of the Air Force.

Nykl led the development of a novel vision algorithm that enables unmanned in-flight refueling using artificial intelligence-assisted computer vision.  This technology provides an accurate relative position and orientation between two aircraft and operates in global positioning system denied environments, crucial for maintaining global mobility in the face of peer adversaries. The passive sensor does not emit any signals that could be remotely detected.

Nykl is integrating this technology into AFIT’s Autonomy and Navigation Technology Center’s unmanned air vehicles.

“Our goal is to successfully dock two fully autonomous unmanned aircraft systems using only computer vision,” Nykl said. “By conducting these test flights, we are able to increase the technology readiness level. This helps push our technology closer to broader deployment within the DoD.”

This technology applies to both the Navy’s probe-n-drogue system as well as the Air Force’s boom and receptacle system. The visual algorithm is able to guide docking between these components with less than 7cm of error.

Additionally, these algorithms have helped advance automated aerial refueling technology for tanker platforms as well, significantly boosting performance without requiring hardware modifications.   This work has resulted in a U.S. patent, a recent Air Force invention disclosure, and three upcoming Department of Defense flight tests.

Nykl’s contributions are advancing the Air Force's autonomy capabilities, extending drone range, and enabling sustained in-theater operations -- especially in GPS denied environments as well as environments with limited communications.

Joining AFIT’s Graduate School of Engineering and Management faculty in 2015, Nykl serves as an associate professor of computer science. His research interests include real time 3D computer graphics, computer vision, sensor fusion, parallel processing, interactive virtual worlds, and computer networking.

His research has yielded other significant accomplishments, including the development of an automated cargo loading system that reduces human intervention and optimizes load configurations. The ability to more efficiently transport cargo saves the Air Force millions of dollars each year in fuel costs.  He also created a 3D cargo scanning algorithm to automatically generate 3D models of optimal cargo loads for the C-17, C-130 and C-5 aircraft, improving efficiency by 10%. Additionally, Nykl developed a novel augmented reality/virtual reality training and recruiting game for cyber students, which won first place at the Air Education and Training Command-level innovation challenge.

“It’s been a humbling and wonderful experience working with the brightest minds in the U.S. Air Force,” Nykl said. “None of this would be possible without the hard work, diligence, resilience and perseverance of my master’s and PhD students – Air Force officers and civilians, who are molding their minds to solve the most challenging problems of our day. Upon their graduation from AFIT, they bring this knowledge with them and lead the broader Air Force and DoD while instilling these values on their peers.”

Nykl holds a Bachelor of Science degree in software engineering from University of Wisconsin, Platteville, and both a Master of Science and a doctorate in computer science from Ohio University.