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High-flying ideas

Scientists, engineers and businesses gathered at the U to brainstorm Air Force research priorities.

The top floors of the S.J. Quinney College of Law buzzed with activity on Wednesday, July 11, for the U.S. Air Force Science and Technology 2030 forum. Representatives from the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) met with scientists, engineers, students from both academia and industry to help set the course for the Air Force’s next decade of research and beyond–all against the backdrop of the wild blue yonder, seen through the law school’s expansive windows.

PHOTO CREDIT: University of Utah

Michael Eismann, of the Air Force Research Laboratory (left) and Cynthia Furse, University of Utah associate vice president for research.

The forum was the sixth in a nationwide listening tour for the AFRL, in which they invited researchers to share and generate new ideas that will help shape the Air Force’s basic and applied research plan for 2030 and beyond. Organized along 12 technical themes, the more than 200 participants at the U conference, from around the country, met in “ideation” sessions to brainstorm research ideas.

“You can’t but help coming up with new ideas while you’re working with other people from other disciplines,” says Cynthia Furse, conference chair and associate vice president for research at the U. “The ideation process is cool and interesting and—funreally fun and creative!”

Air Force research

The AFRL is based at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio, with research offices across the country and internationally, and is tasked with “discovery, development and product delivery of new air, space and cyberspace technologies that provide our Air Force with what it needs to defend America.”

In looking to future technologies and research directions, the AFRL worked with universities to host the Science and Technology 2030 forums, looking for the best ideas from across the country. Previous conferences visited college campuses in Nebraska, Florida, Indiana, Washington and Texas. The University of Utah was the last stop on the tour.

“That invitation’s so unusual and so cool,” says Furse, “that we just totally wanted to be involved.” Furse issued invitations to contacts throughout the Southwest, and crafted the technical themes to play to the region’s strengths; themes included data and computing, sensor technologies and new aerospace materials.

Michael Eismann, acting chief technologist for AFRL, was impressed with the regional spread of conference attendees. “I was expecting mostly local folks from the Salt Lake area, and we got well beyond that,” he says. “It’s captured a wider and more diverse audience.” He praised Utah’s priority on becoming a high-tech center, and the U’s growth in science and engineering. In situating the conference at the U, he says, “we made a good choice.”

Eismann says the Air Force has a long history of successful partnerships with academia that have yielded useful technologies, such as synthetic aperture radar, a radar mapping technology. Now in widespread use, the technology saw its beginnings in a University of Illinois lab and was developed with the help of a Department of Defense-sponsored research center at the University of Michigan. Through the Science and Technology 2030 conferences, the Air Force is looking for the next such influential technology.

Pathways for problem-solvers

But the Air Force isn’t just looking for ideas, Eismann says. It’s looking for the people that can turn those ideas into reality. AFRL offers internship and fellowship opportunities to help students get a taste of defense research. “We want them to have the opportunity to investigate the Air Force and the Department of Defense as an option,” Eismann says. “The best way to do that is to put them in an environment where they’re working on Air Force problems.” Assembling a talented workforce, he says, is key to driving research innovation.

“When you get the right people together,” he says, “good things will happen.”

Interested in internship or fellowship opportunities? Looking to submit a research idea? Connect with AFRL at

Banner image caption: Furse (left) listens to undergraduate Eric Lindstrom describe a method for using low levels of heating to shape biocompatible polymers inside the body.