2024 AFRL Commander’s Challenge kicks off; 2 teams entrusted to deliver low-cost solutions by year’s end

  • Published
  • By Gail L. Forbes
  • Air Force Research Laboratory Public Affairs

WRIGHT-PATTERSON AIR FORCE BASE, OHIO (AFRL) — The Air Force Research Laboratory, or AFRL, has handpicked some of its most gifted junior force military members and DOD civilians to develop and deliver low-cost solutions to counter slow-moving, high-altitude aerial targets by the end of 2024.

Nineteen individuals representing eight of AFRL’s functional and technical directorates and the Air Force Life Cycle Management Center, or AFLCMC, are currently assigned to serve on one of two teams in response to AFRL Commander Maj. Gen. Scott A. Cain’s March 2024 call for contenders in this year’s AFRL Commander’s Challenge. All competitors have committed to participating in this year’s Challenge as their primary duty post for the next six months.

Cain delivered opening remarks at the competition kickoff on Tuesday, May 14, at the Wright Brothers Institute, or WBI, on Springfield Street in Dayton, where the 2024 Challenge participants and other supporting members of the AFRL workforce had gathered from geographically disparate locations for the first time since team selectees were announced.
“We’re in a time of consequence. Now, more than ever, we find ourselves in a global landscape defined by strategic competition among the world's most powerful nations,” Cain said at the event. ““The AFRL Commander’s Challenge has a history of cultivating the innovative spirit we need to harness to prevail in a future fight.”

The AFRL Commander’s Challenge is a longstanding AFRL tradition that was revived this spring for the first time since 2019 after a forced five-year hiatus due to COVID-19 complications. It is sponsored each year by AFRL’s Center for Rapid Innovation, or CRI, with support from WBI.
“I am honored to be here with you today, restarting this tradition after five years,” Cain said at the kickoff. “You are the next generation of Air Force Leaders; you are the future of Air Force innovation and leadership. The work you’ll accomplish here will be critical to our national defense.”
All told, a total of 14 junior force competitors — supported by five seasoned mentors, many of whom are also past Commander’s Challenge contenders — represent AFRL’s Aerospace Systems, Directed Energy, Headquarters, Materials and Manufacturing, Munitions, Plans and Programs and Sensors directorates, AFRL’s 711th Human Performance Wing and AFLCMC in the 2024 Commander’s Challenge. The two teams — one comprised of Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio-based personnel, and the other a mix of individuals hailing from Eglin Air Force Base, Florida and Kirtland Air Force Base, New Mexico — will leverage their varying fields of expertise to create affordable solutions to further enhance the DAF’s current portfolio of technologies used to intercept and defeat high-altitude balloons, or HABs.

Anthony Ligouri, a former AFRL Commander’s Challenge participant whose team was named a winner for developing Autonomous Advanced Rescue Craft and Combat Vision technologies in 2019, has taken on the role of program manager for this year’s competition.

“Having observed the two teams just over the past couple of days, it’s clear to me that both of them are very strong,” said Ligouri, a CRI-based general engineer with a background in mechanical and biomedical engineering who organized the kickoff. “They all bring diverse skill sets and abilities to the table. It’s going to be really interesting to watch them leverage those talents and to see what they come up with.”

This year’s challenge topic is one that he hoped would hold special appeal for potential competitors, Ligouri said, because while it’s relatively inexpensive to launch high-altitude balloons, intercepting them can be costly.

“These teams are being asked to come up with tangible solutions that are also affordable,” Ligouri said. “We want them to use cost-appropriate systems and methodologies that effectively eliminate the risks posed by HABs."

Challenge competitors are expected to work with not only a restrained budget but also a tight timeline of just six months — limitations that provide a baked-in sense of urgency to the event.

“We know that with the short time frame and the low budget we give the teams — it requires them to innovate quickly,” Ligouri said. “We do that for a reason.”

Working with a maximum budget of $75,000 each, the two teams must purchase all supplies, materials and lab gear required to build their prototype; cover any Challenge-related travel expenses; and pick up the tab for outside contracting or consulting needs that may arise throughout the duration of the competition, Ligouri said. Team members are permitted to augment those funds by utilizing AFRL’s preexisting lab equipment, tools, maker-hub spaces and other resources.

For Caleb Williams, a mechanical engineer based in AFRL’s Munitions Directorate and the Eglin-Kirtland team lead, the opportunity to gain hands-on engineering experience in a fast-paced environment with minimal red tape was what drew him into this year’s competition.
“When you only have six months to go from concept to reality, you have to move fast,” Williams said. “I love the fast-paced environment and am excited to see a system with real-world impact go from concept to demonstration.”

With only seven competitors designated per team, each team member must wear multiple hats and develop the ability to be multidisciplinary scientists and engineers, Williams added.
In mid-December 2024, the two teams are slated to compete head-to-head at a common proving ground where they will test and demonstrate their proposed solutions in front of a panel of judges. From there, winning Commander’s Challenge teams may witness the transition of their novel technologies to established programs of record at CRI, the commercial and industrial markets, or other branches of the U.S. military.

“I think it really gives you a taste of what’s possible at AFRL when the gloves come off and you’re able to do whatever it takes to get the mission done."
2024 AFRL Commander's Challenge Program Manager Anthony Ligouri

For more than 20 years, Dr. Dan Jensen, a former Air Force Academy instructor and founding faculty member at Westmont College in Santa Barbara, California, and Dr. Kris Wood, senior associate dean for Innovation and Engagement at the University of Colorado-Denver, have provided some of the know-how required to make these types of transitions possible. Utilizing a problem-solving methodology that examines the impact of products and technologies on end users, the two instructors have co-led an innovation design workshop for AFRL Commander’s Challenge participants since 2002.
“We love getting the chance to work with Commander’s Challenge teams; it’s a lot of fun to be in the room with a whole bunch of incredibly smart people who are working really hard,” Jensen reflected. “We take them [the participants] through a process that helps them create wonderful solutions to important problems, and we fuse innovation into that process.”
The key to success in any Commander’s Challenge competition is learning to innovate quickly, Wood said.

“And how do we bring that innovative flair when we’re up against all the red tape we have, to overcome all of that to do great things?” Wood asked. “The answer to that is here, in these amazing, talented individuals who come together as a team and then take their passion and map it into something that’s going to be important and impactful for AFRL.”

While getting this year’s Challenge competition off the ground after a five-year pause was a feat unto itself, Ligouri said, he remains confident that the event will continue to draw the best and brightest participants in future years.

“I think it really gives you a taste of what’s possible at AFRL when the gloves come off and you’re able to do whatever it takes to get the mission done,” Ligouri said.

The following individuals and directorates are representing AFRL and AFLCMC in this year’s AFRL Commander’s Challenge:

Wright-Patterson Air Force Base Team:

  • Mentors:
    • Dr. John McIntire, AFRL Sensors Directorate
    • Dr. John Vinande, AFRL Sensors Directorate
  • Competitors:
    • Benjamin Connors, AFRL 711th Human Performance Wing
    • Chris Kerestes, AFRL Materials and Manufacturing Directorate
    • Lt. Alex Petrocelli, AFRL Aerospace Systems Directorate
    • Bailey Martin, AFRL Plans and Programs Directorate
    • Arwen Masteller, AFRL Headquarters Directorate
    • Josh Underwood, Air Force Life Cycle Management Center
    • Andrew Wood, AFRL Aerospace Systems Directorate

Eglin Air Force Base and Kirtland Air Force Base (combined) Team:

  • Mentors:
    • Maj. Tod Laurvick, AFRL Directed Energy Directorate
    • Bill Loux, AFRL Munitions Directorate
    • A.J. Neale, AFRL Munitions Directorate
  • Competitors:
    • Nathan Anthony, AFRL Munitions Directorate
    • Cole Castille, AFRL Munitions Directorate
    • Lt. Ben Fulcher, AFRL Munitions Directorate
    • Enrique Irigoyen, AFRL Directed Energy Directorate
    • David Montegue, AFRL Directed Energy Directorate
    • Lt. Matthew Morgan, AFRL Munitions Directorate
    • Caleb Williams, AFRL Munitions Directorate

About AFRL 
The Air Force Research Laboratory, or AFRL, is the primary scientific research and development center for the Department of the Air Force. AFRL plays an integral role in leading the discovery, development and integration of affordable warfighting technologies for our air, space and cyberspace force. With a workforce of more than 12,500 across nine technology areas and 40 other operations across the globe, AFRL provides a diverse portfolio of science and technology ranging from fundamental to advanced research and technology development. For more information, visit www.afresearchlab.com.