The United States Air Force is partnering with academia and the private sector to explore advanced manufacturing techniques to solve one of their largest challenges in theater – allowing forward operating troops to land aircraft wherever they are needed.
Thanks to the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program, the USAF is partnering with Purdue University and an Indiana-based manufacturer, ITAMCO to explore 3D printed portable runway mats. These mats will be lighter, more portable and more easily deployable than solutions that the Air Force has utilized in the past.
Previously, the USAF has used aluminum mats for portable runways – which can have problems with portability and durability. They’re now looking for a new solution with increased portability, improved energy absorption and that utilizes lighter, easier-to-use materials.
The portability and weight of these mats is paramount, since personnel need to be able to easily carry, deploy, and pack up any solution. And, the solution needs to be able to handle regular, extreme compressions from aircraft. Deployed troops at forward operating bases need access to supply lines, but can’t compromise on mobility. Any reduction in weight, increased durability and portability allows for greater flexibility in defense efforts.
The USAF issued an SBIR solicitation requesting solutions to be presented for research and discovery. The SBIR, “enables small businesses to explore their technological potential and provide the incentive to profit from its commercialization. By including qualified small businesses in the nation’s R&D arena, high-tech innovation is stimulated, and the United States gains entrepreneurial spirit as it meets its specific research and development needs.”
Purdue University Associate Professor, Pablo Zavattieri had been working with Phase Transforming Cellular Materials (PXCMs), a new composite that could handle the task, be resilient, and can be formed into complex shapes and solutions through advanced 3d printing technologies. “PXCMs have several advantages mechanically. They can allow pseudo-elastic properties and can dissipate energy without permanently deforming the base material,” described Zavattieri.
However, while the use of PXCMs shows promise for runway mats at the tip of the spear, there are still challenges that must be overcome before they’re deployed for use. Defect control, efficiency, and design challenges need to be ironed out. “The Devil’s in the details, and that’s what we are focusing on in this project,” Zavattieri confirmed.
As this project carries forward, it is proving that technology, creative thinking, and collaboration between government agencies, academia, and private businesses – along with incentive programs from the federal government – can tackle challenges and find new solutions. And it’s further evidence that advanced manufacturing, the creation of exciting new materials and 3d printing can introduce new, innovative, and previously-impossible solutions to the military’s largest problems.