Research Topics

Below is a list of research topics supported by the AFRL. Use the filters and keyword search below to find research topics of interest. You can apply for up to 3 topics on your application.




Scholars are encouraged to contact any mentors whose projects they find of interest. To contact the mentor, use the link included at the conclusion of each project description.

Aero-optics research
Mentor: Chung-Jen John Tam, Directed Energy
Location: Kirtland
Academic Level: Masters, Ph.D.

The propagation of laser beams through turbulent flows has been an important topic with applications ranging from missile defense to target designation and tracking. The turbulent air disturbances are severe enough to severely distort the light, preventing it from properly focusing. The study of these interactions has been described as "aero-optics". The opportunities for the aero-optic research at AFRL include experimental studies of turbulence such as turbulent boundary layers and shear layers as well as the development of appropriate diagnostic instrumentation, and water-table visualization. Computational (CFD) opportunities also exists to design aero-optic experiments and to develop accurate aero-optic CFD solutions.


Analyzing Long-Duration Photometry for Satellite Seismic Modes
Mentor: Thomas Ryan Swindle, Directed Energy
Location: AMOS
Academic Level: Ph.D.

The Air Force Maui Optical & Supercomputing (AMOS) site has access to several ground-based optical telescopes with a wide range of utilities. The student will use these telescopes to collect and analyze long-duration photometry (and/or polarimetry and/or velocimetry) collected on both astronomical and man-made space objects. The goal is to search for short- and long-duration seismic activity and, in the case of astronomical objects, compare the results to those from community-developed models.


Applications of Spatially Varying Photonic Crystals
Mentor: Jimmy E Touma, Munitions
Location: Eglin
Academic Level: Masters

Inhouse and collaborative research identified new phenomena in (spatially varying photonic crystals) SVPC that demonstrated light focusing and bending capability with minimal power loss and frequency and polarization selectivity. Traditional imaging systems are limited by refraction while unique aspect of SVPC is the suppression of this traditional refraction. The Integrated Sensing and Processing branch at Eglin AFB (AFRL/RWWI) is seeking a PhD candidate to study and characterize SVPCs of interest the feasibility of controlling the frequency and polarization aspects of light as it propagates through the SVPC. The candidate will use our inhouse developed software to illustrate the multiplexing capability of the SVPCs. If time allows the candidate will oversee the fabrication and characterization of the SVPCs and compare the experimental results with simulation. The candidate must have experience in computational electromagnetic techniques, photonic crystals and in particular SVPCs, and modeling and simulation. Python and C/C++ on the Linux platform are required.


Cold Atom Experimental Control and Data Acquisition
Mentor: Spencer E Olson, Space Vehicles
Location: Kirtland
Academic Level: Masters, Ph.D.

Our laboratory is developing inertial navigation sensors and clocks using cold-atom technology. The relevant experiments and prototypes for cold-atom sensors typically require specialized timing-control hardware, software, and computer integration. We are developing means to utilize micro-controllers, low-power computers, field-programmable gate arrays (FPGA), and open-source software for data acquisition and experimental control. The assigned project will depend on the student's interest and experience, but could include micro-controller programming, FPGA programming, low-power computer-experiment integration, and/or development and testing of new cold-atom control routines/hardware for use in future or current experiments.


Cold Atom Experimental Control and Data Acquisition
Mentor: Spencer E Olson, Space Vehicles
Location: Kirtland
Academic Level: Lower-level Undergraduate, Upper-level Undergraduate

Our laboratory is developing inertial navigation sensors and clocks using cold-atom technology. The relevant experiments and prototypes for cold-atom sensors typically require specialized timing-control hardware, software, and computer integration. We are developing means to utilize micro-controllers, low-power computers, field-programmable gate arrays (FPGA), and open-source software for data acquisition and experimental control. The assigned project will depend on the student's interest and experience, but could include micro-controller programming, FPGA programming, low-power computer-experiment integration, and/or development and testing of new cold-atom control routines/hardware for use in future or current experiments.


Cold Atom Sources
Mentor: Matthew Squires, Space Vehicles
Location: Kirtland
Academic Level: Lower-level Undergraduate, Upper-level Undergraduate

Cold atoms are used to make precision measurements of rotation, acceleration, time (think atomic clocks), etc.  Atoms are typically cooled using laser cooling techniques to temperatures less than 100 micro Kelvin to reduce thermal noise and increase measurement time.  We are investigating new cold atoms sources that either reduce the size, weight, and power (SWAP) requirements of laser cooled sources or that can cool atoms without lasers.  Reducing SWAP is an important considering for making compact devices that can be transitioned from the laboratory into real world applications.  Cooling atoms without laser opens the possibility of using atoms that currently cannot be cooled but have properties that are of scientific and/or technical interest.   The assigned project will depend on the student’s interest and experience.


Cold Atom Sources
Mentor: Matthew Squires, Space Vehicles
Location: Kirtland
Academic Level: High School

Cold atoms are used to make precision measurements of rotation, acceleration, time (think atomic clocks), etc.  Atoms are typically cooled using laser cooling techniques to temperatures less than 100 micro Kelvin to reduce thermal noise and increase measurement time.  We are investigating new cold atoms sources that either reduce the size, weight, and power (SWAP) requirements of laser cooled sources or that can cool atoms without lasers.  Reducing SWAP is an important considering for making compact devices that can be transitioned from the laboratory into real world applications.  Cooling atoms without laser opens the possibility of using atoms that currently cannot be cooled but have properties that are of scientific and/or technical interest.   The assigned project will depend on the student’s interest and experience.


Control Theory Research for Laser Weapon Systems
Mentor: Matthew A Cooper, Directed Energy
Location: Kirtland
Academic Level: Masters, Ph.D.

The Directed Energy Directorate is investigating a line of control theory. Research in disturbance rejection techniques for precise control of optical beam steering is desired. This may include target acquisition, fine control of target tracking, and pose estimation. The concept of disturbance rejection for this application involves the ability to take a known disturbance such as aircraft vibration, mechanical distortion, or optical distortion of a known statistical nature, and then to design a control system such that the statistical disturbance is taken into account. This effectively makes the disturbance “invisible” to the user. The student will conduct a survey of current disturbance rejection techniques, and create simplified MATLAB models of those concepts to evaluate the potential applicability to mission needs. Time permitting, the student may also work on implementing the most promising concepts into AFRL’s current performance evaluation process.


Control Theory Research for Laser Weapon Systems
Mentor: Matthew A Cooper, Directed Energy
Location: Kirtland
Academic Level: Upper-level Undergraduate

The Directed Energy Directorate is investigating a line of control theory. Research in disturbance rejection techniques for precise control of optical beam steering is desired. This may include target acquisition, fine control of target tracking, and pose estimation. The concept of disturbance rejection for this application involves the ability to take a known disturbance such as aircraft vibration, mechanical distortion, or optical distortion of a known statistical nature, and then to design a control system such that the statistical disturbance is taken into account. This effectively makes the disturbance “invisible” to the user. The student will conduct a survey of current disturbance rejection techniques, and create simplified MATLAB models of those concepts to evaluate the potential applicability to mission needs. Time permitting, the student may also work on implementing the most promising concepts into AFRL’s current performance evaluation process.


Gigawatt-class High Power Microwave Source Modeling
Mentor: Jason Hammond, Directed Energy
Location: Kirtland
Academic Level: Upper-level Undergraduate

We will assemble a team of DE Scholars and AFRL scientists to model/simulate cutting edge gigawatt-class high power microwave (HPM) source technologies. We will utilize the DoD's massively parallel supercomputing capabilities to perform high fidelity simulations using the AFRL's Improved Concurrent Electromagnetic Particle-in-Cell Code (ICEPIC). We will be virtually prototyping and improving the world's most advanced HPM sources, leveraging the latest published results to produce virtual prototypes that represent the best of the world's HPM sources. Team members will work closely with each other and their mentors to learn the basic and advanced features of ICEPIC to create and run successful HPM models in a high performance computing environment.


High-Power Optical Hollow-Core Fiber R&D
Mentor: Matthew A Cooper, Directed Energy
Location: Kirtland
Academic Level: Masters, Ph.D.

The Directed Energy Directorate is investigating the uses for a Hollow-Core Fiber (HCF) as both a laser source and as a delivery fiber. A delivery fiber is a coupling device which couples the laser output of a laser source to another location in an application platform where the needed energy is critical such as a laser beam director. Delivery fibers have been studied for low-power communications and sensing applications but not for high-energy situations. This project entails the experimental characterization of a HCF for use as a delivery fiber of a multi-kilowatt laser. The student will help design, conduct, and analyze the characterization experiment. Time permitting, the student will also model the results, and use those models to investigate potential new HCF designs for improved optical handling characteristics. This project may be modified to the background and interest of the student.


Learning algorithms in closed loop systems
Mentor: Robert L. Johnson, Directed Energy
Location: Kirtland
Academic Level: High School

The Starfire Optical Range has recently implemented simple learning algorithms into closed loop systems. The scholar will investigate other learning algorithms, and recommend options to increase performance, efficiency, or stability within the closed loop system. The scholar will test the selected algorithms in simulation, and see the best candidate algorithm implemented either in a lab based system, or on the Starfire Optical Range 3.5-m telescope.


Learning algorithms in closed loop systems
Mentor: Robert L. Johnson, Directed Energy
Location: Kirtland
Academic Level: Lower-level Undergraduate

The Starfire Optical Range has recently implemented simple learning algorithms into closed loop systems. The scholar will investigate other learning algorithms, and recommend options to increase performance, efficiency, or stability within the closed loop system. The scholar will test the selected algorithms in simulation, and see the best candidate algorithm implemented either in a lab based system, or on the Starfire Optical Range 3.5-m telescope.


Low Signal-to-Noise Ratio Detection
Mentor: Ryan Coder, Directed Energy
Location: AMOS
Academic Level: Ph.D.

Several activities at the Maui Space Surveillance Complex involve the detection of objects or events in optical environments where the signal of interest is low relative to noise signals. This project could include the development of novel, low signal-to-noise ratio detection algorithms and comparison to algorithms from the open literature. Any developments or comparisons will be made with experimental data, provided to the student. The student will have the ability to request data which may suit the algorithm in question. Opportunities to present or publish work will be provided and encouraged.


Precision measurements with levitated nanoparticles
Mentor: Brian Kasch, Space Vehicles
Location: Kirtland
Academic Level: Lower-level Undergraduate, Upper-level Undergraduate

This project involves the experimental realization of nanoparticle levitation under high vacuum conditions. We will explore various laser system configurations, nanoparticle loading schemes, as well as optical readout and feedback cooling techniques. We are developing an accelerometer based on levitated nanoparticles that is expected to rival state-of-the-art systems in terms of sensitivity. The levitation of nanoparticles in vacuum with an optical tweezer formed by a focused laser grants experimental access to physics at the boundary between classical and quantum mechanics. Furthermore, such systems provide an ideal platform for precision measurement due to the decoupling of the test particle from it's thermal environment.


SAR Automatic Target Recognition
Mentor: Jamie Gantert, Munitions
Location: Eglin
Academic Level: High School

AFRL has a strong interest in developing efficient Automatic Target Recognition (ATR) algorithms. This internship aims to provide students with an opportunity to conduct research and become familiar with ATR applications. A key element in ATR is contingent on understanding the sensor data associated with a given modality. The focus of the project will center on understanding Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) data and developing the image formation software so that relevant information can be exploited. The software will be expanded to test various formation approaches in order to conduct a thorough performance analysis. The project will also investigate the performance and computational trade spaces to reveal system limitations and find opportunities where the software can be optimized.


Sodium Layer Density Study
Mentor: Robert L. Johnson, Directed Energy
Location: Kirtland
Academic Level: Upper-level Undergraduate

The Starfire Optical Range at Kirtland AFB, NM uses large telescopes with adaptive optics to image satellites LEO to GEO using a sodium beacon. The beacon illuminates a layer of sodium approximately 90 km in altitude, which is approximately 10 km thick, but sodium density varies throughout the day and throughout the year and by geographic location. Students would research sodium density at Kirtland AFB. Historical sodium data will be provided and analysis of sodium density trends at the SOR site will be required. After completing the analysis of sodium over Kirtland AFB, if time permits, an analysis of worldwide sodium density at various telescope sites will be requested. The goal is to analyze trends and to provide recommendations on the value of 50-W, 10-W, 15-W sodium beacon technology.


Wave Structures in the Bottomside Ionosphere
Mentor: Kenneth S Obenberger, Space Vehicles
Location: Kirtland
Academic Level: Ph.D.

Traveling ionospheric disturbances (TIDs) are pervasive in the Bottomside ionosphere. These are typically understood as gravity waves and have a number of sources such as topology, neutral winds, the terminator, convective uplift, and explosions. They can be the limiting factor on understanding the propagation characteristics of RF electromagnetic radiation across the ionosphere or within the earth-ionosphere waveguide. We will simulate such structures based on experimental data and attempt to model their effects on HF systems.