One of the key elements in science is collaboration. In academia, that often means leaving the nest to flock to partners in private industry.
Few exemplify that spirit better than Rajan Kumar, an associate professor at the FAMU-FSU College of Engineering. Kumar’s research at the Florida State University-based Florida Center for Advanced Aero-propulsion recently resulted in a rare Phase III Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) grant. It is the first Phase III SBIR grant ever awarded to a FAMU-FSU College of Engineering researcher.
The grant-funded research, “Supersonic Turret Advanced Research (STAR),” is a continued partnership between Kumar, the U.S. Air Force and the Ohio-based company Spectral Energies LLC. In its third phase, the project has been awarded more than $425,000 through November 2020.
The project’s objective is just as evocative of science fiction as its name suggests — and with time and research, fiction may one day become fact.
“The goal of our airborne systems is to produce an aircraft-mounted laser capable of engaging specified targets,” Kumar said. “The most common of these systems consists of a photon source, a beam transport system to transfer energy from the laser to a telescope and a tracking system to focus on an intended target.”
When aircraft move faster than the speed of sound, they produce shock waves that change the density of the air around them. This density change disturbs normal laser behaviors.
During the first two phases of the research, investigators studied a range of techniques to measure the shock-induced distortions that affect aircraft-emitted lasers. This included measuring baseline flow around aircraft turrets and characterizing the fundamental mechanisms involved.
The intent of the project’s third phase is to increase the readiness of the technology and to continue characterizing and developing systems capable of withstanding aero-optical disturbances using realistic, three-dimensional measurements. Researchers will then be able to demonstrate the scalability of the technology and its effectiveness in real-world, high-turbulence transonic and supersonic conditions.
The team will use fast-response pressure-sensitive paints, strain gauge balance, particle image velocimetry, 3D density field measurements and other specialized sensors to monitor the behavior of the laser with regard to shock-induced aero-optic effects.
Kumar credits the facilities and resources available at the FAMU-FSU College of Engineering for making this research possible.
“The main reason we won this grant is the availability of our polysonic wind tunnel and my experimental aerodynamics group,” he said. “Both our test facility and expertise are well recognized by partners like the Air Force.”
The goal of the SBIR program is to encourage small businesses and other institutions to participate in federal research aimed at commercialization. The first of the three award-based phases assesses the feasibility and merit of an organization’s research and rarely exceeds $150,000. Awardees reach Phase II, which generally awards no more than $1 million over a two-year period, based on results produced in the first phase.
Awardees only receive Phase III grants once the commercialization potential demonstrated in the first two phases can be actualized. As a result, Phase III grants are rare.
“Winning a Phase 3 SBIR is a big achievement for us and will further enhance our capabilities and keep us ahead of the competition,” Kumar said.
To learn more about the SBIR program, visit https://www.sbir.gov/.