X-Force Brings Students and U.S. Air Force Together

September 6, 2021

Lindy Guernsey and fellow X-Force team member work in -40 degree F conditions inside the cold chamber.  Photo by Artsiom Studzianok.
Lindy Guernsey and fellow X-Force team member work in -40 degree F conditions inside the cold chamber. Photo by Artsiom Studzianok.

Testing devices in deep winter conditions is commonplace in Fairbanks. Car, helicopter, and many other manufacturers test their vehicles and devices in the frigid, sometimes minus 40-degree Fahrenheit or colder winter conditions. Testing for winter conditions in August, however, is difficult and requires specialized equipment like a cold chamber that can create and hold extremely frigid temperatures.

Personnel from Eielson Air Force Base recently collaborated with UAF to solve a winter problem faced by the U.S. Department of Defense. The partnership was part of the National Security Innovation Network’s X-Force fellowship where students help to solve real-world national security problems in collaboration with the Iceman Spark program, which empowers airmen to innovate.

Lindy Guernsey is a UAF sophomore honors student from Seward majoring in electricial engineering and X-Force fellow. Through her tenure at UAF she has helped Eielson Air Force Base with two problem sets. The most recent was a winter problem associated with runways.

“We were given the scope of how to improve the efficiency of their runway snow and ice removal,” said Guernsey.

Guernsey and her team worked with Iceman Spark innovation coaches to fully understand and appreciate the complexity of the problem. The team visited the base in Salcha, speaking to the crews who plow the runaways, the airport field management team who test how slick the runway is, and the aircraft traffic control weather teams.

Air Force runways see a high volume of aircraft landings and takeoffs. These are often fighter jets moving at very high speeds. A few of the big considerations for runways in cold climates include snow depth, and ice depth and density, uniformity, and slickness. Too slick of a runway and the aircraft may have difficulty stopping. Too much snow can pose a problem as well. The runways are long and cover a large area; knowing when to send the plow truck out or a vehicle to add texture to the runway can be challenging.

“We figured out what would really be helpful for them was a map that showed how much snow was on the runway, and where and how much ice they had,” said Guernsey. The team then searched for a sensor that could be placed on a truck to survey the runway that could create such a map. A demonstration prototype made by a company in Finland was found to be the best solution, and the team secured a device for research and testing. All they needed now was for deep winter to set in.

To help expedite winter conditions, the team approached the UAF Arctic Infrastructure Development Center who operate a cold chamber research lab housed in the Engineering Learning and Innovation Facility at UAF.

“With Eielson being the northern-most base in Alaska, we have challenges that other bases don’t really face,” said Staff Sergeant Artsiom Studzianok, an inspection and inventory officer who is also an innovations coach for Iceman Spark. “We were able to share the joy of negative 40 temperatures with some of the students from the lower 48. It enabled us to push forward with testing in cold temperatures without having to wait until the January/February timeframe so we can continue the ball rolling.”

The Iceman Spark submitted their idea and it was selected by the X-Force fellowship program. A group of four students from around the nation were assigned to the project based on their expertise.

“We benefited by having people who don't do the job in any way, shape or form but are able to bring outside-the-box-thinking into the innovation space and just see how they can make it better, how they can make it work,” said Studzianok.

NSIN uses their X-Force program to link experts in their fields to college students who are learning the material through classes and projects. The program matches highly talented undergraduate and graduate students with operational military commands to deliver rapid, early-stage prototypes that help solve project sponsor needs.

“It really gives the students room to grow and experiment and to see what works and test it. The universities produce a lot of people with great learned knowledge, and here they are linking it to the real world,” added Studzianok.

This X-Force team included students majoring in electrical engineering, aerospace engineering, and two computer science majors. Theirs was one of the more technical projects. Students can apply to X-Force from any discipline, including engineering, business, computer science, the arts, or economics.

Working in the cold chambers was a little outside the comfort zone for some of the participants. Studzianok was able to provide military surplus equipment to outfit the students and it was important that participants never entered the room alone.

“We kept an eye on each other,” said Guernsey. “We would go and do something for about five minutes and then come back and discuss it in the warm room.” Fans keep the air moving in the cold chamber and participants watched each other for signs of frostbite and hypothermia.

“That worked out really well and they were able to not only test their equipment but also themselves in some of those cold temperatures,” said Billy Conner, AIDC director. “I think it's a great opportunity for us to give back a little bit to our military as well as foster a relationship there.”

Conner hadn’t worked with Guernsey prior to this project. He was impressed by her willingness to take the lead.

“She took a leadership role very quickly with that group, and I think some of that is because she has worked and had her education here and experienced some of the things that the rest of the group were just starting to get exposed to.” He said he was appreciative that there was someone on the team who was experienced with very cold temperatures. It made him feel more comfortable having her on the team, understanding what needed to be done.

Studzianok added that the mission of the U.S. Department of Defense is to be ready to go — even at 50 below zero — and to respond to whatever situation arises. Working with the Fairbanks community and UAF offers the benefit and experience of people who have lived in the colder regions and are adapted and know the environment well, rather than just trying something and hoping it works.

Guernsey offers advice for students interested in participating in future X-Force programs. “It's really fun to collaborate across different types of organizations and that sharing of ideas can be extremely powerful. Look up the X-Force division of the National Innovation Security Network online and put in an application to see if your skills match to what they're looking for that year.”