Improvised explosive devices (IEDs) have accounted for two-thirds of the casualties to U.S. coalition forces in Afghanistan, destroying limbs and lives with terrible force.
As part of an extensive military effort to better protect soldiers from deadly explosions, civilian engineers Sean Young and Benjamin Tran of the Air Force Research Laboratory led the development, testing and deployment of a cutting-edge system of sensors placed on unmanned aerial vehicles that are detecting IEDs from the air and saving lives.
Colleagues said the new system represents a vast improvement from earlier drone surveillance. It was the first to include radio frequency sensors in combination with electro-optical and infrared sensors, which has greatly expanded situational awareness and operational opportunities for the military.
“This put technology in the hands of commanders at the lowest tactical level. It’s a unique application that is reshaping the way operations are undertaken in the field,” said Hector Guevara, chief of the Radio Frequency Systems Branch of the Air Force Research Laboratory. “Units have a better understanding of the full environment and can better engage the threat.”
Ricky L. Peters, the executive director of the Air Force Research Laboratory, said the new system has allowed Special Forces to go out in advance of the main unit to “find the people making and placing the IEDs and find the places where they’re doing it.”
During the first 15 months that the new system supported an Army division in Afghanistan, not a single soldier in the unit was killed by an IED. And during a second implementation period lasting six weeks, beginning in November 2013, the drone sensor system led to the discovery of many IEDs, weapons caches and individuals responsible for malicious activities against coalition forces.
Before the use of the new system, unmanned aircraft were equipped with electro-optical and infrared sensors but faced limitations. They could not, for example, provide useful surveillance on cloudy days. Young and Tran inserted miniature radio frequency sensors that enable soldiers to operate the units regardless of visibility and provide a constant 360-degree view. The new capability is now on its way to all the military services.
“Sean and Ben know that what they’re doing is having a positive impact,” said Alok Das, senior scientist for design innovation at the Air Force lab. “We see daily reports about the use of the unmanned aerial vehicle and that energizes them. They are truly saving lives.”
“The return on investment of this new technology is already amazing, but the technology could also be used elsewhere. For example, where you have an oil pipeline running hundreds of miles, this system could be used for routine monitoring that is now being done with a visual search from manned aircraft,” Das said.
Colleagues said Tran and Young worked at remarkable speed: They produced their first design components within four months, and two months later their prototype was undergoing testing on the ground.
Young is the technical leader of the team and the one with a radio frequency sensing background, while Tran has been the technical leader for the aircraft system integration and operational employment. Tran has spent time embedded with the forward operating units to fully understand the battlefield needs and then to deploy the new systems.
“I bunk with the guys and eat with the guys. You develop relationships with them, which you carry on after you get home,” said Tran, who has volunteered to be deployed three times since 2011.
Tran said being embedded with soldiers puts him in harm’s way, but it also has allowed him to train forward operating units, get their feedback and implement changes immediately.
“We’re creative thinkers and innovative, but sometimes when we’re in the lab, we miss the mark. I find it very rewarding to see the fruits of our labors with the guys on the ground,” said Tran.
Young said the people he and Tran are supporting have a real need. “They are losing soldiers. We are providing a technology that can help them accomplish their mission safely,” he said.
Young, 29, grew up in rural Ohio. He’s been with the Air Force Research Laboratory since he was an engineering student. He said working for the government gives him “a way to make a difference.”
Tran, 31, also grew up in Ohio and has worked with the Air Force Research Laboratory since he was a freshman in college. “My father was a refugee from Vietnam, and I’ve always wanted a way to give back,” he said.
These medalists were the recipients of the National Security and International Affairs Medal, which was combined with the Safety and Law Enforcement Medal in 2020.