AF chief scientist talks Eglin technology advancements

  • Published
  • By Michelle Gigante
  • 96th Test Wing Public Affairs

Meet Dr. Victoria Coleman, the esteemed Chief Scientist of the United States Air Force in Arlington, Virginia, and the visionary force behind cutting-edge advancements in defense technology. With a storied career spanning academia, industry, and government, Dr. Coleman's expertise has left an indelible mark on fields ranging from microelectronics to cyber security. In this exclusive Q&A, delve into her remarkable journey, uncovering insights into her collaboration with Eglin and her pivotal role in shaping the future of national security. 

Q: How has your background in both academia and government agencies like the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency informed your approach to understanding the work being done here at Eglin? 

A: My background in computer science, coupled with experiences in academia and government agencies, has shaped my approach to understanding and applying technology in defense settings.

I am a computer scientist by training with three degrees in computer science. My field has been ever-changing, which has kept it exciting for me. Throughout my career, I've focused on applying computer science to defense and mission-specific problems. My first practical project was on the Air Data computer for the F-14 fighter jet. This experience ignited my passion for using computing power to support mission objectives. When I joined the Air Force, I gained firsthand access to mission operators and observed the challenges they faced. This proximity to the mission inspired me to create connections between the science and technology communities and the operational forces. It became clear that solving real-world problems requires understanding not just the technology but also the context in which it's used.

I've always been driven by applying computer science to solve real-world problems. My goal at Eglin is to foster collaboration between academia, government, and industry to drive innovation in military technology.

Q: Furthermore, in your biography you helped participate in the creation of the technologies leading to the current AI technology of Siri prior to its acquisition to Apple, would you elaborate how this has influenced government initiatives?

A: Reflecting on the evolution of computing, from punch cards to speech recognition and AI models, it's evident how far we've come. Projects like DARPA’s Cognitive Assistant program, was a major initiative focused on developing advanced artificial intelligence systems capable of understanding and responding to natural language. Visionaries like Tony Tether, director of DARPA, paved the way for advancements in autonomous vehicles and natural language processing. These initiatives, while executed outside the government, were guided by collaboration and leadership, demonstrating the power of engaging external expertise in advancing our mission.

Innovation flourishes when diverse perspectives converge, bridging the gap between government and external talent pools. Initiatives like DARPA's Grand Challenge for self-driving cars wouldn't have succeeded without this collaborative approach. Similarly, advancements in speech recognition and photography owe much to partnerships between academia, industry, and government. These collaborations not only drive technological progress but also inspire new generations to join our mission.

Q: Why do you think it's important to brief the Air Force Chief Scientists Group of the missions here at Eglin, and do you have plans to expand this practice to other locations?

A: Briefing the Air Force Chief Scientists Group at Eglin is crucial because they play a significant role in influencing decisions that impact the entire Air Force. By bringing them to different locations, we expose them to diverse mission sets and foster collaboration across the service. Our goal is to expand this practice to other locations to ensure a broad understanding of the challenges and opportunities across the Air Force. We've already conducted similar briefings at Nellis Air Force Base, Barksdale Air Force Base, Colorado Springs, Scott Air Force Base, and Australia.

Q: Can you elaborate on how your office is fostering collaboration between Eglin Air Force Base and the University Affiliated Research Center, and how do you envision this partnership fostering innovation in military technology?

A: Hosting the Tactical Autonomy University Affiliated Research Center at Eglin in conjunction with the Chief Scientist Group meeting serves two purposes.  It exposes UARC faculty and students to real Air Force operations and research, while simultaneously educating members of the Chief Scientist Group on Eglin’s mission and the capabilities of the UARC. It’s a groundbreaking initiative. The UARC is the first sponsored by the Air Force and is uniquely made up of historically black colleges and universities, led by Howard University. This partnership aims to support specific mission needs while building long-term relationships between academia and the Department of Defense. Our focus includes developing immersive simulation technologies for tactical training and validating autonomous systems for real-world deployment. This partnership not only supports current mission objectives but also cultivates the next generation of talent to drive innovation in military technology.

The Air Force's vision is deeply rooted in its people and technology. We aim to lead the way as the most technologically superior force globally.Dr. Victoria Coleman, Chief Scientist of the Air Force

Q: How do you plan to leverage insights gained from the Chief Scientist Group visit to inform future research priorities or policy decisions within the Air Force?

A: The visits serve as opportunities to identify collaboration areas between academia and the Air Force. Action items are established, and ongoing communication ensures specific needs are addressed, including discussions on topics like great power competition.

Q: Could you elaborate on the role of autonomy in the future of military operations, and how Eglin’s work fits into this broader strategic vision?

A: Autonomy plays a critical role in bridging technological gaps. Project-based approaches allow for experimentation and learning, essential for integrating autonomy effectively into operations.

Q: What aspects of the UARC's recent visit to Eglin Air Force Base left the most lasting impression on its staff and students, and how might this experience influence their future contributions to national defense efforts?

A: For most of the UARC staff and students, it was their first time on an Air Force Base. I want to thank the team at Eglin for their extraordinary hospitality. Hearing how the UARC can support our national defense directly from the world’s finest test pilots and maintainers will have a profound impact on the UARC faculty and students who attended this week and may inspire careers in national defense they may not have otherwise considered.

Q: Looking ahead, what are your hopes or aspirations for the future of scientific research and development within the Air Force, and how do visits like this for the Chief Scientist Group contribute to realizing those goals?

A: Absolutely, the Air Force's vision is deeply rooted in its people and technology. We aim to lead the way as the most technologically superior force globally. This isn't just about competition; it's about being proactive in identifying and integrating groundbreaking advancements into our mission. These visits are crucial as they allow us to stay ahead, ensuring we're not only aware of emerging technologies but also actively incorporating them into our strategies. It's a continuous journey, not a quick fix. We're focused on fostering a culture that values innovation and technical prowess. The recent emphasis on increasing technical competency, such as through the introduction of competitions in cyber operations, reflects our commitment to this goal. We're laying the groundwork for a future where the Air Force remains at the forefront of technological innovation, ready to meet any challenge head-on.