(COLORADO SPRINGS) — Cadets at the Air Force Academy are following their passions and working to build tools to help in real-world situations.

“We have a $40 million research program at the Air Force Academy,” Air Force Academy Associate Dean of Research, Col. Chris McClernon said. “That 40 million is more than all of the other service academies combined, more than West Point, Annapolis, Coast Guard, Merchant Marine. We do more research here than all of them.”

One research project underway is the creation of an automated sextant tool.

“So this approach was initially brought to us from the Air Mobility Command,” said Air Force Academy Cadet, Mihiri Fernando. “And so they had this need for a device, an emergency device, that basically, if their cargo planes were to lose GPS connection, that they would have a way to still navigate over the ocean, because when you’re over the ocean, there’s no visible landmarks for you to be able to see.”

Cadets showed the programming they are working on for the automated sextant.

This team of cadets works in an independent study course meaning they find free time in their schedules to come together to work.

“They’re bringing their experiences and the things they’ve learned in various classes and other research projects,” McClernon said. “They’re combining those together to solve this multidisciplinary problem for a real Air Force customer and I’m very proud of the work that they’re doing.”

The team leader, Fernando, explained her role in overseeing the project and her teammates.

“We kind of have three separate teams that we’re split into,” Fernando said. “So we have a camera team that’s working with the cameras, primarily an algorithm team that’s working with the more, algorithm-like computer side of it. And then the structures team, which is working with the physical, like actual device that we’re building. And so my job is making sure that those three teams are able to make progress.”

Team of cadets working together inside the classroom

Air Mobility Command sent the team of cadets equipment to help in their research.

“Air Mobility Command is sending us boxes of stuff, they sent us actual sextant navigation equipment,” McClernon said. “And in the spring, they’re hoping to actually get cadets on board aircraft to start installing the things they’re working on here in the laboratory and seeing if they can operationally use them onboard an aircraft.”

Victoria Salvador holding up the sextant tool the Air Mobility Command sent

Steven White is another cadet on the research team and he works on the programming side of the project.

“I think it’s pretty interesting to see how influential, like my aspect is my exact contribution to this project is to everybody else, especially considering the fact that my contribution is very mathy,” White said. “I wasn’t expecting like a math requirement to run so many of the other hardware requirements.”

Automated sextant the cadets are building

The new fully automated sextant will help navigate planes if there is no GPS connection.

“So it took a lot of time and effort and so our device is supposed to be fully automated,” Fernando said. “It’s basically a camera system with an algorithm built into it that is able to like take a picture of that celestial body. And then it does all the calculations through the algorithm so that there’s no user input needed. So it’s a lot quicker and it’s a lot more accurate.”

Col. McClernon explained this is one of many research projects happening at the Air Force Academy.

“This research project is one of many that our cadets are accomplishing here at the Academy, spanning many disciplines too,” McClernon said. “Astronautics, aeronautics, mechanical engineering, philosophy, english, political science, human machine teaming, artificial intelligence. These are things that are important now in our curriculum, but it’s also the things that are important when they graduate as leaders in the Air Force and the Space Force.”

Several research cadets working on the automated sextant

This team of cadets are working to solve real-world problems by updating navigation tools to keep our country safe.

“My favorite part is probably just all of the cool things we got to learn,” Fernando said. “So, like, I’d have never like use any celestial navigation stuff like prior to this… and so what’s super cool about this project is like that it has a final output that’s going to be super useful for the Air Force and that we’re going to be able to have contributed to that.”