AFRL selects Phase 1 Grand Challenge ML winners from academia

AFRL selects Phase 1 Grand Challenge ML winners from academia

The competition, to give its full name, is Active Artificial Intelligence, or AI, Planners for Chemistry/Materials Optimization and Discovery Grand Challenge. The idea was to find a way to accelerate chemistry and materials research to advance warfighting capabilities, for the U.S. Department of the Air Force and the Department of Defense.

The winners proposed a solution for a machine learning-artificial intelligence system that has potential applications for synthetic chemistry, digital manufacturing, robotics and fuel developments, among others, said the AFRL.

The organisation will now will oversee the team’s research efforts and provide technical direction over the course of the next nine-months.

Participants in this year’s Challenge apparently pitched ideas for the development of a machine learning framework, a system that uses artificially intelligent computer systems to support solutions for optimising and discovering synthetic compounds — man made substances produced via chemical reactions that have a range of applications for consumer goods, from foods to fuel, as well as myriad defense sector needs.

Grand Challenge Winners

The winning team was led by Carnegie Mellon University Associate Professor Dr. Olexandr Isayev and University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Associate Professor of Chemistry Dr. Frank Leibfarth.

As the Phase I winner, the team was awarded approximately 30% of a potential $500,000 contract to develop a real-world system. The remainder of the contract funds will be awarded incrementally across three additional distinct development phases over the course of nine months, pending approval at each stage.

“Recently, we have been very focused on expanding artificial intelligence, machine learning and other digital tools to support U.S. Department of the Air Force needs,” said Dr. Luke Baldwin, research chemist and Grand Challenge program manager, AFRL’s Materials and Manufacturing Directorate.

“While there are efforts focusing on transferring preexisting data around more efficiently, we also need initiatives to focus on generating new data faster in the lab. This is essential to understand and discover new materials.”


The AFRL describes itself as the primary scientific research and development center for the Department of the Air Force, leading the discovery and development of warfighting technologies for U.S. air, space, and cyberspace forces.

It employs a workforce of 11,500 across a range of technology areas, from fundamental to advanced research and technology development.

Image: AFRL, Gregory Gerken

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