Air Force engineers develop lifesaving, IED-detecting technology

Listen to Federal Drive with Tom Temin and Emily Kopp’s interview with 2014 Sammies Finalist Sean Young of the Air Force Research Laboratory. Young, left, is shown here with fellow AFRL electronics engineer and SAMMIES nominee Benjamin Tran. (Photo by Sam Kittner/

Sean C. Young and Benjamin J. Tran are lifesavers. The two electronics engineers with the Air Force Research Lab at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, created an aerial sensor that has helped U.S. service members to find and destroy dangerous improvised explosive devices (IEDs) in Afghanistan.

Young and Tran spearheaded the development, testing and deployment of the sensors, which were placed on unmanned aerial vehicles in support of an Army division in Afghanistan. During the first 15 months of the new technology’s use, no soldiers in the unit were killed.

A second implementation of six weeks proved to be just as successful, with the drone sensor system helping troops uncover multiple IEDs and weapons caches, as well as malicious acts against coalition forces.

“This put technology in the hands of commanders at the lowest tactical level,” said Hector Guevara, chief of AFRL’s Radio Frequency Systems Branch. “It’s a unique application that is reshaping the way operations are undertaken in the field. “Units have a better understanding of the full environment and can better engage the threat.”


For their work in developing this lifesaving technology, the Partnership for Public Service recently named Young and Tran as finalists for the 2014 National Security and International Affairs Medal. The award recognizes federal employees who have made important contributions in the area of national security and international affairs. This includes defense, diplomacy, military affairs, foreign assistance and trade.

Getting to know Sean Young

Federal News Radio asked each of the Sammies finalists questions about themselves. Here are Young’s responses:

What three words best describe your leadership philosophy?
Personable, Active and Focused.

Personable: I get to know the members of my team so that I know what motivates them for success. This helps put individuals in the right roles so they can contribute to the best of their abilities.

Active: I don’t ask any member of my team to do something that I wouldn’t do. If something needs done now, I roll up my sleeves and get busy!

Focused: I always have a goal, no matter if it is long-term objectives or simple tasks that need to be accomplished today. Goals also need to be flexible. As soon as an objective changes, everyone has to get back on the same page to get there efficiently.

What’s the best piece of advice (or words of wisdom) you’ve ever received and who gave it to you?
My supervisor, Hector, always uses the phrase “Sell the sizzle!” I think this is a great piece of advice in that understanding what your customer wants is half of the battle. The rest of the puzzle is delivering on that need and communicating to people what you are doing, how you are doing it and why it is important.

Who is your greatest role model and why?
My biggest role model is definitely my mother. Through difficult circumstances, including raising me on her own, she showed me that no matter if the odds are stacked against you, if you have focus and determination, you can get whatever you want out of life. She also taught me that you have to have fun along the way! She has given me the courage to go after my goals and aspirations and helped me become the person I am today.

What would be the title of your autobiography and why?
Enjoyment of a Challenge – The best part of accomplishing your goals is looking at the journey that it took to get you there.

National Security and International Affairs Medal is just one of the Samuel J. Heyman Service to America Medals (Sammies) presented annually by the Partnership for Public Service. View a photo gallery of all the Sammies nominees.