At its most basic, the 2½-year-old pact between the University of Delaware and the U.S. Army aims to produce a bumper crop of sharp engineers and products that could save lives in combat.
The university and the Army’s research and development command at Aberdeen Proving Ground, Md., see the 2010 public-private sector agreement as far more: a driver of economic development that will turn the area between Aberdeen and Newark into a cradle of the technical innovation demanded by an ever more high-tech military and add tenants to UD’s new Science Technology and Advanced Research (STAR) Campus.
“We are dedicated to regionalism,” said UD’s David Weir, director of the Office of Economic Innovation and Partnership. “We see that’s where the future lies, and we want to be part of that.
“This is an investment in the future.”
Officials hope the region’s transformation can mirror that of Aberdeen, a vast former ordnance test facility that the 2005 round of federal base closures transformed into the nerve center for Army technical innovation. The changes brought thousands of high-income, white-collar government and contractor jobs to the base and thousands of defense contractor and spinoff jobs outside its gates.
The UD-Army partnership will unfold far more slowly. But a solid foundation is being built, officials say.
Under the umbrella of a Cooperative Research and Development Agreement that UD signed with the Army’s Research, Development and Engineering Command (RDECOM), UD provides Aberdeen engineers with its expertise in composite materials – think advanced fibers and nanomaterials – that Army researchers see as keyelements in future innovations. It has modified engineering curricula, allowing interested students to tailor their studies with an eye toward future employment at Aberdeen.
In turn, RDECOM is giving UD what amounts to a hands-on practical applications lab. And it is allowing UD to offer graduate-level courses at the Maryland base, giving researchers the opportunity to advance academically without having to make the 45-minute commute.
UD will see tangible and intangible rewards, Weir said.
“The university’s going to benefit because we will be at the leading edge of technology,” he said. “The students are going to benefit because there’s going to be jobs and opportunities – companies are going to be spun out of this technology. And, hopefully, as our relationship with APG develops, there’ll be some joint research taking place at the Chrysler site [now the STAR Campus]. Because that is going to be a … big incubator site.”
No money has yet directly changed hands between the two. “But we can allow them to use our equipment, to share intellectual property – you know, their engineers, our engineers,” said Michael Lombardi, deputy director of Aberdeen’s Intelligence and Information Warfare Directorate, or IIWD.
Some 20 work projects have been launched under the agreement. Several revolve around the development of advanced antennas that would replace inefficient, outmoded whip antennas on military vehicles, such as the Mine-Resistant Ambush-Protected armored vehicle developed at the height of the Iraq war to better shield troops from roadside bomb explosions.
One project involves so-called “conformal” antennas that somewhat mimic the shape of a vehicle, as the short, slanted rear-roof radio antennas do on most modern sedans.
It’s harder than it sounds.
“There are a lot of challenges in the ‘conformal’ antennas,” said Mahbub Hoque of Aberdeen’s Space and Terrestrial Communications Directorate. “How do you integrate them? Is that material that we are using suitable? That’s where UD comes in and their Center for Composite Materials. They are looking at the different material we can use, and they are also looking at the integration of these things.”
Another project would produce antennas embedded in the skin of an armored vehicle that would be part of a roadside bomb detection system.
“The challenge, aside from designing the antenna, is also designing the armor,” said Henry Tsai, who works for Hoque.
All this takes time. “You have to figure out first if the idea works,” said Shridhar Yarlagadda, assistant director for research at Composite Materials center, whose work on the embedded antenna project began only two weeks ago. “It’s a big jump from doing something in the lab and setting it out in the desert someplace.”
The project descriptions are sketchy because only limited information can be made public. Officials at Aberdeen and UD would not allow a camera anywhere near the work, citing security concerns.
The Center for Composite Materials has been working with the Army for decades; the relationship goes back to the 1980s, said Yarlagadda, who came to UD in 1997 and began collaborating with the Army’s Communications-Electronics Research, Development and Engineering Center, or CERDEC, five years later.
CERDEC was then at Fort Monmouth, N.J. That base was shuttered by a 2005 federal base-closing decision. Most of its functions and jobs were transferred to Aberdeen and physically co-located with the parent RDECOM, which oversees all Army R&D efforts.
By placing the key commands that oversee Army R&D in the same location, the command’s research became far less “stovepiped” and far more efficient and collaborative.
“So now, all of a sudden, you have a whole bunch of general officer-level people that can get together and actually agree to work across a whole continuum from the time something goes from basic research to applied research to testing, and you can actually do it at APG,” Lombardi said. “It isn’t scattered to the winds, right? Which was part of the problem.”
The Army was beginning to practice what is known in private research firms as “matrix management” – a concept familiar to Weir, a 35-year veteran of DuPont. He and UD were paying attention.
“We’re sitting here watching this take place,” Weir said. In August 2008, UD invited RDECOM leadership and Delaware congressional leaders to campus to hear a proposal that they work together.
It was a very un-university sort of approach, Weir said.
“We look upon you as a customer,” was the general tenor of UD’s presentation, Weir recalled. “And we will understand your needs and we will modify our offerings to meet your needs.”
That, Weir said, was the beginning of the partnership. It was formalized in January 2010.
The agreement isn’t just about products. The research and development in both Newark and Aberdeen will be increasingly fueled by UD-trained students taking advantage of curriculum changes that will allow the school to produce, for example, electrical engineers like Joseph Deroba, who is earning his doctorate in digital signal processing – a pursuit central to understanding advanced radar technology and one not available prior to the UD-Army agreement.
Deroba is already applying his studies. He’s chief engineer for the IIWD’s Radar and Combat Identification Division at Aberdeen, where he specializes in imaging radar. UD and his professor, former Army Research Laboratory engineer Dennis Prather, are allowing him to pursue his PhD part time, a rare opportunity.
“My research is going to be developing some wave forms so that radars can do multiple things at the same time,” Deroba said. “And Dr. Prather’s got some interesting ideas … on how we might generate wave forms and how they develop.
“So that’s sort of the teaming there,” Deroba said. “I’m going to generate the constructs that allow for such things … and then he’s going to try to figure out ways to make it feasible to generate them very efficiently.
“That’s how I’m going to get my PhD,” Deroba added. “So I’m going to be happy, the Army’s going to be happy and, at the same time, the University of Delaware’s going to be happy.”
There’s another advantage to the Army: In helping Prather develop the course curriculum and lecture several times per year, Deroba has an opportunity to spot rising stars.
“The real advantage there is I get to see some junior-, senior- and graduate-level kids that are about to graduate in a radar class,” Deroba said. “So it gives us a good recruiting opportunity on top of letting people know what we do here.”
UD has amended some of its engineering curricula to ensure that graduates in specialties valued by Aberdeen have taken the proper course mix. This, Lombardi said, is helping the Army streamline its ability to hire UD grads. About six UD graduate students have landed jobs at Aberdeen, according to Weir.
UD has also placed more than 20 paid summer interns at Aberdeen-based commands, according to Weir. Those who complete the Student Career Experience Program are eligible for a noncompetitive hire when they earn their bachelor’s degree. And, Weir noted, they already have a government security clearance.
CERDEC alone has 33 government civilian workers who either graduated from or are enrolled at UD. Seven are current students.
UD has even crossed the state border in its efforts to develop potential students. Students at Maryland’s Cecil County Community College, after attaining their two-year degrees, can transfer seamlessly to UD.
“It’s all about the pipeline, the human capital pipeline,” Lombardi said. “Getting students into the system.”
For UD’s Office of Economic Innovation and Partnership, it’s all about growing its academic and research reputation and attracting future growth – particularly at the STAR Campus but throughout the region as well.
“APG represents a huge economic development potential,” Weir said. “Because new technology’s going to be developed there. New companies are going to be spun out. … We look upon the zone from north of Baltimore up through APG to Newark through Philadelphia into Jersey as a region with a lot of potential.”
Contact Bill McMichael at 324-2812 or firstname.lastname@example.org.