Richard Vigeant (left), Director of the University of Florida’s Applied Research in Engineering program along with David Bragg, FLARE’s National Security Program Area Lead, helped create a collaborative research space for AFRL.

May 16 2023

Federal Research Partnerships Give Universities a Competitive Edge

Technologically advanced research partnerships with the U.S. Department of Defense open the door to opportunities in higher education.

When the Air Force Research Laboratory Munitions Directorate wanted to build a collaborative research space near Eglin Air Force Base, it turned to the University of Florida.

UF’s Applied Research in Engineering (FLARE) program, which is the applied and classified research arm of the university’s engineering college, collaborated with AFRL and other experts to design the facility. FLARE’s National Security Program Area Lead David Bragg oversaw its construction, and in late 2021, the state-of-the-art, 6,000-square-foot space was opened. Now, a team of about 26 Eglin personnel uses the facility to conduct research.

“This is a great example of how we can bridge the gap between the innovative research and robust, fieldable solutions that the Department of Defense is in need of,” says FLARE Director Richard Vigeant.

Research universities are hubs for innovation and discovery, and research partnerships between universities and the Defense Department are mutually beneficial.

The DOD benefits from working with world-class researchers to innovate and develop engineering and technological advances that are important to the nation’s defense, while also developing a talent pipeline.

“Universities bring thought leadership from neutral, academic subject matter experts into these national security projects,” says Veronica Onorevole, director of innovative global education initiatives at the American Association of Colleges and Universities. “What the government gains from having universities involved in research, as opposed to going straight to the private sector, is that it adds public representation and brings in perspectives that may not be factored in or would be missed if they weren’t included.”

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In return, universities receive federal funds that enable faculty, researchers and students to work on high-profile research projects. These opportunities can improve enrollment and serve as a recruiting tool because students in relevant fields are likely to see DOD affiliations as desirable when choosing which institution to attend.

Research awards and grants are competitive, but many universities pursue them because of the benefits, says Sarah Spreitzer, assistant vice president of government relations at the American Council on Education.

“It’s access to funding for research. It’s the ability to train students in cutting-edge research and to address issues of national importance,” she says. “It helps drive industry partnerships.”

University of Florida’s Partnership with ARFL Runs on Technology

FLARE’s cooperative agreement with the AFRL Munitions Directorate — which is in charge of developing next-generation weapons technology — is worth up to $19 million over five years.

To enable cutting-edge research, FLARE fully equipped AFRL’s secure research space high-end technology, including a high-speed network built with Cisco and Ciena networking equipment and APC uninterruptible power supplies for surge protection and backup power.

FLARE, based in Gainesville, Fla., also furnished the space with Dell desktop and laptop computers, large LG display screens and HP printers, and its contractors laid about 200 miles of fiber, allowing researchers to connect to the Eglin network for data center access.

“It’s a modern space for Air Force personnel to do analysis and processing work,” Vigeant says.

The research space is the initial project in FLARE’s cooperative agreement with the AFRL Munitions Directorate. DOD has a broader, long-term goal of expanding economic opportunities in the northwest region of Florida by collaborating on research initiatives with educational institutions, local and state government, private industry and agencies within DOD.

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AFRL’s initiative, called Regional Advancement and Capability Enhancement (RACE), also includes optimizing the program’s investment in a future workforce. This involves, for example, measuring and adjusting outreach to K–12 schools and STEM programs, and offering internships.

FLARE’s staff of 12 researchers will work with faculty across UF’s Herbert Wertheim College of Engineering to help AFRL achieve its RACE objectives in the coming years, says Vigeant, who is also the initiative’s program manager.

Allan Sonsteby
We need to recognize where the technology is heading and how we can best leverage it to solve DOD problems that may be constantly evolving.”

Allan Sonsteby Executive Director, Penn State University Applied Research Laboratory

In fact, FLARE engineers, along with UF graduate students, are working with AFRL to develop analytical and visualization tools to support the program’s data-driven and model-based human capital vision, he says.

Since it launched in 2019, FLARE has made headway into developing partnerships with federal agencies. It’s working with the Air Force, Navy, Army and the intelligence community to research hypersonics, radio-frequency communications, radar, artificial intelligence software and other technologies, Vigeant says.

“We fuse the best of academic research and industry best practices to give them a robust solution and a higher technology readiness level,” he says.

Penn State’s Applied Research Lab Provides Opportunities for Students

DOD has partnered with 15 universities to operate University Affiliated Research Centers, which are federally funded nonprofit organizations that conduct research and development. Each university that runs a UARC provides DOD with essential engineering and technology capabilities in core areas of expertise or specialization.

For example, the Applied Research Laboratory at Penn State, founded in 1945, is a UARC that develops undersea weapons, unmanned undersea vehicles and advanced sonar to support the Navy, its primary sponsor.

The ARL also performs broad engineering and R&D across the other domains (land, air, space and cyber operations) for the rest of the Armed Forces and other government agencies, says Allan Sonsteby, executive director of the Penn State ARL.

The lab, which was awarded 188 projects totaling $323 million in 2022, invests in the latest technologies to accomplish its research goals, including high-performance computing systems that enable ARL’s researchers to perform advanced physics modeling.

DISCOVER: The importance of cybersecurity in university research projects.

“The research center recognizes that without investing in technology and continuing to push the frontiers of technological advancement, our nation will lag behind and be overtaken by our adversaries,” Sonsteby says. “Our sponsors rely on us to solve problems from ideation through deployment. We need to recognize where the technology is heading and how we can best leverage it to solve DOD problems that may be constantly evolving.”

The elite research capabilities at ARL attract scientists, industry professionals and students to Penn State, he says. In fact, one of ARL’s core principles is to build the next-generation workforce. To do so, ARL hires more than 200 college students from Penn State and elsewhere for summer internships each year.

It also offers cooperative education opportunities to Penn State graduate students so they can gain professional experience while pursuing their studies, Sonsteby says. Overall, 13 percent of ARL’s 1,400 staff members are students.

“When students are employed at ARL, they not only receive mentorship, professional development opportunities and hands-on research experience, but they also often have the opportunity to work on projects that include rapidly evolving technologies or capabilities — things that they may not have even read about yet in their academic studies,” Sonsteby says.

$30 million

The amount of research awards the University of Florida Applied Research in Engineering program has won since operations began four years ago

Source: University of Florida

University of Maryland’s ARLIS Increasingly Relies on Cloud Computing

In 2003, DOD asked the University of Maryland to establish a UARC because of its expertise in language, social sciences and human behavior. As a result, UMD launched what is now called the Applied Research Laboratory for Intelligence and Security at College Park, Md.

Today, about 140 ARLIS research scientists and staff work on 55 projects totaling about $50 million in awards.

ARLIS performs research and development on the human domain by integrating social and behavioral sciences, AI and computing. For example, during the COVID-19 outbreak, ARLIS assisted with the government’s response by studying disinformation campaigns by foreign nations, says ARLIS Executive Director William Regli.

To do so, ARLIS researchers leveraged the lab’s expertise in human languages, tracked social media posts and used data analytics to better understand how adversaries were spreading COVID-19 misinformation in the U.S., he says.

To carry out the lab’s work, ARLIS researchers rely on UMD’s high-performance computing clusters, but they increasingly use Amazon Web Services, Google Cloud and Microsoft Azure for compute, storage and analytics, Regli says.

“We have a modest amount of our own stuff. We’ve really tried to be a pioneer in the use of cloud infrastructure,” he says.

The laboratory hires 100 interns each year, mostly undergraduates from UMD and other universities, so they can gain real-world experience, Regli says. The lab also hires the university’s tenure-track faculty for research projects when they have time in the summer.

Overall, ARLIS is a good example of how university-DOD research partnerships are mutually advantageous, Regli says.

“It’s win-win. Campuses get access to real problems, and we create a culture that enables faculty, students and others to work on those problems,” he says. “And DOD wants to work with universities because we’re a part of the innovation ecosystem. Not every good idea comes from a government lab or contractor. We’re an important tool for providing innovation and insight.”


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