In October 1992, the U.S. Army Research Laboratory (ARL) was activated, consolidating the seven corporate labs of the Laboratory Command (LABCOM) with other Army research elements to form a centralized laboratory concentrating on scientific research, technology development, and analysis. Headquartered in Adelphi, MD, the ARL’s intent was to bring together the Army’s basic and applied research capabilities, and promote their collaboration and cooperation in the generation of technology solutions for some of the most severe problems facing U.S. forces on the battlefield.

A radio-controlled toy tank is powered with hydrogen harvested from a unique chemical reaction. An aluminum nanomaterial produces high amounts of energy when it comes in contact with water or any liquid containing water. (Photo: David McNally)

From vacuum tubes and transistors, to integrated circuits and microprocessors, ARL has been leading (and often paving) the way in designing, implementing, and exploiting the most innovative high-performance computing architectures and technologies available. Among its many successes, ARL developed ENIAC (Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer), the first operational, general-purpose, electronic digital computer.

Ever since the development of the ENIAC, ARL has provided the Armed Forces with unprecedented scientific computational capabilities. In the scientific computing sector, five generations of computing architectures have evolved since the days of the ENIAC. These architectures range from serial, vector, shared memory, and distributed memory, to today’s commodity processor-based clusters. Even today, ARL’s leadership in one of four DoD Supercomputing Resource Centers (DSRCs) located at Aberdeen Proving Ground, MD, is providing scientists and engineers with the computing power they need to help the United States maintain its technological and military supremacy.

In 1994, ARL was granted authority by the Department of the Army (DA) to enter into research cooperative agreements and Broad Agency Announcements (BAA) to the private sector. It called upon industry and academia to assemble consortia around several technology areas that were deemed critical to the Army’s success.

In late 1998, ARL reformulated its strategic planning process to focus on several major long-range problems. This set of “Grand Challenges” represents a subset of those strategic problems to which ARL could bring to bear its world-class technology competence.

The five Grand Challenges about which ARL restructured its long-range program planning are:

  • Survivable systems with lethality overmatch in complex terrains.

  • Lighter, faster, more fuel-efficient mobile platforms to reduce the logistics tail and enhance deployability.

  • Provide commanders unprecedented real-time situation awareness of the battlefield.

  • Significantly improve the battlefield soldier’s ability to absorb information and make decisions.

  • Assure information dominance in diverse operating conditions and threats.

Currently, ARL scientists and engineers are pioneering research in such areas as neuroergonomics, energetic materials and propulsion, individual warfighter protection, energy science, electronics technologies, network sciences, virtual interfaces and synthetic environments, and autonomous systems.

ARL Innovations

ARL researchers are experimenting with coatings in high-temperature environments to create “sandphobic” coatings that cause sand to slide off the inside of a turbine engine the way an egg slides off a nonstick skillet. (Photo: US Army)

A fundamental aspect of ARL’s contribution to technology is basic research that, while longer-term in scope, will often produce paradigm-shifting results. In the development of advanced chemical and biological protective materials, nanomaterials such as dendritic polymers represented a technological breakthrough that provided a means of making emerging chemical/biological concepts and systems more practical and affordable for individual protection, detection, and decontamination. ARL designed, developed, and evaluated materials and material systems for application in protective clothing, masks, and detection and decontamination equipment. These enabling technologies were transitioned for inclusion in developmental programs focused on protecting military personnel from chemical and biological attacks.

ARL created a process for 3D-printing an On-Demand Small Unmanned Aircraft System (ODSUAS) that flies at speeds of up to 55 miles per hour. Although the lightweight shell and propeller arms are printed using additive manufacturing, the motors and propellers are assembled using off-the-shelf equipment. (Photo: Angie DePuydt)

Major accomplishments include the development of a next-generation reactive topical skin protective cream for chemical agent resistance and decontamination, the development of nanoencapsulated enzymes for soldier clothing, and nanomanipulation conditioning for enhancing biological agent detection.

ARL was also a major participant in the semiconductor revolution that influenced photonics technology and the effort to direct light with the wind, and the technological effort to produce super-critical water oxidation in a detoxification effort to eliminate chemical and biological agents.

Investments were made in infrared detectors, especially with the first color prototype, and in calibration technology for helicopters with Princeton University. Challenges pertaining to the future Army necessitated innovative ideas and influenced the introduction of biotechnology into engineering and physical sciences arenas. Optical technology and the development of an electronic eye and a sensitive nose with the capability of smell were designed to enhance the deployment of robotics under battlefield conditions. Target recognition and land mine detecting were also primary challenges that were influenced by quantum computing.

ARL conducted research to define and quantify soldier capabilities and limitations, and apply this understanding to the design and development of soldier-system interfaces. Basic research in auditory and visual perception, and applied research in cognitive engineering and logistics provide the understanding required by material developers to build systems that greatly enhance soldier performance.

ARL scientists developed ways to improve collaboration between humans and artificially intelligent agents by enhancing the agent transparency, which refers to a robot, unmanned vehicle, or software agent’s ability to convey to humans its intent, performance, future plans, and reasoning process. The Situation awareness-based Agent Transparency (SAT) model deals with the information requirements from an agent to its human collaborator in order for the human to obtain effective situation awareness of the agent in its tasking environment.

ARL developed a gel substance with fluorescent properties that mimics the texture and mass of the human brain. Ultraviolet light is used to illuminate the material, which shows the effects of blast pressure on the brain. (Photo: David McNallly)

The Autonomous Squad Member (ASM), on which ARL collaborated with Naval Research Laboratory scientists, is a small ground robot that interacts and communicates with an infantry squad. Informed by the SAT model, the ASM’s user interface features an at-a-glance transparency module where user-tested iconographic representations of the agent’s plans, motivation, and projected outcomes are used to promote transparent interaction with the agent.

Since the 2001 terrorist attacks, U.S. Armed Forces have engaged in two major operations: Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan (OEF) and Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF). ARL participated in the development of several technologies that were fielded in these operations to assist soldiers in carrying out mission objectives. In Afghanistan, the acoustic battlefield aid, which uses acoustic sound to identify areas where U.S. military assets can and cannot be detected, was deployed. The search for top Taliban and Al Qaeda leaders was further assisted by the use of PacBots, which were developed in coordination with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and manufactured by iRobot. These small robots were deployed to Afghanistan to clear caves and buildings, marking the first time that the U.S. military used robots as a combat tool. The robots were integrated with ARL-developed sensors prior to deployment. Finally, the deployment of the Forward Area Language Converters (FALCons) to soldiers enabled them to translate scores of documents left behind by the Taliban regime.

Operation Iraqi Freedom would see a more extensive use of ARL-developed technology in combat operations. Among technologies fielded were the Integrated Meteorological System (IMETS), which provided operational weather forecasts and predicted weather patterns in the battlefield. ARL has worked on technology enhancements to address specific areas identified by soldiers such as forecasting high wind events and dust dispersion — critical weather factors in the Iraqi desert. The system, which includes both ground-based and vehicle-mounted variants, uses the sound of a small arms weapon or bullet in flight to provide the relative azimuth, elevation, and range of the origin of the shot.