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.

Research Areas

ARL’s Technical Strategy highlights a coordinated and synchronized science and technology (S&T) campaign framework. Central to this construct are the following eight S&T campaigns.

1. Extramural Basic Research is focused on steering and oversight of systematic studies to increase fundamental knowledge and understanding in the physical sciences, information sciences, life sciences, and engineering sciences related to long-term national security needs. Basic research helps to discover, understand, and exploit the mathematical, computational, and algorithmic foundations that are expected to create revolutionary capabilities for the Army of 2030 and beyond.

Discoveries are expected to lead to capabilities in communications and materials well beyond classical limits that restrict the performance of current Army systems. They also may lead to capabilities in materials, the information domain, and soldier performance augmentation.

  1. Computational Sciences is focused on advancing the fundamentals of predictive simulation sciences, data-intensive sciences, computing sciences, and emerging computing architectures.
  2. Materials Research is focused on fundamental research for scientific discovery and innovative problem-solving to provide superior materials and devices needed to achieve lasting strategic land power dominance. Specialized electronic materials and devices help achieve Army dominance over the entire electromagnetic spectrum, particularly in contested environments. Discoveries in this area are energy-efficient electronics and hybrid electronics, including conformable and flexible electronics for advanced sensors and processors. Materials and devices for photonic sensors and sources; scalable high-energy lasers; secure communications via quantum networking; and protection of sensors and human eyes against high-power and short-pulse laser threats also fall into this category. Efficient power generation, energy storage, energy harvesting, fuel processing, micropower, and novel alternative energy solutions at lower cost are covered as well.

Biotechnology materials derived through synthetic biology as well as classical approaches are also a focus area. Novel biological materials are combined with inorganic devices to sense chemical and biological agents, generate power from organic sources, and produce materials to create new protection designs inspired by nature. High-strain and ballistic materials research in this area focuses on specialized materials to enhance the performance and efficiency of Army weapons and protection systems including lightweight, extreme-performance materials; novel energetic materials; and energy-absorbing materials.

The Army PACBOT was lightened by 6 pounds by using 3D-printed parts (shown in color). 3D printing in the field means that soldiers won’t always have to wait for spare parts to arrive.

Manufacturing materials and devices may facilitate agile, adaptive, mobile processing, and manufacturing capabilities to enable superior performance and implementation of cost-reduction methodologies. Understanding material properties and degradation mechanisms will help to improve durability of Army systems in extreme environments.

  1. Sciences-for-Maneuver is focused on gaining a greater fundamental understanding of advanced mobility systems and their supporting architectures — critical to the future Army’s movement, sustainment, and maneuverability. This research includes understanding the applications of energy generation, storage, conversion, and management; mechanics research that develops maneuverable platforms for the Army of the future; teaming robots and soldiers to conduct maneuver and military missions; and enabling the rapid and reliable assessment of future Army platform reliability, health, and usage.
  2. Information Sciences is focused on gaining a greater understanding of emerging technology opportunities that support intelligent information systems that perform acquisition, analysis, reasoning, decision-making, collaborative communication, and assurance of information and knowledge. This area includes sensing and exploiting data to drive effectors; effective means for storage, retrieval, and manipulation of data; exploring interactions between information and intelligent systems such as robots and software agents; interactions between information and humans; and understanding interactions of information with cyber attackers — human and/or intelligent agents.
  3. Sciences-for-Lethality and Protection covers emerging technologies that support weapon systems, protection systems, and the mechanisms of injury affecting the warfighter.
  4. Human Sciences helps gain a greater understanding of individual physical, perceptual, and cognitive performance including the relationship between the brain and the body, and interactions with the physical environment. This includes genetics and genomics, molecular biology, and human biochemistry and their impacts on brain structure-function coupling.

Other research areas include ergonomics and biomechanics to increase soldier performance while simultaneously minimizing injury probability; physical augmentation to improve physical load management; wearable and implantable systems and devices for protection and for medical applications; and brain-computer interactions dedicated to understanding and enhancing cognitive performance and protection against cognitive harm.

8. Analysis and Assessment is focused on modernizing the Army’s capabilities in engineering-level analyses of technologies and systems, and leveraging those strengths to create fundamentally new capabilities.

Technology Transfer

ARL developed a hybrid unmanned aerial vehicle that transforms in flight. The UAV tilts its rotors to go from hovering like a helicopter to flying like an airplane. For testing, a large paper half-circle was attached to the prototype to slow it down. (Photo: David McNally)

The ARL Technology Transfer (T2) Office aims to promote the transfer of ARL-developed Intellectual Property (IP) from the laboratory to the private sector through the establishment of strategic partnerships and promotion of research opportunities, facilities, and capabilities.

Many of ARL’s innovative technologies are available for exclusive licensing, often at competitive rates, and the T2 Office works to find entrepreneurs, businesses, and technologists to transition these technologies to the commercial market.

For a list of available technologies and information on other collaboration opportunities, visit here . Learn more about the Army Research Laboratory here .


Tech Briefs Magazine

This article first appeared in the June, 2018 issue of Tech Briefs Magazine.

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