The Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) began operations in 1923 as the United States Navy's first modern research institution, and it continues today as one of the Navy's premier R&D resources. NRL's early 20th Century founders knew the importance of science and technology in maintaining naval power and preserving national security.

Sailors assigned to Mobile Diving and Salvage Unit (MDSU) 1 conduct a safety walk-through before recovering the test vehicle for NASA's Low-Density Supersonic Decelerator (LDSD). The LDSD project investigates and tests breakthrough technologies for landing future robotic and human Mars missions, and safely returning large payloads to Earth. (U.S. Navy photo: Chief Mass Communication Specialist John M. Hageman)

During the years since World War II, NRL has conducted basic and applied research pertaining to the Navy's environments of Earth, sea, sky, space, and cyberspace. Investigations have ranged widely, from monitoring the Sun's behavior, to analyzing marine atmospheric conditions, to measuring parameters of the deep oceans. Detection and communication capabilities have benefitted from research that has exploited new portions of the electromagnetic spectrum, extended ranges to outer space, and provided a means of transferring information reliably and securely, even through massive jamming.

Submarine habitability, lubricants, shipbuilding materials, firefighting, and the study of sound in the sea have remained steadfast concerns. Recent explorations have been within the fields of virtual reality, superconductivity, biomolecular science and engineering, and nanotechnology.

NRL has pioneered naval research into space, from direction of the Vanguard project (America's first satellite program), to inventing and developing the first satellite prototypes of the Global Positioning System (GPS). Today, NRL is the Navy's lead laboratory in space systems research, as well as in fire research, tactical electronic warfare, microelectronic devices, and artificial intelligence.

NRL operates as the Navy's full-spectrum corporate laboratory, conducting a broadly based multidisciplinary program of scientific research and advanced technological development directed toward maritime applications of new and improved materials, techniques, equipment, systems and ocean, atmospheric, and space sciences and related technologies.

NRL is now focusing its research efforts on new Navy strategic interests in the 21st Century, a period marked by global terrorism, shifting power balances, and irregular and asymmetric warfare. While continuing its programs of basic research that help the Navy anticipate and meet future needs, NRL also moves technology rapidly from concept to operational use when high-priority, short-term needs arise for pathogen detection, lightweight body armor, contaminant transport modeling, and communications interoperability, for example.

Technology Milestones

A UH-1 Huey helicopter, equipped with a Navy-funded Autonomous Aerial Cargo/Utility System (AACUS) sensor suite, conducts integrated flight testing. The AACUS program is developing a capability that, when installed in existing rotary-wing aircraft, enables autonomous flight, obstacle avoidance, approaches, landings, and takeoffs to and from unprepared landing sites. (U.S. Navy photo by John F. Williams)

In the late 1940s, NRL led in developing instruments and techniques for taking weather-related measurements. By 1952, NRL developed a balloon-borne meteorological station for collecting data on temperature, pressure, and humidity over remote ocean areas. Today, NRL's Monterey site is the only scientific center in the Navy wholly dedicated to atmospheric research, conducting research to provide local, regional, and global atmospheric analysis and prediction, as well as the development of automated weather interpretation systems to support Naval Operations; that is, the effect of atmospheric changes on naval communications and weapons systems.

The NAVSTAR Global Positioning System (GPS) Program is a Department of Defense program to provide precise navigation data to military and civilian users by means of a constellation of 24 satellites. NAVSTAR is based on NRL's TIMATION research program begun in 1964. NRL conceived the idea of the time-based navigational system, which led to the Global Positioning System.

NRL invented the first modern U.S. radar. The invention of radar and the developments that flowed from it are among the foundations of modern military power. Radar plays a major role in the operation of civilian transportation systems, weather forecasting, astronomy, and automation, among other uses. Before the development of radar, Navy ships could track other ships or aircraft only by using optical techniques, sound ranging, or primitive radio.

In 1937, NRL developed the first Identification Friend or Foe (IFF) system in the United States. Since 1979, NRL has collaborated with the Air Force and Army to develop new IFF systems, which are urgently needed to make efficient use of beyond-visual-range weapon systems.

NRL also has made extensive discoveries in materials science. In 1959, while researching chemical flame extinction, NRL scientists discovered a dry chemical agent still used globally for fire protection operations, and starting in the early 1960s, NRL fire suppression research led to one of the most far-reaching benefits to worldwide aviation safety: the development of aqueous film-forming foam for use in potentially catastrophic fuel fires.

The Navy Sea Systems Command (NAVSEA) has funded the Navy Clothing and Textile Research Facility (NCTRF) to develop the next generation of protective gear for emergency responders to steam line ruptures aboard submarines. (U.S. Navy photo by John F. Williams)

NRL developed the Microassay on a Card (MAC), a portable, handheld immunoassay about the size of a credit card that can detect a wide variety of substances in the environment. NRL's fiber-optic biosensor uses antibodies, lectins, and antibiotics on the surface of an optical fiber to detect environmental pollutants and hazardous chemical or biological materials.

NRL's explosive and contraband detector uses nuclear quadrupole resonance to detect nitrogenous explosives or narcotics carried in luggage, mail, small cargo, or on a person. The Lab's surface acoustic wave sensor system was developed to detect and identify gases, and is currently used to monitor hazardous chemical vapors, chemical warfare agents, potential fires, and environmental pollutants.

Current and Future Research

In April 2001, in a departure from traditional working relationships among Laboratory scientists, NRL established an Institute for Nanoscience to conduct multidisciplinary research at the intersections of the fields of materials, electronics, and biology. While still belonging organizationally and performing research for their respective divisions, scientists may also be part of the Nanoscience Institute.

NRL researchers and Penn State University (PSU) developed autonomous soaring algorithms used to keep unmanned sailplanes aloft for sustained flight durations, a benefit aimed at improving the availability of 24-7 In-formation, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) mission data. This image captures a view taken from a tail-mounted camera onboard the PSU aircraft. (Penn State photo)

NRL has a long history of research and significant contributions in unmanned and autonomous systems dating back to the mid-1920s. NRL's Dragon Eye is an affordable, expendable, hand-launched, 5.5-pound miniature surveillance plane with the radar signature of a bird. Carried by U.S. Marines in a backpack, this airborne sensor platform provides small-unit reconnaissance, battle damage assessment, and threat detection capabilities. It has been deployed with the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

In March of 2012, NRL opened the Laboratory for Autonomous Systems Research. This facility brings together scientists and engineers from diverse backgrounds to tackle common challenges in autonomy research at the intersection of their respective fields. The facility supports highly innovative multidisciplinary research in autonomous systems, including intelligent autonomy, sensor systems, power and energy systems, human-system interaction, networking and communications, and platforms. The Laboratory provides unique facilities, simulated environments (littoral, desert, tropical), and instrumented, reconfigurable high-bay spaces to support integration of science and technology components into research prototype systems.

NRL is providing improved capabilities in areas such as sensors, communications, and intelligence systems for homeland defense and the war on terrorism. NRL's Specific Emitter Identification technology identifies any radar by its unique characteristics with such a high degree of accuracy that the radar is “fingerprinted.” In fact, it can distinguish between identical models produced off the same assembly line. The National Security Agency selected it as the national standard. Its uses go beyond that of traditional military requirements. Coast Guard vessels, naval warships, and aircraft use it to monitor the movement of materials used in weapons of mass destruction (WMD).

Three days after the September 11 terror attacks, NRL designed an interoperable communication infrastructure that provides assured communication capabilities to military and civilian authorities. The Infrastructure Linkage and Augmentation System (InfraLynx) allows first responders to communicate when local infrastructure is destroyed. It was deployed by the Office of Domestic Preparedness during the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City and Super Bowl XXXVII. InfraLynx has also supported counter-terrorism training and WMD preparedness drills.

Work with NRL

As the Navy's corporate laboratory, NRL draws on the powerful resources of a combination of scientific expertise and modern facilities. It is the mission of the Technology Transfer Office (TTO) to facilitate the implementation of the NRL's innovative technologies in products and services to benefit the public. To carry out this mission, TTO engages with commercial entities to develop strategic partnerships, building a collaborative bridge between government and industry.

There are two primary mechanisms by which the NRL TTO transfers its technologies to the public sector: Patent License Agreements and Cooperative Research and Development Agreements (CRADAs).

NRL has an extensive portfolio of patents covering important technological developments in a wide variety of scientific and engineering disciplines. NRL is authorized by the Navy to negotiate licenses for the commercial use of NRL's patented technologies.

Visit here  for more information on NRL. Learn more about working with NRL by visiting the Technology Transfer Office at here .


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This article first appeared in the November, 2017 issue of Tech Briefs Magazine.

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