Founded on March 10, 1942, the Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) at Johns Hopkins University is the nation’s largest university-affiliated research center. It was created as part of a federal government effort to mobilize scientific resources to address wartime challenges. APL rapidly became a major contributor to advances in guided missiles and submarine technologies.

For more than 75 years, APL — located in Laurel, MD — has provided systems engineering and integration, technology research and development, and analysis. The lab’s scientists, engineers, and analysts serve as technical experts to the government, ensuring the reliability of complex technologies that safeguard our nation’s security and advance the frontiers of space. Independent research and development programs explore emerging technologies and concepts to address future national priorities.

Today, APL’s four main sponsored areas of work include air and missile defense, asymmetric operations, force projection, and space science.

Research Areas

APL developed a new type of flexible lithium-ion battery that can operate under extreme conditions including cutting, submersion, and ballistic impact. The flexible battery continues to power a load after being cut multiple times and immersed in synthetic sea water. (Credit: Johns Hopkins APL)

Air and Missile Defense – This research area creates advanced technologies to protect U.S. and allied fleets and deployed forces from air and missile attack. Technologies include a high-bandwidth free-space optical (FSO) communications system between two moving ships, proving operational utility of FSO technology in the maritime environment. APL is the first organization to successfully operate such high-capacity FSO capability — up to 10 gigabits per second — on the move, on ships at sea, and in challenging near-shore environments.

Civil Space Mission – This area makes critical contributions to NASA and international missions to meet the challenges of space science. Work includes conducting research and space exploration; development and application of space science, engineering, and technology; and production of one-of-a-kind spacecraft, instruments, and subsystems. The Parker Solar Probe — designed, built, and managed for NASA by APL — will swoop to within 4 million miles of the Sun’s surface, facing heat and radiation like no spacecraft before it. This mission will unlock mysteries of the Sun’s corona and solar wind and make critical contributions to our ability to forecast major space-weather events that impact life on Earth.

The Parker Solar Probe — designed, built, and managed for NASA by APL — is revolutionizing our understanding of the Sun. The probe will travel through the Sun’s atmosphere, closer to the surface than any spacecraft before it, facing brutal heat and radiation conditions to provide humanity with the closest-ever observations of a star. (Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins APL/Steve Gribben)

NASA’s Europa Clipper mission will search for life in the solar system beyond Earth, exploring under the icy crust of Jupiter’s moon Europa in 2022. APL played critical technical roles on the mission and is contributing two science instruments: the Plasma Instrument for Magnetic Sounding to measure the thickness of the ice that encases Europa and the Europa Imaging System, a high-resolution camera that will offer near-global and targeted coverage.

The first-ever mission to demonstrate an asteroid deflection technique for planetary defense — NASA’s Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) — is led by APL. DART would be NASA’s first mission to demonstrate what’s known as the kinetic impactor technique that involves striking an asteroid to shift its orbit and deflect it from Earth.

Cyber Operations Mission – Shaping the future of warfare through cyber operations, this area focuses on assuring critical Department of Defense missions, delivering solutions to enable intelligence and military operations, and developing the systems that underpin operational capabilities in cyberspace and across the electromagnetic spectrum.

For the Defense Information Systems Agency (DISA), APL is developing mission concepts and integrating operational prototypes of visible light communications capabilities, helping DISA enhance data security and alleviate demands on the limited radio frequency (RF) spectrum.

APL demonstrated simultaneous control of two of the world’s most advanced Modular Prosthetic Limbs (MPLs) through a brain-machine interface that enables a person’s ability to “feel” brain stimulation delivered to both sides of the brain at the same time. Here, electrodes are attached to Buz Chmielewski’s head to prepare for a round of testing. (Credit: Johns Hopkins APL)

Using different types of analytics, the APL-developed REnigma tool enables cyber analysts to quickly review malware. The tool records detected malware and allows an analyst to evaluate it in greater detail than previously possible. The Integrated Adaptive Cyber Defense (IACD) framework enables integration and automation of diverse cybersecurity solutions to increase the speed and scale of cyber defense.

Homeland Protection Mission – This area addresses a wide range of critical tactical and systems-level challenges related to border security, transportation security, cyber and physical security of critical infrastructure, resiliency and assured operations, integrated information for enhanced decision support, and emergency response systems. APL designed and built the Rotating Drum System for aerosol research capabilities. With its continuously rotating drum, the system suspends aerosol particles for up to 24 hours so researchers can study biological viability due to environmental factors such as ozone, simulated sunlight, and hydrothermal conditions resembling those in different regions of the continental United States.

NASA’s Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART), led by APL, is the firstever mission to demonstrate an asteroid deflection technique for planetary defense. DART will demonstrate the kinetic impactor technique that involves striking an asteroid to shift its orbit and deflect it from Earth. (Credit: NASA/JHU-APL)

Under the direction of the Department of Homeland Security Science and Technology Directorate, APL partnered with the New York City Police Department’s Emergency Service Unit to field-test and evaluate a commercial Mobile Ad-hoc Networking (MANET) system. The system comprises smart-phone-based tactical awareness software, a wireless smart radio system, a tablet, GPS capabilities, antennas, and audio and video plug-and-play. The field tests provided local, state, and federal law enforcement with situational awareness tools similar to what frontline military forces use but adapted to meet specific requirements of first responders.

National Health Mission – This area aims to revolutionize health through science and engineering. Global Health Security programs utilize data sources at population scales that will allow health threats to be anticipated before symptoms are recognized. APL methods of data collection and analysis can provide widespread situational awareness about potential outbreaks that will allow for the development of preemptive mitigation actions or facilitate rapid responses to the identified threat.

The Corrosion Resistant Aerial Covert Unmanned Nautical System (CRACUNS) is a submersible unmanned aerial vehicle that can be launched from a fixed position underwater or from an unmanned underwater vehicle. (Credit: Johns Hopkins APL)

Revolutionizing Prosthetics is an ambitious multiyear program funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA)to create a neurally controlled artificial limb that will restore near-natural motor and sensory capability to upper-extremity amputee patients.

APL’s leadership in electronic disease surveillance, both at home and abroad, is making a difference on the front lines of protecting the health of a population. Many state and local health departments have employed APL’s Electronic Surveillance System for the Early Notification of Community-based Epidemics (ESSENCE). With the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention adopting ESSENCE as an analysis and visualization tool — and using it to track developing situations from the opioid crisis to Zika outbreaks — APL is laying the groundwork for a fully integrated national surveillance picture.

Research and Exploratory Development (RED) Mission – The primary objective of this area is to discover and pioneer breakthrough technologies through advanced research. APL has developed intelligent systems technologies that enable a team of robots to autonomously observe, orient, decide, and act while interfacing with human “teammates” on critical applications. Using marsupial team-planning algorithms, a lead robot can quarterback ground and air robots through a cluttered indoor space while relaying information about the surroundings — and even opening doors. Using APL-developed algorithms, these robots can offer descriptions of objects in their camera feed such as “dangerous” or “electronic device.”

The Dragonfly mission will explore the icy world of Saturn’s moon, Titan. Led by APL, Dragonfly marks the first time NASA will fly a multi-rotor vehicle for science on another planet; it has eight rotors and flies like a large drone. (Credits: NASA/JHU-APL)

APL is developing methods and procedures to ensure the safety and performance of autonomous systems. The Safe Testing of Autonomy in Complex, Interactive Environments (TACE) program provides two core testing and evaluation capabilities: a watchdog function consisting of onboard hardware and software that will take control of the test system should an action (like a change in climb rate or speed) violate the test parameters and a live-virtual-constructive environment in which the system’s autonomy can be replicated in combinations of live and virtual agents interacting in complete, realistic consideration of each other.

Technology Transfer

APL Tech Transfer offers businesses, not-for profit organizations, and academia streamlined access to technological innovations made at the laboratory.

Visit here  to search available APL technologies. For more information on licensing an APL technology, contact the Tech Transfer Office at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.; 240-592-0817.

Tech Briefs Magazine

This article first appeared in the August, 2020 issue of Tech Briefs Magazine.

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