Parachutes that deliver critical supplies quietly and more accurately; Army uniforms that resist liquids, flame, heat and insect bites; fabric that repairs itself and meal rations that are safer and last longer in the field.
These are just some of the more than 25 collaborative projects that UMass Lowell researchers are working on as part of an innovative research and development partnership with the Army’s Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center (NSRDEC). Called HEROES — Harnessing Emerging Research Opportunities to Empower Soldiers — the initiative was launched at UMass Lowell in 2013 to enhance military members’ survivability, sustainability, mobility, combat effectiveness and quality of life in the field.
Co-directing the effort are NSRDEC Senior Scientific Advisor Lynne Samuelson ’90 and UMass Lowell plastics engineering Assoc. Prof. Ramaswamy Nagarajan ’00. Both earned their Ph.D. in polymer science/plastics engineering from the university.
“HEROES is leveraging the vast intellectual assets and resources of the U.S. Army and UMass Lowell to work together to find creative and effective solutions to the challenges faced by our men and women in uniform every day around the world,” says Samuelson.
The goal, says Nagarajan, is to keep military personnel safe and agile and empower them with the latest technologies as they fulfill their missions. “The initiative allows our students to apply what they are learning at UMass Lowell to solve real-world problems,” he says.
Nagarajan adds: “Unlike most defense grants, where funding is provided to academic institutions based on a research proposal and there is little or no interaction during the course of the project, our students and faculty from three colleges and eight departments on campus involved in HEROES projects are interacting with Natick lab scientists and engineers on a weekly basis. This constant synergy and co-location model has been extremely successful, and is being emulated by other research labs across the country.”
A Shared Vision
The joint research is being conducted both at Olney Hall on North Campus and at NSRDEC labs. HEROES’ 5,000-square-foot campus space includes laboratories, offices, conference rooms and a “think-tank” area where researchers work side-by-side, brainstorming new ideas. The initiative is also benefiting from access to state-of-the-art equipment at UMass Lowell’s $80 million Mark and Elisia Saab Emerging Technologies and Innovation Center, as well as the wide range of expertise provided by university faculty and student researchers in the fields of nanomanufacturing, plastics engineering, mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, physics and chemistry.
Meanwhile, unique Natick facilities such as the Doriot Climatic Chambers are made available to university faculty and student researchers. The chambers can simulate virtually every climate or environmental condition in the world to test the performance of humans, materials and equipment.
“HEROES is a one-of-a-kind partnership that allows our dedicated scientists and engineers to work directly with world-class UMass Lowell faculty and students, either on campus or at the center, to advance science and technology for our nation’s soldiers,” says NSRDEC Director Douglas A. Tamilio. “This powerful collaboration also serves as a catalyst, fostering other external partnerships with academia, industry and state and federal entities. When different organizations and creative minds come together to work on challenging problems, great things happen. I look forward to seeing what new scientific achievements, technical breakthroughs and soldier innovations will result from HEROES.”
UMass Lowell Vice Provost for Research Julie Chen notes that the research and development happening in the labs will result in benefits not just to the troops in the field but also to businesses in the region. “This will be a boon to local companies as the resulting new products and technologies are commercialized,” she says.