Freshman Lawmaker Gets Firsthand Look at Innovative Projects Aimed at Protecting U.S. Soldiers

Student demo at HEROES lab. Image by Tory Germann
U.S. Rep. Lori Trahan, far right, toured the 6,000-square-foot HEROES lab on Feb. 20. Here, environmental engineering graduate student Connor Sullivan, far left, demonstrates a portable electronic “tongue” for testing water and food safety.

By Edwin L. Aguirre

“I actually jumped out of a plane once,” U.S. Rep. Lori Trahan said during a recent visit to campus. “It was about 10 years ago, when I went skydiving.”

Trahan recalled that as she got closer to the ground, she could think about just one thing: the parachute strapped to her back. “Please make it work!” she prayed.

The Lowell Democrat, who represents the state’s 3rd Congressional District, learned about the latest technology used in parachutes and other battlefield innovations while touring the HEROES lab at the Olney Science Center on North Campus on Feb. 20.

HEROES – which stands for “Harnessing Emerging Research Opportunities to Empower Soldiers” – is a joint research and development collaboration between UMass Lowell and the Combat Capabilities Development Command (CCDC) Soldier Center (known until Feb. 3 as the U.S. Army Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center). HEROES researchers collaborate with industry and university partners, including Triton Systems, FLEXcon, Saint-Gobain and UMass Amherst, on projects ranging from portable solar power packs and long-term food packaging to improved, lightweight body armor for female soldiers.

Student demo at HEROES lab. Image by Tory Germann

Mechanical engineering graduate student Catherine Barry, far right, describes to Trahan her HEROES research on the braided suspension lines of parafoil parachutes used in military airdrops.

Trahan listened as mechanical engineering graduate student Catherine Barry described her research on the braided suspension lines of parafoil parachutes used in airdrops. Barry’s goal is to improve the silent descent and landing accuracy of the parafoil, especially in delivering soldiers and supplies to combat areas.

“This research gives me a new perspective on parachutes,” said Trahan, who serves on the Intelligence, Emerging Threats & Capabilities and Military Personnel subcommittees of the U.S. House Armed Services Committee.

Parachutes are just one part of the growing spectrum of research projects at HEROES. During her tour of the lab, Trahan was given live demonstrations on several ongoing projects, including:

  • a handheld electronic “tongue” that can detect toxic heavy metals and other contaminants in food and drinking water in real time
  • safe bio-based flame-retardant coatings for soldier uniforms, tents and other textile applications
  • a smart, integrated fiber-optic sensor system for monitoring helmet manufacturing
  • fabric permeability and how air flow through fabrics can alter the performance of airdrop parachutes, and
  • biometric studies on how physical and cognitive stresses on the body affect people wearing an exoskeleton or a heavy, bulky bomb suit.

“The opportunity to see things up close is very helpful to my work in Congress,” said Trahan. “I’m glad to see how these innovations can benefit not only our military personnel, but all of us.”

Plastics engineering Prof. Ramaswamy Nagarajan, who co-directs HEROES, said the number of projects undertaken by the lab has grown from about a half dozen to 72. About 25 UML faculty, 50 students and 20 Army scientists and engineers work together on these projects, which have been awarded more than $12 million in funding.

Lori Trahan with the bomb suit guy Image by Edwin L. Aguirre
Trahan with Brian Flynn, wearing a 65-pound Kevlar bomb suit. Flynn is a test engineer at the NERVE Center, the university’s robotics testing facility, where researchers are studying stresses on the body of people wearing an exoskeleton or bomb suit.
“They are all driven by the Army’s needs and challenges. We are here to help the soldier and, in the process, our faculty and student researchers learn new things. We also help industry to make sure these new technologies are delivered quickly to the soldiers on the front line,” Nagarajan said.

“What the students and faculty do [at HEROES] has great applications for our soldiers. It’s just fantastic work,” said Doug Tamilio, director of the CCDC Soldier Center. “Some students end up working for us.”

Trahan added, “I’m excited to serve on the two House Armed Services subcommittees. I will continue to be an advocate for this public-private partnership. I know how important this is to our state’s economy and to our national defense.”

Also present during Trahan’s tour and roundtable discussion were Chancellor Jacquie Moloney and Associate Vice Chancellor for Industry Partnerships and Economic Development Arlene Parquette, as well as CCDC Soldier Center scientists and engineers, industry representatives from Saint-Gobain and faculty, students, staff and alumni from the Francis College of Engineering, the Kennedy College of Sciences and the Zuckerberg College of Health Sciences.

Trahan succeeds U.S. Rep. Niki Tsongas, who also served on the House Armed Services Committee and was an active supporter of HEROES and the university before retiring last year. Trahan previously served as chief of staff to former Congressman Marty Meehan, who became chancellor of UMass Lowell and later president of the University of Massachusetts.