- DAVID RAINWATER: I’m Dr. David Rainwater. I’m one of the staff scientists of the Applied Research Laboratories in the Space and Geophysics lab. This is my colleague Dr. Yudichak.
- TOM YUDICHAK: I'm Dr. Tom Yudichak, senior engineering scientist in the Environmental Sciences lab part of ARL.
- CHRISTY HABECKER: I'm Christy Habecker. Some of y'all may have received the emails from me about tonight. I work as an H.R. coordinator for the program.
DAVID RAINWATER: Christy is deeply involved. In fact, she's who keeps this program running. She’ll be handling applications from students.
Let me tell you about Applied Research Laboratories. We find that some students have heard of us and some students haven't. We are one of the several independent research units on the Pickle Campus several miles north of the main campus. You're probably familiar with TACC; several other laboratories are up there as well: the micro-mechanical laboratories, various engineering laboratories, the Jackson School of Geoscience, and several others I don't recall.
We've been around since 1945. It was originally the Defense Research Laboratory, later renamed the Applied Research Laboratories. We report to the Vice Provost of Research on campus. We work primarily for the Department of Defense. We're what's called a University Affiliated Research Center, a special category of federalized institution. We have a charter from the federal government through the Navy. There are other UARCs in the US, including chartered by Army and so on, but we are a Navy UARC. Our charter calls out specific topics for which we are designated experts. The department I work in does a lot of upper atmosphere physics and GPS, because we’re trusted advisors and experts for GPS. I’ll tell you more about that in a moment.
ARL has a budget of about $160 million a year. Those are contracts that come in from the DoD or the intelligence community specifically for tasks we have expertise in [our charter]. We're slightly different from other institutions you've heard of, like MIT Lincoln Labs or MITRE. Those are FFRDCs—they get a baseline budget from Congress every year to go off and do good work in certain areas.
ARL operates exclusively on contracts. As a UARC under this federal charter, the government can come to us and say "you guys are an expert in this, we need a quick prototype of something," or a quick answer on this or that type of thing. We do a lot
of rapid prototyping—a new widget or a new system that's never been done before; the private sector doesn't know how to do it or they're too slow, or they want too much money for it. In those cases, the U.S. Government will come to us because we're a non-profit center. "We need a quick architecture, we need a rapid prototype demonstrated in the field"—then hand it off to somebody else and they're going to make 10,000 copies of it. That’s the kind of thing that we do: proof of concept.
We also produce reports for the government, like “What is the state of some specific technology?” I've written such reports. In a few months, we can tell them what's good, what's nonsense, here's where the future lies, here's what you could use for various applications. Or, we can evaluate a private sector contractor's system, or run a competition between these contractors, conclude which system the Army should buy, etc. We perform that function, too.
We're a trusted government advisor for several topic areas, which requires a lot of broad-based expertise, so we have a number of people in different fields doing applied research to support government needs in our chartered areas of expertise.
I’ll give you a quick overview of some of the different technologies that we work in. These are the things designated in our charter. First: high frequency, medium frequency and low frequency sonar—acoustics, underwater acoustics especially. At one end, this is the ability to image underwater objects up close in high resolution. The one image [there on-screen] is a diver wearing a mask that is really a sonar mask, and he's watching a display inside that mask that shows an acoustic picture, because there's no light deep underwater for normal human vision.
Some of the acoustics work is for environmental monitoring—mapping the sea floor or examining sea floor properties, understanding long range propagation. My colleague can say a few more words.
- TOM YUDICHAK: As you see, at the bottom, we do a lot of support for the US Navy when it comes to how their sonars operate. Not only are we interested in the actual acoustics and how sound propagates underwater, which is a lot more complicated and interesting than you might think, we’re also involved in the signal processing—actually, that's across all three laboratories listed here. Signal processing is a big deal because there's a lot of noise in the environment, and there are many signals that we want to pull out of the noise. So, a good amount of digital signal processing is involved.
DAVID RAINWATER: I work in a different division that deals primarily with electromagnetics: The Space and Geophysics Laboratory. It is really remote sensing of space and the upper atmosphere physics, where we take data from GPS and other GNSS satellites. We run a government system that monitors GPS worldwide from precision ground stations and feeds that data to the Space Force to run their orbit model. So, we support operations of the GPS satellite system.
Then we do a great deal of analysis—Are the satellites being operated properly? What's the accuracy of GPS? What can end users get out of it? We help diagnose faults when a satellite goes awry, e.g. its clock drifts, etc. We’re usually the first ones to notice errant behavior and alert the government that something's wrong. Then they go fix it.
There are also things like HF radio communications. This is more a Navy program, actually, how to do ship to ship high data rate communications through systems that are a little bit more hidden, riding across the ocean surface. That’s in the Advanced Technology Laboratory, some really interesting work, systems they get to design. That’s an HF ship to ship antenna that you see on the lower right there, that conical thing. We test it in our RF field in the back yard, take it out to the ocean, test on the ocean, or test it on Lake Travis first. We get to do some really fun field work.
There's a little bit of cyber security and information technology in one of the departments. I won't say too much about that, you can look at the text in the slide. If you're very interested in that program we could probably get you to talk to one of the people who works that program.
There's a lot of machine learning and artificial intelligence that's involved. Actually, that's in some of the sonar programs as well. We use it for automated classification. Is that a whale, or is it something mechanical? That kind of thing. M.L. can tell you that first, as opposed to trying to spend lots and lots of time educating sonar operators to detect it themselves.
- TOM YUDICHAK: I'd say that’s still pretty nascent and there's a lot of very ground level work that's being done in that field.
DAVID RAINWATER: There's a few other significant program areas. There's a lot of geospatial laser applications. That's airborne lidar, for example. In fact, one of the scientists has recently become a professor on campus, so this program is between main campus and ARL. We've been participating in one of the satellite LIDAR programs for some time, ICESAT, which includes proof of technology, as well as some very interesting earth ice surface measurements for environmental science.
There's a small group doing quantum computing.
There’s some fun work in metamaterials in two different areas. One area is acoustics, with Dr. Mike Haberman who's now in mechanical engineering on the main campus, but he works at ARL as well. I believe he was part of the team that realized the military's infantry helmets actually don't protect very well against explosions. They have a tendency to focus incoming shockwaves to the other side of the head, so a soldier can still suffer head injuries. Metamaterials research figured out how to design better helmets that can prevent injuries just from acoustic shock waves and blasts nearby. Two, I worked in microwave metamaterials for a while. It's been a few years, and the government didn't have much interest in it, but it's an example of how we get to occasionally try out new R&D areas. The government has another solution they want to pursue in this case, or they decided our solution isn't quite good enough, so it didn't develop into a sponsored program. But we ended up publishing four peer-reviewed journal articles about it, which was rewarding. Our group was the first to make a real-world 3D measurement of a cloaked object with microwaves. It was a fun project—there are always opportunities like that, at ARL.
Other program areas include smaller component like nuclear surety and assessments. There is a little bit of biomedical work. It’s kind of tiny so we don't hire too many biomedical or chemistry students but occasionally they need one.
There's an acoustics offshoot program, counter-airborne drones that I think of as warfare detection. You can use this in civil systems as well, trying to detect and classify airborne objects, like a drone because the propeller blades make noise and we can classify them as well. Where's it going? How fast is it moving? How large is it? Which signature does it have with those blades? You can tell much about it from its acoustics. Characterization involves a lot of machine learning.
Another fairly new program is aero-acoustics testing of rocket motors, which may be joint with one of the other labs at Pickle.
ARL has a lot of rapid prototyping capabilities, and has an extensive machine shop—CNC machines, for example. We fabricate nearly everything that we test in the field for DoD—we design it, we architect it, we build it, and then we can get to the field and try it out.
There's also a new 3D additive manufacturing facility being added to ARL. I don't think it's stood up yet, but you're more familiar with that I am.
- TOM YUDICHAK: I took a quick tour of it today. It's really in the process of being stood up. It will probably be another year or so before it's fully functional.
- DAVID RAINWATER: Is it just plastics, or metals as well?
- TOM YUDICHAK: They do mostly plastics, but also electric ceramics, and a little bit of metals involved with plastics.
DAVID RAINWATER: Very good.
And then we have our own facilities for testing. Inside the main building we have large water tanks as big as a swimming pool for testing acoustic equipment.
Out back, we have a water tank that's so large it goes down several stories in the ground and there's a dive team that operates it.
And we test at Lake Travis at a dedicated ARL test station.
The students who come into this program for the summer will get a tour of the Lake Travis to see what goes on there.
The workforce is 800-850 staff. About 500 are technical staff. The rest are support staff of various varieties.
About 20% percent of those technical staff are Ph.D.. About 30% are Masters level and then about 50% are bachelor's level.
There is a program at UT:ARL, by the way, where if you come in at one level, you can get your courses for your next degree paid for by the labs, and that is an education benefit and an awful lot of people who have come in with a bachelor's end up with a master’s several years later. One of the guys working for me right now is working on a Master's in Computer Science and he’ll have it done in two years. A number of my coworkers started off as Master’s level and did a Ph.D. in computer science, so that's fairly common.
The right-hand plot shows the degree distribution. It's very heavy on EE because of all the signal processing—there's a lot of fun hardware that the acoustics guys build, and that we build in terms of radio research for GPS and so on, but you've got to process all that signal data, and that's the domain of EE's who learn DSP.
There's a fair number of mechanical engineers because that's the acoustics domain—transducers, etc. And then, a smattering of computer engineering, computer science, physics, math and so on, and people who have come over to the light side to eat the cookies, coming from chemistry or biochemistry!
I was actually academic physics. For a long time, I did particle physics, but didn't really like academia, wanted to do something where I could see things I built and put to use. So now I'm in the applied field and it's really fun.
There's a fair amount of faculty involvement as well. I alluded to this before. If some of you are in mechanical engineering, you may recognize Mark Hamilton, Preston Wilson and Mike Haberman, who are heavily involved in programs at ARL. They have zero-time appointments, and they're out at the lab quite frequently to collaborate with our staff. Some of the things they do on the academic side end up being used on the real-world side, as you can see here.
Now to the student programs. Obviously, you are here invited to apply to the Honors Scholar program. That's one of the summer programs that we do. We take it very seriously, because we are part of the university that has an educational mission, and we are part of that, so it is our mission as well.
We also use the summer programs and the regular semester research assistant programs as a recruiting tool. Many students who experience it end up hiring on as staff after graduation.
I've had six or eight Honor Scholars over the last dozen years, and hired about half of them as junior staff. So, the program is an entree into the lab, if you decide it’s the kind of career you like. If you don't enjoy this kind of work environment, then the program was an educational experience—this isn't the way that you want to go with your career. Some people end up switching majors. Some people just decide they want to be more academic, or work for another lab or company. The experience is good exposure to what this R&D world is like. It can help you decide where you want your career to go. If you're not interested in us, there's no hard feelings, it's just part of your education.
We also hire students pretty much at any time throughout the year, just as a research assistant, so if there are people, if you don't get into the Honors Scholar program or choose not to participate in it, but you still want to come out as a semester employee, you can do that. You’re all excellent students, you’d probably be hired.
If you have friends who weren't invited as Honors Scholars applicants, but are interested in working part time as a student, please tell them about the opportunities—we’re always looking for more students. We’re down right now, because Covid clobbered student hiring. We probably have half as many students as we normally do. I typically have four or five at any given time during the semester, and we'd like to get that number back up, because we work really well in groups and we like that collaborative environment.
There are a number of postgraduate programs as well, such as the McKinney Fellows in acoustics, and other Ph.D.-level student programs.
You can do your masters or Ph.D. thesis or dissertation at ARL, as well. If there's work that we do, or if your work with an advisor on campus matches closely enough with the program here, you can be employed at ARL to do that work, even though you're still affiliated with main campus and have an advisor on campus. You might think about that for your future track, as well.
But really, we're here to attract you to the Honors summer program. The way this works is, it's a separate pool of money set aside to bring really bright engineering and science students to the lab for a special summer experience. Research staff propose summer projects that can be started and finished in one summer, so you get to see it from the very beginning to the end. Oftentimes what you get by the end of the summer is something that may be publishable. It doesn't always happen, but that is a possibility. So the summer project is constructed for you to see the entire course of a research program: from conception to designing what you're going to do, to executing, to wrapping it up, and writing a report, because part of doing research is disseminating the results. You have to tell somebody about it—someone else might want to use it—so how to communicate your work is an important part of the program.
We accept project proposals from the research staff that align well with what a student can do in one summer. We also like to—it isn't a requirement, but we like to—combine this program with the other summer program for high school Apprentices. These are fresh graduates from Austin area high schools, who have been accepted to UT—typically the valedictorians, salutatorians, etc. They’re really, really bright kids. They don't quite have the experience from college yet, like having to stay self-organized, but they work really well with Honors Scholars, so we'll pair them up in the summer on a project. Not all of our projects are like that, but many are.
A word on student statistics. The past couple years, this is a rough breakdown of a few dozen graduate students and well over 100 undergraduate students. It's pretty diverse. We have a smattering of Aerospace, a lot of Mechanical, a lot of Electrical, we take some Math and Physics, plus ever more Computer Science. There's more and more programming, especially sophisticated programming. We need more CS people to help do it the right way, using real industry standards for software.