“The future of conflict”: how a USF institute is developing military technology

·3 min read

After launching satellites on a SpaceX flight designed and built by engineers at the University of South Florida, the college’s Institute of Applied Engineering has a slew of new projects in their orbit.

Last year, the institute entered an $85 million contract with the U.S. Special Operations Command, after several years of collaboration between the university and SOCOM, under USF Dean of Engineering Robert Bishop. Now in its second year, the Institute is working on about 15 tasks under the contract and looking to shape what Bishop calls “the future of conflict.”

“The way I like to think about it is less than lethal,” he said. “I like to think about it in terms of ‘how can we use technology and how can we use ... the resources we have available to protect this great country but to do it in a different way?’”

The engineers build and test projects inside the former University Mall not far from campus. One project built there included devices that were launched on a January SpaceX flight, which was part of the world record set for most satellites launched from a single rocket.

The institute’s researchers were studying how the satellites communicate with each other and the ground station. Because the satellites move quickly in low Earth orbit, it’s difficult to build communications networks, said senior research engineer Peter Jorgensen.

“It’s a really interesting problem space to work in,” he said. “Really, we’re leveraging a bunch of technologies that NASA has developed to do space communications and things like that.”

Bishop said the institute is focused on solving real-world issues and preparing students for the workplace.

“Universities have the intellectual firepower to address these problems,” he said. The key to solving those problems is how the use of technology intersects with other fields such as medicine and the social sciences.

The Department of Defense “often drives the technology,” Bishop said.

In addition to its satellite project, the institute also created a team to study low-level, repetitive interactions that cause brain injuries, which special operations forces experience both in training and in combat. Pairing up with researchers from USF Health, Harvard Medical School, University of Washington and other organizations, the institute is working to study the process that’s causing brain damage.

“That’s an example, right, of where engineering and medicine come together,” Bishop said.

It’s not the only project under the contract that’s bringing together various institutions. The institute is leading an academic consortium, with 14 universities, including the University of Florida, Florida State University, University of Central Florida, Colorado State University and NC State University, among others. Bishop said the Institute hopes to eventually get all of Florida’s state university system schools involved.

“The purpose of the academic consortium is to try to bring the best and brightest universities and researchers from around the country,” he said, with the goal of making these institutions readily accessible to SOCOM.

The USF program has 26 members, with plans to recruit at least nine more. Research engineer Cleao Martin, who joined the institute in October, has been working on the satellite project. She said the institute gives her the opportunity to work both individually and as a team.

“I like collaboration and I also like autonomy,” she said. “It truly is a great balance of both.”

Before coming to the institute, Martin had experience working with ships, but she didn’t have much of a background in space.

“I’ve learned so much in just a short window of time and I feel like I’m constantly being pushed to do more, to learn more,” she said.

Staff photographer Douglas Clifford contributed to this story.