The Pentagon's Pet Projects
From flying fish to mindfulness
An expanse of sky and treetops on North Campus spreads out in the windows behind Wei Shyy as he describes his work designing tiny planes that fly and perch like insects and birds. Talking about an insect's arms, the chair of the U-M's aerospace engineering department becomes so animated he runs his left hand down his own right arm from shoulder to wrist, almost as if he were flapping his own wings.
Shyy's research, figuring how to make robotic fliers modeled on hummingbirds and bumblebees, seems like a lark, the dream of a geek. But it's serious stuff. The air force is funding his research work to the tune of nearly $4 million, because the cute little creations could be flying spies.
"There's lots of potential to do antiterrorism work with these," Shyy explains, picking up a delicate paper model of a concept flier. "It's really like a flying sensor. In Iraq and Afghanistan a soldier could have one of these, have it fly out, and see what's going on ahead of him."
Shyy quickly adds that the slow-moving aerial robots could also be used to monitor pollution sites-or even be turned into toys. But it's not the EPA or Mattel that's funding him. Like many of his U-M colleagues, he has capitalized on Pentagon dollars to build his research career.
Forty years after Vietnam War protests forced the U-M regents to ban classified military research, no one's making lethal weapons on campus. But more than $200 million of Department of Defense money is currently underwriting everything from conceiving faster planes and more powerful lasers to looking for cures for prostate cancer. And no one is protesting one bit.
Today, defense contracts are the lifeblood of the College of Engineering. Entire centers are devoted to military research, and DOD dollars reach even into such distant corners of the university as the School of Information and the mathematics department. In 2007, the U-M received $596 million in federal research money-with 6.2 percent
of that ($37 million) from the Pentagon.
Since 9/11 the DOD has poured money into anything that might be even remotely related to the war on terror, like Shyy's insect fliers. Other research seeks to improve conventional war fighting, like designing a new navy landing craft. And some, like the cancer research, is "military" only because it may improve how military personnel are cared for.
All the research is open to public scrutiny. The university's current policy, adopted in 1987, allows classified research, but none has been conducted at the U-M for many years, says Judith Nowack, associate vice-president for research.
"Faculty members don't like to do classified research," says Nowack. "It puts too many restraints on them."
According to data from early October 2008, military-funded research studies at the U-M have a total value of $214 million. That includes all contracts awarded in 2008 to date, as well as those dished out in previous years that extend into 2008 or beyond. The army is by far the biggest spender, sponsoring work worth $124 million. The navy is next at $40 million, followed closely by the air force at $38 million. Other arms of the DOD, such as its "threat reduction agency," kick in another $12 million.
It's amazing what that kind of money can buy.
Early this year, U-M physicist Karl Krushelnick produced what was billed as "the most intense laser in the universe"-a pulsed high-power beam that contains 300 times more energy than the entire U.S. electric grid. The secret to its intensity is that the beam lasts just 30 quadrillionths of a second.
The new laser was developed without military funding, and it could be useful in shrinking and economizing X-ray machines and radiation devices for cancer patients, among other potential civilian applications. But the navy anted up more than $900,000 for the next phase of Krushelnick's study because it has important homeland security applications. The hope is to develop cheaper methods to produce neutron beams that could detect uranium being smuggled into U.S. ports in shipping containers.
The U-M's military research goes back more than sixty years, to the Willow Run Laboratories. Founded in 1946, the university-operated facility was a crucial postwar center for reimagining modern warfare: it worked on early antimissile systems, synthetic aperture radar, holographic weapons sights, spy satellites, and smart bombs. But in 1967 antiwar students staged a sit-in at the administration building to protest WRL's work. The following year the regents voted to bar "classified research projects whose specific purpose is to destroy human life or incapacitate human beings."
The policy changed the shape of military research on campus but didn't stop it. In 1972 much of Willow Run's military work was spun off into a new nonprofit called ERIM. Many U-M scientists continued to collaborate with ERIM and other local and national defense contractors. And as memories of the protests faded, direct research on campus grew. The policy adopted in 1987 encourages open research but leaves a big loophole for classified work.
In recent years the "war on terror" has inflated Pentagon budgets and provided new or renewed raisons d'ętre for military research, such as projects related to surveillance and defense against biological warfare.
Pathologist Peter Ward has been working for years on U.S. Army-sponsored research on a mustard gas antidote. Ward's current grants include $888,000 from the Defense Threat Reduction Agency and a nearly $6 million grant from the army for an "advanced medical countermeasures consortium."
Elsewhere in the Medical School, allergist James R. Baker Jr. has become a renowned expert in biologic nanotechnology largely because of work funded by the Pentagon. Baker, who spent twelve years on active duty in the armed forces and served in Operation Desert Storm, is head of M-NIMBS, the Michigan Nanotechnology Institute for Medicine and Biological Sciences.
Since the 1990s he and his team have been developing "nanoemulsions"-microscopic liquid droplets made with soybean oil-for use as antimicrobial agents combating bacteria, viruses, fungi, and spores. First developed with funding from the DOD's Unconventional Pathogen Countermeasures Program, the lab's nanoemulsions have passed tests at the army's proving grounds in Utah for use in decontaminating humans, surfaces, and buildings.
M-NIMBS is now also studying different kinds of nanoemulsions that can be used as vaccines against flu, hepatitis B, HIV, cystic fibrosis, anthrax, and other diseases. Baker says his research, funded by the military to fight bioterrorism, has "moved almost entirely from military to civilian [applications]. Most of the things we are researching have to do with medicines for the developing world." The technology was licensed in 2000 to NanoBio Corporation, one of two Ann Arbor spin-off companies Baker heads.
A year ago the Pentagon awarded $1.3 million to Baker to investigate whether a different kind of nanodrugs could be self administered on the battlefield-with a penlike device-by wounded soldiers or by comrades. In Iraq and Afghanistan, soldiers often can't be evacuated out of the field immediately to get painkilling doses of morphine. Baker's drugs have fewer side effects than morphine, and studies have shown quicker, more effective painkillers can reduce the incidence and intensity of post-traumatic stress disorder. Baker says the initial one-year development grant has been converted to a full four-year project.
Many arms of the College of Engineering thrive on military money. The department of naval architecture and marine engineering alone has $19 million in active grants, most of them from the navy. The money buys studies in ship design and simulation, as well as research on topics like the effects of vibrations on hulls and "real-time visually augmented navigation for autonomous search and inspection of ship hulls and port facilities"-using robots for port security.
For the last three years the navy has been researching what it calls the T-Craft. With fewer nations wanting to host U.S. Navy bases, "the navy envisions a ‘sea-base connector'-like a big floating airport to store personnel and vehicles," says naval architecture chair Armin Troesch. The T-Craft would be a sort of amphibious transformer, able to sail independently to the sea base, pick up vehicles and troops, and deliver them quickly through shallow waters to land on all types of beaches. In 2007 the navy awarded Troesch and five other members of the naval architecture department almost $900,000 to develop "design tools" for the T-Craft prototype demonstrator. You can't build a prototype of a ship as you can of an automobile, Troesch explains, and even models are expensive-so his research mainly involves computerized simulations that can be used to test the performance of concept vessels.
His colleague Guy Meadows, on the other hand, actually gets to build his creations. Meadows has a boyish gee-whiz excitement in his voice when he talks about his "flying fish" project. Last year his team of researchers conducted its first tests of a pilotless miniature seaplane that can drift along or fly above deep water. Modeled after pelicans and other seabirds, with a six-foot wingspan and weighing about twenty pounds, the "flying fish" is solar powered and takes measurements of air and water temperatures, wind speed and direction, and wave heights. It's much cheaper than anchoring and maintaining buoys in deep water. An onboard computer keeps the drone within a two-kilometer range of a central point, and when it drifts to the edge of the circle, it automatically flies back to the middle.
Obviously, the "flying fish" could improve weather forecasting. But the navy is funding the project-at more than $1 million for its current cycle-because of its potential for wartime surveillance and drug interdiction.
There is an increasing appetite for this sort of research. Wei Shyy of aerospace engineering explains that the military wants to develop more sophisticated and flexible methods of spying on terrorists. The dream is to literally have a "fly on the wall" that would record meetings of plotters and then soar out to monitor their movements.
Aerospace engineering, one of the oldest and best such departments in the country, has joined several collaborative efforts to develop these and other new war-fighting technologies. Shyy's own work on "flapping-wing microair vehicles" is a five-year project underwritten by the air force for $3.75 million (though Shyy expects that eventually the small fliers will prove more useful to the army). While the goal of this work is to imagine how light craft can fly exceedingly slowly, Shyy also heads the Michigan / Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) / Boeing Collaborative Center in Aeronautical Sciences (MAB-CCAS), which works on how to make big planes fly even faster. It has an air force grant of $2.25 million.
Also in the aerospace department is the Michigan/AFRL Collaborative Center in Control Science (MACCCS), which has a $4.1 million, fifty-three-month grant to study "air-breathing hypersonic vehicles" and "collaborative control of unmanned vehicles"-coordinating a large number of robotic air and ground vehicles and human troops in a far-flung battlefield situation.
Nearby on North Campus, the College of Engineering's huge W. E. Lay Automotive Laboratory hosts the army's Automotive Research Center. Founded in 1994, it involves eight universities and brings together academic, industry, and military researchers to model and simulate everything from commercial vehicles to army tanks. From July 2004 until July 2008, the army gave the center $40 million-the biggest military contract on campus.
It's easy to see why the military wants to work with the College of Engineering. More surprising are some of the other projects it's funding at the U-M. A good chunk of the U-M Health System's cancer research is sponsored by the army-and has been for many years. Besides $9.6 million for prostate cancer research, army contracts current in 2008 include $5.7 million for breast cancer and $1 million for ovarian cancer. Med school researchers also get $1.1 million for research on inflammatory bone diseases and $2.4 million to study fibromyalgia and other chronic multisymptom illnesses. And this September four psychiatry professors got a $1 million, four-year grant to study "mindfulness and self-compassion meditation for combat post-traumatic stress disorder."
Helping military personnel handle stress is now a major research area-in Iraq, enlistees often must serve multiple tours of duty in a country where an explosive device might go off anywhere at any time. Among others, Huda Akil in the U-M's Molecular & Behavioral Neuroscience Institute and two colleagues are working on a $1.2 million grant from the navy to study how individuals react differently to chronic stress, focusing on "distinct vulnerabilities, neural consequences, and need for differential treatment."
The air force wants to know how pilots can work more efficiently at odd hours while suffering from jet lag and sleep deprivation. It's paying more than $300,000 for a project headed by Victoria Booth, a U-M math professor who has a joint appointment in anesthesiology, on "mathematical modeling of circadian and homeostatic interaction." Booth says there is still much unknown about "what drives the differences between various states of sleep and waking"-so she's building a mathematical model to "investigate the interaction of neuronal nuclei" in the brain.
In September, Lada Adamic of the School of Information finished a study on "identifying and harnessing expertise in online forums." Now she has a two-year, quarter-million-dollar army grant to study "information diffusion and evolution in online communities." Adamic declined to speak about either project.
Besides the inside of the brain and the depths of the Internet, far-out military-funded projects at the U-M extend into outer space. Seven professors in atmospheric, oceanic, and space sciences are sharing $1 million from the air force for a forty-five-month study of "the community whole magnetosphere model"-research to predict magnetic patterns in the upper atmosphere. And the Space Physics Research Laboratory is working on a $600,000 navy grant on "heliospheric signatures of the evolution of the solar magnetic field." Both these projects will be useful in coping with solar flares that disrupt communications.
There will be many more such grants in the years ahead-and the U-M is unusually well positioned to reap the harvest. In October aerospace engineering professor Werner Dahm took a leave of absence to become the chief scientist for the air force. At the Pentagon, he'll advise on where research dollars should go in the future. It's a sure bet that Michigan, with its long history of research and its current plethora of projects, will be high on the list for that military money.
[This story has been updated since its publication in the November 2008 Ann Arbor Observer. An inaccurate description of Karl Krushelnick's research has been corrected.]
[The following exchange subsequently appeared in the Observer's Calls & letters section:]
To the Observer:
The article titled "The Pentagon's Pet Projects" in your November 2008 issue incorrectly suggests that as Chief Scientist of the U.S. Air Force I will be directing research funds to the University of Michigan. The writer of that article never contacted me. If he had I would have clarified his misunderstanding of the defense science research funding process and the role of the Air Force Chief Scientist in it. The Chief Scientist is the principal science and technology advisor to the senior Air Force leadership, and thus is far removed from the minutiae of directing funds for individual research projects. Moreover, there are effective legal protections in place to ensure that those who serve in such a position are free from conflicts of interest. Your article did a disservice to readers by suggesting otherwise.
Dr Werner J. A. Dahm
Chief Scientist, U.S. Air Force
We certainly didn't mean to suggest that Dr. Dahm might inappropriately steer research grants to the university. As we wrote, Michigan's prospects for future funding look secure thanks to "its long history of research and its current plethora of projects."
[Originally published in November, 2008.]