Duke Professors Investigate Military Computing Challenges

July 11, 2006
Duke University News & Communications
By James Todd

Classified briefings and training exercises give glimpse into national defense technology needs.

Standing atop a 34-foot tower on the Fort Bragg Army base in Fayetteville, N.C., Duke engineering professor Rebecca Willett was "terrified" to make her training jump.

"That first step is hard to take," she said.

But equipped with parachute gear, a camouflage helmet and a harness attached to an overhead cable, Willett made the leap. She was quickly suspended from the cable and zipped down to the landing area.

Her colleague Ron Parr, a Duke computer science professor, said his biggest challenge of the day on the base was getting the milkshake in his Meal-Ready-to-Eat to reconstitute after adding water.

Overseeing Willett, Parr and 10 other professors getting a taste of military life was retired Lt. Gen. Peter Kind.

"They looked great and they had fun and they learned something," Kind said by phone from the base.

The two Duke professors spent a day at Fort Bragg as part of a new Defense Department program that encourages junior computer scientists and electrical engineers to investigate technical challenges faced by the military.

The program, called the Computer Science Study Panel (CS2P), has 12 scholars from various universities making summertime visits to military bases and briefings on how the military uses -- and hopes to use -- information technology. It's based on the longer-running Defense Science Study Group.

"They're getting good briefings and displays on a variety of operations," said Kind, a former head of the Army's Information Systems Command.

This year's CS2P participants have gone to bases on the East Coast, from Naval Station Norfolk in Virginia to MacDill Air Force Base in Florida, touring such military hubs as U.S. Joint Forces Command and U.S. Central Command. They've climbed aboard the USS Theodore Roosevelt aircraft carrier, the USS Laboon destroyer, the Norfolk nuclear submarine, a Blackhawk helicopter and a KC-135 refueling plane. And they were briefed by commanders about the role of technology in operations by Special Forces, the 82nd Airborne and other units.

The group leaves for a tour of West Coast bases July 30.

Because of security restrictions, Willett and Parr are not allowed to discuss specifics of their visits. However, they were pleased to explain why they chose to apply to CSSG and what they've learned about the intersection of academic research and military ambitions.

"One of the things we're supposed to gain some insight into from this experience is an understanding of what these short-term needs are [for the military] and then figure out how the higher-level, more abstract problems that we have could contribute to these short-term needs," Parr said.

Willett agreed, saying, "Part of my job is to help define the research problem -- to take all the information provided about where the military struggles and what kinds of basic challenges arise repeatedly in different contexts, and then assimilate that into a fundamental research question which I can help address."

Parr gave an example of a gap between short-term needs and long-term research from his own work, which includes developing algorithms for a robot to accurately map an unknown environment.

"There are a lot of issues the military guys have, in say Iraq, that we don't have having the robot roam around the hallway [of the computer science department]," he said.

"Our robot weighs about 100 pounds and it has to be charged and all these other things," he said. But for the military, he said, the robots "have to be small enough that they can bring them there and fast enough that they're not just going to get destroyed."

Willett, whose brother enlisted in the Navy, said CS2P has not so far changed her research on information processing, but it has left her with the sense that developments in her field could well find applications in the military.

"Most scientists and engineers perform their research not only because it's interesting to them personally, but also because they want to expand our body of scientific knowledge," she said. "For me, my research is most exciting when I'm expanding our knowledge in a direction that has a positive impact on society."

Funding is also a draw. Participating in CS2P qualifies researchers to apply for a $500,000 grant from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. (At $14.8 million, DARPA was the third largest outside funder of research at Duke last year; the university does not handle grants for classified research.)

Neither Willett nor Parr saw significant political implications to their participation.

"While some of the actions of our military might be controversial, I don't think that should preclude us from doing what we can to protect our soldiers" through enhanced technology, Willett said.

"It is an opportunity to serve one's country," Parr said.

Both Willett and Parr said they appreciate the chance to be exposed to military technology and culture.

"We got to see some pretty cool equipment, like the aircraft carrier and the helicopters, but I think the people were most impressive," Willett said.

"I didn't realize how fond of PowerPoint they are," Parr said.

2006 Office of News & Communications