By Tina Meketa, University Communications and Marketing
A new engineering lab at USF is helping expedite the process of developing new technologies for the U.S. Department of Defense.
The Rapid Experimentation Lab, managed by the USF Institute of Applied Engineering (IAE), puts engineers with different areas of expertise in the same room, dramatically reducing the amount of time it typically takes to build a prototype. It’s part of a five-year, $85 million contract with U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM), headquartered at MacDill Air Force Base.
The 8,000-square-foot facility will be utilized not just by USF engineers, but also partners in private industry working to build technologies for the military that address global and national security. That ranges from on the battlefield to the oceans and in space. Its focus is on developing effective methods to integrating electronics with the fabrication of their enclosures.
For example, an engineer with expertise in electronics can create a small computer, collaborate with a computer scientist to develop the computer’s software and then work with a mechanical engineer to create the computer’s enclosure – an often cumbersome and time-consuming process. Together, they can test and retest the product before presenting a prototype to the Department of Defense for consideration.
“It’s important that engineers who work on the same projects talk and work together,” said Tony Lattanze, director of engineering at the IAE. “Putting the people and technologies in the same space facilitates communication and fosters an environment of agile engineering.”
The IAE has been planning the lab since USF secured the contract with SOCOM in early 2020, but the COVID-19 pandemic, supply chain issues and additional challenges delayed its construction. In the meantime, the IAE has made the most of its smaller space in Rithm At Uptown, formerly University Mall, to lead other high-impact research projects.
It’s currently testing new sensor and radio communication technologies in its thermal vacuum chamber, which regulates temperature and removes all of the atmosphere – creating conditions that simulate space. The chamber allows engineers to test such devices in a realistic setting to ensure they can survive the harsh conditions in Earth orbit and beyond, while performing their missions, collecting data and sending and receiving information through a range of systems, such as technologies that utilize cellular and Bluetooth.
In addition to testing sensors and radios, the thermal vacuum chamber has been used to test small satellites, including three launched into space in 2021. Built by students and faculty, the satellites were aboard Transporter-1 – SpaceX’s first rideshare mission, which set a world record for most satellites launched during a single mission.
“Participating in the design and testing of space technologies all the way through operating satellites in orbit takes a lot of time, resources and equipment,” said Peter Jorgensen, associate director of engineering for the IAE. “The Rapid Experimentation Lab will make this work faster and more effective, benefiting our customers as well as IAE staff and USF faculty and students who collaborate on research and development projects.”
Jorgensen leads the IAE’s extensive space portfolio, including contract work for customers of the U.S. government, collaborations with USF faculty and student organizations and internal research and development focused on next-generation space technologies.
Construction of the Rapid Experimentation Lab is expected to be completed in early 2024. At that point, the IAE will work with the USF Technology Transfer Office to identify start-up companies interested in utilizing the lab for development of their own inventions.
More information is available here.