TARDEC 101 – Your Tax Dollars at Work

Headed by Dr. Grace Bochenek, the recipient of the 2008 Presidential Rank Award among many other honors, TARDEC (the Tank Automotive Research, Development and Engineering Center) is beyond the cutting edge in vehicle technology.

TARDEC Director Dr. Grace M. Bochenek in front of a Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) all-terrain vehicle (M-ATV). The M-ATV was developed to provide the same type of protection expected of the MRAP while offering additional mobility for the rocky Afghanistan terrain. Photo by Bill Dowell, U.S. Army TARDEC.

Located within the U.S. Army’s Research, Development and Engineering Command huge facility in Warren, Mich., TARDEC also creates synergy between the government and the private sector.

“We have a responsibility for pushing the next generation of capabilities,” says Bochenek. “With this administration I think you’ll see a greater focus on how the federal government can combine with the industrial base to come up with a new business paradigm. You can have governmental assets and funding combined with industrial R&D to get us even farther along in certain technology areas that will make a difference for this country.”

If a military vehicle moves, but doesn’t fly or float, TARDEC is probably involved. “We’re the nation’s laboratory for developing ground vehicle technologies and the various systems that go with that, such as logistics and maintenance, partly because the U.S. Army has the largest truck fleet in the world,” Bochenek explains. “As a single center of excellence we work for all of the services that use ground vehicles. Our primary goal is to make sure that the men and women who wear military uniforms, who are out there fighting for us, have the best equipment, period.”

TARDEC takes its responsibility seriously. “We work hard in a number of areas, pushing the envelope technically. We work on fuel efficiency, energy storage, power and thermal management and vehicle platform design so that some day we can have a combat hybrid electric vehicle,” she explains. “We couple our investment strategy with that of the auto industry to help push the maturity of these technologies a lot sooner, especially when we’re able to fuse the Department of Defense and commercial requirements together.”

An MRAP (Mine Resistant Ambush Protected) vehicle displays TARDEC-developed technologies, such as Wire Mitigation to help traverse areas without knocking down overhead wires.. Photo by Bill Dowell, U.S. Army TARDEC.

A lot of what TARDEC looks at from a technology standpoint is, hopefully, far removed from the needs of homefront drivers. “We’re constantly working to modify vehicles in theater,” says Bochenek. “We’re increasing the electronics necessary to detect IEDs [Improvised Explosive Devices] with different kinds of sensors and defeat mechanisms. We’re also working on a host of ways to increase vehicle protection and survivability. If there’s a threat on a vehicle platform our goal is to insure that those soldiers survive. These means we look at fire suppression systems, lightweight materials that have higher ballistic properties that can take different kinds of stress -“ all the way to active systems that will detect an incoming round and deflect that threat.”

Another avenue of research at TARDEC involves robotics [for more see “Are R2D2 and C3PO Moving To A City Near You?” in Corp!, Aug. 6, 2009] Bochenek explains, “We’re looking at autonomous vehicle platforms that take people out of the vehicle altogether. They could be inserted in a vehicle formation so that soldiers’ lives would not be a risk. That involves control theory and the ability to move data, so that’s another reason we work with systems and other engineers in the automotive industry. We may look like we have different mission sets, but when it gets down to the technical level there are really a lot of synergies.” Bochenek is also quick to explain that the robotic drivers will be for logistical purposes and won’t be armed.

In addition to reaching out to the commercial sector, Bochenek and TARDEC also “work with the universities in Michigan’s university research corridor to help train the engineers and scientists who’ll help develop the next generation technologies. We can leverage resources and help develop the curricula to help make that happen.”

TARDEC researchers developed an application to operate an unmanned robot using the unique touch and tilt-based abilities of an iPod Touch. The iPod connects directly to the robot using Wi-Fi. Photo by Kim Oviatt, U.S. Army TARDEC.

Bochenek has a staff of more than 1,400 engineers and scientists, “And we are hiring more,” she says. “Not just to support combat requirements, but also because we’re shifting into new technical areas, such as alternative energy, which requires knowledge of fuels and fuel systems. TARDEC is the Department of Defense agent for fuel specifications, so we have to be ready for synthetic fuels, biodiesel fuels and how they’ll impact things going forward.”

Along with the engineers and scientists, Bochenek manages a $500 million budget, specifically for technology development and advancement. But her reach extends beyond her budget. “There are two other Army components on our campus in Warren,” she explains, “one that handles defense logistics -“ buying and shipping parts around the world, and one that buys complete systems. Because we all work together I have influence over somewhere between $35 and $40 billion of the budget that TACOM (the Army’s Tank Automotive Command) executes.”

Both the money and the lure of working on seriously advanced technology are having a positive effect on Michigan’s economy. “You’re seeing a number of defense companies moving into the Michigan region,” Bochenek says. “A company called BAE is moving a lot of its engineers from California to be more closely aligned with our labs and what we’re doing here.”

Unmanned Ground Vehicle (ugv) Current Operations Support Team Leader Lonnie Freiburger explains the Squad Support UGV (SSUGV) controller functions to Robotics Systems Manager MAJ Seth Norberg. TARDEC is helping develop the SSUGV for the U.S. Marine Corps. Photo by Bill Dowell, U.S. Army TARDEC.

It’s not just large, established companies that can benefit from working closely with TARDEC. For small businesses, Bochenek explains, “We’re moving to a model that allows these companies to use our laboratories and assets. I have a lot of assets that allow me to do this. So, for instance, instead of a small business worrying about funding and infrastructure they can come in and use my funding and infrastructure. As long as we both think they can advance the state of technology and be useful for us within the military, it’s a win-win.”

Bochenek continues, “We have small business innovative research programs and I have the authority from Congress to sign cooperative research and development agreements. This allows me to provide them with labs, share engineers from different companies, and many other different approaches. I have 50 or 60 of these going at the moment. As they mature we take those technologies and make the next step to apply some more robust assets and bring them into a formal program.”

Large or small, there’s now a way for companies to get through what many of them have assumed in the past was a forest of red tape and layers of bureaucracy. Bochenek explains, “We have developed an expedited way for companies that want to work with us can get their ideas to us for evaluation. It’s a confidential electronic form at www.groundvehiclegateway.com and it makes it easy to submit not only a description of the technology, but supporting documents. Our people evaluate the idea and respond to the company in a relatively short period of time.”

CW3 Jason Greegor, left, and TARDEC Engineer Jon Petrosky look at a Family of Medium Tactical Vehicles (FMTV) in an immersive, virtual reality environment known as the CAVE (Cave Automatic Virtual Environment). His first time in the setting, Greegor tries to reach out and “touch” the image. The CAVE gives TARDEC designers and engineers the ability to see how components actually fit on a vehicle before any manufacturing is completed. Photo by Bill Dowell, U.S. Army TARDEC.

TARDEC’s gateway shows companies that may once have been in automotive, or still are -“ or have nothing to do with that sector -“ that there are opportunities to make the mission of our troops overseas safer and, at the same time, make a good business decision.

TARDEC’s business is growing. “Late last summer,” Bochenek says, “we broke ground on a new ground vehicle energy lab. It’s 30,000 square feet that includes eight labs in one facility, with the centerpiece a fully environmental chamber that can take a test vehicle from -60 degrees to 160 degrees above so that we can evaluate hydrogen fuel cells, series or parallel hybrids or other alternative energy systems. This is going to be awesome, because it also ties in with what we’re doing with the Department of Energy to advance the state of vehicle technologies.”

Over the past few years, while Detroit carmakers were concentrating on “gas-guzzling” SUVs, the military had been exploring alternative fuel options. Bochenek explains, “We’ve been working on hybrid vehicles for nearly 20 years -“ and I’m talking about the combat vehicle size, 30 or 40 tons -“ which is a different challenge than, say, a Chevy Volt.”

There’s more to hybrids and alternative vehicle systems than the vehicles themselves. “We’re looking not only at hybrid power,” Bochenek says, “but at energy storage and the whole concept of the smart grid as a way to recharge vehicles that are primarily battery powered. We’re very active in that whole energy space. We can test the concepts at the military bases around the country so that the comparisons and requirements are more like civilian applications. You put the right people together from my side, together with the right people from industry and you develop the right products. You come up with solutions.”

One of the solutions that Bochenek and her team have come up with is a comprehensive way to explore new technology without even building the first design model. “We have one facility that’s 100,000 square feet,” she explains. “We can simulate not only what it looks like to drive a vehicle down the streets of Bagdad or in the countryside around Kabul, but how it actually feels. We have a six-degrees of motion simulator that ties into our high-performance computing center that links together several labs to create the effects of maneuvering in the field so that we can test how a vehicle operates with field personnel driving it. We can test durability, survivability blast modeling -“ everything on a simulator before building a prototype. You can do a lot more iterations to find the right solution -“ and, you can save a lot more money,” Bochenek concludes.

Early on in the Iraq war soldiers were saying that the armor on their vehicles was not protecting them from IEDs. “You’ve heard about MRAP, the Mine-Resistant Ambush-Protected vehicle?” Bochenek asks. “They’re in Iraq and Afghanistan and every one of those systems, built by separate manufacturers, comes here so that we can integrate certain technologies that we run across all platforms. In Afghanistan we’re working on a vehicle called an MRAP ATV, which is being fielded right now to soldiers there. It’s a smaller, lighter weight platform that has similar protection characteristics, but it can maneuver more easily in that kind of terrain.

Maj. Gen. Scott West, Congressman Sander Levin, TARDEC Director Dr. Grace M. Bochenek, Sen. Debbie Stabenow, and Sen. Carl Levin break ground on the Department of Defense-Ÿs Ground System Power and Energy Lab on Aug. 17, 2009. When completed, the eight-labs-in-one complex will have testing capabilities unlike any other facility in the world. Photo by Carolyn Baum, U.S. Army TARDEC.

“There’s a lot of electronics involved,” Bochenek continues, “because, if possible, you want to detonate something on its way in, before it goes off. If they’re using a cell phone as a trigger we have the technology to block that.”

Because many of the members of the military are younger and have grown up with computer and video gaming technologies it’s really easy for them to adapt to advances in technology. Bochenek laughs, “They’re used to texting while at the same time they’re talking to someone and watching television. Many of the robotic systems actually have what look like video-game controllers so that handling the robot becomes almost intuitive. They pick it up incredibly fast.”

Bochenek is asked about technology transfer, the idea that technologies developed with taxpayers’ money can eventually benefit them in the commercial market. She points out that nylon was developed for women’s stockings during WWII because the silk that was previously used had been conscripted for use in parachutes. It turns out that much of today’s technology transfer is a two-way street.

“A lot of it is done through companies’ R&D efforts,” she explains. “And, a lot of it comes through our partnerships. I have a national automotive center that was chartered by Congress back in 1993, and its job is to look for opportunities and create investment strategies to push the state-of-the-art on vehicle platforms. So we each have strategies and I then have the mechanism to make the connections happen between military and civilian applications.”

MRAP vehicles sit in a parking area at Joint Base Balad, Iraq. TARDEC developed the MRAP Expedient Armor Program Add-on-Armor Kit for those vehicles. The kit was among 10 innovations recognized as 2008 Army’s Greatest Inventions. The kit’s adaptability to all seven MRAP vehicle types and enhanced protection features will continue to impact current and future system capabilities. Photo by TSGT Craig Lifton, U.S. Air Force.

Another example Bochenek cites is the technology transfer that is vital here at home as well as overseas. “The auto industry has been working on safer vehicles for many years,” she points out. “Over the years they have developed very robust crash-worthiness models. Those models are for a certain kind of impact -“ side, front or back -“ and these crashes take a relatively long time to occur, from the Army’s standpoint, compared to what we call a ‘blast event.’ It’s micro-seconds versus milliseconds. The problem is different, the timing is different, but the physics needed to understand both, in order to develop a more protective system, is the same. You want to get the knowledge of these very smart people together and they might look at the problems a little differently while they’re advancing both causes.”

Bochenek reminds us that she is focused on her mission of making her vehicles as safe as possible for our troops around the world. “We’re always looking for some little gem company out there who can help us, because when I have a chance to talk to those soldiers face to face I want to be able to look them straight in the eye and tell them I’m giving them the very best.”