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NC State partnership with Army could bring new tech to the battlefield

By ZACHERY EANES | The News & Observer (Raleigh, N.C.) | Published: January 29, 2021

RALEIGH, N.C. (Tribune News Service) — Apps to schedule paratrooper jumps, wearable technology to monitor their health, and artificial intelligence to manage deployments — these are innovations that students and researchers at N.C. State University could soon be working on for the military.

The UNC System, with N.C. State as the lead school, signed an agreement this week with the 18th Airborne Corps to fund new research between two of the state's most influential institutions.

The 18th Airborne Corps is headquartered at Fort Bragg, the largest military installation in the country, and is made up of more than 90,000 service members.

The corps includes the 82nd Airborne Division, and the research will focus on how to support that division's ability to deploy worldwide within 18 hours.

The partnership is funded with $8 million secured from the most recent defense appropriations bill, though the university system is looking for more funding.

The UNC System has long worked with the military on research. It usually lands around $60 million a year in Department of Defense grants, mainly for engineering projects at N.C. State or medical research at UNC-Chapel Hill, said Kathie Sidner, director of defense and military partnerships for the UNC System.

But the partnership with 18th Airborne stands out because of how direct and flexible the partnership is, Sidner said in an interview with The News & Observer.

"We're going straight to the end user: the soldier on the ground who has unique perspectives on what they need on the battlefield," Sidner said.

Usually, Sidner said, when the military is exploring potentially innovative ideas, the process will take a long time, requiring official solicitations, grant proposals and sometimes years of research and reports.

"It's just a very long process, and at the end of that, you get a report, maybe a prototype of some kind," she said.

"But this way you can get students and faculty — from step one or step zero — talking to the end user, the paratrooper about what it is they need, what are their pain points, and try to innovate much more quickly and efficiently."

Projects already underway

Those types of projects already are under way, said Alyson Wilson, who heads up national security and data science initiatives for N.C. State.

For example, researchers are interested in using wearable devices to track the health of paratroopers, who are trained to parachute into operations.

"If you think about the soldiers in the 82nd, you know their paratroopers and what that really means is they're really high-performance athletes," Wilson said in an interview. "One of the things they're interested in is how could they use wearable sensors to get data to predict how can they avoid injury or how can they customize their training programs or their nutrition programs."

The partnership is also looking at how 3-D printing could assist the rapid deployments of the 82nd Airborne and cut down on the amount of supplies needed, Wilson said.

"Wouldn't it be cool if you could actually take a 3-D printer with you," she said, "and if something breaks down, you could print the part."

Unique partnership

The partnership will be led from N.C. State University's Centennial Campus, however the partnership includes the entire UNC System.

Direct partnerships like this are relatively new, Sidner said.

The only other example of a school working so closely with an Army division, she said, is Vanderbilt University, which signed a partnership in 2019 with the 101st Airborne Division out of Fort Campbell in Kentucky.

But that is just one university, Sidner said.

"In this case, we have 16 universities working with an entire corps of 90,000 strong," Sidner said.

This story was produced with financial support from a coalition of partners led by Innovate Raleigh as part of an independent journalism fellowship program. The N&O maintains full editorial control of the work. Learn more; go to bit.ly/newsinnovate.

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