Partnerships and Mechanisms to Facilitate Development and Application of New Research Technologies
Much of the workshop focused on exploring what cutting-edge technologies for polar science are possible or on the horizon. The final session of the workshop focused instead on questions of how to best foster and support technology innovations. For instance: What are the key strategies (and obstacles to overcome) for advancing a new idea through the stages of research, development, testing, and eventual deployment? How does one build effective partnerships between scientists and engineers, manufacturers, and others who can help bring new ideas to fruition?
Perspectives on these questions were offered by a panel of representatives from a variety of different programs and institutions that are recognized as having interesting models for facilitating this “research and development (R&D) pipeline” to help identify lessons and insights that could be applied more broadly in the polar sciences.
Ted Scambos, University of Colorado Boulder, discussed his experiences with the Colorado Space Grant Program, which facilitates the creation of partnerships between scientists and engineers within a university. In his case, Scambos’s group was studying a part of Antarctica where there is rapid ice loss, the Thwaites Glacier, and wanted to install an instrument called AMIGOS (Automated Meteorology Ice Geophysics Observing System)—an automatic weather station with many additional instruments and with an Iridium uplink to allow real-time data collection. They needed to develop and integrate these sensors within the short timeline available before the fieldwork was scheduled.
The Space Grant Program put together a diverse, motivated team of six to eight undergraduate engineering students (who had previously worked on mock-ups of CubeSat designs) to help develop individual instrument components to be integrated into the overall sensor design. A professional programmer reviewed and finalized the code used but the real pioneering work was done by the students. The students did not get to participate in the actual deployment in Antarctica, but they participated in some of the remote operations of the instrument. Scambos remarked that it was a great partnership for his group—they had talented, inexpensive help building a complex instrument in a rapid time frame—and the students got an exciting opportunity to contribute to a real-world advancement in research.
Alana Sherman, Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI), discussed how MBARI facilitates science–engineering partnerships. Project ideas may come from a scientist who wants a specific instrument or an engineer who identifies a new technology that could be applied. Sherman noted that in either case, the goal is to use a system-engineering approach that includes the following elements:
- Starting with functional requirements, identify what an instrument platform needs to do and what science questions need to be answered; distinguish between wants and needs.
- Assessing and mitigating project risks and design trade-offs early in the process (e.g., the engineering implications of an instrument that goes 100-m deep versus 1,000 m).
- Thinking about the long-term plan for the practical implementation of a new technology that is being developed.
- Building external collaborations and partnerships to extend reach and possibly commercialize technologies.
Sherman provided her thoughts on what has worked well and what can be improved with the current MBARI approaches. She noted that it is important to create a team with the right experience and expertise to be able to finish a project successfully and to have well-defined design requirements. Vital factors in a project’s success include continuous engagement from both scientists and engineers throughout the process, iterative development (e.g., start with a tractable problem and then add complexity once there has been some success), and sufficient time for integration and testing.
Scott Tyler, University of Nevada, Reno, discussed the Center for Transformative Environmental Monitoring Programs (CTEMPs) Community User Facility. Funded through the National Science Foundation’s (NSF’s) Division of Earth Sciences and started in 2009, the Community User Facility’s goal is to bring new cutting-edge technology into Earth and environmental sciences. It works through the University of Nevada, Reno, and Oregon State University and in collaboration with Smith College to engage undergraduate students. They see themselves as a small version of IRIS-PASSCAL (Incorporated Research Institutions for Seismology Portable Array Seismic Studies of the Continental Lithosphere) and UNAVCO. Their focus is on hydrologic measurement advances, using an optical fiber base distributed sensing (i.e., that allows sensing along an optical fiber) and using Raman or Raleigh backscatter (essentially lidar in an optical fiber). Their current focus is primarily on hydrology but they are interested in many other possible applications, including cold region research.
They have worked with the industry to develop a very-low-power-consumption instrument that will operate at ~1 watt continuously in the field. They provide all of the instrumentation one needs for a system that can fit on a pallet, and they provide phone support when problems arise. Recently, their services have expanded to also include uncrewed aerial vehicles (UAVs; e.g., for high-resolution topography, multispectral and hyperspectral sensing, thermal sensing, and airborne magnetics), trying to work in coordination with other instrument or Earth science centers that offer airborne UAV services. CTEMPs also operates an instrument development facility called OPEnS Lab at Oregon State University, where people can go to a fully equipped lab to build new and lightweight instrumentation and low-cost trial equipment. They have a focus on engaging undergraduate and graduate students and have engineers on staff to help people build the instruments themselves or design them.
Carolyn Mercer, National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) Science Mission Directorate, discussed how NASA fosters partnerships
among scientists, engineers, tech developers, and mission developers to set technology development goals and promote the infusion of the technologies that they develop into missions. Their three main mechanisms for supporting partnerships include:
- Joint workshops. A successful example of this is the 2017 Assessing the Subsurface Oceans of Icy Worlds workshop.1 The event convened scientists and engineers to assess how to get through kilometers of ice to reach the liquid ocean water that they believe is under the ice on Europa. The group determined that this was a feasible goal, and their information was used to set specific goals for solicitation.
- Joint goal setting. One example is sampling in deep ice penetration. First, the scientists assess if deep ice penetration is something that is needed, and then technology specialists around the agency and in community groups help define the technical goal. The technical goal is then iterated back with the scientists to ensure that it applies to the mission(s) of interest.
- Funded communities of practice. NASA has funded work for the exploration of Europa and Enceladus in three primary areas: autonomy, radiation, and communications through the ice. It solicits proposals for these areas and issue awards and then form Communities of Practice that allow all of the principal investigators in those areas to work with each other, meet engineers working on concepts for a Europa lander mission, and learn about the new technologies under development.
Mercer noted that another great way to bring people together is to provide test-bed facilities as a common ground for technologists to work on the development and to demonstrate to NASA that the systems will work.
Zoe Courville, Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory (CRREL), discussed a similar idea of facilities that can be used for testing instruments before deploying for fieldwork. There is little room for error once you go into the field, so part of CRREL’s mission is to work on practical problems before conducting fieldwork. To support that, CRREL has many facilities available to do testing in realistic simulations or analogs for the cold. Their cold room complex has 26 different spaces, including labs that go down to −40ºC, a large cold chamber to drive tractors into, and a new climate chamber capable of −50ºC and large enough into which to drive larger vehicles. Some of the chambers can make snow and replicate wind events, icing events, and freezing rain. They have a technical crew—many of whom have worked in the field—to support projects.
In addition to the CRREL test chamber facilities, other facilities can be used, especially for larger-scale, longer-term projects. For example, the CRREL Fairbanks office has an in situ permafrost tunnel facility. Summit Station Greenland has been used for testing instruments and equipment such as ice core drills. Courville mentioned that the Juneau Icefield Research Program
1 See https://kiss.caltech.edu/workshops/oceanworlds/oceanworlds.html.
is a good analog for various places in Antarctica and has a lot of logistical and technical support available at the facilities. The NSF Ice Core Facility in Denver is currently undergoing development but will soon be looking for input from other researchers. In addition to having individual cold rooms that people can use to work on ice cores, it could potentially be used as a testing facility as well.
Richard Carlin, Office of Naval Research, discussed the Alaska Regional Collaboration for Technology Innovation and Commercialization program. The three primary focus areas of the program are (1) a science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education program called the Renewable Energy Alaska Program, which conducts outreach activities across the state; (2) a university research program with the University of Alaska Fairbanks, including the Alaska Center for Energy and Power; and (3) a business deployment accelerator called Launch Alaska.
The program uses Alaska as a living laboratory to advance, deploy, and evaluate technologies in a variety of challenging environments. By integrating research, STEM outreach, and commercialization activities, one can form partnerships at many levels across the technology spectrum. And by linking education, research, and commercialization, the program has a built-in path to go from workforce development to technology development to deployment. Since many of its projects are nondefense applications, the program gets funding from other federal agencies (e.g., the Department of Energy) and raises private capital to take these technologies forward. Launch Alaska, in particular, is designed to bring in private investment. Relatedly, the new Department of Defense Ted Stevens Center for Arctic Security Studies in Anchorage could become a place to link research and development efforts to support the defense missions in that state.