Penn State’s Applied Research Lab celebrates 70 years

Paul Sullivan, center, director of ARL at Penn State, talks with Allen Sonsteby, left, deputy director, and Rick Marboe, acting CIO and director of engineering services, in the ARL lobby on Friday.
Paul Sullivan, center, director of ARL at Penn State, talks with Allen Sonsteby, left, deputy director, and Rick Marboe, acting CIO and director of engineering services, in the ARL lobby on Friday. CDT photo

Some people watch a James Bond movie and want to be 007.

Other people watch and want to be Q, the tech genius who comes up with the inventions that get used to save the world.

That might all be a fantasy, but for 70 years, real-life Qs have been breaking ground behind the scenes at Penn State’s Applied Research Lab.

The unassuming brick building is not as flashy as some of its University Park neighbors. It occupies a prime piece of Penn State real estate in a triangle between College Avenue, and North Atherton and Burrowes streets. It hosts a steady stream of faculty and staff, students and visitors, just like any other classroom or lab building on campus.

But inside, things happen that people don’t know about, and often, that others can’t quite talk about.

ARL is one of just 13 University Affiliated Research Centers in the country, and of just five that work with the Navy. UARCs are a special category of college research organizations maintaining a “long-term strategic relationship” with the U.S. Department of Defense. Those relationships don’t get much longer in term than Penn State’s.

It all started in 1945. World War II had just ended, and the country was shifting gears. Eric Walker left Harvard to come to work at Penn State. The government asked him to continue the military-related undersea research he had been doing in Massachusetts, so he brought some 100 of his people with him. That was the nucleus of what would become the ARL, where about 1,100 people, including about 200-300 students, work on solving problems for the Navy and inventing new ways to accomplish ever-evolving goals.

Today, the director is Paul Sullivan, a retired vice admiral who worked with the ARL on the Navy’s side when he was still working with submarines, and who was on the board of the ARL after his retirement when he went to work in the nuclear industry, giving him a unique view of the lab from all sides.

But what, really, does the ARL do? Well, what do you need done?

Sullivan focuses on a set of “core competencies,” areas of expertise that form the basis of the university’s military research, things like autonomy and robotics, undersea systems, manufacturing technologies, advanced immersive visualization, positioning, navigation and timing, communications and surveillance, and data analytics, where the military, and other related industries, come back to Penn State time and again for innovation and improvement.

Officials are careful about what they talk about. Ongoing projects are a challenge, and frequently red tape requires tight lips. But ask them about what projects the school has helped develop in the past and it is easier to get an answer.

According to Sullivan, one of the areas where Penn State has contributed significantly to national defense is in torpedoes. ARL has had a part in the development of every torpedo used in the Navy since World War II. A new kind is being used on ships now that is ultra small and highly maneuverable to defend against other attacks.

“We are trying to shoot a bullet with a bullet,” said Deputy Director Allen Sonsteby.

Some are less exciting but might have a greater impact on the bottom line, like a process Penn State developed to efficiently and economically rehab used undetonated torpedoes so they could be re-used instead of scrapped and repurchased.

“We consider the defense budget precious,” said Rick Marboe, director of engineering services and the acting chief information officer for ARL.

That may be because of how much of that money could potentially come back to the university. In January, Penn State President Eric Barron said the university was on track for its fourth consecutive year topping $800 million in research funding, with more than $500 million coming from federal sources. ARL alone represents about $200 million of that.

“The Applied Research Lab is a stellar example of Penn State’s solid partnerships with government and industry. Over the decades, faculty and staff there have provided incredible service and innovation to our nation and the world,” Barron said. “ARL work makes up a tremendous portion of the annual $198 million Penn State receives from the Department of Defense. The lab has always been responsive to evolving needs, created advanced solutions and contributed enormously to the security of America as well as the economy of the Commonwealth. ARL is certainly a world leader and a point of pride for Penn State.”

Security is something that is not just a buzzword at ARL. From the minute you step in the door, where an officer sits at the desk and a strict sign-in process is observed and no phones allowed, you know this isn’t your typical history class building. It has different rules for parking, different requirements for escorts, different demands for protecting the information inside.

Sullivan says those protections are necessary, especially in a world where information is a commodity.

When Penn State’s engineering and liberal arts colleges were hacked, announcements of which were made earlier this year, ARL reviewed its security and says it was safe, but he acknowledges it is always a risk.

Sitting in the midst of the campus, rather than removed from it, is part of that, but it isn’t something he would change. Instead, he says that “synergy” between learning and research is the point of the UARC system.

“It helps us do a better job for our defense department,” he said.

And sometimes, you don’t know where that next idea will come from.

As part of developing those core competencies, ARL will sometimes work on a project that is decidedly not defense-related. Consider the viola.

When working with sonar and torpedoes and undersea acoustics, it’s important to understand how sound moves and behaves. That is why Sullivan says his researchers took on a project that explored what created good tone in the stringed instrument.

Sometimes the faculty, staff and students work on a project for years. Sonsteby said sometimes it might just be a testing project that could take a day, or even hours. ARL works across the university’s many colleges and disciplines, often pulling in some that seem unexpected.

Sonsteby said one liberal arts professor is on a sabbatical, working with the Strategic Studies Group on a Navy project exploring how people learn to better teach young military personnel.

Sullivan said this level of closeness and cooperation makes Penn State and the ARL excel.

“I believe we are the most integrated with the campus of all the UARCs,” he said.