TAMPA — Inside a mesh cage at a University of South Florida engineering lab, ten small drones lift off and hover in unison, the sound of tiny blades whirring like a hive of angry hornets.
They are part of the technology being developed here for hypersonic weapons — a new class of destructive devices that use speed, not explosives, to cause damage.
Experiments like these at USF’s Laboratory for Autonomy, Control, Information and Systems have sparked the interest of U.S. Special Operations Command — the military headquarters based at MacDill Air Force Base that spends billions of dollars each year on goods and services for commandos.
Now, the command and the university are cementing a collaboration that began in 2015 with the creation of a new Institute of Applied Engineering.
Approved by the USF Board of Trustees over the summer, the institute will seek solutions to the nation’s security and economic challenges. SOCom hopes the institute will help equip commandos with the latest innovations.
"This is a tremendous force-multiplier from the acquisition perspective," said Kelly Stratton-Feix, director of acquisition agility for SOCom.
USF has entered into research and development agreements before with SOCom and its incubator Sofwerx, based in Ybor City and run by the Doolittle Institute. They include a hands-on internship for students, faculty support, and prototype development.
The idea for the new institute arose from discussions about further collaboration between SOCom and the USF College of Engineering, with its 7,200 students and $36.4 million in research awards last year, said Robert H. Bishop, dean of the college.
The Institute of Applied Engineering will have its own president and board of directors and is funded by an initial investment of $500,000 from USF. It is designed after the Georgia Tech Research Institute, where students work on projects that generate funding to keep it going, said Eric Forsyth, director of the new institute.
Forsyth spent 25 years in the Air Force, retiring as a colonel in 2017 after working in the SOCom acquisition office in charge of the command’s fixed-wing aircraft program. He oversaw drone purchases and the overhaul of transport and gunship aircraft.
"I knew from my engineering and computer science education," Forsyth said, "that major research universities are at the forefront in creating and maturing many of these technologies."
USF engineering students already are working on groundbreaking internships through SOCom’s Sofwerx.
Peter Jorgensen, a doctoral candidate in electrical engineering, is helping develop payloads for the command’s cube satellite program, putting satellites into orbit to give commandos the high ground in communications. The first payload is expected to launch by next fall.
Daniel Thomas, an undergraduate in computer science and an Air Force ROTC cadet, is working on a project to identify all security cameras in a foreign city that SOCom officials don’t want to name. Thomas is downloading street maps from open sources and feeding images of thousands of security cameras into an artificial intelligence program.
Rodrigo Caldas, a retired Marine and computer science undergraduate, is developing an app so troops in the field can order supplies without reams of paperwork.
USF instructors like Tansel Yucelen, Kyle Reed and Stephanie Carey also are key to the new institute. Yucelen, an assistant professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering, runs the lab working on swarming drones and hypersonic weapons guidance.
On Nov. 9, the institute will host a cybersecurity demonstration to analyze the vulnerabilities of smart technology already in use . The target is a HART bus that is linked into the traffic-signal system.
"I would say it is the first example of the institute bringing different partners together to solve problems that have civil and military applications," Forsyth said.
Detecting such vulnerabilities is an area of interest for SOCom, Stratton-Feix said.
The institute, she said, will give students real-world experience and make them more valuable to their future employers. SOCom can also help them get security clearances, Stratton-Feix said — "not easy to come by."
The community as a whole benefits too, she said.
"For the Tampa Bay area, it is a great thing to say, ‘Hey, we have this talent.’ "
Contact Howard Altman at [email protected] or (813) 225-3112. Follow @haltman