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Engineer Research and Development Center: Making the World Safer and Better

U.S. Army Engineer Research and Development Center (ERDC) is the research organization of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE). It provides innovative support to our Soldiers, military installations, and water resources and environmental projects. ERDC research projects run the realm from polar regions to arid desert sands to ocean waves; its technologies range from protecting the environment to protecting our Service members.

The organization has more than 2,500 employees and an annual research program exceeding $1.5 billion. ERDC’s seven laboratories in four states are complimented by field offices for specialized research in the U.S. and abroad.

“With over 1,000 researchers in a multitude of different engineering and scientific disciplines – civil engineering, physics, biology, computer science, you name it – ERDC can assemble multi-disciplinary research teams to address the most complex problems facing our nation,” said ERDC Director Dr. Jeff Holland.

“Protective technologies, blast-resistant windows, and wall retrofits developed at ERDC, saved lives at the Pentagon on 9/11. ERDC technologies today are saving our Soldiers’ lives in Iraq and Afghanistan. Our research solutions are addressing invasive species such as the Asian carp, river flooding, and coastal storm-protection issues, even response to the [April 20, 2010] Gulf of Mexico oil spill,” Holland said.

“ERDC is truly solving problems to help make the world safer and better.”

Civil Works’ Research and Development
ERDC’s seven laboratories apply their collective specialized expertise to solve critical civil works problems. There is a rich tradition in this research that goes back more than 80 years. Today, ERDC is widely recognized as an international leader in civil works research in several key areas:

  • Navigation,
  • Flood Risk Management,
  • Environmental Aspects, and
  • Watershed Assessment and Management Systems

ERDC and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service personnel make final adjustments to video cameras of the Automated Route Reconnaissance Kit (ARRK) on a contract helicopter. Developed to recon military convoy routes, the ARRK was being used to perform critical marsh bird population counts in response to the Gulf of Mexico oil spill. Photo courtesy of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Engineer Research and Development Center

ERDC is the nation’s federal hydraulics laboratory and center of expertise in coastal engineering, with unmatched capabilities in physical and computer models, including supercomputer models. ERDC was one of the early leaders in environmental research in the 1970s and continues to conduct advanced, world-class research in the civil works-environmental arena.

ERDC research technologies not only support Corps projects across the country, but also such sponsors as the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), and other federal and state agencies. Partnerships have also been forged with non-government organizations such as The Nature Conservancy.

ERDC products include both project-specific tools and watershed or regional modeling and assessment technologies that provide invaluable information for decision-makers. Since these technologies support our commerce and economic strength, enhance the environment, and help us as a nation access and manage our national resources and infrastructure, civil works research greatly benefits the U.S. population.

“Our researchers are supporting the most difficult water resources and environmental challenges facing our nation today,” stated Dr. Beth Fleming, director of the ERDC Environmental Laboratory. “Asian carp moving into the Great Lakes, response to the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, levee vegetation issues, even mountain top mining impacts – we have the expertise, facilities, and equipment to address the most difficult challenges.”

ERDC experts are doing advanced research in such areas as contaminated sediments and groundwater (detection, treatment, remediation), wetlands restoration, threatened and endangered species, dredging impacts (effects on fish, sea turtles and other river and marine life), and invasive species – fish, aquatic plants, and other introduced exotic species.

“We’re unique in our research capabilities,” added Fleming. “For example, with the oil spill, we have all of the disciplines necessary to address this complex issue – chemists, hydraulic and environmental engineers, toxicologists, and risk assessors, to name a few. In collaboration with the EPA, we developed a framework for approaching contaminated sediments related to the spill. No other research organization could do this.”

ERDC also provided modeling support for Mississippi River and coastal flow conditions to help make decisions related to the Gulf of Mexico oil spill. ERDC experts supported USFWS team activities with coastal bird counts, sea turtles, and marine mammals. An innovative aerial survey system was pulled from the ERDC military research program and modified to rapidly provide bird population data. ERDC information technology experts provided advanced databases for use in gathering, storing, and retrieving vast amounts of wildlife data related to the oil spill.

“The ‘can-do’ attitude of ERDC’s team members drives our research. They see a problem and know they can provide a solution,” Fleming said. “That’s why we get the hard problems.”

ERDC’s civil works research is providing tools for long-term environmental and engineering issues. These technologies provide vital information for decisions and solutions; they also advance a state of knowledge of natural processes and how ERDC can work with them intelligently and effectively and be used to address pressing, complex problems as they arise.

Engineer Hurricane Model
The Engineer Hurricane Model, known as MORPHOS, is a physics-based modeling capability developed by ERDC for tropical storm risk assessment. The integrated suite of models incorporates improved objective estimates of winds, waves, currents and water levels, and coastal response during extreme events. MORPHOS provides a robust, standardized approach to establish the risk of coastal communities to future storms. This advanced modeling technology was used to design Gulf Coast ecosystem and barrier island restoration projects and storm damage reduction and flood risk infrastructure following hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

Applications have been extended to include the Federal Emergency Management Agency flood risk mapping for Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, Virginia, and Maryland; plant licensing support for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission; evaluation of navigation channel-deepening project alternatives; and the development of large national storm databases and information systems for the coastal communities. ERDC is continuing to advance the capability of MORPHOS by developing the capability to predict coastal morphology response and evaluating the beneficial impacts of wetlands and other features on storm surge and waves.

Systemwide Water Resources Research
ERDC is also developing a suite of tools for hydrologic, hydrodynamic, water quality, and ecological modeling. These tools are used in watershed assessments, ecosystem restoration activities, and environmentally friendly and sustainable operation of flood damage reduction and navigation structures. This modeling structure is extremely flexible, and can be adapted to address issues of temporal and spatial scale and interactions with climate change, sea level rise, and coastal storm modeling.

The Engineer Research and Development Center (ERDC) developed the high-strength fabric levee PLUG that is filled with water to rapidly repair levee breaches. This is a 1-5 scale. ERDC, with Department of Homeland Security funding, is constructing a multimillion-dollar facility to help develop and test these technologies at full scale. This facility will be operational in early FY 11. Photo courtesy of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Engineer Research Development Center

The versatility of these modeling tools was demonstrated when the Adaptive Hydraulics Modeling (ADH) system and particle tracking techniques were quickly used to assess the effectiveness of altering flows in the Lower Mississippi River to reduce impacts associated with the Gulf oil spill. The ADH model was also used to examine the impact of berms and distribution of oil and dispersants associated with waves and storms. Recently developed knowledge management technologies were used in collaboration with USFWS to catalog and visualize oil spill impacts on wildlife. These advanced modeling tools have been used for project decisions in the Upper Mississippi River, Chesapeake Bay, Columbia River, Missouri River, to name a few.

Military Research
ERDC prides itself on years of military support – not just technological support, but direct Soldier support. ERDC brings this wealth of capabilities to bear on some of the most complex military problems, many of which extend far beyond what might be considered traditional Corps operations.

“The goal in ERDC’s military research is to provide real solutions the warfighter can use,” ERDC Geotechnical and Structures Laboratory Director Dr. David Pittman said. “ERDC military research encompasses the broad areas of force protection, force projection, maneuver/counter-maneuver, terrain battlespace environments, and military facilities and infrastructure.

“R&D is important to the warfighter because it gives them the extra edge in technology that it takes to stay ahead of the enemy. It gives the Soldiers that extra capability to quickly and effectively conduct their missions. It gives them that extra protection from enemy or terrorist attacks – extra protection that might make a difference in safely going home,” Pittman stated. “Because of what is involved, our researchers take this work very seriously.”

Military research also involves all of ERDC’s research laboratories and expertise. International support is provided to warfighters across the spectrum of operations, including engineering units, Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, special operations units, and combined commands.

Saving Lives
To protect our Soldiers in the field, ERDC is developing a variety of tools and technologies to provide the best protection methodologies possible. Innovative low-weight logistical materials  and ease of application are the guiding parameters for field materials. ERDC is conducting some of the nation’s most advanced research on new super materials, such as carbon nanotubes, that could be the foundation for armor and protective gear for Soldiers of the future.

To meet the Army requirement for a mobile protective system that has low weight, high performance, and can be recovered and reused, ERDC developed the Modular Protective System. Untrained Soldiers can quickly put together this lightweight system without special tools. High-strength concrete panels developed for the system have the ballistic performance of ceramic armors. An eight-feet-high, 10-feet-long section can be assembled in about 15 minutes. Within a couple of hours, Soldiers can put up a protective system that covers a large area with the capability to stop a variety of weapons, from mortars to rocket-propelled grenades.

Another development, which was a cooperative venture with the Berry Plastics Corporation, is the blast-resistant “wallpaper,” X-FLEX™, that  can be quickly applied to interior masonry or cinderblock walls to prevent wall failure and fragmentation. The revolutionary “peel and stick” product acts as a stretch-and-catch system, absorbing blast forces and safeguarding room occupants.

To help protect Soldiers at Joint Forward Operations Bases, ERDC developed the Survivability and Protective Construction Handbook. Based on both explosive field tests and computer modeling, the handbook provides information on access control, barriers and obstacles, entry-control structures, overhead cover, protective structures, and other aspects for Army, Marines, and Navy personnel at forward bases. More than 12,000 copies of the handbook have been distributed to deploying units.

ERDC research is also directly supporting combat operations. In conjunction with the Armament, Research, Development and Engineering Center, ERDC is developing improved methods to explosively breach walls in urban environments. This allows Soldiers quick access to a structure’s interior where there are no openings or where doors or windows may be booby-trapped. Research efforts are also looking to allow wall breaching with “stand-off” munitions to provide another level of safety for Soldiers.

One Call for Help – UROC
Another ERDC innovation serving our warfighters is “reachback” engineering. Using modern, secure telecommunications technologies, deployed Soldiers can access government and/or civilian subject-matter experts in the U.S. for quick answers to problems with roads, force protection, or a host of other engineering issues. ERDC is home to the USACE Reachback Operations Center, or UROC, that makes this all possible.

The USACE Reachback Operations Center (UROC) portable communications kit is completely self-contained in two small cases. This ruggedized and secure communications tool links deployed Soldiers around the world to subject-matter experts in the United States to solve field engineering problems. It also is being used in disaster operations. Photo courtesy of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Engineer Research and Development Center

The UROC gets about 4,000 requests annually for assistance. There are about 300 UROC communications kits, which are contained in two small boxes for deployment.

“ERDC military research is important to deployed Soldiers because they often have to ‘do more with less.’ Our research technologies help make possible what would otherwise be impossible for the warfighter,” Pittman said.

The UROC communications kits are also seeing increased use in natural disasters and emergency operations exercises. They were used following hurricanes Gustav and Ike in 2009.

Military Installations
ERDC environmental research capabilities also benefit its military customers. The military is a large environmental steward of the enormous amount of land on military installations used for training. ERDC technologies are addressing hazardous and toxic waste clean-up and remediation, including explosive residues from munitions and lead from small arms firing ranges; unexploded ordnance detection at former training sites; and better ways to manage training and land use.

Many installations are home to threatened and endangered wildlife species. The Defense Department must take these species into account when managing lands and training. Such wildlife issues have curtailed training operations at large installations such as Fort Bragg, N.C., and Fort Hood, Texas. ERDC experts work with installation managers concerning endangered birds, tortoises, frogs, snakes, and other wildlife. Many times biologists, ecologists and wildlife experts find that training activities are not impacting these protected species; it is some other factor, such as feral cats feeding on ground nesting birds. These scientific research results, coupled with environmental management plans and tools, help make more training areas available, allowing Soldiers to conduct more effective training. And it also protects the local endangered species populations – a winning situation for all.

Leveraging Research – Infrastructure Protection
ERDC researchers are constantly adapting and modifying existing technologies to address both military and civil works problems, by leveraging its research expertise to protect not only our Soldiers, but also our citizens, the environment, and even our nation’s infrastructure.

In today’s world, terrorist attacks on critical infrastructure such as bridges, tunnels, dams, levees, and navigation locks must be considered and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is funding a great deal of this research. Building off knowledge and expertise gained from decades of military blast-effects research, ERDC is advancing technologies to better protect our infrastructure and to mitigate possible damage. ERDC has conducted blast experiments to help develop, improve, and validate engineering models to predict blast-induced cratering impacts on earthen dams. ERDC is also developing tools, such as the Anti-Terrorist Planner for Dams (ATPlanner-Dams) for blast vulnerability assessments for dams. This research also provides additional resilience in the event of natural disasters and accidents.

DHS is also funding research to develop technologies to expediently repair levee breaches. Under this program, ERDC has developed and demonstrated a scale-model, levee plug to quickly seal levee breaches. ERDC researchers developed a water-filled, high-strength fabric bladder that could be filled on site and floated in to plug breaches in levees, dams, and similar structures. ERDC has demonstrated these expedient levee plugs at 1-to-5 scale in the only facility in the nation that currently can support such experiments. However, through additional funding from DHS, ERDC will have a full-scale research facility by the end of 2010 that will allow continued development, testing, and training on this new technology.

ERDC’s Critical Asset
“ERDC has been named the top Army research laboratory five of the last eight years and for the last three consecutive years. No other Army research organization has matched this feat, and it is a very enviable record,” Holland said.

With all the world-class facilities, research labs, and powerful computers, you would expect such awards. But Holland is quick to point out the real power of ERDC.

“ERDC’s greatest asset is its people. The passion our engineers and scientists have in solving complex problems is unreal. They know their work is saving Soldiers’ lives, making the environment better, or enhancing our water resources projects. They know they are making a difference.”

This article first appeared in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Building Strong®: Serving the Nation and the Armed Forces 2010-2011 Edition.