Defense Media Network

Engineer Research and Development Center Answers the COVID-19 Call [Building Strong® 2020-2021]

BY Mary Margaret Edney and Holly Kuzmitski

The U.S. Army Engineer Research and Development Center (ERDC) is no stranger to tackling the nation’s toughest problems – it’s even inscribed in the command’s mission statement. So, when COVID-19 cases struck the United States, ERDC scientists, engineers, and even tradesmen were quick to respond with innovative solutions to aid the pandemic response.

As leaders across the country faced the potential of overwhelmed hospital systems, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) stepped up to aid local, city, and state partners in developing alternate care facilities (ACFs) to handle a surge of patients. In the early stages of that effort, USACE leadership called on ERDC’s Directorate of Public Works (DPW) – electricians, welders, carpenters, and more – to come up with two makeshift hospital room prototypes.

“The call went out, and DPW came running,” ERDC Commander Col. Teresa Schlosser said of the effort. “This project highlights a critical capability that ERDC has amongst our tradesmen. The artisanship they have is amazing and doesn’t get enough credit.”

In less than two days, the crew constructed two working containerized medical solutions, one fashioned from a portable storage unit and the other a 12×12 metal-frame room built from the ground up.


“They knew this was a call to help our nation,” said Mike Channell, director of the ERDC Installation Support Division, which oversees DPW. “ERDC innovates on the fly, that’s what we do.”

While the tradesmen were hammering away at the mock-up hospital rooms, researchers in the ERDC Information Technology Laboratory (ITL) were using cutting-edge technology to make the ACF process a little safer for their peers throughout USACE.

One of the first steps in standing up an ACF is conducting an assessment of the possible hospital site. Often, that means sending in teams of USACE subject-matter experts to examine the buildings in person. However, during a pandemic, where more people gathering could mean an increased spread of coronavirus, the ERDC-ITL team realized it was time to introduce a safer, virtual option: augmented reality.

Using live-streaming and mixed-reality overlays, a smaller group of engineers on site could share their findings with the larger group of subject-matter experts who worked remotely and wouldn’t have to set foot in the building.

“Facility assessments are critical to the success of the ACF mission,” said Jonathan Boone, a research civil engineer on the augmented-reality project. “Having reachback, live-stream capabilities allows engineers and architects who are leading efforts from a ‘boots on the ground’ team perspective to get virtual support from other USACE subject-matter experts.”

But augmented reality wasn’t the only computational solution to come from ERDC-ITL in response to COVID-19. Managed by ERDC, the Department of Defense High Performance Computing Modernization Program (HPCMP) also brought a powerful weapon to the fight against COVID-19: supercomputers.

Caleb Willard, an engineer with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Walla Walla District, uses augmented-reality tools developed at the U.S. Army Engineer Research and Development Center to assess a potential site for a COVID-19 alternate care facility (ACF) while working from home in April 2020. (ERDC photo)

Caleb Willard, an engineer with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Walla Walla District, uses augmented-reality tools developed at the U.S. Army Engineer Research and Development Center to assess a potential site for a COVID-19 alternate care facility (ACF) while working from home in April 2020. (ERDC photo)

One major HPCMP study worked to determine how to safely airlift COVID-19-positive passengers to treatment. Researchers studied computational fluid dynamics of airflow, as well as the droplets within that airflow, to decide on the safest ways to transport infected patients, all while posing a minimal risk to aircrews and medical attendants.

When it came time to investigate potential COVID-19 vaccines, supercomputers once again proved to be a useful tool. In conjunction with the U.S. Army Medical Command and the Walter Reed Army Research Institute, the HPCMP used high-performance computers located at ERDC and Aberdeen Proving Ground, Maryland, to more quickly examine target proteins and their chemistry. Before HPCMP supercomputing power, only 2 million vaccine options could be considered over a threeweek period, but with the help of the program, researchers were able to examine close to 40 million target compounds.

Yet another modeling effort ensued when more than 40 ERDC researchers from multiple laboratories worked 16 hours a day as members of the COVID-19 Model and Analysis Team (C-MAT) to develop, operationalize, and deliver the most accurate and timely projections of COVID-19 spread possible, grounding the predictive modeling solidly on the best available data.

The ERDC-Susceptible Exposed Infected Recovered, or ERDC-SEIR, model was developed over the course of several weeks, providing the foundation for the ERDC approach to several modeling efforts. The model forecasts are provided to the USACE Geospatial Task Force, which then summarizes outputs in order for the broader USACE team to advise federal, state, and local partners on decisions related to COVID-19 courses of action.

“It’s the most comprehensive modeling platform we’ve worked on,” said Brandon Lafferty, Ph.D., an ERDC Environmental Laboratory (EL) researcher leading the team’s day-to-day operations. “It’s been used as a planning tool for building ACFs, and it has provided estimates as to how many infected patients states and counties [may] have.”

ERDC-SEIR predictions have also been used in an effort to support Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Region 1. Three researchers from ERDC-EL are on an interagency detail to FEMA’s Region 1 Data Analytics Team. The team supplements the ERDC-SEIR model with information relevant to hospital resource needs to help FEMA request the resources necessary for response and recovery in the New England states.

In such complex situations as a pandemic, researchers use a “model ensemble” approach, or a collection of models, to develop predicted outcomes. The idea behind this approach is that if several independently developed models point to a similar answer, the conclusion inspires greater confidence. The ERDC-SEIR was one of 16 models consulted to make national forecasts for total deaths, and one of four used in the national forecast ensemble for hospitalization rates.

The ERDC-SEIR was also featured on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) COVID-19 model ensemble website, the first instance a model developed and maintained by the Department of Defense was included in the CDC ensemble.

As of this writing, the ERDC-SEIR is still being used by the USACE Geospatial Task Force and FEMA Region 1 to inform decisions. The model will run autonomously as it receives data and will post results on the CDC website.

This article appears in the 2020-2021 edition of U.S. Army Corps of Engineers: Building Strong®, Serving the Nation and the Armed Forces


The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) has an exceptional R&D capability within its laboratories and centers. The Engineer Research and Development Center (ERDC) is the USACE premier research organization, developing innovative solutions and products that help solve the nation’s toughest engineering and environmental challenges in support of USACE’s key mission areas.

ERDC is headquartered in Vicksburg, Mississippi, along with four of its seven laboratories: the Coastal and Hydraulics; Geotechnical and Structures; Environmental; and Information Technology laboratories. Additional laboratories include the Construction Engineering Research Laboratory in Champaign, Illinois; Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory in Hanover, New Hampshire; and the Geospatial Research Laboratory in Alexandria, Virginia.

ERDC uses state-of-the-art facilities, coupled with some of the world’s top engineers and scientists, to conduct research in unique competency areas for the Department of Defense (DOD) and the nation. These core competency areas include:

• Civil and military engineering

• Blast and weapons effects on structures and geo-materials

• Battlespace terrain mapping and characterization

• Cold regions science and engineering

• Coastal, river, and environmental engineering

• Military installations and infrastructure

• Computational prototyping of military platforms

In addition to USACE and DOD, ERDC conducts research for other federal agencies, state and municipal authorities, and with U.S. industries through innovative work agreements.

ERDC discovers, develops, and delivers new ways to make the world safer and better every day.



3909 Halls Ferry Rd. Vicksburg, MS 39180-6199

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