New Mexico is fast becoming the place to be for the space and defense technology industries thanks to new partnerships with the UNM School of Engineering, local companies and startups and the Air Force’s national research lab in Albuquerque. The emphasis is on rapid technology development, prototyping, and manufacturing through the use of AI and machine learning technologies. The UNM/AFRL Agile Manufacturing Center, a joint lab located in UNM’s Science & Technology Park on south campus, is dedicated to developing and manufacturing small spacecraft, satellite systems, and integrated directed-energy systems. It is funded by a $6.7 million, five-year grant from the Air Force. Agile manufacturing is an approach to manufacturing which focuses on balancing the needs of customers, maintaining high standards of quality, and controlling the cost of producing a particular product. The approach is most often used by companies working in highly competitive environments that demand manufacturing processes that are rapid, that provide consistently high-quality product, and that can pivot effectively in response to market changes.
The Center’s objectives include collaborative research in small satellite technologies and directed-energy systems and emphasizing advanced manufacturing concepts; accelerated assembly and testing of technologies in these research areas; creating infrastructure and expertise in agile manufacturing at UNM; and impacting local economic development, and ultimately impacting the national economy by keeping manufacturing in the U.S.
To read more, see Kevin Robinson-Avila’s March 25, 2019 articles, “Making sci-fi real,” and “UNM, AFRL team on manufacturing center,” from the Albuquerque Journal Business Outlook, reprinted below; Rachel Whitt’s March 21, 2019 article, “UNM technology showcase entices industry leaders,” from UNM Newsroom, reprinted below; and Kim Delker’s May 31, 2018 associated article, “New UNM/AFRL NM $6.7 million agreement to focus on manufacturing techniques of the future,” from UNM Newsroom, reprinted below.
Making sci-fi real
By Kevin Robinson-Avila / Journal Staff Writer
Published: Monday, March 25th, 2019 at 12:02am
Updated: Monday, March 25th, 2019 at 7:53am
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified the company Verus Research.
Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal
New Mexico is emerging as a national leader in joint government-industry efforts to modernize the country’s space-based defense systems and build 21st century laser and microwave weapons, and that is creating opportunities for local business.
That includes companies of all sizes, from global players like Raytheon and Northrop Grumman to small homegrown firms and even startups with innovative technologies.
Kirtland Air Force Base and White Sands Missile Range are playing critical roles in the modernization efforts, thanks to their technical talent and established infrastructure. That’s boosted through aggressive efforts by Democratic senators Martin Heinrich and Tom Udall to promote New Mexico as a high-tech hub for development of space systems and laser and microwave technology, known as “directed energy.” That’s helped raise New Mexico’s profile, generating more defense spending here.
“We’re now widely recognized as a national center of excellence,” Heinrich told the Journal. “It’s positioning us in the coming decades to significantly grow the job base in New Mexico.”
As defense programs grow, more private sector investment is flowing into the state.
“There’s a laundry list of employers setting up shop in Albuquerque, from small, homegrown companies to big guys like Boeing, Raytheon and General Atomics,” Heinrich said. “They all want to be here. They see New Mexico as the place to be now.”
The boom in activity reflects changing national defense strategies, with development of space systems and directed energy among the Pentagon’s top priorities.
On the space front, that means upgrading government satellite systems to manage modern day challenges and make space-based communications, monitoring, and control systems far more efficient and robust.
New Mexico already excels in that area, thanks largely to Air Force space agencies at Kirtland and the local industry expertise that’s built up alongside it.
On the directed energy front, the military is working to move laser and microwave weapons out of the lab and into the field, with a lot more money going into prototypes for testing, evaluation and training of war fighters. Most of that work is centered in New Mexico because those weapons were largely developed here through the Air Force Research Laboratory’s Directed Energy Directorate, creating a rich pool of talent and technical expertise.
White Sands, meanwhile, is emerging as the nation’s key test and evaluation site for those weapons.
Heinrich and Udall have helped win a lot more government funding and industry contracts for all those programs. The fiscal year 2019 National Defense Authorization Act provided money to upgrade military infrastructure and capabilities here and advance technology modernization programs. That includes:
• $371 million for the Air Force’s Space Rapid Capabilities Office at Kirtland, nearly a threefold increase from FY 2018;
• $15 million to upgrade White Sands’ laser and microwave testing infrastructure; and
• $484 million for directed energy activities nationally, most of it for Air Force efforts, particularly in New Mexico, to advance laser and microwave systems.
New Mexico’s entire congressional delegation is also lobbying the Defense Department to co-locate the headquarters of a newly-planned Space Development Agency here.
More defense spending means more military and civilian jobs at Kirtland, and more contracts for local companies.
Just since February, the government announced two new awards for homegrown Albuquerque firms. Tau Technologies won an $8.9 million contract for modeling, simulation and assessment work on laser systems, and LoadPath LLC won $14.9 million to assist in research and development of advanced components and systems for satellites.
Such homegrown firms are growing fast. Verus Research, for example, grew from 21 employees and $2.7 million in revenue in 2014 to 74 employees and $12 million in revenue last year. The company works on lasers, high-power microwaves and nuclear engineering.
“New task orders are coming in now, and there’s more on the way,” said Verus Research Managing Director Hank Andrews. “Customer appetite is great.”
Big companies are also staffing up to manage new and ongoing space and directed energy-related contracts.
In January, Northrop Grumman said it would open a new Albuquerque-area facility and expand its workforce, potentially doubling its employees to 300 over the next three years.
Boeing, which manages all of its directed energy work in Albuquerque, has developed a ground-based compact laser weapon system for defense against drones. It sold its first ones last year to the Marine Corps for testing and training.
The company, which employs about 200 throughout New Mexico, hired 20 people last year and will hire 20 more this year.
Raytheon as well has ramped up at the Sandia Science and Technology Park to better manage its microwave-related work, nearly doubling its facility there to 175,000-square-feet. The site employs 150 people and includes the largest single concentration of microwave-related scientists and engineers among all companies nationwide, said Don Sullivan, directed energy chief technologist for Raytheon in Albuquerque.
“We’re recruiting more scientists and engineers now, and given our backlog of work, that will continue into the future,” Sullivan said.
Raytheon has built a ground-based microwave defense system to down swarms of incoming drones simultaneously, which it tested at White Sands last fall. If the military deploys the system, most high-tech manufacturing and development will remain in Albuquerque with final assembly elsewhere. That means more jobs at Raytheon and at local high-tech firms that supply components and services to the company, Sullivan said.
“Discussions are ongoing about using our system,” Sullivan said. “There’s potential to actually start producing units in the next two to three years.”
Opportunities are also emerging for startup companies with innovative ideas to help solve technical problems. That’s boosted by a new Air Force emphasis on rapid development, prototyping and acquisition of technologies to speed the deployment of emerging defense systems, said Matt Fetrow, director of the Air Force Research Laboratory’s Technology Engagement Office.
To facilitate those efforts in New Mexico, the AFRL contracted the ABQid business accelerator last year to help it build collaborative relations with private companies. That led to a novel Hyperspace Challenge last fall that paired 10 companies with Air Force specialists in a week-long competition in Albuquerque where participating firms presented data analytics technology that could help the military to rapidly translate reams of satellite data into useful information.
ABQid will help organize another challenge this year looking at a different technology problem.
“We are front and center in defense modernization activities, and it’s creating lots of potential opportunities for businesses here,” Fetrow said. “That includes established companies and startups that can help the Air Force rapidly field new capabilities.”
Space and directed energy agencies at Kirtland
•Space Rapid Capabilities Office
•Space and Missiles Center’s Advanced Systems and Development Directorate
•Air Force Research Laboratory’s Space Vehicles Directorate
•AFRL’s Directed Energy Directorate
•Combined $900 million in annual funding in fiscal year 2019
•More than 1,600 civilian and military employees
FY 2016 economic impact
•AFRL: $659 million, 4,166 direct and indirect jobs
•Kirtland Air Force Base overall: $6.7 billion
•22,000 direct jobs, including Sandia National Laboratories
•53,000 total jobs supported
UNM technology showcase entices industry leaders
The UNM/AFRL Agile Manufacturing Center Showcase aimed and showing manufacturing industry leaders technology being developed by UNM and AFRL through presentations, demonstrations, posters and a keynote address.
“The goal here is to bring together three components: government, academics and private industry,” said Christos Christodoulou, Jim and Ellen King Dean of Engineering and Computing. “And by bringing those three together, we’re creating a wealth of economic opportunities for Albuquerque and the state of New Mexico.”
Lockheed Martin, Los Alamos National Labs, Sandia National Labs, Sol Oriens, Kirtland Air Force Base, General Atomics, New Space New Mexico, CABQ and New Mexico Tech were just a few of the groups represented at the event in late February at UNM’s Lobo Rainforest.
The UNM/AFRL Agile Manufacturing Lab is a center of open innovation that aims at enhancing local economic impact while stimulating strategic relationships in agile manufacturing and educational partnerships between the UNM School of Engineering and AFRL. It was established in 2018 using government funding through an agreement with AFRL.
“But that funding not enough to sustain the center and won’t guarantee the transition of the intellectual property that’s developed in the center to industry,” said Robert Peterkin, director of the Albuquerque Operations for General Atomics Electromagnetic Systems.
To create more sustainability and transferability, the center hosted the showcase to give stakeholders a glimpse of the research happening at UNM and AFRL – from multi-material additive manufacturing, to augmented sensing and reality. Organizers then provided event-goers with an online survey to take following the showcase.
Peterkin says the feedback will help direct the center’s efforts to establish processes for identifying intellectual properties and transitioning them to industry. It will also help academics get a better feel for the degree in which industry is interested, when deciding what research to pursue.
“We’re training the future generation. But at the same time, we’re developing technologies that are attracting manufacturing companies to our state,” Christodoulou concluded. “This is the future of manufacturing and this will give us an edge in producing products that we couldn’t have produced otherwise using other technologies.”
$6.7 million UNM/AFRL NM agreement focuses on manufacturing techniques of the future
June 05, 2018
The University of New Mexico and the Air Force Research Laboratory are partnering on a major new project that focuses on agile manufacturing for cost-effective and efficient production of small spacecraft and integrated directed-energy systems.
The $6.7 million cooperative agreement is aligned along four research areas: multi-material additive manufacturing, machine learning and transfer learning, machine vision and scene decomposition and advanced manufacturing concepts.
“This agreement will enable the School of Engineering to not only conduct research in advanced 3D printing but also become a national leader in agile manufacturing, which will attract more manufacturing companies to the state,” said Christos Christodoulou, Jim and Ellen King Dean of Engineering and Computing.
The work will be performed at the UNM/AFRL agile manufacturing high-bay facility located on UNM’s south campus. High-performance servers and computers and graphic processing units will be located in the departments of Electrical and Computer Engineering and Computer Science, which will support research in machine learning and machine vision. The project will create a strategic relationship between UNM and AFRL New Mexico’s directed energy and space vehicles directorates in the areas of small satellite technologies and directed-energy systems with a focus on advanced manufacturing concepts.
“This partnership demonstrates the importance of collaboration within our science and technology community,” said Matt Fetrow, director of AFRL New Mexico. “Our business community, our education community and our state as a whole will benefit if we all continue to find innovative ways to help one another advance STEM in New Mexico.”
AFRL New Mexico has been active in STEM education for more than 20 years and regularly collaborates with other groups to further STEM throughout state.
“Our team of AFRL researchers and UNM faculty has the complementary expertise needed to develop novel analytical and computational tools to make agile manufacturing a reality,” said Rafael Fierro, UNM principal investigator of the project and a professor of electrical and computer engineering. “This cooperative agreement will have a profound effect on training the new generations of New Mexico scientists and engineers. The research results, the software tools, and the robotic testbeds will be integrated with graduate and undergraduate curricula at UNM.”
Several UNM faculty members from various areas in the School of Engineering are involved in the effort:
- Rafael Fierro (principal investigator), a professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering
- Christos Christodoulou, Jim and Ellen King Dean of Engineering and Computing at UNM and a Distinguished Professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering
- Ron Lumia, a professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering
- Asal Naseri, a lecturer in the Department of Mechanical Engineering
- Meeko Oishi, an associate professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering
- Mahmoud Taha, a professor and chair of the Department of Civil, Construction & Environmental Engineering
- Lydia Tapia, an associate professor of computer science
- Mehran Tehrani, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering
- John Wood, a professor of mechanical engineering
- Yin Yang, an assistant professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer engineering.
The five-year grant will also enable the expansion of research in the areas of additive manufacturing, machine learning, intelligent robot assembly and advanced manufacturing, which will be used to develop new graduate and undergraduate courses in the School of Engineering. As part of a capstone senior design project, students will be tasked with designing missions, determining satellite payloads and building satellite components and subsystems in multi-disciplinary teams. Courses on small satellite design for manufacturability will also be developed.
UNM and AFRL will also collaborate on a robotics challenge, which will introduce students to the theme of agile manufacturing.