News Release

$10 million award from the Department of Defense will fund pioneering Sensing and Cyber Center of Excellence

Grant and Award Announcement

Virginia Tech

$10 million award from the Department of Defense will fund pioneering Sensing and Cyber Center of Excellence


Virginia Tech team members (from left) Leyla Nazhandali, Dwight Viehland, Jean Hereman, and Tina Rost.

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Credit: VIrginia Tech

The Virginia Tech College of Engineering has received a $10 million, five-year Department of Defense award to fund groundbreaking research with potential military and commercial implications.

Dwight Viehland, the Jack E. Cowling Professor of materials science and engineering, will serve as principal investigator of the Sensing and Cyber initiative, which will include collaboration with Penn State and the U.S. Army Combat Capabilities Development Command Army Research Laboratory, the Army’s foundational research laboratory.  

The integrated team is tasked with the following:

  • Establishing a center of excellence to develop best practices, deliver shared training and support, standardize technology, and oversee technology access and usage
  • Developing a new generation of integrated sensors with multi-modality capabilities enabling cyber-secure communications

“The department understands the strategic advantage of harnessing innovation,” said Viehland. “We are extremely grateful for the support and assistance of the Office of the Vice President for Research and Innovation and the College of Engineering, without whom this would not have been possible. They know that collaborating with universities, research and development centers, and commercial sectors is the way to solve tough challenges. This way, you leverage emerging research through high-level teamwork.”

The multidisciplinary team led by Viehland will interact and collaborate with the Army research laboratory in Adelphi, Maryland. The lab has strong internal scientific and technical talents, excellent facilities, and an established reputation for interacting and collaborating with universities and commercial interests in support of STEM areas of importance to national defense. Viehland will build on his previous collaborations with the Army’s Adelphi laboratory to ensure alignment and integration.

Military applications

The project has its roots in national defense needs. Last fall, Under Secretary of Defense Heidi Shyu identified 14 technology areas of critical importance to the future of the Department of Defense, including sensing and cyber.

Sensors and signal processing technologies are essential systems on a variety of vehicles and environments, including ground stations, aircraft, and ships. They leverage the electromagnetic spectrum – acoustic, magnetic, and infrared sensing functions on a common platform – to detect, analyze, and track potential threats. They can also be used to jam radio, microwave, and infrared spectra to disrupt them.

Not only are sensors and signal processing technologies key to modern situational awareness, but they also supply information for diplomatic insights and options for possible offensive maneuvers.  

Successfully developing this new generation of integrated sensors is expected to result in better decision-making, fewer risks, and protection for civil-military operations to support successful missions. Cyber situational awareness enables strategic military operations in terms of munitions, wearable devices, weapons, robots, and vehicles. This initiative also will support cybersecurity.

"We cannot afford a leveling of technology advantage,” Shyu said when she spoke last year at a McAleese defense conference. “It is imperative for the department to nurture early research in emerging technologies to prevent technological surprise. We must leverage critical state-of-the-art commercial technology where rapid advancements are trying to accelerate our military capabilities."

"Component technologies have advanced dramatically in the past two years in terms of reliability, dependability, signal-to-noise ratio enhancements, and lower power consumption,” said Viehland. “This initiative will take these advancements even further.”

Commercial implications

Beyond military applications, the ability to design and build successful cyber-physical systems will address many national priorities in ways that traditional computer science cannot. Integrated sensing and cyber systems will impact industries including aerospace, automotive, energy, disaster response, health care, agriculture, manufacturing, and city management. The many benefits of cyber-physical systems involve the acceleration of technological progress — progress that ultimately affects every person.  

Viehland points to the commercial applications of integrated sensor and cyber systems in autonomous vehicles alone, saying that collisions could be substantially reduced or virtually eliminated, for example, potentially having a paradigm-shifting impact upon the automobile insurance industry. Widely adopted driverless cars would revolutionize our economy, transform industries, and revamp consumer behavior.

The team

In addition to Viehland, the Virginia Tech-led team will include six subject matter experts from the College of Engineering:

Penn State faculty members include:

Team member were chosen based on their experiences with the areas of research required to advance integrated sensing and cyber initiatives. Their expertise encompasses acoustic, magnetic, and infrared sensing materials, integrated electronics for sensors and sensor fusion, and sensor-cyber security.

“Team members have led the development of low frequency mechanical antennas and materials integration as well as noise power technology,” said Viehland. “They are true subject matter experts in their fields with exceptional network contacts gleaned from multiple collaborations.”

The team will collaborate  through personnel exchanges, research findings sharing, educational seminars and workshops, and collaborative research.

“I am very much looking forward to working with this team,” said Penn State’s Trolier-McKinstry. “The breadth of expertise in sensor development should allow us to make significant progress in integrating different sensing mechanisms to provide a clearer picture for the Department of Defense. Coupling between sensing systems, computational platforms, and communication systems is essential to the program goals.”

Given the involvement of two academic institutions, teaching students is also paramount. Over the course of the grant period, numerous Virginia Tech and Penn State graduate students will have the opportunity to support the research.

“This center will significantly boost our workforce development efforts. With this work, not only will we harness the talent and tenacity of our graduate students, but we will train them to be the future stewards of the systems we are designing,” said Suneel Kodambaka, head of the Department of Materials Science and Engineering in the College of Engineering. “We will be able to offer a unique academic platform that is ideal for STEM students. We plan to tap into the potential of this new educational opportunity to increase the number of graduate students in the STEM disciplines.”

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