March 7, 2011

Pilot program throws tough problems at new APL staff

Military satellite communications systems are more critical than ever to the Navy’s ability to project force and conduct operations around the globe. Twelve APL staff were challenged with developing alternative forms of communications, and last fall they presented their findings to Pacific Fleet Command senior staff.

“They were very well-received,” said Jerry Krill, assistant director for science and technology. “They were commended for offering solutions that stirred the waters, spurring strategists to approach the problem in new ways.”

The staff were participants in the pilot session of APL’s Early Career Advanced Systems Project, designed to provide APLers who have one to five years’ experience with the opportunity to develop advanced cross-mission concepts, learn systems engineering and gain insight into the breadth of APL capabilities.

“Typically, when staff first arrive—particularly straight out of college—they are put on a task that’s part of a larger microcosm of the system, and as they build experience, their tasks broaden,” Krill said.

But increasingly, those early-career staff have been asking for more, said Aili Kujawa, head of the Human Resources and Services Department. Focus groups of early-career staff held in 2009 revealed that they felt their work was often limited in scope and impact. They wanted to collaborate outside of their groups and business areas, or with other early-career staff, and to use the skills inherent to their generation.

“They were eager to do meaningful, impactful work, and wanted more interaction with sponsors,” Kujawa said.

So APL senior management came up with the Early Career Advanced Systems Project, or ECASP, to allow these staffers to work on a high-profile project and collaborate with senior experts from across the Lab. The participants were nominated by their department heads. “We ended up with a totally diverse mix in terms of expertise, race and sex, and fields of study,” Kujawa said, “and the solutions they came up with reflected that diversity.”

The participants were frequently cloistered in “skunkworks” fashion in a room in Montpelier 6 so that they would not be distracted. The team broke into three groups: one studied user needs, and the other two developed separate concepts to meet the mission requirements.

The National Security Analysis Department’s John Benedict served as their mentor, and they were able to tap the expertise of seasoned staff, most particularly Rob Nichols and Steve Jones, of the Applied Information Sciences Department, and Mike Shehan, of the National Security Analysis Department. In addition, other subject-matter experts provided briefs on potential enabling technologies.

Raphael Austin, a threat and combat system engineer with the Air and Missile Defense Department, helped develop a balloon-assisted relay system for establishing a long-range communications capability. He also performed the link analysis required to size up the communications equipment and conducted thermal analysis of a high-altitude payload container.

“ECASP really helped shed light on tasking and collaborating with people from other departments,” Austin said. “Working with the other team members gave me an excellent opportunity for networking, and to work on a joint project in an environment conducive to candid thought sharing.”

Sarah Rigsbee, a human-systems integration engineer with the National Security Technology Department, led the team that focused on user needs. “As the only human factors [or HF] engineer on the project, I feel like I was able to offer a unique perspective and skill set,” she said. “I was able to work with two team members and introduce them to the HF discipline. It was a very rewarding experience to be a task lead, and help educate the team on the importance of HF considerations and different HF methodologies and analyses.”

Participants said they appreciated the challenge’s high visibility. “The problem we were given was important to the Navy, so it felt like a worthwhile challenge, and it was interesting to see how APL’s expertise could be applied,” said Michael Newkirk, a modeling and simulation software engineer in the National Security Analysis Department. “Since I develop mostly software, it was nice to work on a project where the final product would be a real-world system. It was useful to apply APL’s systems engineering cycle to this problem, and the additional briefing and sponsor interaction opportunities were helpful for the development of presentation skills.”

Krill and Kujawa said that APL also benefits. “The key to retaining good staff,” Kujawa said, “is providing interesting and challenging work.”

“It also gives us an opportunity to tap into the inherent innovative nature and fresh knowledge of recent graduates, and illustrate to our sponsors that we are growing our next-generation scientists and engineers,” Krill added.

“The key to last year’s project was the ECASP team working well together and demonstrating much creativity and initiative both individually and as a team,” Benedict said. “Senior Lab experts supplied them with potential ingredients, but in the end the team of young staff developed the illustrative recipes for success that were briefed out to various sponsors.”

The second project involves 15 staff and began in February. Their challenge? To develop an innovative concept to enable small ships to launch and recover large unmanned aerial vehicles as a potential “game-changing” capability for the Navy.

This article appeared previously in The APL News.