University Challenge: Part I

The first of a new series of articles focused on innovative collaboration between the military sector and universities. Alex Hawkes talks to Dr Timothy Norman, head of computing science research at the University of Aberdeen about the department's unique involvement with the International Technology Alliance.


In August 2008, the University of Aberdeen received a visit from Dr Thomas Killion, chief scientist of the US army and deputy assistant secretary for research and technology. He discovered more about the university's ongoing research into enhancing technology and communication in the event of major international disaster such as tsunamis and political conflict.

Run as part of a unique ten-year partnership the university has entered into with the UK Ministry of Defence (MoD) and US Army Research Lab (ARL) and an IBM consortium of leading academic and industry partners, the programme is a clear example that today's military sector is increasingly relying on external research to achieve key research goals.

Working under the organisation mantle of the International Technology Alliance in Network and Information Science (ITA), the alliance is aimed at further researching network-centric systems. In effect, the ITA is a strong reminder of the growing collaboration between the US and UK armed forces, with all research involved in the project geared towards developing interoperable technologies relevant to the future military needs of both countries.

The University of Aberdeen first became involved with the $160m ITA project back in May 2006. Subject to a five-year review, the Scottish university will participate in the project for ten years, during which it will receive about $2.9m in funding.

For Dr Timothy Norman, head of computing science research at the University of Aberdeen, the programme has been an exciting development for his department. "It is the largest project I have ever managed and one of the most interesting as well. The level of engagement with industry partners is much greater within this project than others of its kind and it has also enabled us to collaborate with people in many different areas of research," Norman says.

"We are the only Scottish university involved with this high-profile project and we are collaborating in the same league as universities such as Imperial, Cambridge and Southampton. From a university perspective, the scale of the project is something that makes people take notice."

Project performance

The aims of the project are quite simple – to develop better communication and coordination between ITA coalition members for major international scenarios and to create intelligent management of sensor networks in highly unstable environments. From a university perspective, however, this can entail complex research into particularly niche subject areas.

The ITA project is divided into 12 subprojects, each of which has its own team consisting of US and UK academia working alongside industrial partners. "The first project we are involved in is called 'task-orientated deployment of sensor data infrastructure'. In that context, what we are doing is using sensormatic web techniques to essentially support the process of someone identifying the need for a particular type of information. So the system helps identify sensor resources needed for a specific environment and then configures them accordingly," says Norman.

"The project aims to develop better communication and coordination between ITA coalition members."

"For example, if I wanted to detect a certain type of vehicle passing through a certain environment. We are building software that would automatically identify exactly what type of assets must be deployed to achieve that," he adds.

As is clear from this example, a strong emphasis has been placed on developing technology that works within the boundaries of a coalition operation. However, rather then simply catering to US and UK armed forces, the university's research team must consider the role of other parties within an operation, such as local government representatives or non-government organisations (NGOs). The sharing of information therefore remains a fundamental backbone to a great deal of ITA's research.

"The second project we are involved in is called 'mission adaptive collaborations' and it is very much focused on the strategic and tactical decisions made by personnel during coalition operations. We are using software systems called intelligent agents to support human decision-making," Norman says. "For example, if there is a group of people putting together a plan for an evacuation or delivering aid then you may have the involvement of a local government or NGO, both of which will be arriving with different policies and procedures. We are developing systems whereby the planning process can be streamlined and constructed more effectively. It uses artificial intelligence techniques to support the decision-making of individuals."

Campus considerations

Currently, three academic members of staff, two post-doctoral research members and a number of PhD students are involved with the ITA project at the University of Aberdeen. Each is responsible for researching specific problems within the broader scope of research.

"In May, for example, we had a student who started studying algorithms for identifying specific sensor aspects to be used for the needs of missions. We have another PhD student in the same project that is using higher-level reasoning techniques," Norman says.

"The big advantage for these students, I feel, is the opportunity to work within the much broader context of a team. They can see the relevance of their work by actively collaborating with industrial partners."

To date, companies that have collaborated with Aberdeen's students include IBM and Seattle-based Boeing. Yet on a more personal level, a recent doctoral symposium was held at the Imperial College of London, which was organised and led by the students themselves. The conference was also attended by various representatives from government and industry, and explored the various opportunities for students following their graduation and involvement with ITA.

Going back to the earlier example, students at the University of Aberdeen also benefitted from feedback on their existing work from the chief scientist of the US army Dr Thomas Killion. After receiving an overview of the university's physical sciences department, which encompasses engineering, computer science, physics and maths, the students then demonstrated some areas of their research to the visiting doctor.

"He gave very useful feedback, some of which was technical because Dr Killion has such a broad area of research understanding given his role within the US army," Norman says.

"Today's military sector is increasingly relying on external research to achieve key research goals."

Academic aims

Two years into the ITA project, the University of Aberdeen's physical science department has identified three main criteria that need to be achieved in the remaining eight years of the programme.

Firstly as a basic research project, the quality of research the students are producing must be assessed according to the quality of the research papers that will be eventually produced and published in international journals and conferences.

Next, the military relevance of the research must be ensured by working in collaboration with the relevant military and industry experts. Finally, the research must be translated into more realistic testing scenarios by using higher levels of software engineering and data.

"Getting these techniques to be developed, produced and proven within a complex environment is one of the project's key aims. In fact we are hoping to secure funding from the army research labs to achieve precisely that," says Norman.

"We need to secure additional funding to move forward from basic research to much more applied research and collaboration with industrial partners in order to actually have the systems transited to use in the field. There is a lot of work yet needed for these systems to say be deployed in Afghanistan and not all of it can be completed within a university setup," he concludes.