The University of Massachusetts Lowell and the Army are joining forces to help make soldiers safer and more effective in combat.

Scientists from the US Army Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center will be working at the
UMass Lowell campus directly with faculty and undergraduate, graduate, and postdoctoral students to address evolving military needs — from designing a better parachute to improving how food rations are packaged.

The joint research teams will also use the Army’s Natick Soldier Systems Center, often referred to as Natick Labs.

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The project, HEROES — Harnessing Emerging Research Opportunities to Empower Soldiers — is the first under a new master agreement between the University of Massachusetts and the Natick center to provide for such joint research ventures at all five UMass campuses.

The project was launched last Thursday at UMass Lowell’s Olney Hall, where 5,000 square feet have been dedicated to the program.

“HEROES will bring the vast expertise and resources of the US Army and UMass Lowell to bear on life-or-death issues faced by our military personnel every day around the world,” UMass Lowell Chancellor Martin T. Meehan said in a statement.

The collaborative research efforts will be paid for with a combination of Army funds, seed money from the university, and future grants the university and the Natick center hope to secure.

The program will be jointly overseen by Ram Nagarajan, an associate professor of plastics engineering at UMass Lowell, and Lynne Samuelson, chief scientist at the Natick Soldier RDEC, who also has a PhD from
UMass Lowell and is longtime adjunct professor of chemistry at the university.

Over the years, Samuelson and other Natick scientists have carried out research projects at UMass Lowell, and university faculty have received Army grants for research. But Samuelson said that work was done on an ad hoc basis, whereas the two institutions will now collaborate in a comprehensive way and with a dedicated facility.

The renovated space in the Olney Building includes laboratories, offices, conference rooms, and a “think tank” area for brainstorming. The researchers will also have access to UMass Lowell’s new $80 million Mark and Elisia Saab Emerging Technologies and Innovation Center.

“I’m thrilled. I see it as win-win for everybody,” Samuelson said.

“It’s a win for our scientists and engineers to have an opportunity to work in an academic environment and tap into the creative minds of faculty and students,” she said. “It’s a win for the faculty and students to be able to apply the research they are working on with our scientists and engineers to real-world military problems. And it will be a win for our soldiers to get new technology to help keep them safe and comfortable and combat-effective.”

In addition to studying potential improvements to parachute design and packaging of food rations, some of the initial research projects will focus on making materials more flame-retardant, and devising efficient, portable solar power cells that soldiers can use in the field instead of heavy batteries.

“We will try to help them design the next generation of materials, which can help them empower soldiers,” Nagarajan said of the Army.

Nagarajan said that Army researchers from Natick will be on campus two to three days a week. So far, about five have been on site, each teaming on a project with one or two faculty members and two students.

“This is just a start,” Samuelson said. “We expect to grow this partnership as much as possible in future years.”

Samuelson said from her own experience, she knows that working on a campus can help Army researchers develop ideas. “Being in that academic environment, talking to faculty and students, you really become more creative and innovative,” she said.

And in turn, she said faculty and students from UMass Lowell will be able to make use of the Natick center’s specialized facilities to test the application of their ideas “in a real-world military environment.”

“It’s bringing those two worlds together in a partnership which is quite unique and provides a real opportunity to advance science and technology for our soldiers,” she said.

While the initial projects are oriented to fields such as plastics and mechanical engineering, physics, and chemistry, Nagarajan said he envisions future research being done in such other areas as behavioral science and even ergonomics.

“Soldiers carry a lot of load, about 120 pounds including their body armor and weapons,” he said. “The way they stand, the way they walk, all that is very important,” he said of how ergonomic research might be helpful.

Nagarajan, who has done individual projects at the university for the Natick center since his days as a graduate student, said the new program will also benefit student participants.

“My own experience as a faculty member is that the human intellect matures and becomes wisdom when you give the student a real problem,” he said. “They do much better, they are more devoted to the work. What better opportunity can there be than to serve the armed forces of the country?”