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The University of Hawaii is expected to sign a new contract with the U.S. Navy for $80 million worth of research during the next five years for projects ranging from cybersecurity to renewable energy.
The money would support research conducted by UH’s Applied Research Laboratory, one of 12 Department of Defense research centers.
The ARL was the first Navy research center opened after World War II and was met with protests when it opened in 2008 and again when it signed a new contract in 2013. (Correction: The original story inaccurately said ARL was the first Department of Defense research center started since WWII. The University of Hawaii said it is the first Navy center started since then.)
“People didn’t know what to expect,” ARL Director Margo Edwards said. “People were very worried. What would you be doing at a classified lab?”
The day before the Board of Regents approved the first contract with the Navy in 2007, about 40 protesters stood outside Bachman Hall in Manoa to oppose what they considered secret research.
The lab, which at one point lagged in revenues while much of UH still had no idea what kind of research went on, has since worked on 50 projects worth $58 million in funding related to ocean science, astronomy, electronic optics and sensing, information technology, renewable energy and mission-related research and development.
Its projects include data analysis, drone research and waste disposal, but no weapons of mass destruction.
“They’ve been as transparent as can be,” said university spokesman Dan Meisenzahl, adding that the the lab works on projects with students and faculty from the School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology and the engineering college.
The Naval Sea Systems Command, which administers university contracts, declined to comment on the contract, stating that it has not yet been awarded and that it would be “pre-decisional.” But a Navy spokesperson confirmed that the military plans to issue work orders similar to those that UH has already produced.
The new contract is expected to be signed in mid-January, Edwards said. The current contract expires Jan. 14.
The little lab based in the Manoa Innovation Center has managed to produce some big results, especially in renewable energy. The Wave Energy Test site in Kaneohe Bay is allowing researchers to test how to convert wave energy into electric power.
That project received a total of $18.6 million under the soon-to-expire contract. Renewable energy projects have received the most money, about $22.1 million.
“Hawaii has 40 years of doing renewable energy,” Edwards said. “Nowhere else do you have the easy access to wind, solar and ocean.”
The lab has also found its niche in off-the-shelf technology like drones, Edwards said. It recently conducted testing with drone-mounted cameras that could be used to catch illegal turtle poachers in Malaysia, she said.
The ARL is currently working on 12 projects. The biggest-dollar items include two cybersecurity research and development projects for the Department of Defense at the Maui High Performance Computing Center, a defense department supercomputing site, worth a total of $16.8 million.
The computer center processes data from telescopes, satellites and radar and simulates environmental and battlefield scenarios, according to the Maui Economic Development Board.
The cybersecurity projects are the biggest chunk — about 30 percent — of the classified research that the lab conducts, Edwards said.
The new contract UH is expected to enter into would raise the lab’s security clearance to “Top Secret,” allowing it to work more closely with project sponsors, Edwards said, especially in cybersecurity.
“We’re allowed to walk into those spaces and hear the details of who’s trying to do what so we can more effectively try to prevent it,” Edwards said regarding the security clearance.
Currently the lab’s staff can’t conduct any secret work in their offices.
The $80 million spread over five years represents a funding “ceiling,” but the total amount UH actually receives for its research could be higher or lower. If UH needs more money to complete potential projects, Edwards said the university could request that the ceiling be raised.
That was the case last year when the lab hit its $44.7 million ceiling set in 2008 and had to ask that it be raised by $15 million to cover costs for recent projects.
Other Department of Defense research centers around the country receive significantly more funds. John Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory reported working on contracts worth $1.4 billion last year, according to an annual report. The physics lab focuses heavily on space exploration and air and missile defense.
In 2007, then-UH President David McClain said he would like to get the ARL up to the funding level of the University of Washington’s research center, with contracts totaling $50 million to $70 million annually.
Civil Beat reported in 2013 on the lab’s lagging performance in its first few years. The lab pulled in just $7.9 million in contracts in its first five years, well short of its $44.7 million funding ceiling.
“You’re going to be wary of something that’s brand new versus something that is established,” Edwards said. “We had to start and build up a reputation before people went, ‘Hey, they’re doing cool stuff.’”
Some of the lab’s early work included detecting unexploded ordnance in the Pacific and working on IED detection for the U.S. Army, which paid the lab $4.3 million for three IED projects.
Since 2014, funding has skyrocketed. The lab was awarded $49.7 million worth of work from 2014 to 2018.
Plans are to move the lab’s operations to the second floor of the Manoa Innovation Center, where it will have about 4,000 more square feet of space. About half of that would be used as office space for staff, while the other half would house lab space in six separate rooms, one of which could be used for the lab’s Top Secret conversations, Edwards said.
The lab is expected to move at the beginning of January.
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