The New Jersey Innovation Institute wants to foster growth in a number of key industry sectors in the state, including defense and homeland security.
And it is already competing in this space, thanks in part to a $5 million grant to work with Picatinny Arsenal in Morris County to develop a pilot-scale demonstration center involving next-generation concepts for munitions manufacturing.
And “next-generation” may not be descriptive enough.
“A lot of it is still World War I-era technology,” NJII President Donald Sebastian said. “So, the ability to move all the modern concepts of petrochemical polymer, and even biotech industries, into that is a huge asset and benefit for our military base, which is always in jeopardy — all of them — of being shut down as a result of the BRAC (Base Realignment and Closure) process.”
Echoing the corporate shift from intelligence to research and design from 1920s, Sebastian believes that growth doesn’t simply end with the military: Once the technology has been proven, it can then be adopted by private companies.
“It contributes not only to (the military’s) growth, but then to the creation of businesses that take those technologies that they’ve demonstrated, turn that into an ongoing production sector and have them populate here in New Jersey again as they once were,” he said.
Sebastian also sees room in this sector for unmanned aircrafts, otherwise known as drones.
“We’re seeing all the bad sides of unmanned systems, everybody flying their little whirly bird into the flight path of Newark and JFK (airports), but there are huge potential benefits of properly harnessing unmanned systems in the national airspace,” he said.
New Jersey, along with Maryland and Virginia, is a partner in the Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership that, according to its website, aims to create “powerful UAS test capability for the nation.”
Sebastian thinks NJII’s home on the campus of NJIT in Newark offers a unique opportunity to both the college and the partnership.
Bringing in the state
NJIT President Joel Bloom played a key role in starting the New Jersey Innovation Institute. But as good as NJII could be for his school, Bloom is eager to share.
Bloom and NJII President Donald Sebastian aren’t just thinking about the economic growth of the immediate area, but are eager for cooperation from other universities to help bolster business throughout the state.
“The question is: ‘How would this work statewide? How would this work if there were three ongoing university partners in it?’” Bloom said. “Those would be the three public universities of NJIT, Rutgers and Rowan.
“How does that help the overall economic outlook of the state?”
Sebastian feels there is strength in numbers.
“It builds on the theme of collaborating to compete,” he said. “If it can work here, do we really want different versions all competing for the same pot, or can we find a way to coordinate the way universities interact with industry in a way that’s transparent to the companies and, at the same time, build some regional clusters?
“I don’t want to forecast, but you can imagine that there are different strengths in the state if you tried to guess where defense, health care or the IT industry might be and they kind of align around these areas.”
“(The alliance) is expressly designed by the Federal Aviation Administration to help figure out how you fly unmanned systems in civilian airspace,” he said. “The other partners, Virginia Tech and Maryland — their airspace is in rural areas, so there’s not much conflict to manage and mediate.
“We’ve got prime real estate, which is centered by where we’ve been flying out of South Jersey in Cape May, that’s right in the corridor; we have coastal routes that we can fly; we have inland routes,” he said.
NJII has entered an agreement with the other research facilities in the state to advance this work.
“NJII has got the agreement now of all the research universities to morph this research alliance amongst the universities into a practical demonstration site where we bring companies in to demonstrate their ability to fly, without conflict, in the civilian airspace,” Sebastian said.
NJII itself has been focused on utilizing this technology to aid first responders.
“How do you utilize UAVs so that you provide eyes in the sky for first responders? Ears in the sky?” he said.
To this end, NJII has been working with the LTE technology that is utilized by cell phones to communicate to cell phone towers. By placing the technology of those towers in UAVs, these drones could provide first responders with the capability to communicate on their own frequency.
“Even if all the ground-based infrastructure has gone to hell in a handbasket, which it has in some of the disasters that we’ve seen, they have the ability to talk to each other and command central,” Sebastian said.
The application for this technology reaches beyond this single application into studies of coastal erosion and agriculture in which companies are looking for UAVs to fly sensors.
And while the school could not provide any direct funding to the companies, Sebastian thinks it could bolster success by creating the right climate to draw venture capitalists to the city — namely, by building infrastructure for these companies to experiment and prove their technologies.
“This is something we have to bootstrap up and assemble the companies who see that this is a good demonstration for them as well,” he said. “It’s not about five kiosks on Broad Street, it’s about finding a new generation of public information and advertising and, if you can make it work here, then, presumably, you’ve got a business that could very quickly go national and then global.”
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