Dr. Stephen Lee looks to the edges of science to discover new ways to enhance future Soldier capabilities
RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK, N.C. – To maintain global leadership in science and technology, the U.S. Army strives for excellence in a wide variety of disciplines in order to maintain a competitive advantage over its near-peer adversaries on all fronts.
Perhaps nothing encapsulates the Army’s vast breadth of expertise better than its community of senior research scientists. As a general-officer equivalent who provides guidance on critical science matters, each senior research scientist, known as STs, represents the principal scientific leader for the Army in their respective discipline.
Rather than focus on one specific area, Dr. Stephen Lee, the Army’s senior research scientist for interdisciplinary sciences, believes that innovation resides most prominently at the intersection of these disciplines.
“My role is to look at the edges of science,” Lee said. “Where can I bring different scientific approaches together to empower a new capability, develop a new technology or simply change how the Soldier operates? That’s what I’m really excited about, and that’s where we’ll be pushing the boundaries of fundamental science.”
Previously employed as the Chief Scientist at the U.S. Army Combat Capabilities Development Command, now known as DEVCOM, Army Research Laboratory, Lee currently works at the Army Research Office, an element of the laboratory.
Lee said that his position allows him to not only plan the future vision of basic research for the Army but also coordinate numerous extramural programs with partners in industry and academia that transition the Army’s basic science research pursuits into technologies and capabilities that aid the Soldier.
Lee emphasized how collaborations between experts from a diverse range of backgrounds enable the creation of completely new areas of study that enhance the performance of the future Soldier in revolutionary ways.
“There are many different definitions of interdisciplinary science,” Lee said. “In my interpretation, it means working between the disciplines to bring the different approaches to bear on the scientific and research question. With the different perspectives not being tied to an individual approach, we can combine ideas and provide comprehensive operationalization of the sciences in our programs.”
To illustrate this point, Lee detailed the journey on how his early career research on the detection of chemical warfare agents on the battlefield space led him to study protective equipment for military working dogs almost two decades later.
During the early 2000s, Lee assisted a team of researchers at Nomadics, Inc., (now owned by FLIR Systems) with the development of the Fido explosives detector.
Known as the world’s first artificial nose, the Fido explosives detector can detect explosive vapors at parts per quadrillion, which rivaled the sensitivity of a bomb-sniffing dog’s nose.
“The Fido explosives detector was based on MIT research on amplifying polymers under Tim Swager,” Lee said. “The product was successfully deployed as a handheld detector, and you can still find it in theater in many places, such as gates for screening vehicles and people for explosives.”
The invention of the Fido explosives detector represented a landmark achievement in the Army’s battle against improvised explosive devices.
The technology provided Soldiers with a more convenient alternative to military working dogs for identifying hidden landmines; however, Lee quickly realized that the fielding of the Fido explosives detector introduced a new problem that researchers hadn’t considered.
“What we did was we managed to cut the dog out of the equation,” Lee said. “But suddenly, now that we had this artificial dog nose, we had to start training Soldiers to do what the dogs did naturally: searching.”
As a result, Lee began to study the search patterns of not just dogs but a variety of different animals, from birds to elephants, in order to determine the most effective method for finding hidden landmines with the Fido explosives detector.
He used the term biomimicry to describe this approach, where researchers study the behavior patterns or physical characteristics of biological organisms to learn how to incorporate those features, along with all of its advantages, into human applications and technology.
“If I drop a dog in a room and ask it to search, it’s going to run around in a unique pattern very fast,” Lee said. “If I drop an elephant in the room and ask it to search, it’s going to search in a very different way from the dog. These are essentially two different search algorithms that we can employ.”
According to Lee, these search algorithms derived from the search patterns of different animals may direct the behavior of robotic systems in the future and even influence the development of more sophisticated sensors.
But in studying the behavior of the military working dog, Lee’s research took another drastic turn, and he discovered a weakness in the Army that many failed to notice.
“There really isn’t a research program that addresses the needs of the military working dog and the Soldier working with that dog,” Lee said. “So I thought to myself, ARL has done a lot of work in microelectronics, power systems and materials—why not apply them to the military working dog?”
In pursuit of this solution, Lee spearheaded the Army’s research in the development of hearing protection, eye protection, cameras, smart technology and other gear for military working dogs to both enhance their performance and ensure their safety.
In 2020, Lee earned a Theodore Roosevelt Government Leadership Award in the Defenders category in recognition of his many accomplishments over the past two decades at ARO.
Similar to how his research found tremendous success in the integration of many different disciplines, Lee believes that Army leadership can facilitate even more exciting research opportunities by consulting the knowledge and expertise of its senior research scientists.
“Each one of the ST positions relate to an important area of research in the Army,” Lee said. “I’m hopeful that, while we’re engaged at different levels as individuals in our own organizations, we can apply our technical expertise to new areas and really get deep down into the art of research and technology for the Soldier.”
Lee gave an extensive interview in the lab’s podcast, What We Learned Today, Jan. 21, 2021.
DEVCOM Army Research Laboratory is an element of the U.S. Army Combat Capabilities Development Command. As the Army’s corporate research laboratory, ARL is operationalizing science to achieve transformational overmatch. Through collaboration across the command’s core technical competencies, DEVCOM leads in the discovery, development and delivery of the technology-based capabilities required to make Soldiers more successful at winning the nation’s wars and come home safely. DEVCOM is a major subordinate command of the Army Futures Command.