Summer 2015

UA Opens Defense and Security Research Institute

By now, anyone who travels by air is used to the close scrutiny of transportation security agents. But soon, travelers may find themselves under another kind of watchful eye: a sensor with sophisticated software developed at the UA that watches your pupils and analyzes your tone of voice in order to detect deceptive behavior. 

In the National Center for Border Security and Immigration (BORDERS) Research Lab in the basement of the Eller College, that super-software is built into a computerized kiosk that’s ready to go hunting for suspicious characters. BORDERS, funded by the Department of Homeland Security, is a consortium with 18 partners around the United States. Its mandate is to develop technology to protect U.S. borders and to provide data analytics and forecasting for immigration programs.

The screening kiosk looks like an animated ATM. Several serious faces address you in any of a dozen languages. In June, it will tackle its toughest test yet. The device, called AVATAR for Automated Virtual Agent for Truth Assessments in Real-Time, will be put to work at the Reagan National Airport Test Facility in Washington, D.C., under a grant from the Department of Homeland Security. 

AVATAR was devised by a team led by UA faculty Jay Nunamaker, a Regents’ Professor at the Eller College, and Judee Burgoon, a communications professor. By looking at word choice, vocal characteristics, body and facial movements, heartrate, respiration rate, thermal signatures, blinking and other eye movements, and pupil size, the AVATAR’s accuracy in spotting anomalous behavior is between 70 and 93 percent — compared to 54 percent for human screeners. And its application would not be limited to transportation security screening and terrorism. The AVATAR could provide screening at sports venues, personal background checks, VISA applications — even check for travelers with contraband fruit. 

MIS graduate student Eric Case and Professor Jay Nunamaker use the AVATAR dashboard to make changes to their animated security kiosk.

Meanwhile, UA professors at the College of Optical Sciences are collaborating on how to turn the stationary AVATAR into a holographic screener that could appear in the air, almost like magic, to question travelers and single out possible high risk passengers for secondary screening.

That’s just one example from an expanding list of faculty members joining forces on vital defense and security problems. 

Such projects are part of a new atmosphere at the UA. Military-related research is an old tradition here, but now there is new infrastructure to connect faculty with agencies looking for far-reaching defense and security solutions and with companies to implement the research. With criminal and terrorist groups wielding cutting-edge technology, America’s odds for success against them may rest, in part, on research unfolding across the UA campus.

Among the innovations sought by U.S. defense agencies are tools for improved nighttime vision and cyberwarfare, big data projects spanning battlefields, new molecules for cellular engineering, and studies of brain functions that can help wounded warriors with prosthetic arms and legs. 

Last year, the UA recruited a top scientist-administrator — Kimberly Andrews Espy, a neuroscientist who had been vice president for research at the University of Oregon — to become senior vice president for research. She oversees $625 million in research programs including both new and decades-old defense-related projects ranging from bioscience and biomedical work to photonics and astronomy. Her assignment, in part, is to increase those research dollars to $1.2 billion by 2023.

We asked Espy why the UA is well-suited to take on the newest defense and security challenges.

“The UA is known for its excellence in the physical sciences, physics, optics, aerospace, and information science — those are natural places for research in cutting-edge technology,” she says. Also, she points out, Arizona is home to many defense companies, like Raytheon and Honeywell; numerous small businesses; and military bases like Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Fort Huachuca, and Luke Air Force Base. “These are ecosystems for success, and the UA can help strengthen our national defenses by increasing these interactions. For the UA, that is the next step.”

In April, Espy oversaw the opening of the new Defense and Security Research Institute, or DSRI, to connect faculty with funding sources. Its director, Austin Yamada, joined the institute after 30 years in defense and intelligence, including work with the Department of Defense and a Virginia Tech research arm involved in intelligence and national security.

The DSRI, Espy says, will be “a meeting place for faculty members to interact with the business community and with the funding sources in Washington. Its impact will be huge.”

The DSRI’s goals, Espy says, are three-fold: It will find new research opportunities for faculty, which should lead to high-paying Arizona jobs. It will help faculty teams find funding for interdisciplinary collaborations and public and private partnerships. And it will become the UA’s “front door” to the external defense community. All that, Espy says, is expected to translate into spinoff technology companies and products. “We’ll see the public impact when products of our research become the wing of a new aircraft,” Espy says.

But that’s just the start. The UA clearly intends to do more. UA President Ann Weaver Hart spotlighted accelerating efforts in defense and aerospace as a critical area in the UA’s long-range expansion plans, and the DSRI, she says, is a central element in her Never Settle strategy.

“We are expanding our capacity to help faculty members connect, in this modern way, to the needs of agency sponsors. We are ramping up to help our faculty in a new era,” Espy says. “We are rockin’ and rollin’.”

UA Defense-related Research


Sergey Shkarayev, of aerospace and mechanical engineering, studies the aerodynamics of unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones. His Micro Air Vehicles Laboratory has been funded by the U.S. Air Force and Army, NASA, the Department of Homeland Security, Boeing, and Raytheon. In his lab, he designs miniature aircraft with wings both fixed and flapping. The tiny craft, with wingspans of just 5 to 8 inches, can be remotely controlled and are in demand for both military and commercial uses. Such vehicles could be equipped with sensors to spot hazardous materials on a battlefield. Others could become communication tools in mountainous battlefields.

Artificial Intelligence

The UA’s Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, funded by the Department of Homeland Security and directed by Regents’ Professor Hsinchun Chen of the Eller College, collects and analyzes information about international jihadist websites. Some of that work, including his Dark Web Project, combines computers, information theory, and social sciences in a field known as “security informatics” — a field in which Chen is a national leader. In one such project, Chen gathers data from servers used to stage computer attacks and from economically and politically unstable states and regions in order to help ward off cyberattacks. Chen is the Thomas R. Brown Chair of Management and Technology and the director and founder of the AI Lab.


Jerome Moloney, a professor of mathematics and optical sciences and director of the Arizona Center for Mathematical Sciences, studies the theory behind powerful lasers that could deliver pulses at distances of up to several kilometers into the atmosphere. That work could lead to new remote detection systems and airport scanners for hidden explosives. Moloney also is head of a Department of Defense project that could use laser beams to guide lightning bolts away from buildings. His work, looking at ultrashort pulses of light in the femtosecond range, is funded by the Air Force Office of Scientific Research. 

Ceramic Heat Tiles

Erica Corral, an associate professor of materials science and engineering, is an expert in advanced high-temperature-resistant materials. She and her students are developing ways to use such materials under extreme environmental conditions. Her goal is to help keep ceramic heat tiles securely in place on space vehicles moving at 13,000 miles an hour and at temperatures exceeding 3,500 degrees — conditions that might be experienced by a spacecraft on re-entry. She is funded by the U.S. Air Force and the National Science Foundation. 

Top photo: Testing aerospace materials in an extreme environment using a high temperature flame.