All eyes on future at Rome Lab

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For 70 years, the City of Rome has been home to one of the most advanced technology development agencies in the world. The Air Force Research Lab Information Directorate has been a part of the city in some form or another longer than most Romans have been alive.

But what exactly is “Rome Lab?” What do they do up there at the Griffiss Park? And why are they still in Rome nearly 30 years after the Air Force base moved out?

If you asked the leadership at Rome Lab — which the Daily Sentinel did in a recent interview — they will say they’re working towards a better tomorrow.

“We invent the future for the Air Force and the Space Force,” said Dr. Michael J. Hayduk, deputy director of the facility and Rome Catholic High School graduate.

Chief Engineer Karen Roth agreed,” It really is about enabling the future.”

And that is the future for both the Air Force and the rest of the country. The Information Directorate is on the ground floor of developing the future of computers, cyber security, communications equipment, drones and perhaps even the next evolution of the internet. They take this “foundational” work and share it through dozens of partnerships with other government agencies and some private sector businesses to build even further.

According to Roth, their federal mission states that “If we do cool things here, we make sure they get out into the community.”

What is Rome Lab?

The Air Force Research Lab Information Directorate is one of nine facilities across the country working on research for the U.S. Air Force. The AFRL is headquartered at the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio, with other facilities in Virginia, California, Hawaii and elsewhere around the country and world. Other facilities focus on such areas as munitions, human performance and aerospace systems

The facility in Rome focuses on information technology, specifically command, control, communications, computers, intelligence and cyber. Its work is woven into the other eight facilities.

The operation first began in 1951 with the construction of the Rome Air Development Center, one of four “super labs” across the country. They worked on such projects as surveillance radar, early communications satellites and were one of the hubs on the ARPANET, the original internet developed by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency in the 1970s.

Dr. Hayduk said it was engineers at Rome Labs who had the “foresight” to develop cyber security back when the internet itself was in its infancy, leading to the security programs and advancements we have today.

One Rome Labs scientist, John F. Dove, developed and patented the laser technology that would later be used to write information onto compact discs.

In 1991, the facility changed its name to Rome Laboratory as the Air Force began to condense its locations, and finally it was renamed to the AFRL Information Directorate in 1997 after the Griffiss Air Force Base shut down.

More commonly known as “Rome Labs”, the operation sits on 65 acres at the renamed Griffiss Business and Technology Park and houses 30 laboratories and other facilities. They have more than 1,200 employees, both government and civilian, with a funding budget of $1.6 billion as of September 2020, from both a government budget and multiple financial contracts with dozens of other agencies.

What do they do?

“We’re doing a lot of quantum work nowadays,” said Roth. “Who’s going to build the quantum computer of tomorrow?”

The modern Rome Labs is working on a wide variety of projects across a lot of spectrums, from the CONDOR supercomputer to Android Technical Awareness Kit (ATAK), a system designed to replace physical satellites when it comes to GPS coordination.

“Google Maps or Waze on steroids,” described Dr. Hayduk.

GPS coordinates, whether on your cell phone or being used by military command, are based on physical satellites floating in orbit — but what does a soldier in the field do if something happens to the satellite? ATAK will be a new way to know your location, and the locations of others, without relying on satellites. Some law enforcement agencies are already using the technology, including at the prison break in Dannemora in 2015, they said.

“How do we execute our mission no matter what’s happening in the environment?” Roth stated.

One project that is a focal point of Rome Labs is future quantum computing, where computers and the internet operate at a size and speed even smaller than a microchip or current nano technologies.

Quantum is “nature at the very fundamental building blocks,” Hayduk explained.

“The human brain is the perfect super computer,” he stated, capable of multitasking, self-healing and operating at low power.

“It takes less power to operate the human brain than it does your average incandescent light bulb.”

Quantum computers will operate with the speed and efficiency of the brain, and Rome Labs wants to be on the ground floor of future quantum breakthroughs — we’re just not there yet. As Roth noted, there are no quantum engineers yet, and Rome Labs is working to change that.

Though mostly through the “foundational” technology, Roth stated. “We don’t typically put out products,” she stated. The engineers at Rome Labs are more about putting out papers and reports than in actually developing the physical devices and products. That work is left up to their many partners, allowing Rome Labs to focus their efforts on the underlying technology.

Why Rome?

The Griffiss Air Force Base closed down in 1995, but the Information Directorate stayed behind and was forced to become its own entity. According to Roth and Hayduk, this independence has been a boon for Rome Labs, because they do not have to compete for resources with other agencies on a shared base.

“It made sense to keep that heritage here,” said Roth.

“No other base really has these connections to the community, that we can take advantage of. Seventy years of legacy of building tech here in Rome.”

According to Roth, it would take an entire “generation” of work to rebuild the infrastructure already in place at Rome should the AFRL decide to move. Rome also has the infrastructure already in place, both in Rome and the surrounding area. There are two outposts that conduct their own unique testing that Rome Labs did not want to give up.

In Newport in Herkimer County, a Rome Labs facility uses the hilly topography of the Mohawk Valley to test antennas and radio signals. The Newport facility lifts airplanes up on mechanical pedestals to test how radio signals work while the planes are in different flying maneuvers.

If a jet fighter loses radio contact in the middle of a barrel role, the Air Force wants to know. Officials said every plane the Air Force has ever used has been tested in Newport.

In Stockbridge in Madison County, a facility along Route 46 has long been the subject of local resident suspicion. Officials said that facility has 30 base nodes that can be tuned in different ways to simulate a multitude of scenarios for testing, including warfare simulations. The focus of the Stockbridge facility these days is anti-drone technology — and not, like the public rumors, anything to do with Area 51, Roth joked.

As for the Rome campus itself, work is already underway on a new wall surrounding the entire complex. And Hayduk and Roth said the wall is just the beginning of a campus redesign scheduled for next year. Among the new buildings they plan to add will be a visitor center.

They said Rome Labs plans to stay at the forefront of tech growth in the area for a long time.

“We’re always actively hiring, recruiting and looking for new talent out there,” Hayduk stated. “The lab is the driver of the high tech infrastructure in the Mohawk Valley.”

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