Jumping In

ECU supports Army airborne through database development

Camouflage green or brown may be the uniform of the day for Army personnel. But East Carolina University purple and gold matches it perfectly.

Students and faculty in the College of Engineering and Technology are working on a $1.2 million research and development project to support the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division.

Airborne personnel parachute from a plane as part of a combined airborne training event at Fort Liberty last year. (U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Xavier Legarreta)

“Being able to positively impact a community — in this case the Army that keeps us safe — knowing that I can contribute to our nation’s defense is pretty cool,” said Jethro Libutan, a junior computer science major and Brinkley-Lane Scholar from Durham who is working on the project.

The project’s goal is to develop a new airdrop database, which facilitates the planning and execution of airborne missions.

Though the research team may never end up on an Army recruiting poster, they feel they are serving the country in their own way.

“It is exciting to work on a project where you know there is significant potential for creating positive impact for our nation’s military,” said Dr. Erol Ozan, professor in ECU’s Department of Technology Systems and the principal investigator on the project. “We appreciate the opportunity to use our knowledge and expertise for a meaningful and important purpose.”

The Army’s 82nd Airborne Division is based at Fort Liberty in Fayetteville. The airborne infantry division specializes in parachute assault operations in which personnel drop into hostile areas.

The database assists division leadership in planning airdrop missions and post-drop reporting. The ECU team is looking to improve report accuracy; system reliability and efficiency; accessibility by allowing multiple users at one time; processes that will support report customization; flexibility to allow for future integration with other systems; cybersecurity; and deployment of the system in a secure cloud-based environment.

“The objective is to build a complex database system that has potential to result in productivity and efficiency gains for the Army,” Ozan said. “It is a software development project where we apply innovation and state-of-the-art technology in our fields of expertise.”

The team completed the first stage of the project in 2022 through an initial $286,000 grant. The current pilot phase runs through Sept. 30 with $1.2 million in funding from the Civil-Military Innovation Institute’s role in the U.S. Army Combat Capabilities Development Command’s Pathfinder program.

“It is an honor to work on this project,” said Dr. Biwu Yang, professor in the Department of Technology Systems and co-principal investigator. “We have the chance to use our knowledge to help and support DoD (Department of Defense) operations. The project also provides opportunities to students to further their learning and apply what they’ve learned.”

Computer science majors, from left, Jethro Libutan, Francisco Maldonado and Grant Melvin spend about 20 hours per week each on the project. (Photo by Steven Mantilla)

Libutan and fellow computer science majors Grant Melvin and Francisco Maldonado meet at least once a week in person and spend roughly 20 hours each week on the project.

“I think it’s good for me to be able to get my hands on this and see what it’s like to work with a team outside of the classroom,” said Maldonado, a senior from Charlotte. “I like the idea of, in a sense, serving our country like this. It’s a really good opportunity. I think it will help prepare me when I enter the real world and get a job.”

Melvin said he enjoyed traveling to Fort Liberty to meet with Army personnel.

“Working with the people who actually use the product is really cool. It makes it feel like it’s more meaningful work,” said Melvin, a senior from Rocky Mount. “It’s not like we’re developing something that may be used by a corporation you can’t really see, but we get to go present to them and we actually know their names, so it makes it a lot better.”

Learning the existing system and incorporating changes into that system are the challenges the students face, but they said getting beyond those challenges is the fun part of the project.

“We’re getting experience, but we’re also learning new things we’re applying to this job,” Libutan said. “We have to learn a lot of new things fast, and that’s a pretty good skill to have in tech when everything is always changing. There is always something new to learn.”

Ozan called the project perfect for students, one in which they are learning important technology while serving the defense community.

“We believe that this project provides a valuable experience for the students,” he said. “The students are working in a software development project where they can help the country’s military. They will be able to see the outcome and positive impact of their effort in a relatively short period of time. This is an excellent opportunity for them.”

Ozan said Keith Wheeler, ECU’s executive director of national security and industry initiatives; Jim Menke, ECU’s director of national security initiatives; Dean Harry Ploehn and his office staff in the College of Engineering and Technology; ECU’s Office of Research, Economic Development and Engagement; ECU’s Information Technology and Computing Services staff; and Dr. Tijjani (TJ) Mohammed and his staff in the Department of Technology Systems have all contributed to the project.

“They have been very supportive during every stage of this project, and their efforts are greatly appreciated,” he said.

Airborne personnel reach the ground during a combined airborne training event at Fort Liberty. (U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Xavier Legarreta)