CHAMPAIGN — At the forefront of seismic testing, robotics and 3D-printed huts that could even be made on the moon, this engineering facility has come a long way in 50 years.
When CERL opened in 1969, man had just stepped on the moon, but the idea of personal computers was a dream, let alone cellphones with as much computing power as supercomputers first had.
Tours are open to the public Aug. 29, though there are rooms that will be closed.
The Construction Engineering Research Laboratory’s R&D facility in Champaign is an Army installation, on land it leases from the University of Illinois at 2902 Newmark Drive.
That’s a logical connection, because CERL works closely with the Urbana campus’ Civil and Environmental Engineering School, whose graduate school is ranked among the Top 10 in the nation.
“We work with UI students, offer classes, and sometimes hire some of the best of them,” said CERL’s Michael Jazdyk.
Projects over those decades have included fuel cells, water-reuse technology, electrical studies for the fish barrier on the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal for Asian carp, archaeology and Native American issues, and pollution prevention.
Much of the work is behind locked doors. Many projects are Defense Department systems that may one day create improved technology that could reach consumers' hands.
Even now, technology for earthquakes and shock waves is helping engineers build safe infrastructure in the event of catastrophe.
Jim Wilcoski is a true veteran.
“When I began at CERL 35 years ago, pavement maintenance management tool development was well underway, and since then this work has expanded to a broad spectrum of construction, which has been widely utilized throughout the Department of Defense,” he said.
But the R&D facility has broadly widened its scope.
“In the 1990s, I developed an experimental method to define the capacity of critical equipment to resist motions from earthquakes or explosions, and to protect this equipment,” Wilcoski said. “Since 2011, we have conducted hundreds of seismic qualification tests on equipment that is critical to continued operation of hospitals in California after earthquakes.”
Working closely with the UI, Wilcoski said there have been major potential improvements in building and infrastructure safety.
“One research project with the UI resulted in the complete collapse of a bridge column (as intended), but a 15,000-pound specimen came to a gentle landing on wood planks resting on a steel safety frame,” he said.
But some research is strictly for military applications.
“We have developed test motions for equipment tested privately for the National Missile Defense Agency and have reviewed the plans and test reports of these private defense contractors,” Wilcoski said.
You may have seen some of CERL’s work in our own town.
Carey Baxter completed a virtual reproduction of the Burnham Mansion far more detailed than any photographs could as the building was scheduled to be demolished as part of Champaign school district's expansion of Central High School.
“The Burnham Mansion was more than three times bigger than any project I had done before,” she said.
The facility has been using 3D printing with concrete since 2015, starting with a guard shack. Earlier this year, it printed its first reinforced-concrete bridge, which was able to sustain a load nearly three times its goal before it cracked.
Instead of sending heavy and unwieldy supplies to, say, Afghanistan, CERL researchers led by Michael Case could build a barracks with 3D printers that use sand, gravel and other aggregates from local sites to build concrete structures.
NASA is involved, so structures could be built on the surface of the moon if the U.S. (or a private company) could ever reasonably get there, and has the will to do so.
Dustin Nottage is the lead systems engineer on robotic autonomous vehicles that could form a convoy of vehicles, prototype platforms based on commercial off-the-shelf construction equipment like compact track loaders (skid steers) and mini-hydraulic excavators.
“Allowing engineers to perform operations at a standoff distance requires a detailed understanding of the environment,” he said. “This effort uses a team of unmanned air and ground systems to map and characterize a work site.
“The model works to determine how to shape the environment through physical interaction (e.g. push, pull, lift and dig operations). The effort will look at objects and materials on the ground, soil types and their characteristics for mobility and digging, and underground objects and characteristics,” he said.
A junior vehicle is already up and running, using stereo cameras, radar and LIDAR — “as many sensors as we can get in there,” Nottage said — and his team is already working to upsize it to a vehicle equivalent to a small car.