APL Home

Campus Map
Beginnings   World War II Innovation   Post-World War II Transition  

The Applied Physics Laboratory of the University of Washington (APL-UW) was founded in 1943 by the U.S. Navy to address a World War II (WWII) emergency. The war began badly for the United States and her allies in Europe and Asia. Germany and Japan had been openly preparing for years, but the U.S., entering in December 1941, was not ready. The basis for a massive manufacturing capability was available in the country’s plants and shipyards, but there was no core research program to develop the technologies needed to overtake a technically sophisticated and well-prepared enemy.

Excepting the Naval Research Laboratory, established in 1912, the U.S. had little organized defense research and development (R&D) establishment at the beginning of the war. Many capable researchers were spread among the nation’s universities, but they were unable on their own to undertake significant science programs. Further, academic participation in classified research programs was antithetical to the free exchange of ideas, which had become part of the entrenched culture in scientific research.

Nevertheless, U.S. participation in WWII had widespread public support. New laboratories dedicated to war research sprang up on campuses across the country. The Navy’s first was the Applied Physics Laboratory at Johns Hopkins University, established in September 1942. The second was APL-UW.

Partnerships between the nation’s universities and the war departments were forged hastily; it was presumed they would be disestablished when the war was over. But because the integration of university scientific and engineering expertise into the war effort was so productive, a few of those partnerships continued.

APL-UW had operated under a contract with the Office of Scientific Research and Development (OSRD) established in 1941 to marshal U.S. research talent. When OSRD disbanded after the war, new contracts were signed with the Navy’s Bureau of Ordnance (BuOrd) and with successors including the Naval Sea Systems Command.

APL-UW's charter, under the leadership of its first director, Dr. Joseph Henderson, was to design and develop a reliable torpedo influence exploder, a device that triggered the explosive charge when it sensed the torpedo was just passing beneath the target’s hull. The exploders in use at the time were notoriously undependable; some submarine skippers were known to disable the influence feature for fear they’d become targets of their own torpedoes. Thus, the need for a reliable exploder was seen as desperate in 1943, when it was thought the war might drag on for years. As it happened, the atomic bomb ended the war with shocking suddenness and the exploder project, though successfully concluded with the development of the Mark 9, did not result in a unit being delivered to the Fleet until after the war was over. The Mark 9 series of exploders became the Fleet standard for many years following the war.

The presumption that university laboratories would fold after the war was nearly prophetic for APL-UW. Staff dwindled from 150 to 6, but BuOrd believed APL-UW to be a valuable asset, and despite the miniscule staff during the years immediately following WWII, the Laboratory’s budget and staffing have increased steadily ever since. The only exception was during a few years of the Vietnam War when research funds were used to prosecute the war.

For many years APL-UW remained the Navy’s expert on exploders and other torpedo-related technologies. In the mid ‘50s, the Mark 45 torpedo was designed and developed at the Laboratory, on time and under budget. In the Navy’s weapons inventory the Mark 45 torpedo filled a critical gap against high-speed, deep-diving enemy submarines. Also in the ‘50s, APL-UW invented the underwater three-dimensional acoustic tracking range, and a variety of fixed and mobile underwater, artificial torpedo targets. R&D expanded into other areas while retaining an ocean-acoustic focus. In the ‘60s, the Laboratory devised the Fleet Operational Readiness Accuracy Check Site (FORACS) to provide an essential capability for sensor system alignment for America’s seagoing forces, and later for our NATO allies.

The Laboratory began developing unmanned underwater research vehicles in the late ‘50s. Development of a special submarine sonar led to advances in acoustic imaging which continue today. Research programs aimed at understanding ocean circulation, mixing, and variability have resulted in a wide variety of unique ship and aircraft-launched instruments to measure ocean currents, temperature, salinity, turbulence, diffusion rates, and the effects of ocean variability on acoustic signals. The Navy has made use of the Laboratory’s knowledge of the ocean environment, coupled with its understanding of Navy operational requirements, to develop Fleet tactics, strategies, and systems.

The Laboratory on Campus   The Laboratory as UARC   End of Cold War Transition  

Following WWII, not all universities chose to continue their classified research, but APL-UW maintained its support for defense-related activities. This decision came up against those who opposed military research on a university campus. For the first nine years of its existence, APL-UW was part of the Department of Physics. Amid debates on the appropriateness of classified research, and during the Korean War in 1952, the University distanced the Laboratory from the rest of the community by making it a separate unit reporting directly to University central administration via an APL-UW Board.

The Laboratory operated this way for 31 years, until 1983 when it was incorporated into the newly-formed College of Ocean and Fishery Sciences (COFS). This shift encouraged the transition from a Navy Laboratory on a university campus to a university laboratory with a unique Navy orientation. Unlike the situation during World War II, the Navy had by the ‘80s built a formidable laboratory structure of its own, capable of doing the kind of system engineering previously undertaken by its university laboratories. The need for university labs to deliver fully engineered systems to the Fleet was relatively diminished, allowing APL-UW to focus on basic and applied research, and exploratory and advanced development, and begin to develop a more robust education mission.

As part of COFS, but with the exception it did not grant degrees, the Laboratory contributed to all aspects of the University’s missions of research, instruction, and public service. It also formed strong ties to other academic units outside of COFS such as Engineering, Physics, Applied Mathematics, Statistics, and Atmospheric Sciences.

In the early 1990s, the Navy created Navy-managed DoD University Affiliated Research Centers, or UARCs. APL-UW became a trusted agent having its own contract with the Navy. As such it can respond quickly to the Navy’s R&D needs. In return the Navy committed to long-term support of the Laboratory. As part of the University of Washington, the Laboratory accesses the broad expertise of a large and quality research university to address Navy issues, as well as helps educate the next generation of scientists and engineers, who are, in turn, exposed to careers in Navy-related R&D.

An indicator of APL-UW’s evolution is its current research strengths and its distinction among Navy UARCs. The original other three Navy-managed UARCs are the Applied Research Laboratories at the University of Texas (ARL-UT) and at Pennsylvania State University (ARL-PSU), and the Applied Physics Laboratory, Johns Hopkins University (APL-JHU). Each has its own core research areas. APL-UW has had unique strengths in small-scale physical oceanography, ocean engineering, polar science, and medical acoustics. While there is some overlap in research interests, these are not core competencies in the other UARCs. APL-UW conducts significant at-sea experimentation across the world and between thirty and forty complex field efforts annually. The Laboratory’s strong and global field capability also distinguishes it from the other UARCs. Further, the Laboratory’s emphasis is basic and early applied research that correlates to projects with longer time horizons as opposed to the advanced technology development and prototype and demonstration engineering that is predominantly the purview of the other UARCs. APL-UW is, therefore, for the most part advancing the Navy after Next and the Next Navy whereas the other UARCs lean toward Today’s Navy and the Next Navy. APL-UW is also different from most other Navy UARCs in that the Laboratory is physically located on campus and is more strongly tied to the University community through numerous collaborations and affiliations.

Numerous changes took place in the world in the late 1980s and early 1990s that affected a major change in the Laboratory. In November 1989 the Berlin Wall fell, followed in 1991 by the collapse of the Soviet Union. The latter officially ended the cold war. Then on 2 September 1991, the USSR and the U.S. signed the Treaty of the Limitation and Reduction of Strategic Offensive Arms, culminating in 1992 with the START I treaty. This caused a significant reduction of Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles or ICBMs on nuclear-powered submarines. Anti-submarine warfare research, which for decades stood at the top of the Navy’s priorities, fell precipitously in importance. The Laboratory had to diversify.

Funding and Research Portfolio   Shift in Reporting Structure   Staff and Research Units  

The Laboratory was funded almost entirely by the Navy prior to the end of the Cold War. In 1993, APL-UW began to look toward other sponsors such as the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), among others.

In recent years, Navy funding has become about half of all research funding because although the Laboratory has seen some growth in Navy funding, there has been considerably more growth in non-Navy funding. Over the last decade APL-UW has broadened its focus to include new DoD R&D programs and non-defense R&D for a significantly more diverse funding portfolio. Examples include combat casualty care, countering improvised explosive devices, and cyber-security, and in non-defense areas like ocean observing systems, ultrasound therapy, climate change, marine ecosystems, and marine energy. Many of these new research efforts are aligned with emerging areas of national importance and investment in the environment, health, and energy. This has meant redirecting former skills in new ways and/or acquiring new research staff to accommodate the growth. For example, the group that once built underwater tracking ranges for the Navy is building systems for scientific ocean observatories; and some researchers in underwater acoustics transitioned their tools and expertise to acoustics in the human body. For other efforts scientists with biological oceanographic expertise were hired to deal with climate change and other anthropogenic impacts, and to extend the analysis of forecasts of such impacts into marine ecosystems.

The current sponsor portfolio is indicative of the major changes in the Laboratory’s research. Revenues for FFYs 2008–2010, for example, totaled nearly $200 million. Within the last decade funding from the Office of Naval Research (ONR) has increased 70% and NSF nearly 300%. A similar comparison shows funding from NASA increased by nearly 100%, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) by more than 600%, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) by more than 800%. Almost all of these increases in federal agency funding at APL-UW are significantly greater than increases in total funds for research at each of the corresponding agencies over the same time period, indicating the Laboratory has significantly increased its percentage share of research funding in the last decade.

In July 2009, APL-UW returned to its traditional reporting structure to UW central administration. This high-level reporting structure mirrors that of other UARCs. Returning to its status as a major research unit under the central administration has enhanced the integration and interdisciplinary potential of the Laboratory and the University. It strengthened APL-UW’s ability to bring together larger research efforts for UW and to take advantage of the Laboratory’s history of marshaling major projects for an ever-widening array of funding agencies.

As of 2012, APL-UW had about 300 full-time staff, excluding students; about 200 are scientists and engineers and about 115 of them hold PhDs. Within the Laboratory are eight science and technology research/engineering units. Three are centers with long-term, competitively-selected, non-rotating directors: environmental and information systems, electronic and photonic systems, and medical and industrial ultrasound. Research centers team on projects and lean toward applied research, engineering, and development; they account for about half of the Laboratory’s grant and contract revenues. Four of the research units, emphasizing ocean physics, polar science, air-sea interaction and remote sensing, and acoustics, are academic-like units with periodically-chosen rotating chairs. These research units are characterized by independent investigators with an affinity toward basic scientific research. The remaining Ocean Engineering Department provides specialized engineering support to researchers in other technical units.

Program Expansions   Collaborations   Field Experimentation  

One major program being developed by the Laboratory is ocean observing system. APL-UW leads the regional efforts to field the Regional Coastal Ocean Observing System (RCOOS) consisting of: 1) networked data-collection platforms in Puget Sound and off the Washington and Oregon coasts; and 2) a data delivery system providing operational products such as temporal and spatial records and predictions of important marine variables. Funding sources have been NOAA, the Navy, and the Murdock Charitable Trust Foundation.

A related scientific observatory, the Regional Scale Nodes, a component of the NSF Ocean Observatories Initiative, has given the Laboratory a significant role in wet-end engineering for this national effort. The goal is to develop and operate a cabled-to-shore network of ocean sensors in the northeast Pacific Ocean to provide continuous and long-term time series for the ocean science community. An initiative designed to expand the capabilities of the Laboratory includes programs in photonics, the science and technology of the study and application of light. The photonics program incorporates optics, laser technology, electrical engineering, materials science, and information storage and processing. APL-UW is working on novel photonic devices or systems for improved sensing and communication especially for medical and defense applications.

Another expanding capability is research to address the biological-physical-acoustical coupling in the marine environment. This is leading, for example, to a better understanding of marine mammal behavior response to physical (e.g., climate) change, and tracking and monitoring tools for marine mammals. Additional expansions are in Arctic research and logistics, and the drive to respond to national needs for cyber security.

Perhaps the Laboratory’s most visible expansion is in the physical space it occupies: a spread from the original Henderson Hall to over five buildings including the addition of new laboratories plus a new sea-going research vessel, the R/V Robertson, with advanced capabilities.

APL-UW has worked toward an integrated collaboration among Navy UARCs to address important defense problems in a complementary, vertically-integrated, and accelerated way. The Persistent Littoral Undersea Surveillance (PLUS) program is one such example. The program is developing a semi-autonomous networked system of fixed and mobile acoustic nodes, easy to deploy and designed to monitor the presence of undersea activity for months at a time. An additional collaborative UARC program is Countering the Improvised Explosive Device (IED) intended as a long-term collaboration to find revolutionary advances to prevent, detect, and defeat IEDs. The directors of Navy UARCs designed and developed the initial research program. APL-UW’s participation resulted in eight research projects involving six UW departments.

The Laboratory has also broadened its academic ties with over 30 different University of Washington departments. APL-UW has 56 joint faculty appointments in UW departments with about 1/3 being without tenure (WoT) positions. APL-UW faculty advise an ever-increasing number of graduate students, which furthers the Laboratory’s mission to help educate tomorrow’s scientists and engineers.

Collaborations extend beyond UW to national and international research projects. These include NSF Science & Technology Centers, ONR Departmental Research Initiatives, and DoD Multidisciplinary University Research Initiatives. These are cooperative efforts involving numerous partners from academia, government laboratories, and industry. Internationally, research efforts have expanded into 16 countries, and the Laboratory has hosted visiting scientists from all over the world.

The Laboratory has been successful in executing demanding at-sea experiments or exercises and in building platforms and instrumentation to collect critical data to advance the understanding of and the discovery within the ocean. In the last decade, hundreds of successful field experiment efforts have been performed across the globe, spanning longitudes from the China seas to the Washington coast and from the Atlantic shelf to the Mediterranean Sea, and spanning latitudes from the Weddell Sea to the North Pole. The scope of these field efforts spans basic research to operations including studies of transport across the air–sea interface, propagation of undersea sound, ice and ocean dynamics, marine ecosystems, and the impact of the dynamic ocean on the performance of a new sensing system or on naval tactics. And, these field experiments and exercises have been carried out in shallow and deep water, and in extreme conditions, such as hurricanes and the polar regions. The resulting data, observations, and knowledge gained have benefitted large segments of ocean science and Navy communities, resulting in new theories and models for the dynamic ocean and better tools for sensing within the Navy’s battle-space environment.

Technology Transfer   Summary      

In the last decade the Laboratory has become increasingly entrepreneurial and productive concerning invention and technology transfer. Each year the research staff is linked to anywhere from 10 to 50 each of invention disclosures, patent applications, patents, and commercialization licenses or agreements, and since 2000, the Laboratory has produced nine spin-off companies.

Many notable transitions to the Fleet have been accomplished for the Navy. New versions of acoustical data recorders have been developed and installed on all classes of submarines. APL-UW models for acoustic penetration in marine sediments and scattering strength of sea-surface bubbles have become key components of the Navy’s mine countermeasures simulator and sonar software library, respectively. The Autonomous Velocity and Density Profiler and EM-APEX floats, developed with private industry's help, have become important Navy instruments for undersea data collection, and APL-UW’s Environmental Visualization System transitioned to the Fleet. APL-UW's Sonar Simulation Toolset, a software package simulating sonar signals in the real ocean, has become a widely-relied upon tool for training and evaluating sonar performance throughout Navy laboratories and commands. The Laboratory led the Navy’s Technology Transition Initiative (TTI) to develop underwater glider technology for transition to the operational Navy by improving hardware, software, reliability, and ease of operation for these autonomous systems. As a result the TTI is regarded as a model program for transition of an ONR basic research technology to the Navy’s operational fleet.

Today's APL-UW offers unique expertise and continuing leadership in six core areas: Acoustic and Remote Sensing, Ocean Physics and Engineering, Medical and Industrial Ultrasound, Polar Science and Logistics, Environmental and Information Systems, and Electronic and Photonic Systems. The Laboratory can respond successfully to short- and long-term needs for both national defense and non-defense research. The Laboratory’s response is integrated across disciplines at the University of Washington and other institutions, spanning basic to applied research while simultaneously assisting in the education and training of the next generation of scientists and engineers.

Although APL-UW continues to meet the needs of the modern military, its mission has expanded in today's volatile global climate. With greater emphasis on basic research and far more diverse sponsors, the Laboratory is in good stead to weather future change, and perhaps even to help shape it.

Acoustics Air-Sea Interaction & Remote Sensing Center for Environmental & Information Systems Center for Industrial & Medical Ultrasound Electronic & Photonic Systems Ocean Engineering Ocean Physics Polar Science Center