WSU set to host national security conference

WSU professors will discuss sleep in military, importance of power grid



The DARPA Forward Conference focuses on national security and research.


WSU will be hosting the two-day regional DARPA Forward Conference Tuesday and Wednesday in the Compton Union Building.

DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, is one of the U.S. Department of Defense’s research and development agencies. Its role focuses on developing new technologies for military use.

About 300-500 attendees have the opportunity to hear from speakers of all fields who are presenting on a variety of topics. Subjects on the agenda include the future of computing, the role of artificial intelligence, military supply chain vulnerabilities and more, according to the conference website.

Among the speakers set to present at the event are two of WSU’s very own professors.

Hans Van Dongen, Sleep and Performance Research Center director and Elson S. Floyd College of Medicine professor, is presenting on Wednesday.

Van Dongen, who is a fellow of the Association for Psychological Science, researches the impacts of sleep and has published over 150 peer-reviewed papers, according to the DARPA Forward speakers page.

“The theme of the session that I have the privilege to be speaking in is the pervasive fatigue that people in the Department of Defense, military service members, experience in pretty much every aspect of military operations,” he said.

He said people tend to not get enough sleep, especially in busy environments like the military, which leads to fatigue that gets in the way of mission success.

“We’ve known for a while that there’s a relationship between people being sleep deprived and making errors and even resulting in accidents. But how that relationship works exactly, what it is exactly that goes wrong, has been for a long time not well understood,” Van Dongen said. 

Van Dongen noted that fatigue is multi-faceted. People are affected by it in some aspects of their capability to perform, but it is unknown what aspects of their performance are affected. As such, variables must be taken into account before sending soldiers out on missions, including recuperation time, tools needed for unexpected events and oversight from drones.

“To understand all these things, you need to have a really good understanding of the multiple aspects of fatigue and be able to measure the aspects of fatigue in people and then be able to predict those going into a mission,” he said. “Now that is one of those tall-order problems where that sort of has DARPA written all over it.”

Van Dongen said that his goal for the conference is to explain these issues and lay them out as a grand challenge that needs to be tackled by committed individuals in the context of a DARPA-esque project.

Mani Venkatasubramanian, a Boeing Distinguished Professor in Electrical Engineering and the director of Energy Systems Innovation Center, is also presenting on Wednesday. He researches power system stability and control, according to the DARPA Forward speaker page.

“I’ll be representing the ESIC and AGI on the importance of power grids for national defense and for our society,” he said. “Energy systems are changing and meeting the decarbonization goals of society, and we are slowly transitioning away from fossil-fuel based power plants.”

The only sustainable long-term energy sources are hydro, nuclear, solar and wind, which are renewable energy sources all tied to the power grid. Venkatasubramanian said sustainable energy sources will all need the strength of the power grid to support the energy demands of society as a whole, including residences, industries and transportation because every sector is dependent on the power grid.

“Traditionally, DARPA only supports the cybersecurity aspects of the power grid,” he said. “I would like to argue that DARPA needs to have a stronger role in the future design, operation and planning of the power grid because it is of such national significance. It faces adversarial attacks and climate change. We need the power grid to be available all the time so that we can meet the energy needs of the nation.”

WSU has expertise in power grids in addition to a long history of research and engineering in power engineering. Venkatasubramanian said the power program at WSU is considered one of the world’s best, and those in the program work closely with the industry and national labs to solve technological challenges in the power grid’s design.

WSU students receive hands-on experience with power grids by working with research partners. Students also learn what a career in the industry would be like by taking on internships and working on research projects with companies, he said. 

As another major funding industry, convincing DARPA to invest in power grid research would potentially bring financial support to WSU, which will help recruit more faculty and doctorate students to the program, he said.