COLUMBUS, Ohio (September 15, 2020)—If you were the type of geek, growing up, who enjoyed taking apart mechanical things and putting them back together again, who had your own corner of the garage or the basement filled with electronics and parts of electronics that you endlessly reconfigured, who learned to solder before you could ride a bike, your dream job would be at the Intelligent Systems Center of the Applied Physics Laboratory at Johns Hopkins University. Housed in an indistinct, cream-colored building in a part of Maryland where you can still keep a horse in your back yard, the ISC so elevates geekdom that the first thing you see past the receptionist’s desk is a paradise for the kind of person who isn’t just thrilled by gadgets, but who is compelled to understand how they work.
It’s called the Innovation Lab, and it features at least six levels of shelving that holds small unmanned aerial vehicles in various stages of assembly. Six more levels of shelves are devoted to clear plastic boxes of the kind you’d buy at The Container Store, full of nuts and bolts and screws and hinges of unusual configurations. A robot arm is attached to a table, like a lamp with a clamp. The bottom half of a four-wheeled robot the size of a golf cart has rolled up next to someone’s desk. Lying about, should the need arise, are power tools, power supplies, oscilloscopes, gyroscopes, and multimeters. Behind a glass wall you can find laser cutters, 3D printers. The Innovation Lab has its own moveable, heavy-duty gantry crane. You would have sufficient autonomy, here at the Intelligent Systems Center of the Applied Physics Laboratory at Johns Hopkins University, to not only decide that your robot ought to have fingernails, but to drive over to CVS and spend some taxpayer dollars on a kit of Lee Press-On Nails, because, dammit, this is America. All this with the knowledge that in an office around the corner, one of your colleagues is right now literally flying a spacecraft over Pluto.
The Applied Physics Laboratory is the nation’s largest university-affiliated research center. Founded in 1942 as part of the war effort, it now houses 7,200 staff working with a budget of $1.52 billion on some 450 acres in 700 labs that provide 3 million square feet of geeking space. When the US government—in particular, the Pentagon—has an engineering challenge, this lab is one of the places it turns to. The Navy’s surface-to-air missile, the Tomahawk land-attack missile, and a satellite-based navigation system that preceded GPS all originated here.
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