How the Army’s Pathfinder program and Vanderbilt are moving tech from the lab to the front lines


Vanderbilt University, in collaboration with the U.S. Army Combat Capabilities Development Command Army Research Laboratory and the Civil-Military Innovation Institute, is looking to the future with the Pathfinder program, an initiative that has yielded innovative technology projects focused on addressing the real-world needs of soldiers.  

Launched in 2021, Pathfinder encourages academics to work closely with soldiers to co-design technological solutions tailored to real-world Army challenges. Projects to date include a lift-assist exosuit to reduce back strain that is now being sold by startup HeroWear, suggested behavior protocols and improved aircraft designs to enhance soldier performance, AI-enabled Advanced Dynamic Spectrum Reconnaissance to mitigate enemy radio jamming, catalyzing startup Xtremis, and many more. 

“Vanderbilt is proud to be the first university to advance the Pathfinder program,” Vice Provost for Research and Innovation Padma Raghavan said. “The innovations we are co-developing with our Army partners speak to our culture of use-inspired research and radical collaboration for real-world impact.  Together, we are providing new capabilities for our soldiers as well as boosting the innovation economy in Tennessee.” 

Since joining the Pathfinder Program, Vanderbilt has been at the forefront of this effort. In 2021, the University of Tennessee joined the program, which was expanded to include two more military units at Fort Campbell: the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment and the 5th Special Forces Group (Airborne). 

The Pathfinder Air Assault program has been made possible through the active support of Tennessee’s congressional delegation; since 2020, VU’s Office of Federal Relations has coordinated support from U.S. Sens. Marsha Blackburn and Bill Hagerty and U.S. Reps. Chuck Fleischmann and Scott DesJarlais.  

“As a member of the House Committee on Armed Services, I regularly see the paramount importance of innovation and strategic advancement in modern warfare. Pathfinder exemplifies our dedication to equipping our troops with state-of-the-art tools and tactics, ensuring their ability to navigate and triumph in the most challenging and dynamic environments,” DesJarlais said. “I’m proud to see Tennessee continuing to lead in this area.”  

In addition to providing a mechanism for the transfer of cutting-edge technology from the lab to the field, Pathfinder also supports technology commercialization through startup businesses. Two Pathfinder projects have transitioned technologies to Nashville-based startups, and one startup business has been spun out of Vanderbilt to develop and manufacture Pathfinder-derived technology. 

“In Tennessee, we’re seeing the power of public-private partnerships in developing cutting-edge technologies,” Fleischmann said. “We also know that these technologies are a cornerstone of national defense, equipping our armed forces with the tools to stay ahead in modern warfare and enhance operational efficiency. These innovations not only bolster our security, but drive economic growth, job creation and collaboration between sectors. As a senior member of the Appropriations Committee, I am proud to support the amazing collaboration of our state’s premier universities partnering with the legendary 101st Air Assault Division, 5th Special Forces Group and 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment at Fort Campbell.” 

Nearly five years since Vanderbilt and Army Futures Command first signed an education partnership agreement, collaborations between soldiers and researchers to advance life-changing defense and security innovations show no sign of slowing down. In addition to the 11 Pathfinder-funded research projects to date, six are under evaluation. 

About Vanderbilt University

Vanderbilt University, in Nashville, Tennessee, is a private research university offering a full range of undergraduate, graduate and professional degrees. 

About U.S. Army Combat Capabilities Development Command, Army Research Laboratory

As the Army’s foundational research laboratory, ARL is operationalizing science to achieve transformational overmatch. Through collaboration across the command’s core technical competencies, DEVCOM leads in the discovery, development and delivery of the technology-based capabilities required to make soldiers more successful at winning the nation’s wars and come home safely. DEVCOM Army Research Laboratory is an element of the U.S. Army Combat Capabilities Development Command. DEVCOM is a major subordinate command of the Army Futures Command. 

About Civil-Military Innovation Institute

CMI2 is a nonprofit organization that fosters innovation through direct and constant collaboration between service members and researchers, creating functional solutions to support soldiers.