Vanderbilt and U.S. Army collaborate on Pathfinder Program

Fort Campbell

It was a warm spring day when Professor Doug Adams and Vice Chancellor Sydney Savion embarked on a one-hour drive northwest from Vanderbilt’s Nashville campus to Fort Campbell, where they would meet other Vanderbilt leaders and U.S. Army leadership. Interstate 24 has become a well-worn path by Vanderbilt researchers since work with Fort Campbell began five years ago.

Since Vanderbilt began collaborating with Fort Campbell in 2019, Vanderbilt researchers have been finding innovative ways to improve soldiers’ health, safety and effectiveness.

Professor Doug Adams at Fort Campbell
Professors Doug Adams and Jesse Spencer Swift at Fort Campbell in 2024. (U.S. Army photo by the 101st Airborne Division [Air Assault] Public Affairs Office)
“Over the last five years, Vanderbilt has established trust with the Army and worked side by side with Army personnel to identify solutions to make them more effective in their jobs,” said Doug Adams, vice dean of Vanderbilt University’s School of Engineering and Daniel F. Flowers Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering.

Straddling the Tennessee-Kentucky border, the base is home to the 5th Special Forces Group (Airborne), the 101st Airborne Division Air Assault Screaming Eagles, and the renowned 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment Night Stalkers.


The Pathfinder Program was established in 2021 to encourage academics to collaborate closely with soldiers to co-design solutions. Vanderbilt University, the U.S. Combat Capabilities Development Command Army Research Laboratory and the Civil-Military Innovation Institute joined forces to yield innovative projects focused on solving the real-world needs of soldiers.

“The Pathfinder program is an outstanding example of Vanderbilt’s signature radical collaboration in action,” Chancellor Daniel Diermeier said. “As threats around the world evolve, we are proud to share our expertise and capacity for innovation to help protect national security and support our soldiers in the field.”

Adams and Savion—who is the new vice chancellor for people, belonging and culture at Vanderbilt University and a retired U.S. Air Force captain—joined Diermeier, Vice Provost Padma Raghavan and a dozen others at Fort Campbell to brief Maj. Gen. Brett Sylvia on research and development and observe Pathfinder field operations.


Vanderbilt meeting at Fort Campbell
The U.S. Army review the latest advancements created by Vanderbilt University engineers to support troops in the field. (U.S. Army photo by the 101st Airborne Division [Air Assault] Public Affairs Office)
The meeting began inside Army Command, where Brig. Gen. Kenneth Cole, deputy commander for the 101st Airborne, led the briefing about key projects, including:

  • The latest advancements on an exoskeleton that augments soldiers’ strength and endurance for lifting heavier loads. Successfully tested in 2022, this groundbreaking technology is now commercially developed by HeroWear, a Vanderbilt-initiated startup. The exoskeleton has been deployed at Fort Campbell and other Army installations.
  • Developed through close collaboration between Vanderbilt engineers and soldiers, the Advanced Dynamic Spectrum Reconnaissance detects and analyzes the electromagnetic emissions from the adversary’s devices as well as their own. Their joint efforts yielded a solution to detect and neutralize signal interference. Initiated in 2021, tested with the 101st Airborne in 2023 and now operational globally, ADSR fortifies communication channels in the field.
  • Repetitive percussion and low-level blasts can impair short and long-term brain function. To mitigate this, the Vanderbilt team has developed advanced protocols and an innovative material to dampen vibrations in aircraft. This vibration-reducing technology has already undergone testing in Black Hawk helicopters.

“I spent more than 20 years with the U.S. Air Force and never experienced an academic partnership like this one,” Savion said. “Today’s U.S. government and military can now share information more readily, and that is accelerating innovation to protect soldiers. The collaboration between Fort Campbell and Vanderbilt University is a model for others in national security.”


Chancellor Diermeier and BG Cole
Chancellor Diermeier and Col. Kenneth Cole, now Brig. Gen. Kenneth Cole, discuss field training operations at Fort Campbell in May 2024.

After completing their briefings, the Vanderbilt team had a rare opportunity to witness a critical field operation firsthand. Ten members flew by Black Hawk helicopter to the staging area where over 1,000 troops were preparing for a training mission scheduled for the following morning. Adams, Diermeier and a few others also toured the division control room.

“The unique access that we have to strategic operations is what makes this partnership so successful,” Adams said. “They don’t shut us out during crucial operations, and we are beside them every step of the way.”


The visit also had an eye toward driving future innovation. During the field operation, Vanderbilt researchers explored a critical objective: providing immediate medical treatment at the point of injury. The Army aims to enhance health outcomes by minimizing delays in transporting casualties. Vanderbilt’s Emergency Medicine department has initiated efforts to embed medical personnel and equipment within forward teams, enabling prompt care on the front lines.

Major General Sylvia
Major General Brett Sylvia, U.S. Army

“We started this partnership only five years ago, and I am very impressed with how far Vanderbilt University researchers have come in identifying, developing and deploying solutions for our very complex mission sets,” Sylvia said. “We have given them unprecedented access to our troops and operations, and it has paid off. And now we are going to double down and substantially expand our work together.”

When the day ended, and the Vanderbilt team headed home on I-24, they did so with confidence in the strength of the partnership and the value of their work in helping soldiers to be the best they can be. Diermeier concluded: “During the past five years, we have created innovative solutions to tough military problems, but the most important thing we have built is trust. With this, there are no limits on what we can create together.”