BRYAN — At a former military base 7 miles west of the Texas A&M University campus, a sprawling maze of buildings and roads run alongside long-abandoned runways.
Cows graze in a nearby pasture, and every so often, a driverless car zips across a runway.
While it’s not much to look at yet, the pending approval of $80 million from the Texas A&M University System Board of Regents — expected to happen on Thursday — will allow the university to build a space for the Austin-based Army Futures Command.
The funding is part of a $130 million plan that will make the university’s RELLIS campus the Army’s main hub for testing and evaluating its future-of-war technologies.
“Three years ago, this was a bunch of pasture with gravel roads out here and some ratty hangers and barracks,” A&M Chancellor John Sharp told the American-Statesman. “I was embarrassed for people to drive out here.”
Texas A&M transformed the 2,000-acre site, known as the RELLIS campus, into a space for its system schools and Blinn College. There’s also office space for several state agencies, laboratories and private companies. (RELLIS is an acronym for the seven Aggie Core values of respect, excellence, leadership, loyalty, integrity and selfless service.)
Texas A&M wooed Futures Command last year when Sharp invited Gen. John Murray to see the university and its RELLIS campus. Sharp said the Army was impressed by the university’s Corps of Cadets and its “Disaster City” — a 52-acre mock community equipped with collapsible structures and other wreckage designed to train emergency respondents. There are also communication system simulators and wind tunnels at the university in which the Army has expressed interest.
“We’re thrilled with the partnerships that we’re building,” Murray, commander of Army Futures Command, told the American-Statesman. “The state of Texas as a whole and Austin and UT and A&M… have really embraced us, and we look forward to working with them.”
The A&M vote will mark the second round of funding for the Futures Command presence at the university. The Texas Legislature appropriated $50 million for Texas A&M’s Engineering Experiment Station to establish a proving ground site — an outdoor testing area — for new military technologies. That will include instrumentation placed throughout the campus to test thermal cameras, establish 5G and more.
Texas state Rep. John Cyrier, R-Lockhart, helped bring forward the state budget rider for A&M and said the investment will benefit the entire state.
“I wanted to make sure too that the state was doing their part,” said Cyrier, whose district includes much of the area between Austin and College Station. “I know that the towns that I represent, the counties, we will see the fruits of that investment.”
Murray said he expects six to eight Army researchers to eventually be based out of RELLIS, but until the development center is up and running, military personnel will make occasional trips to Bryan and College Station to use existing lab space.
And the size of the campus wowed the Army, Murray said. Earlier this year, the RELLIS campus hosted an autonomous tank demonstration with Army Futures Command.
Hypersonics and directed energy research will also be key to the Futures Command presence in Bryan-College Station, Murray said. The university will soon build a tunnel at RELLIS for hypersonics research. A hypersonic speed exceeds the speed of sound.
“Almost every university has things that they’re uniquely good at, and the RELLIS campus is very unique than most college campuses,” Murray said. “Having that available space and this concept of this soldier development center or combat development center is what really piqued my interest.”
The Army will work alongside civilians at A&M. Kathy Banks, Texas A&M’s dean of engineering and the vice chancellor of engineering and national laboratories, said the university expects to hire up to 25 research engineers in the next year to work with the Army.
A&M is one of three strategic partnerships that Futures Command has with universities. The University of Texas at Austin will focus on robotics and assured navigation system timing, and Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh will be home to an Army Research Lab for studying artificial intelligence.