The University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) School of Engineering recently launched a new research initiative that could help shape the future of autonomous vehicles. Funding for the project includes $35 million over four years from the U.S. Department of Defense and the U.S. Army Combat Capabilities Development Command Ground Vehicle Systems Center (CCDC GVSC).

UAB will build an Autonomous Vehicle Mobility facility that works in collaboration with UAB’s Engineering and Innovative Technology Development (EITD) research group, the CCDC GVSC, and multiple organizations within NATO, partner universities in the Automotive Research Center, and industry.

Vladimir VantsevichVladimir Vantsevich“This research facility will serve as the first academic national-level laboratory of the U.S. Army CCDC GVSC dedicated to autonomous mobility research and engineering,” said Vladimir Vantsevich, professor of mechanical engineering and director of the UAB Vehicle and Robotics Engineering Laboratory. “UAB will become a hub for international academic and professional education by developing and delivering training programs that will provide enhanced expertise in the U.S. and other NATO nations.”

In addition to Vantsevich, the institute will be co-directed by Lee Moradi, Ph.D. Moradi is currently director of the EITD, which has extensive experience working with government agencies through its work with NASA building hardware for the International Space Station.

“Dr. Vantsevich is an internationally recognized leader in the field of autonomous vehicles who will lead a dynamic program ranging from soil mechanics to tire dynamics and control to novel sensing and AI-based control technologies ,” said Jeff Holmes, M.D., Ph.D., dean of the UAB School of Engineering. “This partnership with the U.S. Army GVSC, together with Dr. Moradi’s work with NASA and other partnerships with the Department of Defense, really cements UAB’s status as a hub for innovative defense and space research. I am particularly excited about the training opportunities these projects offer students interested in defense-related engineering careers.”

The goal of this effort is to contribute to the development of a new generation of combat vehicles and to assume a leading role in academic education and research among NATO nations. Advanced technology in this area, Vantsevich says, will include

  • Different levels of autonomy of unmanned ground systems;
  • Autonomous vehicles and vehicle autonomous sub-system design for integrated intelligent mobility;
  • Effective development and application of artificial intelligence and common control of the unmanned ground and aircraft systems; and
  • Training warfighters in the gaming military settings based on realistic interactions between autonomous vehicle and environment, artificial and human intelligence.

JLTV illustrationDesigning autonomous vehicles for off-road terrain poses unique challenges. UAB researchers will be tasked with developing technology that will allow vehicles to anticipate and adjust to changes in terrain.The key research component that will be built at UAB is a new research facility called “Simulator of Autonomous Mobility” (SAM). SAM will be a first-of-its-kind cyber-physical indoor proving ground for applications of artificial intelligence to vehicle design for autonomous mobility.

“Even though SAM is funded by the Department of Defense, the facility is expected to advance vehicle technology transformation beyond the military sector,” Vantsevich said. “Considering the geographic proximity of UAB to automotive original equipment manufacturers (OEMs), the National Soil Dynamics Laboratory (in Auburn, AL), Oak Ridge National Laboratory (Oak Ridge, TN) and Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville, SAM can be expected to stimulate vehicle technology advances in both the military and civilian sectors.”

This convergence is expected to positively impact the automotive engineering and manufacturing companies and research companies in Alabama and throughout the Southeast.

“Truck engineering and trucking companies, construction equipment and farm tractor engineering in the United States desperately need such test facilities, which do not exist anywhere in the world,” Vantsevich said.

From an academic perspective, this effort aims to further UAB’s educational initiatives and become a hub for international academic and professional education by developing a new Master of Science in High Mobility Vehicle Engineering. 

The master’s program is expected to provide enhanced expertise in the U.S. and other NATO nations, including NATO nations in Eastern Europe, and Ukraine. The new academic program will systematically develop a curriculum and teach advanced courses on autonomous vehicle mobility in various environments.

With that in mind, the master’s program is designed to eliminate the gap between military vehicle research/engineering and university education and to facilitate future engineering of military and off-road vehicles in the U.S. and other NATO nations.

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BioHorizons is a Birmingham company whose history is rooted in UAB. Today, thanks to a growing and successful co-op program, it appears that BioHorizons and UAB will continue to be linked far into the future.

The dental-implant company, which started as a spinoff of research from the UAB Schools of Engineering and Dentistry, has hired more than a dozen UAB alumni and students over the past 28 years. More recently, though, its co-op program has begun to bring in current engineering undergraduates—creating a talent pipeline for students to get a head start in a growing industry.

“Hands-on experience has always been a key element of engineering education,” said Neil Adams, director of the Engineering Career Center. “The success of our program depends on strong co-op and intern partners, like BioHorizons, who offer quality experiences to our students so that they apply their engineering knowledge while also learning how to be a contributing part of a professional organization. We are proud of this continued partnership and look forward to supporting Blazer engineering co-ops at BioHorizons for many years to come.”

A Blazer Legacy

BioHorizons was started in 1995 by the late Martha Bidez, Ph.D., then a faculty member in the School of Engineering who would serve as the company’s first CEO before selling the company and returning to UAB in 2009. Over the years, the company has hired a number of UAB alumni, including several members of its leadership team (see sidebar).

In 2016, however, the company’s ties to UAB got a little closer when Ashley Boggs became the first UAB undergraduate to join the BioHorizons co-op program—a program that provides students the opportunity to work full-time at the company for three semesters, alternating with school. The experience is paid, and students work alongside engineers throughout their time at the company.

Boggs extended her co-op by working part-time at the company until she was hired full time after she graduated in 2018. Today, she is a Digital Dentistry Engineering Manager, and she credits her co-op experience for opening her eyes to possibilities she had never previously considered.

“I had a vague idea that I wanted to work with implants—like hips, knees, ankles—but I didn’t know anything about the dental-implant industry at all,” said Boggs. “During my sophomore year, I went to the Engineering Career Center and told them that I couldn’t keep sitting in class doing problems from a book. They told me about a local company called BioHorizons that was doing on-campus interviews.”

The interview changed Boggs’s personal career trajectory, but her story is not an unusual one. While the engineering curriculum prepares students for a wide variety of careers, it’s often that first on-the-job experience that opens eyes and doors to career opportunities in fields students may have never been aware of.

That was the case for UAB graduate Jonathan Gordon, another former co-op participant who now works as a packaging engineer for BioHorizons. “I started out on a pre-med track, but coming from a very small town to UAB was a big transition,” Gordon said. “I dropped the pre-med route pretty quickly and started looking for other options.”

Like Boggs, the Engineering Career Center helped connect Gordon with a co-op position at BioHorizons, and that, in turn, led to full-time employment. “I realized pretty quickly that I love this industry. It’s exciting to be a part of this.”

An Undergraduate Pipeline

Although Boggs was the first UAB student hired into BioHorizons' co-op program, she soon had company. Three other Blazers followed her into the program (Josh Moore, Karly Casey and Gordon), and all four stayed on to work full-time. That kind of retention is notable for an undergraduate experience that by its nature is often exploratory. 

“Since we started the co-op program about 10 years ago, we have had about 17-18 engineering students in our program—two of which have been in our regulatory department and the rest in research and development,” said Tom Lewis, BioHorizons manager of product engineering. “We feel that it has been very successful, and to date we have hired five as full-time employees.”

That transition from co-op to full-time employee makes sense when you consider the investment BioHorizons makes in students over a three-semester co-op. Each student must learn Quality System processes before getting down to work with tasks, such as design control, drawing release, and CAD modeling. “Each student is trained, but it takes hands-on involvement to learn all of these processes,” Lewis said. “It’s also helpful for students to experience how different departments work together for a common goal.”

In addition, students must learn industry standards and technologies in the medical device industry. “This takes longer,” Lewis said, “but over time they begin to understand the ‘whys’ behind the design of dental implants, restorative components and instruments. Although we have the expectation that co-ops produce for us, my hope is that when they look back they realize the value of their experience here, and as they move into their careers they have a head start in their understanding of engineering organizations."

“Co-op is both an investment by the company and a commitment by the student,” added Adams. “The depth of experience pays dividends in that co-op students are ready to contribute immediately at an organization after graduation.”


“I have been part of teams in which we have drawn and developed state of the art dental surgery kits that are slated to hit the market this year; I have managed drafting and conducting test plans to research the durability of implant designs; and, most importantly, I have been able to teach incoming co-ops the ins and outs of the company and guide them as they grow from a college student into true engineers.”
—Benjamin Pody, mechanical engineering student and 2nd-year co-op


Homegrown Talent

Lewis says the co-op program historically has drawn from several area universities, but he admits UAB students have one obvious advantage. “Since they are local, they already have living arrangements,” he said. “After completing the three co-op terms, students return to school to finish up and graduate.  With UAB being in town, when the opportunity was available several UAB students have stayed on and worked part-time until graduation.  The company knowledge they have has allowed them to be productive even on a part-time basis.”

While the growth of BioHorizons’ co-op program is exciting for current and future engineering students, UAB School of Engineering Dean Jeff Holmes, M.D., Ph.D., says that is just one of the reasons UAB engineers should look at the BioHorizons story with pride.

“It’s not unusual for a promising startup to spin off from university research—in this case, arising from research in the UAB Schools of Engineering and Dentistry,” said Holmes. “We often comment that these startups have the potential to revolutionize an industry. But in the case of BioHorizons, it has actually done that, and it continues to innovate and to grow. I am tremendously excited that our students are able to be a part of that continuing UAB success story.”

“At BioHorizons, we look forward to continuing our work with UAB in the future,” agreed Lewis. “We appreciate the relationship we have developed with the university that has served us well over the years.”


BioHorizons Senior Leadership

A glance at the BioHorizons team shows a number of UAB graduates among the senior leadership.

R. Steve Boggan, President and CEO

  •   M.S. in Biomedical Engineering from UAB

J. Todd Strong, Executive VP and COO

  •   M.S. in Biomedical Engineering from UAB

Mike Mills, Executive VP and CFO

  •   B.S. from UAB Collat School of Business

Andrew Baroody, VP of Sales Operations

  •   B.A. in English from UAB

Juan Jaramillo, VP of Global Business Support

  •   UAB Graduate

Fred J. Molz, IV, VP of Research and Development

  •   M.S. and Ph.D. in Biomedical Engineering from UAB

Elbert Jenkins II, VP of Information Technology

  •   MEng in Information Engineering Management from UAB
  •   MBA from the UAB Collat School of Business

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