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Designing Submarines for Female Crew Members Not a New Navy Trend, ODU Researcher Michaeli Says

By Brendan O'Hallarn

With women now serving aboard submarines, the U.S. Navy announced earlier in April that a new fleet of vessels is being designed to accommodate female crew members.

The news garnered national headlines. But Jennifer Michaeli, who joined the Old Dominion University engineering faculty in 2012 after 15 years as a naval engineer in government and industry, said engineers have been fitting equipment to the users for many years.

"Sailors are living and working day in, day out for months at a time on board ships and submarines," said Michaeli, assistant professor of engineering technology in ODU's Frank Batten College of Engineering and Technology. "Both in peacetime and in conflict, these shipboard systems must be properly designed for human use to reduce fatigue and risk of injury, thereby increasing crew readiness."

The science is known as human systems integration (HSI), or simply "ergonomics." Michaeli said the Navy gives engineers and shipbuilders guidelines and standards to ensure that HSI protocols are followed.

"Through the years, these standards have evolved to include, among other guidelines, variations in physical stature for men and women serving in the U.S. Navy," Michaeli said.

The Associated Press reported that Electric Boat of Groton, Connecticut, and Huntington Ingalls Industries - Newport News Shipbuilding (HII-NNS) are designing what will be the first Navy subs built specifically for female crew members.

Designers are making significant changes, such as adding private space in bathrooms and changing areas, as well as more subtle modifications to the subs. For example, they are lowering some overhead valves and making them easier to turn, and installing steps in front of the triple-high bunk beds and stacked laundry machines.

"We have a clean sheet of paper, so from the ground up, we'll optimize for both men and women," Brian Wilson, Electric Boat's director of the new ballistic-missile sub program, told the Associated Press.

Michaeli said standards and guidelines for construction have evolved since 2010, when the Navy announced that women will serve on submarines, including the existing Virginia-class fast-attack submarines and the future Colombia-class ballistic-missile submarines.

"Naval engineers and shipbuilders will implement modernization plans using these same standards," Michaeli said.

Michaeli said naval engineers and shipbuilders are also working with the Navy to bring higher levels of automation and controls to the entire fleet - an area where Old Dominion faculty are playing an active role.

"CVN-78, the Gerald R. Ford, is expected to be delivered to the Navy this month and is reckoned to be the most technologically advanced warship ever built," Michaeli said. "For example, significant advances in automation and the design and engineering of control systems have allowed for a reduction of several hundred crew in comparison to the Nimitz-class carriers."

Through ODU's partnership with HII-NNS, the Batten College offers master's degrees with special emphasis in automation and controls.

"This professional engineering development program will ensure the shipbuilding workforce has the knowledge and understanding to design and maintain these sophisticated shipboard systems," Michaeli said.

During her career, Michaeli has worked closely with military forces to identify operational gaps, explore operational and technical requirements for future needs, and develop advanced technology systems to address challenging operational requirements and field new capabilities.

Selected for a Rising Star award at the 2017 State Council of Higher Education for Virginia Outstanding Faculty Awards, Michaeli has been principal investigator or co-principal investigator on more than $3 million in grants for naval engineering research from the Navy and shipbuilding industry.

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