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Innovative engineering in Delaware literally defies gravity



Best-known for its NASA space suits, ILC Dover engineers a wide range of products using high-performance flexible materials for defense, government and civilian customers. From tethered surveillance aerostats used in military operations to powder handling systems for pharmaceutical and life sciences customers, ILC continues to leverage its expertise in system design and materials engineering to seek out new markets for its high tech solutions. 


Technology takes new heights


“We do applied engineering, taking advanced flexible materials to solve life-critical problems.”


Helium-filled aerostats floating a few hundred feet above the ground are a common sight in militarized zones such as Iraq and Afghanistan. These tethered zeppelin-shaped balloons provide “eyes in the sky” for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions. Equipped with high tech cameras and other surveillance equipment, the aerostats can provide support to local military and police operations, gather information about ground activity such as laying land mines, and also provide enhanced visibility for combat troops.

The white balloons carrying the surveillance payload are designed and manufactured by Delaware’s ILC Dover, a longtime leader in the field of advanced materials design and production. The company has been developing flexible materials products since 1947, and has been a longtime supplier of high tech solutions for defense and government use, and increasingly for commercial customers.

“One of the threads that integrates everything ILC does is advanced flexible materials,” explains Doug Durney, Director of Marketing and New Business Development at ILC. “We do applied engineering, taking advanced flexible materials to solve life-critical problems.”

The company has leveraged this expertise to develop a wide range of products and solutions for a number of different markets, including government and military, industrial, infrastructure protection, pharmaceutical and healthcare. For example, American embassies around the world are being equipped with the company’s powered escape respirators, clear, motorized hoods worn over the head in the event of terroristic threats or evacuation. In the U.S., cities like New York are talking to the company about its flood mitigation system in hopes of mitigating the effects of another disaster like Hurricane Sandy. For such events, ILC has designed a tensioned fabric door that can be used to seal an entrance from water pressure equivalent to more than 30 feet of water. The door, which can be packed into a small space, can also be used to stop smoke and act as a physical barrier.

The tethered surveillance aerostats have led the company to explore related products, such as powered airships that could be used for heavy lifting and transportation. In addition, the company designed and manufactured an inflatable aerodynamic decelerator in collaboration with the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. The decelerator resembles a giant inner tube that inflates around a spacecraft reentering the atmosphere to slow it down before deploying a parachute. Like the fabric door used for flood mitigation, the decelerator’s design and use of flexible materials allows it to be packaged into a very small volume for launch.


Commercial collaborations

On the commercial side, ILC is collaborating with Proterro, a biofeedstock company that manufactures sugar rather than extracting it from crops or cellulose to produce biofuel. ILC has worked with Proterro to design and build the photobioreactor where Proterro grows microbes that produce sucrose. The reactor is a low-cost inflatable chamber installed in open air fields, with panels that provide water and nutrients to the cyanobacteria and mechanisms for easy sugar harvesting. The tube-shaped chambers are designed to withstand up to Category 1 hurricanes and prevent accumulation of snow and rain.

An important business area for the company is the design and production of a broad range of disposable packaging solutions for powders and liquids for the pharmaceutical and biopharmaceutical industries. ILC acquired innovative industrial packaging company Grayling Industries last year and recently acquired Swiss company Jet Solutions, a leading designer and installer of turnkey power/liquid mixing and processing operations. These acquisitions give ILC a complete portfolio of bulk packaging and processing solutions, as well as better access to international markets.


The Delaware Advantage

ILC’s Durney notes that ILC “insourced” a number of positions to Delaware when it acquired Grayling. “We moved jobs up from Mexico to the plant in Seaford, and have every intention of growing the company,” Durney says, explaining that Delaware’s local and state representatives, as well as its federal delegation, have been very enthusiastic supporters every step of the way.

ILC is equally committed to the State. The company is active in STEM outreach in Delaware’s schools, where ILC engineers work with students and serve on STEM education committees. In addition, company historian Bill Ayrey travels to schools throughout the State with the ILC NASA space suit to share stories about the State’s role in the space program. “ILC’s people volunteer their time because they are passionate about the field and eager to talk to students about what an engineering career looks like,” Durney says. Their goal is to help energize the next generation of engineers who will continue to bring fresh ideas and solutions to the State’s technology sector.


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