UCF Students Support U.S. Military with New Technology
Reserve Mercury is one of the most ambitious real-world projects UCF computer science students have undertaken, with the mission to help members of the U.S. Army Reserve do their crucial work better.
You probably know someone in the U.S. Army Reserve and don’t even realize it. There are nearly 200,000 Army Reserve soldiers across the U.S. and 23 other countries. They are teachers, neighbors, parents, baristas, CEOs, coaches, nurses, beauty pageant contestants, and college students. These same people are also the highly trained personnel who respond to hurricanes, earthquakes, wildfires, and health crises around the world. First and foremost, they are prepared to protect us from national security threats whenever and wherever they arise.
“They’re phenomenal people,” says computer science student Usman Siddiqui. “I’m extremely grateful for what they do because I know how hard they work to balance a civilian life with a military life.”
It’s harder to strike that balance when reservists are hit with a flurry of administrative paperwork. For a civilian, filling out paperwork is annoying. For someone expected to provide combat support and humanitarian assistance, it can be a dangerous distraction.
“In the Army Reserves, they still fill out most forms manually,” says computer science lecturer Rick Leinecker. “Every minute they spend on those forms takes them away from the work they signed up to do.”
A few years ago, Col. Rex Eiserer, a brigade commander in the Army Reserve Aviation Command, noticed how these menial tasks were distracting reservists from the work Leinecker alludes to: piloting, engineering, nursing and practicing field missions. These administrative obstacles created efficiency issues that led to frustration, and impacts with recruitment and retention of reservists.
“We needed a fresh set of eyes to come up with a solution,” says Maj. Jonathan LacKamp, one of the Reserve Mercury project managers.
The Army Reserves reached out to the National Security Innovation Network (NSIN), which has close ties to UCF and is fully aware of the university’s reputation in the tech sector and at computer science competitions around the world.
“The challenges the Reserves had been dealing with didn’t surprise us,” says UCF computer science lecturer Matthew Gerber. “When a large organization tries to create and adopt efficiencies from within, it can be like trying to turn a cruise ship compared to a Jet Ski. That’s why they came to us.”
In early 2021, Capt. Rich Mautino organized the first group of UCF students began work on what would become known as Reserve Mercury. The pitch: Create an app that’s easy to use, accessible on any device, and improves the overall experience for soldiers in the Army Reserves. According to military statistics, members of the Army Reserve make up nearly half of the Army’s maneuver support, but the Reserve receives only 6% of the total Army budget. Creating a forms management app through Reserve Mercury would need to be done, in military terms, with efficiency and precision.
“Instead of going through our traditionally long procurement cycle, we knew UCF’s high-caliber student researchers and developers would approach this project like a start-up company,” says LacKamp. “We’d rely on them for a proof of concept.”
To build a Reserve Mercury team, Leinecker and Gerber dipped into UCF’s deep pool of computer science students. Of the roughly 6,500 students in CS-related majors, 500-600 advance to senior design courses each year, where they work on projects in collaboration with industry entities like Lockheed Martin, Siemens, and the Florida Space Institute. This semester alone, teams of 15 students or fewer are working on 65 different projects. Reserve Mercury, however, does not fit the typical mold. At this moment, 28 students are working on the project because of its scope.
“Honestly, I didn’t know what the gravity of this project would be when it first came to us,” Leinecker says. “The first team that worked on it was kind of testing the waters.”
They completed the proof of concept so well and so quickly that Army Reserve representatives from the 75thInnovation Command — a specialized unit of civilian tech experts — took it up the ladder to a panel of leaders and said, “You need to see this.” The project, and the relationships with the Army Reserve and NSIN, has grown since then.
Since January, UCF students have received mentorship from Sgt. 1st Class Chris Keeling, a video game developer, and Sgt. 1st Class Adriane Kuzminski, a user interfaces develop for the visually impaired.
“UCF students embody the adage: bring me a solution now before we have a problem,” LacKamp says. “They’ve floored us with their professionalism and expertise. It’s incredible.”
The computer science program at UCF is, in essence, a testbed. Students do not make it to senior design without problem-solving skills and a drive to excel. The manager of a senior design project requires, to borrow another military phrase, the ability to mobilize talented people in one direction.
“We elevate each other,” says Siddiqui, who has managed Reserve Mercury since January. The students meet in labs, libraries, coffee shops, the Harris Engineering Building, or virtually. One team creates the architecture of the app. A second team works on the user experience. And a third team simplifies the overall workflow.
Siddiqui admits that when he signed up for senior design, he envisioned himself working on an artificial intelligence project.
“But once I got into Reserve Mercury, I realized the importance of it,” Siddiqui says. “Thousands of U.S. soldiers are, or will be, actively using this. It’s so big that we doubled the size of our team. We work directly with the Army Reserve daily. This is my way of perhaps showing my gratitude for what they do for us. It has to be one of the best experiences a UCF student could possibly have.”
The focus of Reserve Mercury for now is to help the Army Reserve, but word is spreading. LacKamp says the app “would be terrific to eventually implement in the Army active and National Guard.” In less than two years and on a relatively small budget, Reserve Mercury has gone from a proof of concept to an evergreen project for UCF’s computer science department. A beta launch is possible in early 2024 for the Army Reserve Aviation Command.
“It’s gratifying to see our students work on such a big project for such a big organization,” Leinecker says, “and to know they’re making such a big difference.”