Talented Engineer Brings Life Experience to Lab
Army inventor Shahram Dabiri acquired the fearlessness of a good engineer as a child in Iran. Born in 1977 in Tehran, he and his family endured the revolution that deposed the Shah of Iran and then years of brutal war with Iraq. Once the bombing of cities started, some 10 million Iranians left their country in a mass exodus that included, in 1985, the Dabiri family. After settling with his mother and brother in America, the 8-year-old Shahram had to show another kind of courage: mastering a different language, going to a new school, and growing up in a foreign culture.
He already had some of the tools to succeed, including an outgoing personality and aptitudes absorbed from his grandfather back in Iran. Before the war, his grandfather had been an engineer for an automotive company. When the company disbanded its Iranian operations, Shahram’s grandfather bought several movie theaters and refurbished the old movie projectors. During the war years and the economic embargo, his grandfather couldn’t get replacement parts, so he had to get creative and “reverse engineer” the projectors to make them work. “Shah” remembers completely disassembling a projector while his grandfather was out to lunch one day — a bit of youthful indiscretion that his grandfather remembers vividly because it took him three weeks to rebuild the device.
Now in America, the young Dabiri settled in his new home with characteristic boldness. His mom remarried a “great guy,” and the family moved to Glen Falls, N.Y., and added another son. At that point, Dabiri began what he calls his fascination with gravity. At first, it was rock climbing and skiing with his stepfather, and later it was pole vaulting for his high school. He succeeded in just about everything he tried, opening the door eventually to a year as an exchange student in Bolivia, where his ability to adapt proved useful once again. In Bolivia, he developed a close relationship with his host family that endures today.
Dabiri later followed his brother, Ramin, to the University of Buffalo, where he earned his degree in mechanical engineering in 2002. His first job was in Finland, but after the company was sold, Shah came back to the States and found a job in late 2002 with the Army’s Research, Development, and Engineering Command at Picatinny Arsenal, N.J.
It was yet another new world for him. “I learned artillery systems from the ground up,” says Dabiri. He credits this successful entrée into defense research to his supervisor, Dominic Damilla (“I can’t say enough about him”), and Ramsey Kased (a “wonderful mentor”). Basically, they gave Dabiri his first “figure-out challenge” as part of their efforts to render artillery shells safe so that the energetic materials inside do not accidentally “initiate” or explode because of an unplanned event, such as a fire or bullet impact.
Dabiri used the social skills he had perfected as a youngster to talk to people around the arsenal and observe other technologies that might be relevant. He saw a plastic component used in a melt-out system in the Mortars Division. Why not do something similar, he asked? Within a few weeks, Dabiri had an idea for a non-intrusive technology that could solve the problem. His “vented lifting plug” allows the energetics to escape without causing detonation after an unplanned stimulus.
“Of course, my friends in the chemical world helped a lot by creating ‘insensitive’ energetic materials that are less prone to accidental detonation and can ooze out quickly,” Dabiri says. But the other part of the solution was mechanical. “I essentially made the world’s biggest Roman candle; it was interesting to watch the artillery shell whistle like a tea kettle as the explosive harmlessly escaped.”
The vented lifting plug got Dabiri his first patent at the age of 27. A few years later, Dabiri patented another device, this one addressing a problem with extended-range artillery systems.
Shells designed to fire long distances have a base bleed or smoking device that reduces drag. The problem is that you can’t fire the shells shorter if necessary because the anti-drag component causes them to tumble. He invented a device that works like a shuttle cock used in badminton. It increases the drag on the artillery shell, allowing it to be accurately fired a shorter distance. With that ingenious device, Dabiri had two patents by the time he was in his early 30s!
He later applied his-out-of the-box thinking to work with his friend and Six Sigma Black Belt mentor Donald Geiss to help establish the Department of Defense Ordinance Technology Consortium (DOTC) office. The office enables other engineers and scientists to fast-track the production of their prototypes for testing and evaluation. To further support the DOTC, Dabiri is enrolled at Fairleigh Dickinson University pursuing an executive master’s degree in business administration.
As if his life as a mechanical engineer, inventor, and STEM technology manager at Picatinny Arsenal weren’t enough, Dabiri likes to test gravity and his heart rate on the weekends by skydiving.
“If you ever wanted to fly, it is that sensation,” Dabiri says. “You don’t get a falling sensation but one of floating. It’s phenomenal.” It’s also bold and fearless, like his engineering.
Photo courtesy of Chad Cogburn