Hawaii Company Helps With Military Advance

The battle droids of "Star Wars" fame may not be too far off. The U.S. military has proved the value of UAVs — unmanned aerial vehicles — on numerous reconnaissance missions over the skies of Bosnia and Afghanistan.

The military's desire to exploit technology to reduce or eliminate human casualties continues through myriad federal contracts to design new weapons systems, and some of the most innovative are being developed in Hawaii.

"The U.S. military's got quite the push on now to move more toward unmanned combat systems," said John Sender, physicist with Honolulu-based NovaSol, which designs advanced sensor systems for the U.S. Department of Defense. "They are the guys who actually get shot and killed, and so their interest in developing unmanned systems is extremely high."

NovaSol has won a $3.2 million contract to develop a dual-mode optical interrogator, which looks a lot like a home telescope mounted on a tripod.

"We are developing a portable unit, something soldiers can actually take into the field," Sender said. "The device consists of a laser and an optical receiver, which is a telescope about 3 feet long and 6 inches in diameter."

The unit's objective is to transmit data at high speed through a laser beam.

"The way it works is it shoots a laser beam that hits the UAV and what's called a modulating retro reflector, which takes the data the UAV is collecting via video camera or hyperspectral sensor and shoots it back down on the same laser beam to the operator," Sender said. "The ultimate objective is to be able to get communications of several hundred megabits per second out to a range of 10 miles. If you can achieve this the military has a zillion and one uses for the technology."

The interrogator is designed to be mounted on ships at sea, aircraft or carried by the individual soldier in the field, Sender said.

"The nice thing about this technology is we can get pretty high bandwidth between moving platforms, whether it be a ship in the water or a plane in the sky," he said.

The proliferation of sensor devices in modern battle space has prompted the military's interest in the technology, Sender said.

"In the past, the military just used radio communications," he said. "But bandwidth requirements in modern military operations are so great there's not enough radio spectrum left to accommodate it, which is why they are turning to optical communications, such as lasers that use light beams as opposed to radio frequencies."

NovaSol plans to work with the University of Hawaii's optical communications lab on this project, Sender said.

"They'll be doing some atmospheric studies for us," he said. "We've used UH faculty as consultants on all of our projects. We are always looking for ways to strengthen our relationship with UH. It's a great pool of resources over there."

The university is encouraging these types of public/private tech collaborations, said Dick Cox, acting director of the university's Office of Technology Transfer and Economic Development.

"The university is actively seeking to establish research relationships with Hawaii companies," Cox said. "It's to our benefit and the benefit of those companies when it happens. We do have tremendous research resources, equipment and facilities that could be of real benefit."

The interrogator project is expected to take three years to complete.

"The contract provides $3.2 million for the first year with options for another $7.5 million in the second and third year," Sender said.

NovaSol started in 1998 with 12 owner/employees who invested about $1.5 million of their own money. The company left the state's incubator program at the Manoa Innovation Center last September to move to new offices at 1100 Alakea St. It now employs 50.

~ Terrence Sing,
Pacific Business News

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