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Thursday, June 1, 2000

New Mexico's Technological Finds

Plant some scientists in the middle of a desert and technology will blossom. The proof is in New Mexico. Avionics Magazine discovered more than chili peppers during a recent tour of the Albuquerque area.

Kimberly Shepherd

Microscopic machines, satellite science, high-speed semiconductors, and voice operated, 3-D air traffic imagery. This is the kind of wizardry currently spewing from New Mexico, and at Mach speeds.

New Mexico has the "critical ingredients" for technological development: technology companies, research universities, and research parks, says Roberto Salazar, director of the New Mexico Economic Development Department’s Office of Science & Technology ( www.NewMexicoDevelopment.com ). He adds that other attractions include a 15-minute commute and a beautiful backdrop. "Our benefit is our large land mass."

Dramatic Growth

With major contractors like Lockheed Martin and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), as well as several nearby military installations, it’s not surprising that much of the research and technology in New Mexico revolves around defense.

SBS Technologies Inc.’s avionics division (see www.sbs.com ) started out with flight simulators and avionics boards, but the company found a niche that needed more attention. As a result, it decided to devote itself to the design and manufacture of Mil-Std-1553 and ARINC-429/575 interface modules, databus analyzers, and related software accessories, says Richard Schuh, president of SBS Technologies Inc.’s Aerospace Group, Albuquerque, N.M. He adds that sales grew from $500,000 in 1990 to currently more than $20 million. The bus cards "were the saving grace," he adds.

SBS’ avionics business is 95% military and 5% civil, Schuh says. The company went public in 1992, and is now the 65th fastest growing company in America and among New Mexico’s top five fastest growing firms. "We came in as a small guy, and we took care of our customers," says Rich Wade, general manager of SBS avionics products.

Another success story, SVS Inc. ( www.svsinc.com ), has grown to a $13-million (1999 expectations) company in just seven years. "We’re the fastest growing technology company in New Mexico," claims SVS Chairman of the Board Paul Shirley. The target for this year is between $17 million and $20 million–quite a leap from the $79,000 in revenues achieved in 1993. The company is still considered small at just over 110 employees, but Shirley expects to add another 200 jobs within five years.

SVS Inc. customers include the Air Force Research Lab, Boeing, Israeli Aircraft Industries, Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, Naval Air Warfare Center, NASA, TRW and Defense Special Weapons Agency, to name a few. The company’s business and research involves remote sensing systems aboard aircraft, advanced tracking algorithms, and electro-optical applications. Among SVS’s electro-optic specialties are the Airborne Tactical Laser (ATL), Space-Based Laser (SBL), Tactical High Energy Laser (THEL) acquisition tracker, and Airborne Laser (ABL).

Airborne Laser

SVS research is involved in the U.S. Air Force’s ABL (www.de.afrl.af.mil/abl) program, which celebrated on Jan. 22 the delivery of the service’s first modified Boeing 747-400D, designated the YAL-1A Attack Laser, at Kirtland Air Force Base. Meeting with Avionics Magazine, Col. Dave Harrell, deputy program director of the ABL system program office, explained how the laser capabilities would be integrated into a nose bulb that rotates to 60�.

There actually will be four lasers on-board the airplane, Harrell says. Sensors on the side of the plane will provide 360� coverage. Laser functions will first be tested at White Sands Missile Range using a surrogate laser that will aim for target boards attached to balloons and missiles. Later in the program, the real laser will aim for actual Scud missile targets that the military has purchased. The latter tests, slated for 2003, will be conducted over the Pacific Ocean out of Vandenberg Air Force Base. By 2009 the program could have as many as seven planes in operation; the long-term goal (15 to 20 years) is 14 planes, Harrell notes.

Aside from Boeing Defense Group, other key players working under a $1.3-billion contract for the program are laser designer and manufacturer TWR Space and Electronics Group; Intel, for chip etching, and Lockheed Martin Missiles & Space, which is in charge of the optics and control of the beam that fires through the turret’s window. The turret, located on the nose, will release the laser of light. Dow Corning is shaping and polishing the glass–actually, a mirror–which shrouds the laser, and won’t be needed until 2002. The chemical oxygen-iodine laser that will be used in the ABL program was developed by the Air Force Research Laboratory’s Directed Energy Directorate, also at Kirtland.

"We’re taking existing techniques and integrating them," Harrell emphasizes. This brings the cost per [laser] shot to under $5,000, including chemicals, he says.

As envisioned, the ABL would destroy missiles near their launch site, eliminating the threat of both the site and missile. "Destroy the launcher and those missiles are not going to be launched," Harrell emphasizes.

Civil Meets Military

Honeywell Defense Avionics Systems at Albuquerque (www.honeywell.com/das) uses the best of both worlds–civil (commercial off the shelf, or COTS) and military avionics–for military aircraft. Take for example the C-5 Galaxy, an old workhorse with a large cargo capacity. In 1998 it was selected for retrofitting under prime contractor Lockheed Martin. The aircraft will be outfitted with versatile integrated avionics (VIA) architecture from Honeywell Defense, Jeffrey G. Peterson, Honeywell Defense vice president of business development, informs Avionics Magazine.

The VIA prepares the C-5 for Free Flight, Peterson says. It will provide excellent information exchange in relation to communications management, navigation and surveillance. Most aircraft used in civil air transport already have the VIA; now Honeywell is integrating it into defense aircraft, as well.

"The real challenge going into the future is keeping the parts that can be linked, linked [compatible]," Peterson stresses. By integrating commercial architecture to military, "we can do what we’ve been doing on fighters for half the cost." The savings is then passed on to the customer. The change, he adds, is mostly in the software.

Out of this World

At Sandia National Laboratories (www.sandia.gov) in Albuquerque, the emphasis is on faster, smaller, more efficient technology. Sandia developed the world’s smallest engine, called the "micro machine," which is just barely visible to the naked eye. These devices have an intricacy that can only be appreciated when viewed under a magnifying lens. They are completely "batch fabricated," says Paul J. McWhorter, deputy director of Sandia’s Microsystems Science, Technology and Components Division. The micro machine’s larger gears aren’t much bigger than a dust mite.

"The idea is to replace large, bulky, expensive systems with small, inexpensive systems," McWhorter says. "Micromachine technology is the way to do an old function in a new way." Current applications include automobile air bags controlled by chips with micromachines, but the technology is likely to be applied to weapons systems in the not-so-distant future, and also is quite attractive as an application for inertial measurement. The cockpit would most certainly be an ideal candidate for micromachine integration due to its space limitations.

It takes mighty small tools to manufacture such small components–tools like Emcore PhotoVoltaics’ micro lasers, which are used to fabricate its high-speed semiconductors. Emcore PhotoVoltaics, a division of Emcore Corp. ( www.emcore.com ), "works aggressively with Sandia," and also has strong business relationships with Honeywell, Intel, Motorola and Philips, PhotoVoltaics Vice President and General Manager Tom Brennan tells Avionics Magazine.

The lasers that PhotoVoltaics employs in its labs are the size of a grain of pepper and can etch precisely the necessary grooves in microchips. These vertical cavity surface-emitting lasers can be tailored to a frequency of between 600 nanometers and 1.5 micros, and perform at a speed of 1 billion times per second.

"This market, to be honest, is absolutely exploding," Brennan stresses. Improved efficiency is largely the reason. For example, he notes that a 1% conversion efficiency could save a company $1 million per month. "Economics through technology" allows a lot of things to happen.

The smaller, cheaper rationale also is being utilized in space applications. Instead of the traditional, large-style satellites, you would have a miniature nanosatellite, or "nanosat." Dennis A. Reynolds, Sandia’s manager of Advanced Satellite Technology illustrates how the nanosat would have the same functionality of the larger systems, but would be just 2.2 to 22 pounds (1-10 kg), with a 10-inch (25.4-cm)-long base that has an 8-inch (20.3-cm) diameter. The reduced size would require less power for space launch. Solar panels are being researched as a power option, he says, since 30% to 35% of the energy that comes in on a solar ray can be converted to solar energy.

A single nanosat could alone achieve high performance when used as a devise to inspect the International Space Station, repair other satellites or refuel other spacecraft. Or, when used as part of a cluster of, say, eight to 16 nanosats working together through high-speed laser communication links, the satellites could be used for communications and high-resolution, multispectral area imaging and mapping. The clusters would be used in defense, weather-monitoring and intelligence situations. With even more nonosats–perhaps hundreds, which would form a constellation–continuous geographic and temporal coverage of the earth could be accomplished.

Enter the Virtual World

MUSE Technologies (which stands for Multi-User Synthetic Environment) Inc., was formed in 1991 as a spin-off of Sandia National Laboratories ( see www.musetech.com ). It specializes in the virtual world.

MUSE’s programs process real-life information into useable platforms. Among the applications that MUSE proudly touts is its three-dimensional en route, air traffic management program, which depicts on a large screen in-coming and out-going air traffic at an airport. It even shows jet stream and lightning. The program is voice activated, so the operator can simply say "Zoom in," or "Scan left," and the image will be adjusted accordingly. Using this program, air traffic managers and regulators can do what Sukman says humans do best: identify patterns, trends and anomalies in air traffic.

Sukman says MUSE’s systems are installed at such facilities as NASA, Langley and Ames. NASA is probably the company’s largest customer in terms of systems in operation. The programs process real data with the precision accuracy required in space applications. "If you’re off by a centimeter above the ozone," explains Sukman, "you’re off by a couple of thousand miles when you come down to Earth."

This information will be especially useful when space travel becomes more commonplace–something that Sandia is already working on.

Sandia’s fision-powered spacecraft would have a reactor about the size of a garbage can. The purpose is to one day bring people to Mars and beyond, says Ronald Lipinski of Sandia’s Nuclear Technology and Research department. Because of the distance and time required to get there, he contends, an incredibly fast spacecraft would be necessary.

Big ideas, bundled into small packages. And this is really just the beginning.

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