Government R&D dollars pay dividends
- By Joab Jackson
- Mar 30, 2005
Craig Chambers of L-3 Communications came from Pyramid Vision, which created video surveillance technology that creates 3-D scenes from video feeds and sensors.
Federal R&D finds a home in commercial products that also benefit agencies
MTI MicroFuel Cells Inc. has introduced a new fuel cell that will allow this handheld reader, developed by Intermec Technologies Corp., to last for up to 80 hours between recharges.
Look under the hood of almost any new information technology product, and chances are good you'll find traces of government R&D funding.
The Internet, originally developed by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, is one example of a government-funded research effort that paid off. Another is the Mosaic Web browser, which got its start at the National Science Foundation-supported National Center for Supercomputing Applications. The Defense Department originally created the Global Po- sitioning System for precisely targeting intercontinental ballistic missiles. Once it opened the signals for commercial use, however, an entire new industry of location-aware services quickly popped up.
The federal government has long been one of the most ardent supporters of R&D, funding efforts considered too risky for companies or venture capitalists. A university researcher or a company can write a proposal to develop a new technology and, if the idea is compelling enough, get a grant through one of many agencies, including DARPA or NSF. Some agencies fund work out of their internal R&D shops, such as the Navy's Office of Naval Research. There are also several cross-agency, congressionally mandated programs such as the Small Business Innovation Research Program.
By investing in radical new concepts, the government sometimes creates entire new industries that not only boost the economy but also serve the needs of agencies themselves.
Here are some of the hot government-sponsored technologies gaining momentum in 2005:Fuel Cells
Keeping mobile devices powered is an ongoing problem'especially in military environments, where finding a 120-volt outlet to recharge a portable system is not always possible. Not surprisingly, the government has invested heavily in the development of new portable power technologies. Fuel cells'small cartridges that create energy through chemical reactions with hydrogen'appear to be among the most promising solutions.
MTI MicroFuel Cells Inc. of Albany, N.Y., has started offering military-equipment providers a portable fuel cell that can take the place of batteries. MTI's Mobion fuel cell has a long history of government funding. The Energy Department's Los Alamos National Laboratory, with funding from DARPA, developed the basic technology, which MTI later licensed. Then, after MTI proved the basic concept viable, the Commerce Department's Advanced Technology Program provided $4.6 million to streamline the design of the package for a production environment.
In December, the company delivered its first order of fuel cells to power handheld radio frequency identification tag readers from Intermec Technologies Corp. of Everett, Wash., according to John Cerveny, director of government programs for MTI. Intermec will market the fuel cell-driven reader on its military contracts. The fuel cells can last up to 80 hours, quite an improvement over the batteries Intermec now uses, which often conk out before the first eight-hour shift ends.
As the government grows increasingly reliant on electronic documents, it has, not surprisingly, been investing in radical new technologies that promise to hold far more data than today's storage units.
Holographic storage may be one of the most radical concepts, but thanks to Commerce ATP funding, such storage products are starting to appear. InPhase Technologies of Longmont, Colo., recently introduced a beta version of a drive that records data on holograms, the Tapestry family of drives and media. Although the technology was first developed at AT&T's Bell Labs, a $2 million ATP grant provided the capital needed to ready the technology for commercial production.
Just as a single holographic plate'such as those used on credit cards or fancy book jackets'can offer different images de- pending on the viewing angle, holographic storage holds multiple layers of data in one physical location. With holography, a single laser beam is split into two'one containing data and one serving as a reference beam. Where the two in-tersect on the storage medium, they create a hologram.
An InPhase holographic disk can hold up to 300G, said Liz Murphy, the company's vice president of marketing. In comparison, the next generation of DVDs, soon to hit the market, will be able to store about 27G. Subsequent generations of holographic disks may hold as much as 1.6T each, Murphy said.
InPhase plans to sell the new drives as a lower-cost alternative to the magnetic tape now used in many agency archives. Murphy expects holographic storage to run about 6 cents to 20 cents per gigabyte, lower than the projected cost of tape, which she estimated at 25 cents to $1 per gigabyte. Holographic storage also would be cheaper than DVDs ($1 to $2 per gigabyte) and disks (less than $3 per gigabyte).
What's more, the company says holographic media will have a 50-year shelf life, an important consideration for agencies that need to archive data for long periods.Smart search
In addition to creating storage problems, large amounts of information also pose organizational problems. How do you find the needle of data you are looking for in the haystack of an agency's holdings?
Although enterprise search engines such as those offered by Google Inc. of Mountain View, Calif., can return a list of documents pertaining to a query, too often a search yields way too many returns.
'Web search really needs to evolve beyond simple ranking engines, which based their results on popularity and freshness,' said Saman Haqqi, director of marketing for Vivisimo Inc. of Pittsburgh. The company's software reorders search results, placing them into groups that allow the user to categorically eliminate clusters of irrelevant documents.
Researcher Raul Valdes-Perez and two graduate students first developed the clustering algorithms at Carnegie Mellon University. To make this technology viable, NSF's SBIR program awarded the company almost $1 million in funds.
'The original work was to develop and refine our university-inspired algorithms into a solid commercial product,' said Valdes-Perez, now president of the company.
The results have paid off. The company's Clusty.com search service allows users to cluster search results for various domains. The site even has a dedicated section for organizing government-related information, located at www.gov.clusty.com
Agencies can also deploy the company's technology across their own Intranets using the Vivisimo Velocity, Content Integrator and Clustering Engine products.Visual security
In the days after Sept. 11, 2001, federal agencies looked for ways to increase security within their facilities. At the time, video surveillance equipment manufacturers were experimenting with using data networks and computers to draw more information from video fields, thanks to government R&D funding.
Few companies are farther out on this cutting edge than Pyramid Vision of Arlington, Va., which offers Hawk software that can show on-screen a virtual, three-dimensional model of a facility or combat area being watched in two dimensions.
'It is not enough to look at individual camera feeds and closed circuit television systems to monitor security,' said Craig Chambers, former chief operating officer of Pyramid Vision and now vice present of advanced video systems at L-3 Communications Inc., which acquired Pyramid's video surveillance business.
With funding from the Office of Naval Research and the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, the company developed the initial three-dimensional virtualization technology for an application called Video Flashlight. Instead of just watching video feeds, the viewer can zoom through an area as if in a video game. Transparently to the user, the software taps into different cameras as the user moves through the area being covered. Also with Defense funding, the company developed related software that condenses sensor information from hundreds of nodes, allowing battle commanders to get a quick glimpse of where important assets, such as tanks or fighter planes, are on the battlefield.
The company's Hawk software, released last year, combines all this functionality into one package.
'So what we have done is take the rendering engines that are sitting behind the military tools, and some of the techniques we have learned in earlier projects,' and integrate them into this platform, Chambers said.Flexible displays
As the Defense Department rolls toward its goal of net-centric warfare, it will need sophisticated technologies for computing in austere environments. Using multiple SBIR awards, Universal Display Corp. of Ewing, N.J., is developing displays that can be folded up when not in use.
The Army in particular is very interested in such a technology and has provided additional funding for its development, said Janice Mahon, vice president of technology for the company. Such displays could be rolled up into pen size and attached to a soldier's clothing by Velcro, allowing soldiers to send and receive electronic communications in the field.
Universal Display already develops organic LED flat-panel computer displays. The SBIR award will help the company develop thin-film-transistor backplanes constructed of metal foil to make these units flexible.
'The Army is hoping that by 2007, such devices will be readily available,' Mahon said.
Grid computing is one of the most-talked-about technologies today. Now that there are broadband networks between supercomputers worldwide, why not pool those resources to tackle even larger jobs? That's the idea behind grid computing.
The Globus Alliance develops the underlying tools for grid computing and is sponsored by various agencies, including DARPA and NASA, as well as NSF and Energy. The National Science Foundation provided much of the early funding on the concept. Also crucial to the grid's development was Energy's Office of Science National Collaboratories program, which helped bring about the various Globus components such as the GridFTP data transport system and Grid Security Infrastructure software. 'Quite simply, grid computing would not exist without federal funding,' said Carl Kesselman, director of grid technologies for the University of Southern California's Information Sciences Institute, one of the organizations behind the development of grid technologies.Grid growth
'For the first eight years, our work on the grid was totally funded with government research money,' Kesselman said.
The funding is starting to pay off. IT research firm International Data Corp. of Framingham, Mass., expects the grid marketplace to generate $10.3 billion in sales by 2007