NAWCAD scientists forge new path for underwater optics – May 08, 2013– Patuxent River, USA  (Techreleased) – Scientists from the Naval Air Warfare Center Aircraft Division (NAWCAD) recently brought to light a new approach for underwater optics that could enhance fleet activities, such as detecting underwater mines and seafloor mapping.

laser used in underwater optics
laser used in underwater optics

NAWCAD engineers Linda Mullen and Alan Laux invented a method to encode a laser with a radar signal to improve the performance of underwater imaging systems in murky water.

“We program the laser with information about how the laser is scanning the object,” Mullen said of the project, which was developed two years ago and patented in February. “Therefore, the light reflecting off the object and the surrounding environment contains all the information needed to accurately create an image.”

A typical underwater laser imaging system has the transmitter and receiver on the same platform. Mullen and Laux tailored their imaging system by placing the transmitter and receiver on separate platforms. The remote receiver wirelessly collects the radar-encoded laser light from the transmitter and translates the information, while an image processor turns the digitized signal into an image.

“It’s a new way of thinking about things,” Mullen said. “In acoustics and radar, they’ve been doing these kinds of approaches for a long time. This is very new for optics.”

Their method allows for better image quality and larger operating ranges than traditional underwater optical imaging systems. With the separate platform approach, the receiver can potentially be airborne, shipboard or on another underwater stand — a first for optics imaging. It also makes it possible to use a smaller platform, which allows the light source to get closer to the object in question without stirring up as much sediment.  Less sediment means better visibility, an important factor in activities such as minesweeping, which depends on the ability to detect mines without inadvertently triggering them.

Commercial uses for the technology exist as well. During one recent test, Maryland law enforcement officials expressed interest in using the technology to help with search and recovery efforts. Underwater laser imaging has the advantage of approaching objects from a single direction and has fewer limitations in shallow water than traditional sonar.

“There are scenarios when you have to start thinking out of the box,” Mullen said. Otherwise, you are going to be limited. You won’t be able to get to see what you want to see.”

NAWCAD is actively pursuing industry partners to assist in the commercialization of this technology. Call the NAWCAD Technology Transfer Office at 301-342-1133 to discuss opportunities to collaborate or license the technology.