Quasar Leads Development of Advanced Sensing Technologies for Government

2/25/09Follow @bvbigelow

In the 11 years since Andrew Hibbs started QUASAR, the privately held company has flourished by developing a smorgasbord of sophisticated sensing technologies under various government research and development contracts.

I met Hibbs more than a decade ago, during the formative years of San Diego’s Quantum Magnetics, where he led development of advanced electromagnetic sensors so sensitive they could detect the unique molecular resonance of explosives. His work resulted in the first commercially available explosives detector using Nuclear Quadrapole Resonance, a technology akin to magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans that are commonly used in medical diagnostics.

Hibbs founded QUASAR in 1998, after InVision Technologies acquired Quantum Magnetics (and General Electric acquired InVision in 2004). Hibbs acquired a penchant for studying the quantum phenomena at the core of such technologies while earning his PhD in physics at England’s Cambridge University. In fact, he named the company for Quantum Applied Science & Research.

Since QUASAR was founded, Hibbs has formed a group of several related companies focused on biomedical, geophysical, and various military applications of electromagnetic sensing. The company bills itself as a world leader in low-frequency electromagnetic sensing systems that operate at room temperatures (at frequencies from 0.01 Hz to 5 MHz).

When I dropped in for a briefing earlier this week, Hibbs was out of town, so I met with Lowell Burnett, chief technology officer for QUASAR Federal Systems and at least four other PhDs who oversee different development efforts within the group. Burnett told me the QUASAR group has grown to about 70 employees (at least a third are former Quantum Magnetics employees), funded solely by revenues from government contracts.

Burnett says QUASAR’s scientists have made steady advances in electromagnetic sensors, particularly in electric field sensors, with each group applying the technology to meet specific government requirements. Beyond the government-funded work, Eric Duff, Quasar’s vice president of business development told me, “We’ve been trying to mine these opportunities to see which ones turn out to be practical.”

Much of the work falls into two general categories. QUASAR Federal Systems specializes in sensors used mostly for military surveillance and monitoring while QUASAR itself develops  technology used in biomedical instrumentation. Many of the R&D projects underway at QUASAR seem like the stuff of science fiction, so much so that a sampling may be the best way to describe the spectrum of the company’s government-funded work. For example:

—The Army Research Laboratory has sponsored development of a low-cost sniper detection system capable of pin-pointing the miniscule electric field generated by a bullet as it moves through the air. Using dime-sized sensors developed by QUASAR Federal Systems, the company says its system ”easily detected bullets from common sniper rifles.” Work remains to be done, though, to develop “detection algorithms” that can eliminate distortions caused by the human body or vehicles where the sensors are mounted.

—The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency has awarded a contract to develop a sensing system capable of detecting electrically powered appliances, such as fans and lights, inside underground tunnels. The technology developed by QUASAR Federal Systems could potentially be mounted behind Customs and Border Protection vehicles to detect smugglers tunnels beneath the U.S. border

—Under the Pentagon’s Warfighter Physiological Status Monitor program, QUASAR has developed what it calls “capacitive sensors” that can be sewn into fabric to remotely monitor soldiers’ heartbeats. The technology is so sensitive that the sensors can measure electrical signals generated by the heart without requiring stick-on electrodes that make electrical contact with the body. In addition to applications for the military and NASA, the technology has potential medical uses, and QUASAR says it also has an exclusive deal with Germany’s Adidas to explore commercialization of its sensors for the sports market. The company will not provide further details, but the usefulness of a heart monitor while jogging is easy to imagine.

—With funding from a variety of military and civilian agencies, QUASAR developed a compact electric field sensor with enough potential uses in geophysics to justify forming QUASAR Geophysical Technologies. Uses for the technology range from detecting underwater mines and submarines in the ocean to systems that detect low-frequency signals suspected as earthquake precursors. In a potential commercial application, the geophysical group also has developed a trash-can sized sensor that can be placed on the ocean bottom to detect subsea oil and gas fields.

In each case, though, QUASAR’s scientists say the challenge is advancing from “a research and development” knowledge base to technology that is “production capable” with clear commercial applications. As Duff, who oversees business development put it, “What we’re finding is the broader context (of commercial development) that exists beyond the technology is where the roadblocks are.”

Bruce V. Bigelow is the editor of Xconomy San Diego. You can e-mail him at bbigelow@xconomy.com or call (619) 669-8788 Follow @bvbigelow

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