Navy Showcases R&D Lab to Business Community and High Tech Execs

San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders has referred to SPAWAR, the Navy’s Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command, as one of the city’s best kept secrets, and I started to understand why during a presentation yesterday at San Diego’s Sidney Kimmel Cancer Center.

SPAWAR is a major Navy procurement agency, with a total budget of more than $2.4 billion in fiscal 2008. About 65 percent of that supports industry partnerships, which includes spending to acquire a host of hardware and software technologies needed for what the Navy calls C4ISR, Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaisance. Naturally, the Navy keeps most of this technology under wraps—literally. When maintenance crews work on U.S. warships at the Navy base here, they often wrap up parts of the superstructure before servicing the radar and other electronics.

So a presentation yesterday by Frank Gordon, who heads SPAWAR’s navigation and applied sciences department, represented an unusual opportunity to lift the veil of secrecy that surrounds the Navy labs on Point Loma. SPAWAR is an enormous organization, with more than 6,300 civilian, military, and contract workers just at its San Diego headquarters, and local spending of almost $991 million on procurement contracts and R&D programs, according to the latest data available at SPAWAR’s web site. Gordon says that at any given time, SPAWAR is overseeing more than 800 technology development programs in San Diego.

About 100 people attended the session, which was sponsored by Connect, the San Diego nonprofit group that promotes innovation and entrepreneurship. Connect was founded at UC San Diego in 1985 as a resource for academic researchers who wanted to start technology-based companies based on their laboratory breakthroughs. At SPAWAR’s government lab in San Diego, scientists also spin out new companies and technologies, said Jim Fallin, a spokesman for SPAWAR Systems Center.

Gordon, who is nicknamed “Dr. Chaos” because of his love of nonlinear dynamics, highlighted some of the advanced technologies that SPAWAR is developing for use by the Navy. They include:

—Biochemical sensors. Gordon says SPAWAR is developing extremely sensitive and very small devices capable of detecting hundreds of different dangerous agents, such as anthrax. These MEMs (Micro-Electro Mechanical Systems’) sensors would cost under $100 apiece. “Chem-bio is big now in the counterterrorism world,” Gordon says. What we are proposing is to replace all the various (agent identifying) systems, which are fairly large and require batteries and a person having to be there.”

—DANTE, for Directional Ad Hoc Networking Technology. Gordon says Navy labs are developing high-gain, low-cost directional antennas. He says the signal beam is guided through special mirrors “instead of broadcasting a wide signal to a whole area.”

—Hybrid architecture. Gordon talked about hybrid architecture like small computers inside leeches. He showed an amazing short video depicting a mouse’s view of when it was looking for cheese in a maze. The data for the video came from the mouse’s neuron impulses. “There’s no software. Just neurons,” he says. “I think we well be amazed of where all this is leading us.”

—Cold Fusion. A team of SPAWAR researchers recently reported they had found new evidence of cold fusion, a scientific process for generating energy that was quickly debunked when it was first announced 20 years ago. Gordon said yesterday that cold fusion should be reconsidered. “Its potential is enormous, but we don’t know where it’s going. I’m excited about it, but we are not there yet. We have to understand the physics behind it,” Gordon told me.

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