Unprecedented technologies and innovative solutions are common currency at The Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL), in North Laurel. The last two months have been particularly productive, comparatively speaking, evidenced by a rapid series of major announcements of significant impact for national security, emergency response crews, space exploration and even unrelated organizations looking to improve their own innovative processes.
Perhaps the most overarching work to come out of the laboratory to date is a recently published textbook that was announced in April that shares lessons learned on creating a culture of innovation in large organizations.
Titled “Infusing Innovation into Organizations: A Systems Engineering Approach,” the textbook was written and edited by a team of technical administrative leaders at APL and describes a process the lab has used since 2010 to spur innovation and collaboration.
“[The book] is designed for the mature large and often successful organization,” said Ann Darrin, managing executive of APL’s Space Exploration Sector, who co-edited the book with Jerry Krill, assistant director for science and technology and chief technology officer.
Large organizations, ranging from government centers and labs to established commercial industries, face larger challenges in becoming innovative, Darrin said. “They are not Silicon Valley startups, but well-oiled machines whose own success impedes desires to change the culture.”
The book introduces a demonstrated new approach that blends the practical applications of engineering with innovative concepts and techniques, demonstrating how large organizations can successfully create, explore and test new ideas.
The new textbook is the result of a significant collaborative effort, with chapters and articles by 17 APL authors.
“It was more fun than a chore to produce the book,” Darrin said, noting that the authors’ backgrounds range from practitioners to executive managers and cover a range of topics, including “The Physical and Virtual Landscape of Innovation,” “The Human Experience, Design Thinking, Design Exploration” and “Technology Transitions.”
Since 2010, more than 85% of APL’s staff members has participated in the organization’s innovation program. The result? Intellectual property disclosures have increased by more than 80%, 1,100 new research projects have been proposed for internal grant funding, patent filings have nearly doubled and 25% of funded projects have received follow-on funding from external parties.
“When we looked back at the progress we’ve made in strengthening innovation and collaboration at the lab during the past five years,” Darrin said, “we knew it was something worth examining and chronicling. For others at large, complex organizations seeking to develop successful and sustainable innovation programs, this book should be of great value.”
In March, an APL-led program for the First Responders Group of the Department of Homeland Security’s Science and Technology Directorate announced datacasting as a new way for public safety agencies to acquire information during a crisis.
Datacasting uses the broadcast frequencies of public television stations to wirelessly deliver video and other data to specific recipients across a very wide area.
“Emergency voice communications are currently good, but they aren’t designed to handle large amounts of data,” said John Contestabile, APL’s datacasting program manager. “During an emergency, cellular networks become congested and strained from use by the public.”
The new technology, he said, provides a more secure and reliable data network. The system requires a transmitter at the participating television station, and end users require a special antenna, dongle and software to decrypt and display the information.
“Datacasting uses spectrum that is already licensed to the television station,” he said, adding that the Association of Public Television Stations has pledged one megabit per second of capacity toward the effort.
In March, APL researchers also announced the development of an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) that can stay on station beneath the water and launch into the air to perform a variety of missions.
The Corrosion Resistant Aerial Covert Unmanned Nautical System — CRACUNS — can be launched either from a fixed underwater position or from an unmanned underwater vehicle (UUV) and enables new capabilities not possible with existing UAV or UUV platforms.
According to CRACUNS project lead Thomas Murdock, the new UAV can fly autonomously for about 12–15 minutes and can reach a top speed of about 20 miles per hour. APL has developed two versions, one weighing six pounds and one weighing 14 pounds.
There is no word yet on what applications might be foreseen for CRACUNS, although its ability to operate in a saltwater and shore environment, as well as its payload flexibility, enables a wide variety of potential missions. The unit’s low cost also makes it expendable, allowing for the use of large numbers of vehicles for high-risk scenarios.
NextGen Solar Array
Also occurring in March, NASA announced its selection of four proposals, including one by APL, to develop new solar array technologies. These improved arrays will aid spacecraft in exploring destinations well beyond low-Earth orbit and as far away as Mars and Jupiter.
NASA’s Game Changing Development (GCD) program sought ideas for a new generation of solar arrays that can operate in high-radiation and low-temperature environments, a critical requirement for future deep space missions. These new arrays will improve mission performance and increase solar array life, and ultimately may allow solar-powered spacecraft to explore deeper into space than ever before.
APL’s proposal, the Transformational Solar Array for Extreme Environments, is led by principal investigator Edward Gaddy and was conducted in partnership with SolAero Technologies of New Mexico; Deployable Space Systems (DSS) of California; and RA Stall Consulting of New Jersey.
The proposal combines two existing, high-performing products: the DSS Roll Out Solar Array with Flexible Array Concentrator Technology (ROSA-FACT) and SolAero’s Inverted Metamorphic (IMM) solar cells. It also introduces new technology to further increase power density and cell efficiency, and modifies these technologies for improved performance in extreme environments.
Initial contract awards amount to as much as $400,000, providing awardees with funding for nine months of system design, component testing and analysis.
NASA anticipates a second phase, and may select up to two of these technologies to receive up to $1.25 million for hardware development and testing, to be followed by a third and final project phase in which one awardee may be asked to continue the development and deliver scalable system hardware.