Kaua‘i Tech Firm Saving Soldiers’ Lives

The Oceanit team on Kaua'i includes (from left) Fred Cowell, assistant program manager; Mary Lu Kelley, assistant program manager, Basil Scott, technical director, Morey Hubin, software manager, and Ishan Mons, electro-optic engineer

Oceanit produces a sensor that takes 10,000 images per second, not to mention high-tech jobs that allow talented young people to stay home

In a small, rural county like Kaua’i, keeping the best and brightest on-island is a challenge to which companies such as Oceanit are trying to rise. It’s also a challenge Oceanit is taking to the bank, having turned the old adage “brain drain” on its head.

Oceanit founders Patrick K. Sullivan, Ph.D., and his wife, Oceanit COO Jan Sullivan, had a vision to provide further industry so that the younger generation of this archipelago would have an interesting place to work, according to Mary Lu Kelley, assistant program manager at Oceanit.

“Their vision was so young people from Hawai’i can stay in Hawai’i or come back to Hawai’i and earn a decent living doing intriguing work as an alternative industry to the tourism and agriculture industries,” Kelley says.

“Their vision was to create a high-tech industry, and they’ve continued with that. The corporate office in Honolulu spread to an office on Maui, which led to then helping set up with U.S. Sen. (Dan) Inouye at the West Kaua’i Technology & Visitor Center (in Waimea).”

Oceanit has recently set up a new location in Lihu’e, but that’s not all it’s been up to. The company has been gearing up its fourth version of Fast-as-Light Assessment of Snipers and Hostile Fire (FLASH), the infrared optical sensor. More than $3 million has been invested in the development of this “passive detector,” which can see the muzzle flash of a gun whenever a weapon is fired, thanks to its infrared flash.

Basil Scott, Oceanit technical director who started the development of infrared technology in Oceanit’s Kaua’i office, likened the experience of developing FLASH to catching a tiger by the tail.

“We were just minding our own business and got a very hot technology,” he says.

In lay terms, that “hot” technology refers to the infrared detector that powers the FLASH optical sensor. Originally designed for telescope technology for missile defense, Scott says the idea was for speeding rockets, so why not apply it to speeding bullets?

“When a gun is discharged a lot happens in a few milliseconds (1/1000th second),” Scott says. “At that time, superheated gases eject the bullet from the gun, which is a very quick, fast event. This event is seen in infrared by our sensor in detail because our sensor runs at 10,000 frames a second. It looks at super-fast events like the explosion of gas in super-slow motion.”

This super slow-mo helps tell the difference between a bullet being fired and cigarette lighters, or a car backfire.

Pointing to its lack of human error, Kelley says the main reason the U.S. military likes the technology is because it makes fewer mistakes in identifying what just happened.

“This technology is under consideration for every branch of the armed services and the state department, as well as commercial companies,” Fred Cowell, assistant program manager, says. “In Afghanistan, pilots will land their helicopters with bullet holes in them and will have just learned about the bullets when they landed. They couldn’t hear them.” Adding that “enough bullets and you’ll be shot down,” Cowell says the Army is looking for better ways to protect its men and women.

And at a time when unauthorized border shootings – and rampage shootings in general – are at issue in the U.S. and abroad, this “hot technology” will help U.S. Allied forces in Afghanistan.

“There’s a long list of uses from military to civilian police and even private security,” Scott says. “Smaller, faster, cheaper – the typical mantra was being said by people looking for that technology.”

Though there are other infrared technologies around, the Army has been using audio detection for defense.

“If you’re going to detect gunshots from a weapon, the audio device would listen for a loud sound,” says Scott, adding there was a problem with false alarms from audio detectors, whether by a car backfiring or otherwise. “So we built a camera for this instead. The camera would be infrared – which you can’t see with your eye and is associated with heat – and our camera detects the heat flash from the igniting gun that was on the approach.”

The team, which includes Scott, Kelley, Cowell and software manager Morey Hubin, has been “working like gangbusters,” Scott says. Oceanit recently received its third grant to build a prototype which subsequently helped them develop FLASH, replete with the 360-degree lens view that can spot a shooter faster than the shooter can rethink having fired.

Oceanit recently received the 2010 Small Business Innovative Research award for its hostile fire detection system by the U.S. Army, and it has attracted interest from the Department of Homeland Security, in addition to having already worked with the Marine Corps.

Kelley says Oceanit isn’t just another defense contracting company, adding that part of the high-tech mission that is still very much in place is giving young people a choice.

“FLASH is not offensive and it is only used for protection. We are not building weapons, we are trying to keep our soldiers and others safe,” she says, adding that Oceanit does all kinds of engineering. Its Civil Engineering Department, for example, has focused on rebuilding projects such as Brennecke’s Beach after Hurricane ‘Iniki, as well as Lydgate Pond restoration efforts.

The company also has its hand in mentoring a lot of robotics programs on the island. “We want the young people to know we’re here for them,” Kelley says.

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