Lidar Commercialization Opportunity Comes From NASA

I became aware of this lidar commercialization opportunity few months ago when I was contacted by a would be entrepreneur who was doing some market research. Now that I have read this background piece I am more encouraged about the prospects for this technology.

Image of rocket launch Lidar Commercialization Opportunity

Lidar Commercialization Opportunity

As a laser engineer at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, I’m part of a team that has developed a new type of spectrometer that improves throughput, resolution and ruggedness. Called the Recirculating Advanced Coupled-cavity Etalon Receiver (RACER), this innovation can improve multiple lidar instrument concepts to enable lower cost and higher performance Earth science measurements, in addition to other crosscutting applications for this technology. Along with the Technology Transfer Office at Goddard, I am working with FedTech, a private technology venture builder, to assess the suitability of this technology as the basis for a startup business.

I joined Goddard in 1991 as an undergraduate co-op student. I continued my graduate education part-time, eventually earning a Ph.D. in Applied Physics from the University of Maryland Baltimore County (UMBC). Throughout my career, I’ve worked on technology development as well as on several satellite programs.  Currently, I’m working on NASA applications for integrated photonics.

My work on RACER began in 2013, when my colleagues Michael Krainak, Molly Fahey, and I sought to address two long-standing technical limitations for space-based lidar Earth science instruments. First, it is difficult to separate closely spaced wavelengths with minimal loss. Second, pulse repetition frequency (PRF) in space has an upper limit due to cloud reflections and upper atmospheric scatter.

Lidar technology is trending toward photon counting detectors, increased PRF, and higher measurement (photon) efficiency. However, the limitation of PRF in space requires challenging high pulse energy lasers. Generally speaking, higher PRF laser architectures are less complex, more efficient, more reliable, and more compatible for spaceflight requirements. High pulse energies go hand-in-hand with higher peak optical powers, and they are often limiting due to nonlinear optical parasitic effects that reduce laser efficiency and performance.

Addressing these problems would achieve improved measurement efficiency, signal-to-noise ratio, and spectral resolution. While other groups have investigated the laser problem itself, we designed a system architecture approach to simplify the laser requirements. This novel, spectrally resolved receiver technology enables higher PRFs, resulting in lower pulse energy lidar instruments.

The concept combines two new ideas. The etalon-filtering performance is improved with an Advanced Coupled-cavity Etalon (ACE), and the instrument throughput is increased with a light recirculation technique called the Recirculating Etalon Receiver (RER). Together, these two technologies make RACER an innovation that builds on the strengths of standard Fabry-Perot Etalons and improves on the weaknesses.

This spectral resolving technique is relevant to a wide range of applications for de-multiplexing wavelengths. In the realm of lidar applications, RACER can improve performance for altimetry/mapping missions, trace-gas lidars, and Doppler wind systems.

For altimetry measurements, the wavelength can be used to differentiate laser pulses that are closely spaced in time. For trace-gas lidars, the wavelength differentiates pulses and acts as a fundamental part of the measurement, enabling the comparison of the relative intensities of different wavelengths to obtain the absorption profile. For a Doppler wind system, RACER is a more efficient, higher resolution spectrometer for making better Doppler shift measurements with fewer photons.

A team of entrepreneurs participated in FedTech’s Startup Studio program have chosen to focus on RACER and its assortment of potential applications. Based in Washington, D.C., FedTech recruits people with interest in entrepreneurship to study technologies developed by federal agencies, academia, and private companies. Federal agencies collaborating with FedTech include NASA, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, the Department of Defense, and the Department of the Interior.

I worked with FedTech and a team of entrepreneurs (Jason Schweitzer, Antonio White, and Olaitan Olaleye) to explore potential applications of this technology outside of NASA.  I act as a technical consultant describing the lidar technology and its context to other possible solutions while the team conducts market research to find potential overlap between the NASA technologies and commercial requirements.

If you are interested in this lidar commercialization opportunity or licensing a NASA technology, please get in touch with Goddard’s Technology Transfer Office: email techtransfer@gsfc.nasa.gov or visit https://partnerships.gsfc.nasa.gov.

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