Underwater-imaging system seen filling security gap

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Providence Business News

FOCUS: THE SEA & THE ECONOMY

FarSounder signal-processing engineer Nabin Sharma monitors diver-detection sonar outputs during a recent field test

With all of the attention paid to terrorism in the last decade, few would expect the country wouldn’t have the technology it needs to protect its ports from an attack by scuba divers.

But Warwick sonar innovators FarSounder Inc. think they have found an underserved space in the marine-defense sector tracking hostile frogmen and other underwater threats.

And the U.S. Department of Homeland Security seems to agree.

The federal agency in December named FarSounder one of 11 companies in its new DawnBreaker program to commercialize important, new security technologies.

The technology FarSounder has been developing and plans to market to private companies and government agencies is a variation on the high-resolution 3-D underwater-imaging systems FarSounder has been making for 10 years.

But instead of providing ships with images of the seafloor ahead of them, these security systems provide images of the water itself and can detect and identify objects like scuba divers approaching harbors, oil rigs, moored ships or sensitive waterfront military and industrial installations.

“We were trying to find a niche for our technology, so we started tracking underwater threats with it and found that there was a technology gap,” said Cheryl Zimmerman, CEO of FarSounder. “We started developing a software package for tracking divers and we realized that we can not only track but classify things in the water.”

The ability for the software to classify underwater objects as well as spot them is important if the technology is going to become commercially useful, Zimmerman said, because it allows those monitoring the water to tell an enemy diver from a harbor seal or large fish.

The system can also track divers using re-breather devices, which allow frogmen to move underwater without leaving a revealing bubble trail that is invisible to some tracking systems.

While the Department of Homeland Security did not immediately respond to inquiries about why they chose FarSounder for the new commercialization program, Zimmerman said she thinks it was those capabilities that attracted the agency.

“In the security end we have more competitors than in navigation, but we believe we have some unique features to our system and Homeland Security agreed,” Zimmerman said.

The Dawnbreaker program is a new initiative for Homeland Security that’s based on similar military programs designed to accelerate the commercial development of defense-related technologies.

What the program offers selected companies are the services of Dawnbreaker, Inc., a Rochester, N.Y. consulting firm that specializes in helping small technology businesses take their products to the point where they could be marketed on a large scale.

Homeland Security chooses eligible companies from those already operating in the government’s Small Business Innovation Research, which FarSounder has already been participating in as a “phase 2” company.

“The goal is to increase the chances of success in reaching phase 3, or commercialization,” said Todd Farrar, business-acceleration manager at Dawnbreaker. “They’re assigned a manager that hones their strategy for commercialization. They can get licensing advice, market research, direct mentoring and introduction to potential partners.”

In many cases, the program is intended to take selected companies to a point where they can compete for a big defense-department contract, but in the case of diver detection, both FarSounder and Dawnbreaker are looking at a potential market that goes well beyond the military.

“The need for it is growing by the year, because it crosses many market sectors from private vessels [that] are increasingly worried about attacks, to the offshore oil industry, first responders, power plants, offshore LNG, wind farms and then the government need to protect ports,” Zimmerman said.

While diver detection may hold the greatest potential for future growth, FarSounder is also moving ahead strongly in the navigation segment of its business.

In addition to developing all its own software, FarSounder manufactures its sonar systems in Warwick and this year won a “manufacturer of the year” award from the Rhode Island Manufacturers Association.

The company’s sonar has long been popular with the owners of giant luxury yacht and cruise ships with a strong incentive to not run aground in exotic waters.

Recently, FarSounder announced that the giant condominium ship The World is installing the company’s latest sonar system in advance of a cruise through Canada’s Northwest Passage.

The new system allows captains to see a detailed image of the seafloor up to one-half a nautical mile in front of the ship.

The World’s previous system could see a quarter-mile ahead and the ship’s owners thought having the new system was important enough to have it installed by a diver while the vessel was still in the water.