Author E-mail

Through the Homeland Security Advanced Research Projects Agency (HSARPA) and the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) programs, the U.S. government is searching for new technologies to help the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) better serve its mission to protect the citizenry from hostile threats.

One area of specialized interest is the defense of the nation's harbors and coastlines, both above and below the waterline.

In Providence, R.I., FarSounder Inc. was awarded one of the Phase I Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) contracts directed at harbor protection for the development of its low cost, three-dimensional sonar technology. The $100,000 contract is for developing and demonstrating the systems' feasibility. If successful, FarSounder would move to Phase II and another infusion of cash to develop a prototype.

FarSounder's technology is a 3-D system for exploring and monitoring the ocean in shallow water environments. Traditional two-dimensional, forward-looking sonar provides the user two of the components needed for navigation: range and bearing. While this answers the question "is there something out there?" it does not address what is out there.

"It is almost like you can take a flashlight and stick it in the water," said FarSounder Chief Executive Officer Cheryl M. Zimmerman. "You can see in 3-D, so you can separate objects, even from the sea floor."

That is, a flashlight that can shine up to a quarter of a mile in the murky depths of harbors such as Boston's.

Part of the DHS's mission, which varies from the charter of other government-based technology research programs such as the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), is a focus on technologies that are close to production and cost effective, said HSARPA Deputy Director Jane Alexander at a conference last month. The agency wants realistic technologies, with specified purposes and at reasonable costs.

FarSounder believes it is on target for both criteria. Founded in 2001, the company already sells its basic 3-D sonar product to companies and pleasure boaters for navigational use, and therefore it is advanced enough to satisfy the first element of the DHS charter.

Cost-wise, the company has targeted a product that can cover 1,000 feet of shoreline for about $100,000 per unit, a goal approved as part of the SBIR contract.

Under the SBIR, the company will work on a fixed product, which will be mounted at a stationary location to monitor underwater activity in search of any possible threats.

"You have to be able to not only determine and locate an underwater threat, but classify it," said Zimmerman. "Using 3-D enables you to get more points of identification in order to make a more qualified classification."

Classification is key to the system, both in order to identify smaller objects, such as an individual diver, and to hone the ability to separate common shallow-water traffic and objects from potential threats.

Created on the back of an initial friends and family round of funding four years ago, FarSounder subsists on state and federal grant money, though this is the company's first SBIR contract. In addition, the company does not expect to pursue venture funding, and Zimmerman expects the company to become profitable in the near future, as it expands its private sector sales of the navigation system.

"We decided it is more advantageous to us in the long term to be bootstrapped," said Zimmerman.

Zimmerman and FarSounder are happy with the SBIR contract, but that money can be stretched only so far to compete with much larger defense contractors such as Raytheon and L-3 Communications. Steve Winthrow, executive director of the Marine and Oceanographic Technology Network (MOTN), said the SBIR program is not enough for many small companies.

"It (the SBIR) has been a way for small companies to get seed money, but there aren't too many coming out the other end in a big way," he said. "It is difficult for a small company in a small business. You may win a Phase I or a Phase II, but when you start talking about five or six systems a year, it is not a very good investment (for the company)."

One solution to the problem of helping small companies like FarSounder compete with the larger defense contractors is to facilitate collaboration between the two, a notion supported by Alexander and MOTN. However, says Winthrow, it is a very difficult process.

FarSounder has worked on its project with various organizations in the Ocean State, including the University of Rhode Island.

"A research project on transportation infrastructure security at the University of Rhode Island sponsored by the U.S. Department of Transportation recently utilized a FarSounder surface ship navigation sonar for initial testing of the technology for diver detection," said James H. Miller, professor of ocean engineering at URI and co-founder of FarSounder. "Already, the 3-D technology shows great promise and can be scaled appropriately for even higher-performance security applications."

While the initial FarSounder SBIR application will be a fixed system, according to Zimmerman the technology can easily be applied to mobile applications, such as on submarines and remotely operated vehicles.