RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARFK — Has MCNC invented a better light bulb?

In a manner of speaking, its Research and Development Institute gurus have apparently done just that.

But a bit of background first. This project is no joke.

In the struggle for “situational awareness,” or a better understanding and recognition of everything happening around a battlefield, few things — if any — provide commanders better information than good maps or images, such as from spy satellites.

Anyone who has ever sat through a presentation where the projector casts little light and image resolution is no sharper than a 6-week-old razor blade can sympathize with a recent project handed to MCNC by the U.S. Army.

The ability to utilize high-resolution maps these days is even more important. But limits on projectors used to display detailed digital images left much to be desired. Briefers for missions had to use multiple images on different screens to provide the level of detail field commanders and their troops needed for mission planning. The Army called the process “tiling.”

In these days of high-tech warfare, battlefield networks and rapidly moving forces, the Army must have high-resolution maps and intelligence images like never before. Projectors simply failed to deliver the pinpoint accuracy needed for combat commanders to control forces under their command. (Who knows, these images also could be used to target precision-guided munitions, or “smart bombs.”)

The challenge to the MCNC Research and Development Institute: “Develop a cost-effective, high-resolution projector for displaying detailed maps using commercial off-the-shelf components.”

This week, the U.S. Army Research Development Engineering Command announced that MCNC had delivered.

‘Step in the right direction’

“MCNC has fabricated quite a unique prototype,” said Raymond Schulze, part of the Army’s Communications-Electronics Research Development Engineering Center. “Granted, there is still work that needs to be done on the brightness of the system. However, MCNC has truly overcome significant optical impediments.

“We view this projection system as a step in the right direction in our quest to provide Army commanders with advanced situational awareness displace devices for the Army’s Future Force.”

MCNC says its team delivered “the highest digital projector ever produced at a cost less than half of proprietary alternatives and a resolution six times as great.”

In less than six months and for less than $90,000 the MCNC team built the prototype with “commercial parts” around a 150-watt light bulb. MCNC says the projector delivers sharper images than a commercially available product that costs almost $200,000. The research team has also found a 1,000-watt light source that would add a great deal more brightness.

MCNC didn’t act alone in the project. David Morton and David Chiu of the Army Research Lab played an active role in the project.

Multiple images, multiple uses

Using the projector, Army field commanders can also display multiple images simultaneously, according to Scott Yates, a spokesman for MCNC.

“It is designed for static headquarters and use in the field, but not for ‘front line’ use,” he tells Local Tech Wire. “It is not something put in a backpack, and you need to have a wall to project the image one. It would be appropriate further ‘down the chain’ from static headquarters, such as mobile command and control centers.”

The Army, which has a long-standing relationship with MCNC, awarded MCNC the contract as a specific project not needed to bid. MCNC also keeps rights to the technology and could possible license it for use by private enterprise.

Architecture firms as well as hospitals and doctors needing high-resolution images could use the projector, MCNC says.

“This project not only costs considerably less than similar equipment currently available but it provides the best solution for our customer,” said Michael Lamvik, a staff research scientist at MCNC.

Kenneth Williams, vice president of the materials and electronic technologies division at MCNC-RDI, added: “MCNC has demonstrated we can be responsive to the Army’s special requests within cost and time restraints. In the case of this projector, we delivered a piece of equipment that works exactly for the Army’s specific needs — and we did it cost effectively while producing a superior product.”

Rick Smith is managing editor of Local Tech Wire.