(NASA Photo) A single fiber thinner than a human hair may one day enable systems that can monitor aircraft health, detect cracks and assess damage from natural disasters in bridges and infrastructure as they occur, support the gas and oil industries and be used in medical equipment.
Pierrick Vulliez, president of the company 4DSP, thinks that day is near. Vulliez's company recently entered into a licensing agreement with Dryden to begin commercializing Dryden-developed fiber optics work. Through use of Dryden researcher Allen Parker's patent-pending algorithm (see main article), information now can move from the fiber optic sensing system to the people who need it as events being monitored unfold, he said.
"Under the licensing agreement, 4DSP is allowed to engage in the design, manufacturing, promotion and commercialization of fiber optic sensing products," Vulliez said.
Vulliez and Parker began talking and working together in 2007 and the Texas-based 4DSP has developed some of the components of Dryden's fiber optic sensing system. Now the challenge will be to package the technology into commercial, off-the-shelf products that can be customized by users.
The company's name, 4DSP, is an abbreviation for "for digital signal processing," Vulliez explained. "Our expertise is in performing signal processing and data acquisition using field, programmable gate array, or FPGA, technology."
Vulliez recalled his first conversation with Parker.
"At the time, we had some off-the-shelf products that he [Allen] thought were suitable for his application. We [4DSP] didn't know anything about fiber optics; it was a foreign concept to us. We delivered a signal processing system and Allen hooked up the fiber optics to it," he said.
Opportunities followed as 4DSP was asked to assist Parker and Dryden researchers in dreaming up the next-generation fiber optic sensing system. That led to an exponentially smaller, compact system, which Vulliez said will be further minimized in size and power consumption.
Signal processing and data acquisition, or moving information from one point to another in real time, have moved fiber optics from an interesting novelty to a potentially game-changing technology, Vulliez said. Because of Vulliez's contacts with large aerospace and defense contractors, who make up about 80 percent of his current business, Vulliez said he believes those will be some of the first customers for the fiber optic sensing technology.
Opportunities with fiber optics are without boundaries, Vulliez said, and he jumped at the opportunity to show Dryden what 4DSP brings to the table and why they were the right company to begin commercializing this technology, he said.
"The prospects of bringing this technology to market and making it available to industry were too appealing for us to pass up," Vulliez said. "Some elements of the [fiber optic] system technology that Dryden has developed delivers about a 20-fold improvement over what is available."
What Vulliez said 4DSP is uniquely qualified to commercialize the Dryden-developed fiber optic technology because of the company's involvement in the system's creation, its experience in signal processing and its relationship with major aerospace and defense contractors.
"Because we are a small business, our flexibility and expertise allow us to solve problems in an unconventional manner," he said.
During the next year, 4DSP will roll out a number of products that will be showcased on the company's website. Vulliez said he will introduce the latest developments to customers who might be able to make the best use of it.
The cost of obtaining the technology, however, remains a roadblock for smaller companies.
"The items we sell are on the high end of the technology market. These systems can costs hundreds of thousands of dollars. If we want this technology to be available to a number of industries, we need to reduce the cost," he said.
To make the system more attractive, he said, the next generation of it will need to be increasingly compact and lightweight. Fiber optic sensing systems already have an advantage over traditional systems that use transducers and heavy bundles of wire to collect information. But as fiber optic systems become more compact, weigh less and establish a record of reliability, their use will grow exponentially.
"Credit goes to many people, but this licensing agreement would not have happened without [Dryden partnership-development manager] Julie Holland. She walked us through the licensing process and she really made it a breeze. Her help goes far beyond the agreement – Julie worked with us to define whom we are and where we want to go.
"From our perspective, her input was of tremendous value."
Fiber optic sensing solutions bring benefits that are hard to ignore, he said. For that reason, while it may take a decade for the technology to become mainstream, "it will surely happen."