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Innovators: Aerospace & Technology

Engineering Visionary

Abhijit Mahalanobis
Abhijit Mahalanobis [Photo: Jeffrey Camp]

Three suggestions for science success: Keep abreast of the scientific literature to know what has been tried before; rely on intuition to judge which ideas of all the ones that pop into your mind are worth pursuing; remember that for every 10 things you try, one pans out.

» Abhijit Mahalanobis

Lockheed Martin Missiles and Fire Control Signal Imaging and Processing Group, Corporate fellow, technical lead and manager

Location: Orlando

Education: Bachelor’s, electrical and computer engineering, University of California at Santa Barbara; master’s and doctorate, electrical and computer engineering, Carnegie Mellon University

Family: Wife, Priti; daughter,
Priya Tanushree, 14; son, Nikhil Anjan, 8

Full circle: Mahalanobis received his Scientist of the Year honor in Baltimore, the same city where he was sworn in years before as a U.S. citizen.

Other honors: 1999, Innovator of the Year by the state of Arizona; 2001, Lockheed Martin’s Author of the Year; 2005, Inventor of the Year

Civilian applications for his work: Security, medicine

Reading: Light humor fiction writers, such as P.G. Wodehouse

In the future: Algorithms based on biological models

The suggestions come from someone who knows. Abhijit (pronounced ab-hee-JEET) Mahalanobis was named Scientist of the Year in 2006 by the Minorities in Research Science organization. He’s an inaugural fellow at Lockheed Martin in Orlando, a fellow of two scientific societies, holds three patents, has authored more than 120 journal and conference articles and co-authored a book, “Correlation Pattern Recognition.”

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Mahalanobis, 44, knew from at least age 6, as he watched Apollo 11, that science was his future. His forte is getting computers to “see” as the human eye does. He devised mathematical and programming algorithms that allow a machine to look at an image and distinguish, for example, tanks from the trees they’re hiding behind. He digitized pictures of land-based weapons systems from around the world and gathered information on the refractive properties of rocks and trees to make “seeing” easier. The goal is to deliver destruction more accurately and minimize collateral damage.

His 11-person group has brought $40 million to $50 million in contracts and grants to Lockheed Martin. It made the company the Army’s prime contractor for its future ground combat system’s aided target recognition system, a $38-million contract. “We are clearly the leader and pushing the edge forward.”

A Major Impact

It’s a fair bet that most people stuck on Miami’s Palmetto Expressway aren’t noodling inventions — well, maybe they’re thinking up ways to create a flying car. Mechanical engineer and aspiring inventor Cameron Gunn, though, dreamed up hurricane protection while commuting to his day job — designing fueling systems for airports.

Cameron Gunn and Leticia Delatorre
Cameron Gunn and Leticia Delatorre

Shield Technology Group
Founders, inventor
Education: Bachelor’s, mechanical engineering, University of Alberta
Life as an inventor: “It’s been something I’ve been wanting to do for a long time.”
Co-founder: His wife, Leticia Delatorre, is executive vice president of sales and marketing
[Photo: Daniel Portnoy]

Gunn, a native of Canada, conceived a fabric covering stretched as tight as a drumhead to protect a house’s windows at a price cheaper than all but storm panels and plywood.

For the past two years, he has worked full time on bringing his ImpactShield to market. The shield is approved by the Florida Building Commission but not authorized under the tough Miami-Dade building code that governs south Florida. He needs another $100,000 to pay for additional testing there. He sells online and hopes to have ImpactShield soon in a major home improvement retailer.

Gunn’s fueling system work had taught him about the capabilities of high-strength fabrics. His patented breakthrough includes stretching heavy polyethylene fabric taut with a crank so that projectiles bounce off. He says it’s easy to install and quick to deploy.

Making the top 25 of the History Channel’s Modern Marvels Invent Now Challenge has brought attention. Now the trick is marketing and selling the ImpactShield. “The whole thing, ‘If you have a great product it will sell itself,’ I don’t know if that’s true. It takes a lot of work to get it in front of people,” says Gunn, 39.

He has applied for a patent for his ImpactPanel, another window covering, and has invented a flood protection product. “I have a lot of ideas. I have an inventor’s book,” he says. “I’ve been doing this quite awhile — finally found one I felt passionate about.”

The ImpactShield is a heavy polyethylene fabric stretched tightly.


In 2009 — pending some big ifs — Dennis Chamberland and two other aquanauts will move into an undersea habitat off the Florida coast to set the world record for days living under water.

Dennis Chamberland
Dennis Chamberland [Photo: Gregg Matthews]
Chamberland, 56, says the mission, Atlantica I, is a prelude to 2012, when he hopes to see 12 people establish Atlantica II, the first permanent human undersea colony. That venture envisions the largest human undersea habitat ever built — a structure in the Gulf Stream off Florida where families will live and work and children will be born. To clear up any misunderstanding, he hastens to add that it doesn’t mean the colonists won’t ever walk the earth again. The colony will be their primary residence, but they will leave for hurricanes, vacations and land-side trips.

The Oklahoma native’s interest in the sea dates to watching “Sea Hunt” as a kid. He worked on an underwater living project while at Oklahoma State in 1972. He was a life scientist with NASA and designed NASA’s Scott Carpenter Space Analog Station undersea habitat, where NASA studied how lessons learned undersea could apply to space.

the New World Explorer Habitat
Construction on the New World Explorer Habitat is set to begin this month and is scheduled for deployment in the spring. The two-man habitat will serve as a secondary habitat for the Atlantica I mission.
In developing Atlantica, Chamberland speaks of stewardship, science and sustainability and, on his website, the inevitability of new nations undersea. His group needs to raise $75,000 to fund the first mission and $1.5 million to begin the permanent colony.

For the 2009 Atlantica I mission, Chamberland, his wife, Claudia, and diving operations chief Terrence Tysall will try to stay below the surface for 80 days to break the 69-day record set at the Jules Undersea Lodge in the Keys. Seven people have committed as colonists for Atlantica II, he says. The habitat will be no deeper than 150 feet.

Chamberland has dreams but no illusions about the difficulty of his quest. But, he says, “I think this really has a good chance of success.”

» Dennis Chamberland
Atlantica I, aquanaut
Varied interests: Chamberland writes novels, just released a non-fiction work, “Undersea Colonies,” once did an extended interview with Vietnam era Gen. William Westmoreland and wrote on genetic engineering for Christianity Today.
Sea world: “We have chosen for whatever reason to ignore the undersea world.”
Coming and going: For transport, the aquanauts have
the Dan Scott Taylor II submarine, developed by the late Taylor to explore Loch Ness.


Aquarius Reef Base
The Aquarius Reef Base
In August, Ellen Prager became chief scientist for a research venture with which, she regrets to say, most Floridians aren’t acquainted — the undersea Aquarius Reef Base off Key Largo. “It is the world’s only undersea research laboratory operating right now,” Prager says.

The lab, operated by the University of North Carolina at Wilmington for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, has been in the Keys reef since 1986. The Aquarius is a 43-foot-long cylinder nine feet in diameter — “an undersea mobile home.” In 60 feet of water, it runs about eight missions a year, each lasting one to two weeks. In addition to science missions, Aquarius is a training site for Navy divers and NASA astronauts.

A recent mission included a scientist working with a state-of-the-art undersea mass spectrometer to study the role of sponges in cycling nutrients on the coral reef. Advances in communication technology allow the lab to do more virtual outreach and education with students, bringing them “into” the lab and reef. The lab also works at the cutting edge of ocean reef research.

Prager, 45, seems a natural for a job mixing marine science and educational outreach. An aquanaut, she has a master’s in marine science from the University of Miami’s Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science and a doctorate from Louisiana State University. In college she spent a summer as a diver and research assistant, a “go-fer,” at Hydrolab, an underwater habitat in the Virgin Islands. She’s been on research expeditions to the Galapagos and Papua New Guinea. She taught oceanography to college students, teachers and seniors at Sea Education Association at Woods Hole and is a former assistant dean of UM’s Rosenstiel school. She’s been on the “Today Show,” “Larry King Live” and Fox News.

The 1960s was the heyday of undersea habitats, Prager says, but they dwindled as people realized the difficulties of living under water. The Aquarius isn’t about coral garden living but stays focused on science, technology development, education and training for the Navy and NASA. She wants more Floridians to know about it.

Ellen Prager
[Photo: Rodrigo Varela]

Ellen Prager

Aquarius Reef Base, chief scientist
Key Largo

Quote: “I want us to be working on the top science issues in oceans and reefs today.”

Author: Prager writes science books for the lay reader and kids. She has several titles in the “Jump Into Science” series. Next year, the University of Chicago Press will publish her book, tentatively titled, “Chasing Science at Sea: Tales of Adventure, Learning, and Near Disaster.”

Her Best Shot

Kim Bertron
[Photo: Ray Stamyard]

Kim Bertron

SimpleShot, co-inventor/
government consultant

Development: “I’ve been really humbled by the amount of people who have contacted us with ideas about how the product can work.”

Six years ago, Kim Bertron and her 10-year-old daughter, who has type I diabetes, were on a beach vacation. “Just a typical morning,” Bertron remembers, “no warning.”

Her daughter suddenly had a seizure, requiring Bertron to mix glucagon powder in a diluting solution, draw it into a syringe and inject it; it can’t be made ahead of time and held for use. Bertron had been through the harrowing experience twice before, but this seizure was far worse. She recalls shaking as she mixed the solution. She broke the needle on the vial. Fortunately, she had another needle in her car.

Upon returning to her Tallahassee home, she sought a way to prevent herself and others from having to play pharmacist in a crisis. She and Tallahassee patent lawyer J. Wiley Horton and Brian Boothe, a North Carolina engineer Horton put her in touch with, invented SimpleShot, a chambered syringe that mixes the drug with a push of the finger and then injects it. The trio’s creation came in second behind the grand prize winner in the History Channel’s Modern Marvels invention competition. The three are in talks with a medical device company to manufacture it.

Bertron’s daughter, now 16, is on an insulin pump and hasn’t suffered a seizure since that vacation. Says Bertron, 44, “I’m just a mom trying to solve a problem.”

Play Right

Dan Anton» Dan Anton

XOS Technologies
Chief innovation officer

It’s in the game, and then some. A Sanford company builds on the scout team idea by creating a computer alternative, in virtual reality, that lets college players face their opponent’s blitzes and formations in detail that extends right down to the jersey colors.

XOS video game
To make its college football simulators, Sanford-based sports tech company XOS Technologies (get it? X’s and O’s), licensed the engine that drives the Madden NFL video game from creator EA Sports.

Players can get in a studio with high-tech 3-D motion capture cameras and head-mounted displays that put them into the video action. If the players don’t grasp the play drawn on the board, they can run through it with a customized 3-D playbook.

The price for the highly customized products depends on the number of features a team wants. Desktop models run from $35,000 up to $100,000; the sport motion studio system goes from $250,000 to $500,000. “It’s as precise as the coach wants it to be,” says XOS founder Dan Aton. Aton stepped down as CEO last year; he says it’s more fun to be head tech than fulfill CEO duties such as HR and legal.

Aton says the systems help college coaches recruit players, impressing parents that their kids will have the best.

Next up? Making the technology available down the athletic food chain from BCS contenders to lesser collegiate powers and even the high school level. But, Aton says, with the cost of motion-capture cameras, “It’s hard to scale some of these things down.”

Meanwhile, XOS this year, for the fanatic fan, created an online searchable archive of field video, statistical info, alternative-angle replays and recruiting profiles.

Bow Regard

David Jenkins
[Photo: Jeffrey Camp]

David Jenkins
University of Florida Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering
Associate engineer, Gainesville

UF competition for micro aerial vehicles: The first year’s smallest competitor could fit in a 31-inch sphere. The most recent fit in a 3-inch sphere.

He who hesitates ... winds up having to find another, better way to build a weapon that dates to the Stone Age.

David Jenkins, an archery buff and hunter, got a notion as a University of Florida freshman in 1962 that the traditional bow could be improved with pulleys and cables. The strength required to pull back a conventional bow increases as the archer draws the bow back farther and farther. Consequently, archers are under a lot of pressure to aim and shoot quickly, before their muscles give out.

Jenkins never got around to pursuing his idea, and within the decade someone else patented a pulley-and-cable compound bow that takes a fraction of the force to draw and hold cocked. Compound bows captured almost the entire market. “Perhaps I could have been the inventor of the compound bow, which would have been a good thing,” he says.

Jenkins, 63, hasn’t spent the last 40 years stewing over what might have been. He was instrumental in UF aerospace engineer’s decision to focus on micro aerial vehicles, a niche in which UF is a national leader under Peter Ifju.

But the bow nagged at Jenkins. A compound bow weighs more than a traditional bow, has a complicated mechanism requiring a mechanical “release” to shoot properly and looks inelegant. Jenkins devised an improvement that uses composite materials. He patented it in 2003. It looks like a traditional bow but is easier to bend and hold while waiting for a good shot. The Florida native plans better prototypes that he can take around to archery gatherings, hopefully impressing people enough to lead to commercialization.