It’s a rare technology that’s as applicable to military helicopters as it is to wind turbines and racing yachts.
But Manassas-based Optical Air Data Systems and spinoff company Catch the Wind are centered around using lasers, in the first instance to help helicopters land safely even when visibility is obscured, and in the second to allow wind turbines and yachts to precisely measure wind speed and adapt accordingly.
The product is the brainchild of aerospace engineers and husband and wife Philip and Alisa Rogers, who spent about 15 years developing the technology before it was ready for use.
Now, Philip Rogers runs Catch the Wind, the commercially-focused spinoff, while Alisa Rogers oversees Optical Air Data Systems, which licenses its technology to Rockwell Collins for use on military aircraft. Both businesses operate out of a nearly-new building near the Manassas airport, equipped with an electronics lab, manufacturing space and a hangar to store aircraft used for testing.
Combined, the two companies boast about 50 employees, who gather daily for a company-provided lunch. The office also plays host to the Rogerses’ two Westie dogs.
The Rogerses got their start at Lockheed Martin in the 1970s, working at the firm’s Skunk Works unit, which still focuses on secret groundbreaking projects.
There, Philip Rogers first took on the challenge of modernizing the way the speed of airplanes is measured. At the time, pressure measurement — best understood by thinking about holding one’s hand outside a moving car’s window — was the commonly used method. But he was interested in using lasers — measuring the change in a laser’s color as it bounces off dust particles — to more precisely calculate this speed.
He worked on the project for Lockheed, first designing a large system in the late 1970s and then making it small enough to fit in an airplane’s nose by the mid-1980s. But the system still wasn’t robust enough to work in all situations.
By 1987, the Rogerses had left Lockheed to do consulting, but they soon were drawn back to the question of how to better measure airspeed. In 1990, they started their own company focused on developing a fiber-optic air data system and received Small Business Innovative Research funding to pursue the technology.
Big changes arrived in 2002 and 2003, when the military asked the company to consider how to apply its laser system to helping land a helicopter. The dusty conditions in Afghanistan made it hard for pilots to see the ground, and the military had suffered multiple helicopter accidents.
The Rogerses quickly added staff, growing from about five employees in 2003 to 35 by the end of 2004. They developed a prototype and were given a Vietnam-era helicopter to run tests in Manassas and at military test ranges around the country. By the end of 2006, the technology was working and the company licensed it to aviation electronics giant Rockwell Collins for use on military aircraft.
But after decades of development, the couple wasn’t ready to desert the technology. In 2008, they spun off public company Catch the Wind to develop commercial applications.
The new business started with a system designed for wind turbines — realizing that using lasers to accurately sense wind speed would make them vastly more efficient. Called the Vindicator, the system is now in use in test programs in Spain and Canada.
Catch the Wind was soon approached by a team competing for the America’s Cup, the prestigious yacht race, and developed a hand-held version called the Racer’s Edge, which was used by the winning BMW Oracle team during last year’s race off Valencia, Spain.
Though both Catch the Wind products are still in their early stages, Philip Rogers can’t help but think of other potential applications for the company’s technology.
A hand-held version, for instance, could be used by golfers sizing up a shot or emergency responders tackling forest fires. The technology might even make sense for cars one day, he said.
“There’s a big opportunity to be captured,” Philip Rogers said. “When you have a basic technology, it’ll branch out.”