US Patent number 10 million highlights optics and photonics innovation
The United States Patent and Trademark Office just awarded patent number 10,000,000 - a very large number that highlights the long history of innovation in the United States. While the number attached to the patent is impressive, the technology outlined in the patent is equally so: being an optics and photonics technology appropriately marks the significance of these fields in today's technology infrastructure.
The patent, "Coherent LADAR Using Intra-Pixel Quadrature Detection" awarded to the Raytheon Company and inventor Joseph Marron on 19 June 2018, describes a system for laser detection and ranging that is similar to a digital camera, but rather than measuring light intensity, each pixel measures speed or distance. Lasers and photodetectors are core to enabling the advancements outlined in the patent, and are core optics and photonics technologies that enable many of the ten million patents awarded by the United States.
LADAR (Laser Detection and Ranging) is synonymous with LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) and is an old technology whose applications are growing. Used in autonomous driving applications, atmospheric monitoring, defense applications, and even fish counting and archeology, the technology behind each application has a story of research and innovation.
This animation illustrates Raytheon's method for delivering real-time data from a laser radar. Courtesy of Raytheon.
Marron's invention is the result of a long career in laser imaging, and he says this particular sensor invention came from an ‘aha' moment while working on new sensor technologies at Raytheon. Being the owner of patent number ten million comes with a bit of newfound fame including being present to watch the President sign the document. The notoriety came as a surprise to Marron, "I had no idea until I was contacted by the US Patent and Trademark Office. There have been several other exciting events, and after one, there was actually a line of people wanting to take selfies with me."
Not all patents turn into successful commercial products and selfie lines, and many successful lab experiments and discoveries are never awarded patents. In and of themselves, patents do not indicate success, but are a good indicator of a technology's ability to be commercialized and a company's ability to innovate.
SPIE is an engineering society that promotes and supports the turning of science and basic research to application-oriented science and successful technologies and industries. Currently, over 120,000 US patents cite an SPIE publication, including more than 400 from the Raytheon Company, proving the value of the optics and photonics community to the larger innovation engine.
SPIE conference proceedings have long been an excellent avenue for engineers to disseminate their research to a live audience at a technical conference and publish in a respected publication without the long delays journal publication often has. For more than 50 years, SPIE Yellow Books were synonymous with engineering advancement. While not quite the 10,000,000 the US Patent Office boasts, an admirable collection of over 500,000 publications are in the SPIE Digital Library today, including over 50,000 covering LiDAR or LADAR technology, an indication of the potential of optics and photonics to impact future innovations.