SPIE Defense + Commercial Sensing

Highlights from 2017 plenary talks.

01 July 2017

Hundreds of photonics experts became one giant brainstorming team at SPIE Defense + Commercial Sensing (DCS) in April as two speakers issued big challenges in one of the most dramatic plenary presentations in the conference’s history.

First Thomas Burns, director of the Strategic Technology Office at the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), asked for help with innovations in sensors and communications to keep the US military ahead of its adversaries on fast-evolving strategies.

Then Parker Abercrombie, lead scientist at the Immersive Visualization Project in NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), led the audience on a virtual tour of Mars for an on-screen workout much like the virtual-reality space exploration sessions he runs at JPL. He invited the experts to think how such an opportunity with augmented reality (AR), virtual reality (VR), and holography might enhance any such training.

Conventional space training just doesn’t work, Abercrombie said. “Looking at pictures, we can’t understand what an area of Mars is like,” he said. Showing images taken by the Curiosity rover, he pointed out that a curve on Mars shows up as a straight line and a pebble can look like a boulder. However, by letting trainees “enter” a 3D landscape that combined images from several sources, their skills soared.

Abercrombie showed data to document how his immersive visualization system works two or three times better than the official “mission tool” in getting trainees to estimate distances and locations for maps.

Then the crowd went inside the International Space Station, before joining Abercrombie for a virtual jog up a mountain on Mars — where the geoscientists he trains do likewise.


Earlier in the plenary session, Burns had reminded his audience at the Anaheim (CA) Convention Center, that DARPA is the American military arm that invents new things “that fly and swim and crawl and go boom.”

After the Soviets got the jump on America by launching Sputnik in the 1950s, US President Dwight Eisenhower launched DARPA to prevent such surprises. Burns said DARPA survives by bringing in the smartest people from industry, universities, and businesses.

Several times he asked attendees to send in ideas from their own areas of photonics expertise to help build a new culture at DARPA, a team that is building, in Burns own words, “a system of systems that work together to achieve a new type of weapon: that weapon is complexity.”

Over the years, DARPA has recorded many successes in battlefield intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR), stealth devices, and precision strike capabilities. But today, such innovations take too long to devise, especially when other countries can match US innovation with newer and better weapons.

Burns, a pioneer of technologies that can extract information from massive quantities of multisensor data, called his plan “a composable strategy,” in which all parts and agency divisions are constantly able to fit existing elements together in new ways. “It’s the third wave of systems,” he said.

“I am advocating a framework that creates a system of systems that can be tailored for different kinds of conflict, that doesn’t take forever to get things out the door. It will combine manned with unmanned systems, so our adversaries cannot keep up with us in time or in space.”


logo for SPIE DCSTo illustrate, Burns showed a video of a pair of military planes. The first plane was an unmanned information collector that can relay data to the second, a flying “resource truck” or repository of weapons. The second plane can release a cloud of small missiles, so many that an enemy would waste a lot of firepower without stopping them all, letting some explode their targets.

“We can impose complexity on our adversaries,” Burns said, adding that further details about his new interconnected approach will be disclosed in the next six months or so.

A new challenge, Burns added, is finding ways to combat military threats in cities, without much collateral damage. “That’s a big concern,” he told his audience. Lower-level conflict operations will also take place in urban environments, he said. “That’s the way the world is moving.”

He asked attendees for help developing technologies to defend against modern threats. “If a small, non-state group were to become burrowed deep into Jakarta and decided it would take down New York City or hold it hostage, we need to be able to take them out or neutralize that capability,” he said. “The key technology could be one we need you to help us develop today.”

Burns concluded, “I hope this strategic context will whet your appetite.”

Nearly 4,600 participants attended SPIE DCS 2017, in the long-running event’s first showing on the West Coast.


Ten distinguished early-career scientists selected as the inaugural group of SPIE Rising Researchers were honored during welcome remarks before the plenary session.

Honorees were John Hennessy and Adrian Tang, NASA JPL, along with SPIE members Fei Tian, Stevens Institute of Technology (USA); Junsuk Rho, Pohang University of Science and Technology (Republic of Korea); Shuo Pang, University of Central Florida (USA); Daniela Moody, Descartes Labs (USA); Yongmin Liu, Northeastern University (USA); Daniel LeMaster, US Air Force Research Lab; Matt Graham, Oregon State University (USA); and Nathan Cahill, Rochester Institute of Technology (USA).

SPIE President Glenn Boreman, left, with Rising Researchers at DCS.

Anaheim is part of a three-city rotation for SPIE DCS in the USA. The event moves to Orlando, FL, 15-19 April 2018, and Baltimore, MD, in April 2019. Abstracts for SPIE Defense + Commercial Sensing 2018 are due 9 October.

The Society’s Europe meeting, SPIE Security + Defence, will be held 11-14 September in Warsaw, Poland. 

Read more information on SPIE Defense + Commercial Sensing 2017.

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