Footprints in the Dark Illuminated
Off the radar of research park tenants, snug in downtown Huntsville, Polaris Sensor Technologies Inc. has gone from Homeland Security problem statements to licensed patents to revenues of $5 million a year.
Optical Engineer Justin Vaden, of Polaris Sensor Technologies, stands next to a telescope designed to track missile launches.
Photo by Dave Helms
CEOs like to talk about “vision,” but, at Polaris Sensor Technologies Inc. in Huntsville, it’s not a metaphorical discussion.
The company’s latest product generates enhanced thermal images to help border patrollers see footprints that would otherwise be invisible. Such achievements have required the merger of software engineers, experts on polarization and hardware people who can put it all into a workable, even elegant, package.
Taking a walk around the back rooms at Polaris may give you the feeling that you’ve wandered into the lair of mad scientists.
For starters, there’s a white board in the conference room filled up with flow charts and math equations that suggests a recent heated argument over quantum theory. Further down the hall, one of their optical scanners sits atop a bomb-sniffing rover. A telescope designed to track missile launches sits in the corner.
It’s an idea factory, says CEO Michele Banish, purposely set apart from where small tech companies in Huntsville are supposed to be.
Polaris got its start in 2003 at a research park in Huntsville, Banish says, based on the idea of reining in the full-wave nature of light, not just certain wavelengths. But the fledgling company discovered that bigger companies wanted to collaborate with them, though not in ways that were necessarily good for Polaris. And the research park setting wasn’t everything they were looking for in creature comforts.
So Banish moved downtown to Westside Square, with a building that sports its own parking deck, lots of secure, private space to move around in and just enough downtown chic to keep young engineers in craft beer and sushi.
The company employs about 15 people, including top engineers in the area of polarization, their bread and butter technology. Being able to detect light polarization emitted or reflected from objects in a scene can enhance the contrast between objects and backgrounds, providing additional information about the geometry, material, temperature and surface characteristics of the objects.
The company also employs imaging and mechanical engineers and experts in writing algorithms, used to clarify scanned images. Other labs are dedicated to polarimetry, optics, electro-optics and opto-mechanical design.
The company made money from the start, according to Banish. After a two-year ramp-up, its annual sales have been roughly $5 million a year, with a business model of creating intellectual properties and then licensing them to bigger players who can handle the production. The company works extensively with Small Business Innovation Research grants, where tech-smart startups can pick up work by successfully solving a specific problem posted almost want-ad style by a company or governmental agency.
That’s what got Polaris started at looking for footprints in the sand. The Department of Homeland Security’s Science and Technology Directorate put out a problem statement, asking for a vehicle-mounted system that could detect illegal cross-border activity without costing a lot in additional personnel.
“Once we understand these problems we go to phase two, which is to build a prototype for a sensor that would solve their problem,” says Justin Vaden, an optical engineer for the company. The company recently acquired a 3-D printer to make its prototype scanners, greatly speeding up the production process.
For the footprint-detecting sensor, the company employed its eTherm technology to provide real-time video suitable for use on a vehicle traveling up to 25 mph on unimproved roads while monitoring the border. The Border Patrol agent would view fused IR and polarimetric imagery and receive alerts from the eTherm system via a smart phone or tablet interface. The application could eventually be extended with drone use to cover even more ground.
“What we’re doing is R&D in the truest sense,” Vaden says. “We come up with a great idea and license it.”
But Polaris gets a bigger payday if its imaging solutions for one problem can be broadened to other utilities. The footprint-finding sensor, which might identify tracks hours after someone passed through a border area, could eventually help first responders find lost hikers or crash survivors.
Work also is ongoing on sensors that “see” well enough to guide autonomous vehicles by finding the edge of the road, while also spotting roadside animals and people.
“Thermal imaging’s good 24/7, it doesn’t need light to work,” Vaden says.
The computer-enhanced aspect of thermal imaging means that when a sensor picks up an enemy tank, it can recognize the difference between the tank’s exhaust and the center of its actual structure. Used in a fire alarm system, the sensors can tell the difference between cooking smoke and a fire that needs emergency response, Vaden says.
The company likes its Huntsville address, surrounded by so many other young and innovative companies. And the CEO likes a business model that so far hasn’t seen an unprofitable year. “I’m good at finding problems, and these guys are good at solving problems,” Banish says.
Dave Helms is a copy editor for Business Alabama.