March 28, 2011

Ignition Grants create sparks at Applied Physics Lab

For David L. Porter, an oceanographer at Johns Hopkins’ Applied Physics Laboratory, his idea for the iBuoy came from an ad for a tablet computer. For robotics scientist Chris Brown, his inspiration for a miniature robot was based on the needs of special operations troops. And for Vina Nguyen, Kalman Hazins and Christina Pikas, it was discovering that they all shared an idea about how to better distribute the many technical publications that line most APL staffers’ bookshelves.

APL’s campus in Laurel, Md., is a place where staffers are encouraged to constantly come up with creative solutions and new concepts, not all of which are directly related to the tasks at hand. To keep those ideas from fading away, the Lab recently announced the creation of Ignition Grants, a structured and funded program for any APL employee to propose a new idea that could potentially become a reality.

APL Director Ralph Semmel first discussed Ignition Grants during his inaugural State of the Lab presentation on Feb. 17. The grants are a new quarterly initiative designed to draw on the creativity and ingenuity of APL staffers—and it is those same APL staffers who will pick the finalists for review by senior management. (Each staff member gets to vote for 10 proposals.)

“This is an experiment,” Semmel told his audience. “We’re going to rely on our community to identify and select the winners.” The top proposals—three to eight in the first cycle—will get $10,000 to $20,000 to develop and grow their idea. Then, Semmel added, “later, as we think about the best ideas, that’s when management will get engaged and decide which projects we want to pursue even further.”

At a lunchtime “Ignition Grants Meet-Up” event two weeks before the close of competition, some of the top vote-getters set up displays and answered questions from other APL staffers. David Porter described how he got the idea that led to the creation of iBuoy, a small, inexpensive buoy built from existing components that can provide real-time sea state information to U.S. Navy vessels via satellite. “I saw an ad for a tablet computer that mentioned it had a gyroscope, and I said to my wife, ‘That’s a tiny gyroscope,’” Porter said. “I came to work and talked about it with Kevin Fleagle, and we started thinking about buoys.” The iBuoy was born; it was the No. 1 choice of APL staffers midway in the competition.

Chris Brown, a robotics engineer, brought his working prototype for a pocket-size personal surveillance robot. About the size of a pack of cards, with four rounded legs that spin and propel the robot in a loping, bouncing gait, the camera- and microphone-equipped device was guided across a table by Brown using his BlackBerry’s track pad. “This robot,” he explained, “is designed for the last 100 meters”—the dangerous area that a special operations soldier might not be able to get to in order to complete his mission. “He can toss this in front of him and guide it with his smartphone.” It’s also thought that the robot could be dropped by a canine unit, or even placed on a building by a small unmanned aerial vehicle. And while the prototype is relatively tiny, Brown’s team’s goal is to build one the size of a matchbox, using existing off-the-shelf parts.

While Porter’s and Brown’s inventions were drawing crowds, another concept in the top vote-getters had no impressive prototypes or technological components, just the appeal of a good idea: a distributed library at APL.

“I had posted on the [APL internal] discussion boards about the possibility of creating a way for APLers to share their technical books,” said Vina Nguyen, “and Kalman [Hazins] replied to my post because he had a similar idea. We asked Christina [Pikas] to join us a few days later. That was a week before the Ignition Grants were announced.”

The three are from different departments at APL and hadn’t known each other until they discovered they shared an idea for creating a distributed library. “There’s a huge gap in digitized books for this type of technical publication,” said Pikas, “but [the actual books are] available here at the Lab, in people’s offices. Even better, you can benefit from meeting a person who’s read the book, and can offer advice about it.”

Hazins agreed, adding that “it’s a strong attempt to break ‘stovepiping’ at the Lab,” he said, referring to the unwanted and unplanned compartmentalization of information within APL.

Voting on the initial Ignition Grant proposals began March 1 and closes March 30, with winners to be announced March 31. The program is run by the Science and Technology Business Area of the Milton S. Eisenhower Research Center at APL.