April 30, 2012

Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab names 2011 best inventions

An ultra-compact motor controller used to revolutionize movement in a state-of-the-art prosthetic arm and an innovative algorithm for improving the performance of undersea sensors are the winners of APL’s Invention of the Year and Government Purpose Innovation awards for 2011.

This year’s winners were selected from 259 inventions that were disclosed at APL in the past calendar year. They were filed by more than 460 APL inventors and collaborators. The Invention of the Year winner was chosen by an outside review panel of 52 representatives from industry, the high-tech sector and patent law. For the second consecutive year, APL’s Government Purpose Innovation Award recognized an invention that has the potential to make a major impact in the defense community, and the nation.

The winners were named at the 13th annual Invention of the Year Award Reception held April 23 on the APL campus in Laurel, Md. Attendees included Ralph Semmel, director of APL; state Del. Guy Guzzone; and Courtney Samuels, representing Sen. Barbara Mikulski of Maryland. Jerry Krill, assistant director for science and technology at APL, and Norma Lee Todd, supervisor of the Lab’s Office of Technology Transfer, addressed the inventors and guests and presented trophies and cash awards to the winners.

Invention of the Year went to Harry Eaton and Douglas Wenstrand for the Ultra-Compact Multitasking Motor Controller. This extremely small computational engine—approximately the size of a dime—governs multiple microminiature motors that precisely coordinate movement and feedback in APL’s state-of-the-art prosthetic arm, which has 26 degrees of freedom that include independent movement of each finger.

A third of the size of most other controllers, the Ultra-Compact Multitasking Motor Controller includes a processor that directs a single small motor and interfaces with onboard sensors and other traditional controllers. It has been designed to work differently with each hand motor (there are 10 throughout APL’s most recent version of the prosthetic arm) depending on that location’s movement characteristics.

The Government Purpose Innovation Award recognizes Joshua Broadwater, Craig Carmen and Ashley Llorens for the Constrained Probability of False Alarm Classification, or CPFAC. Recognizing targets in clutter-rich environments is a critical challenge for target detection and classification systems. In sonar applications, shipping traffic, biologics and even shipwrecks contribute to the clutter picture. CPFAC is an APL-designed large margin classifier that maximizes the detection of targets for a given false alarm rate. As a result, it provides improved performance in the highly cluttered undersea acoustic environment, making it particularly useful to the Navy. APL’s approach has a broad application for a variety of target detection and classification problems.

“Inventions are a key indicator of how innovative an organization is,” Krill said. “The number of APL intellectual property disclosures reached an all-time high last year—an 84 percent increase—which is a tribute to our staff’s focus on innovation. Many of these inventions came from our new Ignition Grants program, where staff can propose new innovations and vote on who gets seedling grants.”

Added Todd, “The Invention of the Year and Government Purpose awards are designed to recognize some of the best new ideas emerging from the Lab, and to commend APL scientists and engineers who developed them. All of the award nominees have the potential to make a tremendous impact in the marketplace or on national security.”