A clearer view of bottom

Nov 13, 2003, vol. 28, no. 6
By Howard Fluxgold

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The view of the bottom just got a lot clearer thanks to the pioneering work of John Bird, director of SFU's underwater research laboratory and his former doctoral student Paul Kraeutner.

Their new sonar technology provides high resolution 3D underwater acoustic mapping and imaging allowing researchers to view the ocean floor in three dimensions instead of just two.

It has already been patented, with SFU holding the patent, and licenced to a subsea technology company called Benthos, Inc. of North Falmouth, Massachusetts.

While the prototype was being built in Bird's laboratory the U.S. Navy paid a visit to Burnaby Mountain to discuss the project. In a newsletter, the Navy raved that “high resolution 3D imaging is a reality.”

The Navy believes the new technology can be used to obtain profiles of the contour of the ocean floor and search for unusual shapes that could indicate a man-made object such as a shipwreck. The Navy is also interested in using the 3D technology to locate other, more dangerous man-made objects such as mines.

Bird says he began developing the new technology about eight years ago while working on a project where the existing technology was too large and cumbersome.

“The original idea came while working on a cooperative research and development grant with International Submarine Engineering. We were dealing with the problem of wanting bottom-mapping sonar on a small, autonomous, underwater vehicle,” Bird, a professor of engineering science, recalls.

“The only sonars available were multibeams and they were too big. Paul and I put our concept for a smaller three-dimensional system together in our heads and the only way we were going to find out if it was really going to work was to build one. So Paul did and it worked. The idea was to map the bottom in such a way as to get both depth and imagery at the same time. And that is what it does.”

SFU, Kraeutner and Bird stand to make some money from the commercialization, however Bird is cautious about any windfall. “I have no idea of the amount we could make. The marine environment can be very temperamental. Sometimes it takes years for new ideas to catch on because people are so used to doing things the old way. This is one of those technologies that requires people to think a little bit differently.”

In the meantime, Kraeutner who graduated with his doctorate, has set up a private company on Vancouver Island called Ping DSP to pursue other commercial uses for the 3D technology. Bird, on the other hand says he is more interested in the science. “I want to see how far we can take this technology, and I think I already know,” he laughs. He is currently writing an article for an academic journal where he will present his theories.

For more information about the technology, called small aperture range angle computed angle of arrival transient imaging, go to: http://www.ensc.sfu.ca/research/url/ or to http://www.benthos.com where it is called C3D and is listed under undersea systems, geophysical products.

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