Applying laser technology to solve humanity’s challenges
Directed Energy is “the ability create a high quantity of energy in a controlled area at a given distance in an order to trigger physical reactions in order to study the interaction of the energy and matter,” Dr. Chaouki Kasmi, Chief Researcher at DERC which is part the Abu Dhabi government’s Advanced Technology Research Council.
The research at DERC reflects the many applications that directed energy can be used, but the projects all have one thing in common: solving real-world technical or scientific problems. One example of DERC’s most recent innovations is the ground-penetrating radar, a landmine detector system that helps developing countries or those in war to detect and neutralize unexploded mines. However, Dr. Kasmi isn’t looking down. With projects that use lasers for communications on the moon, on land, and underwater, they have their sights set higher than ever. They are determined to make the world a better place using directed energy technology. The disruptive innovation we are bringing to the table today is how we can make it more affordable for developing countries. It is our goal to create a technology that can solve a global problem at a low cost. This is important to us, as we want the system to be scaled up,” Dr. Kasmi.
The research scientists at DERC are always looking for ways to make the solutions they create more useful beyond the original application. Dr. Kasmi.
Laurel: From MIT Technology Review, I’m Laurel Ruma, and this is Business Lab, the show that helps business leaders make sense of new technologies coming out of the lab and into the marketplace.
Our topic today is essentially that: applying directed energy innovation to a wide variety of uses. From satellites to 5G to the detection of landmines. All of this is done in the name of improving people’s lives and creating a better world. Two words: lasers everywhere. My guest today is Dr. Chaouki Kasmi. He is the Chief Researcher at The Directed Energy Research Center at Technology Innovation Institute. This center is part of Abu Dhabi’s Advanced Technology Research Council. It oversees technology research in United Arab Emirates. Dr. Kasmi is responsible to build advanced research capabilities in the areas of energy physics and electromagnetic technologies, radar and sensors systems, and laser technology. Dr. Kasmi served as Director of DarkMatter’s Mobile and Telecommunication Lab, and was also the Deputy Head at the French National Cybersecurity Agency’s Wireless Security Lab. This episode of Business Lab was produced in partnership with Technology Innovation Institute.
Welcome, Dr. Kasmi.
Dr. Kasmi: Hello.
Laurel – Let’s start by introducing the Directed Energy Research Center (or DERC) to our listeners, who may not be familiar. What is directed energy and what applications are they used for?
Dr. Kasmi: Technology Innovation Institute’s Directed Energy Research Center plays a key role in understanding and harnessing high-energy physics. When we talk about directed energies, the idea is to be able to produce high amounts of energy in controlled volumes at a certain distance. This allows for physical reactions to examine the interaction between energy and matter.
Laurel : You’ve brought together a number of scientists to study this.
Dr. Kasmi, Yes, we were fortunate to attract some of our best scientists and engineers to Abu Dhabi to join us in our adventures in setting up one the most advanced laboratories in the country when it comes to high-energy and directed energy physics.
Laurel – What technology and application development do you conduct in your laboratory? What are some examples of everyday life that people can understand?
Dr. Kasmi: When explaining our research activities and roadmap, it is important to clearly explain how the Center is structured. We have four divisions and each division has a specific area of research. We have electromagnetics and lasers and optics as well as signal and acoustics and wave machine intelligence. Each of these four divisions invents and contributes to specific projects that require cross-collaboration. When it comes to research, each division has a specific application to address or solve the current scientific or technical challenges facing the industry. We focus on IoT, which is the Internet of Things, UAVs and unmanned aerial system. We are interested in telecommunication technologies, medical applications, as well as any other relevant area of the Technology Innovation Institute.
Laurel – There are many opportunities. What are your goals and the outcomes you want to achieve with your research?
Dr. Kasmi: This is a great question. While we cover many aspects of directed energies technologies, we share one goal: solving the most difficult problems for humanity and creating a better world. Ground-penetrating radar is one of the most interesting projects we have published in the last three month. This system is designed to support NGOs in developing countries and to detect and neutralize unexploded mines. They are still causing great devastation all over the globe.
Laurel : This is definitely for everyone’s benefit. People may not realize that this technology is new and can save lives. Your lab has its own laser sources which is rare. You’ve also described the lab as a giant microwave oven. How does the experiment work? How does this unique environment enable you to do things that would otherwise prove difficult or impossible?
Dr. Kasmi: We have dedicated research laboratories for electromagnetics, microwave applications. Some of these we will announce in the next month. This is why we call it a microwave oven, because we can literally generate microwaves of high power in the same way as a microwave oven. With this laboratory, we can test the various technologies we have developed over the past year and a quarter for telecommunication, sensing, and medical applications. A specific lens type is used to treat breast cancer. This reduces collateral damage around the cancer cells. The laser and photonics group has a dedicated laboratory that allows us to carry out different types of R&D. We have a dedicated team that works on developing laser sources. They are focused on designing and researching how to create high-performance, highly efficient laser sources for medical applications. Again, telecommunication. Telecommunication is ground-to-space communication. An acoustic laboratory is used to perform R&D on sonar technology and underwater sensors. A dedicated laboratory provides isolation from the electromagnetic environment for the study of noise emitted electronically.
Laurel – This is certainly a broad range of uses. As you mentioned, it is practical, exploratory, as well as innovative. You mentioned the need to collaborate across disciplines. You mentioned collaboration across many disciplines.
Dr. Kasmi: We have an AI Cross-Center unit at TII with experts from different backgrounds. They have been working on key technologies in AI. Within the research centers like the Directed Energy Research Center, there is a team that works on leveraging AI to improve and optimize the capabilities of the technologies mentioned. One example is the ground-penetrating radar, or the xray for the ground as it was known recently. AI is used to see things that traditional signal processing tools cannot detect or observe. This is how AI is supporting our innovation strategy and pushing the boundaries.
Laurel : This is certainly solving a very complicated problem. To frame our exploration of directed energies around land, as you have mentioned, aerospace as well as sea applications at a high-level, could you share some recent work with these technologies, and how they’ve emerged from your lab? For example, if we look at aerospace, we have encountered significant obstacles in the United States when it comes to rolling out a 5G network. There are concerns that 5G could cause interference with altimeter readings used for takeoff and landing. How can directed energy be used to solve such problems?
Dr. Kasmi: I’d like to mention the project that we have in our electromagnetic group. Our research team has been focused on electromagnetic compatibility and interference. We have been working on different technologies to counter the interferences caused by the 5G network. This is just one example of what we can do to prevent interferences. We have also been studying laser-based communication. This could be a great opportunity or an alternative to prevent electromagnetic interferences. Optics don’t face the same challenges as microwaves.
Laurel : There are many applications of high-energy user technology for everyday use cases, such as our phones. Could you please share some other innovative uses of directed energy that support emerging technologies for satellites and the movement of data which are essential for today’s telecommunication functions.
Dr. Kasmi: One of the most interesting aspects of optical communication is its ability to transmit data at a rate that is far greater than any other communication technology. We would like to invent a system and subsystem that would allow the deployment of optical communication systems between satellites. We have an advanced R&D team working on subsystems of optical communications technologies. Our goal is to help develop and deploy such technologies in the future. But communication is just one example. Lasers can also be used in surgery, where they are extremely powerful and reduce collateral damages as well as the recovery time for patients. There are also interesting applications for power beaming, which allows us to transfer energy wirelessly to specific objects at longer distances. We can think about a drone flying above a certain area and keeping the drone 24/7 in the sky would help the society in case of a specific humanitarian crisis. This is also something we are considering.
Laurel – You mentioned the distance from the ground to the satellites, and the satellites to the moon. What is possible in space.
Dr. Kasmi – Space communications are more interesting than the propagation and communication channel. Lasers have the unique ability to focus energy and reduce loss in the communication channel. We have better lenses and can compensate for the effects of the channel on the communication path, signal quality, and the communication path. It is unrealistic to expect that a laser will be able to communicate directly with the moon tomorrow. The current idea is to say “Let’s make a gateway between the moon, earth, and use it for communication with a human presence there.” “
Laurel. I watched the video about your landmine detector. Let’s talk about the capabilities of these landmine detectors and how they are built.
Dr. Kasmi: It might be interesting to find out the answer to the last question first. A team of top scientists from Columbia has been working hard to develop technologies that can be used to support clearing land after wars. The idea was to use the knowledge and expertise of the team to create an autonomous platform that can scan for and detect landmines. The principle is well-known. We are making it more affordable for developing countries with our disruptive innovation today. It is our goal to create a technology that can solve a global problem at a low cost. This is crucial for us, as we want to see the system scaled.
Laurel – This is understandable, as there are many countries that could use the landmine detection technology for other purposes as well. Could it be used for archeology, or something similar?
Dr. Kasmi: Absolutely. Our idea is to create building blocks, then combine or reuse them to solve additional challenges. Your example is very interesting. We are currently investigating archeology as we have interesting discussions with companies that are interested in detecting and characterizing underground pipes, water pipes, and electrical networks. If we look at archeological applications, it is possible to reuse the ground-penetrating radar but improve its current capabilities.
Laurel – 3D printing is possible when you move to something on the ground. What are some examples of how directed energy can be used to improve manufacturing?
Dr. Kasmi: Directed energy is able to generate and focus high amounts of energy which allows for the processing materials. Today’s cutting-edge smart composing materials are used in 3D and 4D printing technologies. The idea behind directed energy technologies and lasers is to be able vaporize or create a specific physical process to improve the quality of the material. This can be done using 3D or 4D printers.
If we look at the energy sector or the space sector, they must produce precise component and systems. To do this, cutting-edge technologies are required. Many of the current applications of 3D printers or 4D printers for space application were developed based upon specific industry requirements. We would like to bring our technologies into that market as soon as we can.
Laurel. Next, we will look at applications at sea. What new directed energy technologies are being used in that environment below the water? How are they improving on what was done before?
Dr. Kasmi: This is a more traditional approach to underwater communication and acoustics. Our program aims to create R&D platforms to allow scientists to innovate in underwater communication, which is a complex problem. How we see fisheries and how we can control the environment underwater. We can generate and beam lasers, and our goal is to master underwater acoustics to create new sensors and communication models that will support innovation in unmanned underwater platforms.
Laurel: That’s amazing. It truly is amazing, from the ocean to land, to the moon, and back. This cannot be done in isolation. Part of the collaboration must be with governments. It is likely that regulations and policy requirements are very complex. Are there any international standards or practices already in place?
Dr. Kasmi: Two things. First, we are very lucky that all compliance is fully aligned in the UAE today. From research centers to government agencies, and even policy makers. The current trend is to align business needs with the R&D capabilities and innovation capabilities of the country and policy makers to ensure that we have the right support and opportunities to bring our innovations to market. We need to develop technologies that can penetrate different markets in the UAE. We are applying international standards to R&D technologies. We also submit technologies with industry partners for international certifications to ensure that the technologies we create can be used anywhere in the globe.
Laurel: That’s amazing. We’re talking about lasers being used for communications on land, the moon, and even underwater. How do you envision high-energy systems impacting our everyday lives in the next, say 10 to 15 years?
Dr. Kasmi: I believe it’s already begun, but people haven’t realized it. I mean the non-technical community. Directed energy is a concept that we think exists only in Hollywood movies like Star Wars. Lasers are commonplace everywhere, but that is not the truth. Lasers are used in surgery today. We have optical communications. We use microwave technology for 5G applications. It’s clear that 5G has already begun, and we are only seeing the tip of the iceberg.
Laurel: That’s phenomenal. Dr. Kasmi, thank-you so much for joining us today in this fantastic conversation on the Business Lab.
Dr. Kasmi: We are grateful. Laurel. That was Dr. Chaouki Kasmi from the Directed Energy Research Center at Technology Innovation Institute in the United Arab Emirates. I spoke with him from Cambridge, Massachusetts. This is the home of MIT Technology Review and MIT Technology Review. That’s it for this episode. I’m Laurel Ruma, your host. I am the Director of Insights at MIT Technology Review. This is the custom publishing division. We were established in 1899 by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. You can find us at events around the globe, in print, and on the internet. For more information about us and the show, please check out our website at technologyreview.com. This show is available wherever your podcasts are available. We hope you enjoyed this episode and will rate us and review us. Business Lab is a production by MIT Technology Review. Collective Next produced this episode. Thank you for listening.
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