Applying laser technology to solve humanity’s challenges

Mabel R. Acton

Directed energy is “the ability to create a high amount of energy in a controlled volume at a given distance in order to trigger physical reactions to study the interaction between the energy and the matter,” says Dr. Chaouki Kasmi, who is the Chief Researcher at DERC, which is part of the Abu Dhabi government’s Advanced Technology Research Council.

The research at DERC reflects the multitude of applications that are possible using directed energy, but the research projects have at least one thing in common: the goal of solving real-world scientific or technical challenges. For example, one of DERC’s recent developments is a landmine detection system – the ground-penetrating radar – designed to help developing or previously war-torn countries detect and neutralize unexploded landmines.

However, Dr. Kasmi and the researchers at DERC aren’t just looking down. They have their sights set much higher and further with projects focused on using lasers for communications on land, to the moon, and even underwater—truly making the entire world a better place with directed energy technology.

“The disruptive innovation that we are bringing today is how we can make it affordable for developing countries. The idea is to create a technology that could really help solve a worldwide problem at low cost. And this is very important for us as we would like to have the system deployed at scale,” says Dr. Kasmi.

The research scientists at DERC also look for ways to leverage the solutions they develop beyond the initial application. “The way we work is to really create building blocks and to combine or reuse those building blocks in order to tackle additional challenges,” says Dr. Kasmi.

Full transcript

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 literally just that: applying directed energy innovation for a wide range of uses. From satellites, to 5G, to detecting landmines. And all of this is in the name of helping people live better lives in a better world. Two words for you: lasers everywhere.

My guest today is Dr. Chaouki Kasmi, who is the Chief Researcher at the Directed Energy Research Center at the Technology Innovation Institute, which is part of the Abu Dhabi government’s Advanced Technology Research Council, the entity that oversees technology research in the United Arab Emirates. Dr. Kasmi is responsible for building advanced research capabilities in the domains of energy physics, electromagnetic technologies, radar and sensing systems, and laser technologies.

Dr. Kasmi was the Director of the Mobile and Telecommunication Lab at DarkMatter, and he was the Deputy Head of the Wireless Security Lab at the French National Cybersecurity Agency.

This episode of Business Lab is produced in partnership with Technology Innovation Institute.

Welcome, Dr. Kasmi.

Dr. Kasmi: Hello.

Laurel: First, introduce the Directed Energy Research Center, or DERC, to our listeners who may not be familiar with it. And also, what is directed energy, and what types of applications involve directed energy?

Dr. Kasmi: The Directed Energy Research Center at Technology Innovation Institute plays a leading role in understanding and harnessing the physics behind high energy. The idea, when we talk about directed energy systems, is the ability to create a high amount of energy in a controlled volume at a given distance in order to trigger physical reactions to study the interaction between the energy and the matter.

Laurel: And you’ve brought a number of scientists and researchers together to the UAE to study this.

Dr. Kasmi: Yeah, we were quite lucky to attract some of the best scientists and engineers here in Abu Dhabi in order to join us in these adventures in setting up one of the most advanced laboratories in the world when it comes to directed energy and high-energy physics.

Laurel: What kinds of technology and application experiments and developments do you perform in your lab? What are some of those daily examples that people would understand?

Dr. Kasmi: In general, when we try to explain our roadmap and research activities, we need to clarify how the Center is organized. So we have four divisions, and those four divisions have a specific domain of research. We have electromagnetics, lasers and optics, the signal and acoustics, and wave machine intelligence. Each of these four divisions is innovating and contributing in specific projects where cross collaboration is required.

When it comes to the research itself, it has a specific application in order to cover or to solve scientific or technical challenges that the industry is experiencing currently. We work on IoT, so the Internet of Things, UAVs, and unmanned aerial systems. We work on the telecommunication technologies, medical applications, and any relevant domain of interest of the Technology Innovation Institute.

Laurel: That is definitely a wide range of opportunities. What are your goals and outcomes that you’re trying to achieve through your research?

Dr. Kasmi: It’s a very interesting question. It’s true that we are covering many aspects of directed energy technologies, but at the end we have one objective in common: solving the most complex challenges for humanity and for a better world. One of the interesting projects that we have publicized in the last three months is the ground-penetrating radar. This system has for a main goal to provide and support the NGOs in developing countries to detect and neutralize unexploded landmines, which are still causing considerable devastation around the world.

Laurel: That’s definitely for the good of everyone. And people may not understand that that’s a technology, as you said, fairly new and direct applications that can help save lives. So your lab has its own laser sources, which is rare. And you’ve described the lab as a giant microwave oven. What is the experiment process like? And how does that unique environment allow you to do something that would otherwise be difficult or even impossible?

Dr. Kasmi: The current laboratories that we have unveiled and some of them we will announce later this month are the following: we have dedicated research laboratories for electromagnetics and microwave applications. And this is why we are calling it a microwave oven because we literally, generate high-power microwave the same way a microwave oven would.

With this laboratory we are able to test the different technologies that we have been developing during the last year and a half for telecommunication applications, for sensing applications, and medical applications, which you may have heard about. The medical application of a specific type of lens, which provides a better treatment of the breast cancer by reducing the collateral damages around the cancer cells.

The laser and photonics research group has a dedicated laboratory where we are able to perform different types of R&D projects. In developing our laser sources, we have a team dedicated to designing and researching how we can create high performance, highly efficient laser sources for medical application. Again, telecommunication. And when we talk about telecommunication in this case, it’s about ground-to-space communication. And an acoustic laboratory where we perform the R&D on sonar technologies and underwater sensors, as well as a dedicated laboratory that provides a full isolation from the outside electromagnetic environment in order to study the noise emitted by electronic components.

Laurel: That is certainly a wide range of uses. And as you mentioned, practical as well as exploratory, and innovative too. You mentioned collaboration across many different disciplines. So for example, how is artificial intelligence using directed energy research and how does AI allow you to do things that you may not have been able to do before?

Dr. Kasmi: We are pretty lucky here at TII as we have an AI Cross-Center unit with experts spanning different backgrounds. They have been developing key technologies when it comes to AI. And within the research centers such as the Directed Energy Research Center here, we have a team working on leveraging AI to improve, optimize, and enhance the capabilities of the technologies we have mentioned. One of the examples is the ground-penetrating radar or the x-ray for the ground, as it was called recently. Where we use AI in order to see what classical signal processing tools are not able to detect or observe. And this is how, as an example, AI is pushing the boundaries and supporting our innovation strategy.

Laurel: And that is certainly solving a very complex problem. So framing our exploration of directed energy around land, as you mentioned before, aerospace, as well as sea applications, at a high level, could you share some of your recent work with these technologies and how they’ve started to emerge from your lab? If we start with aerospace, for example, in the United States we’ve seen significant obstacles rolling out a 5G network, as there are concerns that 5G could interfere with altimeter readings for takeoff and landing of aircraft. How can directed energy be applied for solutions like this issue?

Dr. Kasmi: Here I would mention the project we have in the electromagnetic group. We have a strong research team, which has been working on what we call electromagnetic compatibility and interference. And we have been developing different types of technologies that could be used to prevent the interferences induced by the 5G network on aircraft altimeters. This is one example of what we could do to prevent the interferences. On the other side, we have also been working extensively on laser-based communication, which we believe could be a good opportunity or a good alternative to prevent electromagnetic interferences as optics don’t have the same challenges that microwaves have.

Laurel: As you just mentioned, there are applications of high-energy user technology in everyday use cases like our phones, for example. Could you share some of the other innovative applications of directed energy that are supporting emerging technologies for satellites as well as the movement of data, which is necessary for today’s telecommunication functions?

Dr. Kasmi: The interesting part with optical communication is that the throughput to carry such communication is way higher than any other communication technology today. Developing a system and subsystem that could enable the deployment at scale of optical communication systems between satellites, from satellite to ground, from satellite to the moon, is something that we would like to innovate. We have a team doing advanced R&D on different subsystems of optical communication technologies, and our goal is to contribute to the development and the deployment of such technologies in the future.

But communication is only one example. We can go also to surgery where lasers are very powerful as they reduce the collateral damages and the time for recovery for patients. We also have interesting applications when it comes to power beaming and how we can transfer energy over wireless to specific objects at longer ranges. 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. And this is something also that we are looking at.

Laurel: You mentioned from the ground to satellite, and satellite to the moon. What is possible in space?

Dr. Kasmi: The propagation, the communication channel is way more interesting when it comes to space communications. An interesting aspect of laser is that we are able to focus the energy and reduce the loss in the communication channel. So, we have better lenses, and we are able to compensate the effect of the channel on the communication path and the signal quality. Now, saying that tomorrow we will have a laser communicating to the moon directly is not realistic. And the current idea is to say, “Let’s create a gateway in between the moon and earth, and use it to communicate with a potential human presence there.”

Laurel: As you mentioned, moving to land applications, I watched the video about the landmine detector that came out of your lab. So, talk a little bit more about how those capabilities surpass previous approaches, and what is set up and actually building a landmine detector where the landmines are.

Dr. Kasmi: I think it might be interesting to get an answer to the last part of the question first. We have a team of top scientists coming from Columbia who have been investing a lot of time in developing technologies in order to support the clearing of land following wars. The idea was to leverage the knowledge and knowhow of the team and to bring it to the table in order to create a low-cost autonomous platform that can scan and detect landmines. The principle is known. The disruptive innovation that we are bringing today is how we can make it affordable for developing countries. The idea is to create a technology that could really help solve a worldwide problem at low cost. And this is very important for us as we would like to have the system deployed at scale.

Laurel: Understandably, because unfortunately there are many places around the world that could use this landmine detection technology as well as for other purposes, right? Could it be used in an application such as archeology or something like that?

Dr. Kasmi: Absolutely. The idea, and the way we work, is to really create building blocks and to combine or reuse those building blocks in order to tackle additional challenges. One of the examples you mentioned is very interesting. Archeology is something we are looking into as we have very interesting discussions with companies who are looking at detecting and characterizing the presence of the underground of pipes, water pipes, electrical network, etc. At the end of the day, if we consider archeological applications, we would reuse the same ground-penetrating radar, but improve the current capability.

Laurel: Moving to something on land as well, which is high-energy systems, brings to mind 3D printing. What kind of applications can directed energy help with manufacturing?

Dr. Kasmi: The ability to generate and focus a high amount of energy allows for the processing of materials. When it comes to 3D and 4D printing technologies today, they are using cutting edge smart composing materials. And the idea with directed energy technologies and lasers, is to be able to vaporize or to create a specific physical process in order to enhance the quality of the material using 3D and 4D printers, as well as creating high accuracy technologies in order to leverage 3D and 4D printers for newer applications or challenging applications.

If we think about the energy sector, or the space sector, they need to produce very accurate component and systems. And to do that requires cutting edge technologies that may exist or may not exist. Many of the application of 3D printers and 4D printers today for space application have developed based on specific requirements that the industry is looking at, and we would like to bring our technologies to that market as well, as soon as possible.

Laurel: And then moving to applications at sea, what emerging directed energy technologies are being applied in that environment under the water, and how are they improving what used to be done?

Dr. Kasmi: Here we have a more classic approach when it comes to underwater acoustics, and communication. The idea with our program is to create R&D platforms that would allow scientists to innovate in the way we are communicating underwater, which is a very complex challenge. The way we are looking at fisheries, how we are able to control the underwater environment, and how we are able to see things at a long distance without moving our platforms. In the same way we are able to generate and beam a laser, our goal today is to master underwater acoustics in order to create new types of sensors and communication models to support innovation in the field of unmanned underwater platforms.

Laurel: That’s amazing. It really is from the ocean to the land, to the moon and back, just astounding. So, you cannot be doing this in a vacuum, and part of that collaboration must also then be with governments, right? So policy and regulation requirements are probably really complex. Are there international standards and practices in place, or are they being developed now?

Dr. Kasmi: There are two things. The first thing is that we are pretty much lucky because all the compliance is fully aligned today in the UAE. From research centers to government bodies, and to policy makers. The idea and the current trend is to really align the business requirements with the R&D and innovation capabilities in the country and the policy makers in order to provide us the right level of support and opportunities to bring our innovation to market. The UAE is connected to the world, and we have to develop technologies that could penetrate the market in different parts of the world. So, we are applying international standards to our R&D technologies and submitting technologies with industry partners to international certifications to make sure that the technologies we are creating could be used anywhere in the world.

Laurel: That’s amazing. So we’re talking about lasers being used from communications on land, to the moon, and underwater even. How do you envision high-energy systems impacting our everyday lives in the next, say 10 to 15 years?

Dr. Kasmi: I think that it’s already started, but people have not realized it – I mean the non-technical and non-scientific community. We think that directed energy is something that exists only in Hollywood movies such as Star Wars. The reality is that lasers are widely prevalent everywhere. People get surgery today with lasers. We have optical communications. We have microwave technologies used for 5G application. It shows that it’s already started, and we just see the tip of the iceberg in reality.

Laurel: That’s phenomenal. Dr. Kasmi, thank you so much for joining us today in what has just been a fantastic conversation on the Business Lab.

Dr. Kasmi: Thank you.

Laurel: That was Dr. Chaouki Kasmi, the Chief Researcher at the Directed Energy Research Center at the Technology Innovation Institute in the United Arab Emirates, who I spoke with from Cambridge, Massachusetts, the home of MIT and MIT Technology Review, overlooking the Charles River.

That’s it for this episode of Business Lab, I’m your host, Laurel Ruma. I’m the Director of Insights, the custom publishing division of MIT Technology Review. We were founded in 1899 at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. And you can find us in print, on the web, and at events each year around the world. For more information about us and the show, please check out our website at technologyreview.com.

This show is available wherever you get your podcasts. If you enjoyed this episode, hope you’ll take a moment to rate and review us. Business Lab is a production of MIT Technology Review. This episode was produced by Collective Next. Thanks for listening.

This podcast episode was produced by Insights, the custom content arm of MIT Technology Review. It was not written by MIT Technology Review’s editorial staff.

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