Using Photonics to Solve Sponsor Data Bandwidth Challenges
David Gervais enjoys a challenging career at MITRE, from exploring the use of laser beams to developing a specialty in photonics, for the purpose of solving sponsors' data problems.
"One of the most distinctive things about working at MITRE is the ability for technical staff to diversify their professional interests," says David Gervais, a lead communications engineer. "We're exposed to a wide array of fields, and if you put effort into pursuing work in different technical areas, you can engage and grow in new domains."
Gervais currently works in the Network Technology department of MITRE's National Security Engineering Center, the federally funded research and development center MITRE operates for the Department of Defense. But his track record clearly shows that he has leapt at opportunities to explore—and succeed at—a spectrum of complementary engineering disciplines.
Gervais arrived at MITRE more than a decade ago, after graduating from Boston University with a bachelor's degree in electrical engineering. As a new arrival, he appreciated his managers' encouragement to follow his technical passions. "They advocated for me to pursue the emerging field of optics and optical communications," he recalls.
Gervais spread his wings early on with the Airborne Laser Communications Terminal (ALT) project. The team investigated and demonstrated key enabling technologies for air-to-air and air-to-space laser communications. "We presented new methods for improving the quality of communication between aircraft and spacecraft."
Using complex mathematical models, Gervais explored different atmospheric conditions that pose challenges which complicate laser beam propagation, and helped craft the fundamental description and analysis of the ALT link communication performance.
In parallel with the ALT project, Gervais played a pivotal role in developing an Optical Communications Laboratory at MITRE, serving as part of a team that acquired technology and equipment that enables fellow engineers to conduct cutting-edge photonics research. (The term "photonics" includes the science, techniques, and applications of light). The lab serves as a critical resource for not only ALT work, but for a range of MITRE programs, including homeland security, missile defense, and military systems that incorporate optics and photonic technology.
"My real passion is to see MITRE's photonics expertise grow," he says. "I believe that optics and photonics will help solve our sponsors' growing bandwidth needs in the areas of communication infrastructure and sensing platforms. The military must process increasingly large volumes of critical data, and that need is leading them towards optics and photonics."
In December 2011, Gervais was part of a MITRE trio that received a U.S. patent for its work in optical modem technology. Their innovation eliminates the need for multiple modems—the same one can be used whether linking to a satellite or another aircraft, although there's a big difference in the distances data must travel. "Large amounts of military intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance data can be transferred quickly from an aircraft to a satellite or from aircraft to aircraft without needing different equipment."
(Video) David Gervais talks about Photonics at MITRE.
Gervais routinely operates within a larger group that engages in communications, networking, and software development. "It's a big reason why I've stayed at MITRE my entire career, because I'm part of a well-rounded team—we all build on each other's strengths. I've worked side by side with engineers who have acumen in areas from software development to electronic board layout to high-speed electronics. I never get pigeonholed into one category—I continue to learn in all of those domains."
Gervais enjoyed another professional success when he worked on a software component for a bistatic radar project. Bistatic radar refers to a radar system that uses a non-colocated transmitter and receiver. A team of engineers created software that transmits radar tracks from a sensor to another piece of software that processes the radar tracks and correlates the data to reveal the location of a detected object.
"My role was to tie the systems together in a practical way," he says. The technology paves the way for advanced surveillance capabilities, and prototypes are being tested in theater.
Several years ago, Gervais decided to immerse himself further in the world of photonics. MITRE's flexible work schedule permitted him to attain a master's degree in electrical engineering with a focus in photonics from BU. "I was able to shift my hours so that I could meaningfully contribute to projects while attending classes in Boston," he says. Today, he is a member of the Optical Society of America, which provides a forum for scientific innovations in optics and photonics.
In his free time, Gervais enjoys exercise and the outdoors. Several years ago, he completed a marathon that coursed around Lake Champlain in Vermont. He also joins a pick-up soccer team on the MITRE campus when time allows. He considers it a great networking opportunity, as well as a way to clear his mind for challenges to come.
"The work-life balance at MITRE isn't just a concept, it's a reality," he notes. "Combined with the career growth prospects and a chance to solve problems of national importance, it makes MITRE a great place to work."
—by Cheryl Scaparrotta
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