Using Cutting-Edge Technology to Find Practical Solutions
As director of incubation for the Emerging & Disruptive Technology Division, Ravi Athale nurtures programs areas not traditionally part of MITRE's work. The goal: applying increased understanding of these new technologies to our sponsor's challenges.
Artificial limbs that work more "naturally." New math for analyzing genome sequences. Novel ways for computers and humans to interact. Ravi Athale's position as director of incubation for MITRE's Emerging & Disruptive Technology Division often finds him touring the esoteric edges of scientific research.
But his goal has always been to return from his explorations with practical solutions for the challenges of MITRE's sponsors. And—when possible—to share what he's learned clearly and simply.
MITRE's Emerging & Disruptive Technology Division nurtures programs in technology areas not traditionally part of our work. The goal: apply that increased understanding to the practical challenges of our sponsors. Examples of research initiatives in the office include biotechnology, nanotechnology, neurotechnology, computational imaging, and quantum computing.
Looking Down the Road
As director of incubation, Athale investigates trends in technology and steers investments toward research areas that hold promise as sources for innovative client solutions five or 10 years down the road. "Two technologies we are currently looking at," says Athale, "are flexible manufacturing and social media and networking."
Flexible manufacturing—using 3D printers to build parts on demand out of layers of raw material such as plastic or metal—possesses the potential to revolutionize manufacturing and acquisition. Similarly, MITRE researchers believe social media and networking tools will have as-yet-unknown impact on the large-scale collaborations that drive business endeavors and military operations.
The Good Book
One of the first technologies the Emerging & Disruptive Technology Division drew a bead on was photonics, the study of manipulating light. It's also Athale's research specialty.
Breakthroughs in photonics have led to the development and refinement of fiber-optic communications. When Athale joined the company, MITRE launched an initiative to explore other opportunities opened up by photonics, especially in imaging and sensing. Thanks to the expertise of Athale and his colleagues, that seedling effort has now grown into an established part of MITRE's work.
What led Athale to adopt photonics as his research focus is a story that has shaped much of what he has accomplished and how he has accomplished it. "During my master's program, I took a course on optical signal processing. The textbook for the course, Prof. Joseph Goodman's Introduction to Fourier Optics, is arguably one of the best textbooks on any subject written. It's just a beautifully written book."
What & Why
To have been so affected by the power of clearly and concisely delivered information convinced Athale you couldn't truly change people's lives with technology until you helped them understand the technology you were asking them to accept. That lesson was driven home when it was time for Athale to write his own textbook.
Prof. Geoffrey Orsak, the Dean of Engineering at Southern Methodist University, asked Athale to join the team writing an engineering text book for high school students called Engineering Our Digital Future. The textbook, which has now been in print for a decade, has been used by high schools in over 37 states and by many colleges for their introductory engineering course. "The whole idea of the textbook is to make engineering relevant to the lives of young people. We emphasize in it not only what they will learn, but why they will learn it."
Explaining both the what and the why in easy-to-understand language is not something Athale reserves only for textbooks. He serves as the co-editor for a MITRE publication titled Envision that explores cutting-edge research taking place in laboratories at MITRE and around the world. (See accompanying video.)
An Eye on Optics
Of course, writing is not the only way to make technology accessible. You can put it in a Happy Meal, too. In 1994, Athale partnered with a colleague to start a business to both educate people about and entertain them with optics technology. The result was an inexpensive set of hologram glasses that generate unique and surprising visual effects. Seventeen years later these glasses have appeared everywhere from Disney attractions to Japanese game shows to, yes, Happy Meals.
But for Athale, the true test of his ability to make technology accessible isn't whether he's improving the lives of fast-food restaurant patrons. It's whether he's improving the lives of people who don't even know such technology exists.
Engineers Without Borders
Athale's wife, a nurse practitioner, and his son, a doctor, have traveled frequently to India to volunteer for the Society for Education, Action and Research in Community Health, an organization building health centers for tribes isolated in the wild interior of Central India. This year Athale accompanied his wife to India to study the unique philosophy and operating principles this organization has developed over past 30 years.
Many of the healthcare needs facing impoverished people around the world, including eye care, are amenable to engineering solutions. Athale is seeking to adopt what he learned in India to address these needs. For example, Athale is currently collaborating with a professor at MIT/Media Labs who has developed a smart phone-based device that will find the prescription for your eye glasses in minutes. Going forward, Athale is hoping to put the principles he learned from Prof. Goodman's book 40 years ago to help people around the world see better.
—by Christopher Lockheardt
Articles and News
Technical Papers and Presentations