MITRE Finds Innovative Solutions to Government Problems in the Start-up Space

October 2017
Topics: Electronics (General), Communications Technology (General)
MITRE designed a novel antenna for the U.S. military that couldn’t be built—until we discovered and collaborated with a 3D printing startup that provided cutting-edge technology.
3D printer

For Jamie Hood, that magical moment of discovery came as she was listening to a presentation by a Boston start-up company that had created a new 3-D printer.

Hood, a MITRE mechanical engineer, had been looking for a way to help the U.S. military develop and manufacture a low-profile wideband phased-array antenna that could be structurally integrated into their combat platforms. (Unlike reflector dish antennas, which must be pointed toward a signal to capture it, a wideband phased-array antenna can receive a wide range of signals from different directions without moving.)

She and her team had already designed a state-of-the-art antenna to meet this need, but hadn't found a way for the military to build the complex geometry. While listening to the Boston start-up, Voxel8, Hood found a possible solution.

MITRE engineers discovered Voxel8 at MassChallenge, a Boston-based company that manages accelerator programs around the world, including in Boston, Israel, Mexico, Sweden and the U.K.

In Boston alone the organization accelerates 128 start-ups each year. Across all of its programs, MassChallenge awards nearly $2 million in equity-free cash prizes to more than 100 early-stage start-ups to advance their ideas, and also provides space to work and guidance on how to manage everything from finances to marketing.

"MITRE saw the MassChallenge as a great opportunity to find out about new technologies and consumer-driven products and services that might be of interest to our government sponsors. We saw a role for MITRE as the 'bridge' that matches potential technical solutions with government needs," said Russ Graves, who leads MITRE’s activities with MassChallenge. "We also provide mentors to certain start-ups, evaluate their solutions, and educate them about the government market."

At the Cutting Edge

"After talking to Voxel8, I thought, 'Oh wow, this is how we can finally realize our antenna design!'" Hood recalled. “Seeing their technology and talking to their researchers, who were so bright and so passionate about their work, made me feel that they were definitely going to succeed.

"Teaming with them allowed us to work with cutting-edge technology and develop an antenna that matters to national security. That is exciting work for us at MITRE," she said.

What set Voxel8 apart was its ability to produce both conductive and non-conductive material in three dimensions from a relatively inexpensive, compact printer–one that measured roughly three feet by three feet and can sit on a desktop. In addition, the 3-D printed material solidified at room temperature and exhibited relatively high conductivity. Voxel8’s focus was on integrating digital circuitry into three-dimensional objects. Hood and her team hoped that by working with the young company, they could help Voxel8 find a way to use its 3-D printer technology to produce antennas for the U.S. military, so that our troops could print them on the fly in the field to meet their needs.

Be the Bridge

MITRE pursues many "innovation bridging" activities that facilitate connections between innovative companies and government agencies. The commercial companies benefit from MITRE's decades of research and development work in a wide range of technical areas and its knowledge of government domains. Understanding how the government's needs may vary from the public's can shape new lines of business for these companies. And helping the government find solutions to complex technical problems is part of MITRE's mission as a not-for-profit manager of Federally Funded Research and Development Centers (FFRDCs).

"While MITRE has a robust independent R&D program, what we spend is just a drop in the bucket compared to the resources of industry's R&D programs," added Graves. "We look for opportunities to collaborate with innovators from industry, academia, and other organizations—with the goal of getting sustainable solutions to our sponsors as quickly and affordably as possible." (MITRE does not manufacture products and is an unbiased advisor to the government.)

Taking it to the Next Level

Hood and her MITRE teammate, Wajih Elsallal, began working with Voxel8, providing a blended technical expertise in in mechanical engineering and electromagnetics science and showing the application space for antennas as they used Voxel8 technology to print a complex prototype antenna for far less cost and in less time than was previously possible through other methods.

Hood and Elsallal took the prototype back to MITRE, tested it, and proved that, by collaborating, MITRE and Voxel8 could create the complex structures needed for the antenna.

The team presented their work at MITRE's First Annual Workshop on Additive Manufacturing for Antennas and Electromagnetic Structure, April 2016. They also wrote an article about their work in Microwave Journal, October 2016, and presented a paper at the Allerton Antenna Applications Symposium, September 2017.

Recently, Voxel8 decided to focus on consumer markets rather than pursuing government applications at this time. However, MITRE has purchased a custom Voxel8 printer with more capability than is publicly available and is continuing to prototype the 3-D printed antenna internally.

"This year, we've added more of the antenna phased-array circuitry into the print itself," Hood said. "Now, our engineers are doing the printing. And we still have Voxel8 for support."

—by Tom Nutile


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