August 20, 2014

Boulder firm’s mission: Watch the wind

If only raising cash for prototype were a breeze

BERTHOUD — Initial reports of smoke in the Waldo Canyon area near Colorado Springs began filtering in to local fire departments on June 22, 2012. But first responders looked for the source of the smoke until dark that day, to no avail.

Flames weren’t located until around noon the next day – and by then dry and windy conditions had the blaze well on its way to becoming what was at the time the most destructive wildfire in Colorado history.

Now, a Boulder-based company has developed a wind-mapping device it believes could have helped those first responders pinpoint the source of the smoke in mountainous terrain well before the fire got out of hand.

“It potentially could have made a huge, huge difference,” said Rich Higgins, co-founder and vice president for cyber systems at Sibelloptics LLC.

Originally developed for NASA to study the wake vortices produced by the wings of large aircraft, Sibelloptics is marketing its Windimager for all types of practical applications, from helping firefighters to increasing wind-farm efficiency and pollution tracking. The fiber-optic light detection and ranging (LIDAR) system can create a real-time picture of wind activity covering a 15-kilometer (9.3-mile) radius that extends from the ground to up to 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) into the sky.

Sibelloptics also is in a race against the calendar to raise the funds necessary to build a second Windimager that it can show off to potential customers. NASA – which funded development of the device through $1.75 million in Small Business Innovation Research grants – owns the first Windimager.

Sibelloptics has the device at the Berthoud home of co-founder Steve Vetorino for a few more weeks while the company updates and tests new software before it must ship it back to NASA’s Langley Research Center in Virginia. In the meantime, the company has revved up an Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign in an attempt to raise the $750,000 needed to build another device and ramp up marketing.

“It’s got a lot of value,” Vetorino said. “It’s just that we don’t have the money to build another one, and we need that to be able to demonstrate to airports, wind farms, firefighters.”

The use of the device at airports could help in a variety of applications itself. In addition to the wake vortices, Windimager, or “Windy” for short, also can help detect dangerous wind shear or microburst events near the ground, giving pilots warning as they get ready to take off or land. But largely, NASA and the Federal Aviation Administration want to get a better idea of what happens to the wake vortices in clear airspace.

“This wake measurement is a really important issue for air traffic management,” said Narashima Prasad, an aerospace technologist at Langley.

The swirling horizontal columns can create a major hazard for trailing aircraft that pass through them. As a general rule of thumb, airports try to keep large commercial-type aircraft five miles apart, Vetorino said. But with air traffic expected to increase significantly in coming years, more precise knowledge of the wake vortices could help reduce the needed buffer between planes, thus decreasing the time needed between planes taking off and landing.

“You can’t just build more airports,” Vetorino said. “People don’t like more airports. They don’t like more runways. So they’ve got to figure out how to do a better job with what they’ve got.”

Windimager isn’t the first device of its kind.

Vetorino helped develop Lockheed Martin’s WindTracer, a device with similar capabilities. WindTracers are in operation at airports in Hong Kong and Japan, and the FAA owns three itself. But Windimager, at a projected price tag of about $1 million for airports, is less than half the price of WindTracer, Vetorino said. It’s also much smaller. While the WindTracer is more high-powered, Vetorino said the Windimager is more adaptable as far as the range of phenomenon that can be observed.

“Right now it has a lot of advantages in not only cost but in the agility it can provide,” Prasad said.

That agility is one of the major selling points. In the case of the Waldo Canyon Fire, had firefighters had access to Windy, they could have placed it atop a ridge or mountain overlooking a wide area near where the reports of smoke were coming from. Unlike radar, which has a longer range but can only see larger events such as storms or water droplets in the air, the LIDAR system interacts with dust particles and would have been able to detect the smoke plume above the trees before it was easily visible.

In addition to locating wildfires, the system could be used to monitor winds while firefighters are battling blazes and give them enough advance warning of wind shifts that they could get out of harm’s way.

Other applications include pollution tracking. In a train crash resulting in a chlorine spill, for instance, the device could identify and monitor the escaping, airborne chlorine.

For wind farms, Windy’s data could be used to keep turbines oriented in the optimal direction for coming wind, and give operators time to adjust the pitch of blades to protect against damaging wind events. Windy’s creators also see the device coming in handy for marinas, which could provide wind data to boaters via mobile app.

Getting to the point of commercialization has been about two and a half years in the making. Vetorino and Higgins founded the company along with president Russ Sibell and vice president for research Allen Tracy. Vetorino, Sibell and Tracy worked together at Coherent Technologies Inc., which was acquired by Lockheed Martin. Higgins, meanwhile, spent much of his career working in the cable industry after attending Colorado State University with Vetorino.

While the cost of Windy would be about $1 million for airports because of the advanced software needed for their use, that figure would be more in the $500,000 to $600,000 range for other applications. Higgins and Vetorino said they hope the company could sell enough devices early on that they could use profits to build Windimagers that would be available to lease for fire agencies, which are often strapped for cash and might need the device for only a few months out of the year anyway.

For now, though, the company is just focusing on producing a second Windy. If the crowdfunding campaign comes up short, the Sibelloptics crew may turn to angel investors to get the commercial venture off the ground.

“If we can build enough of these things and make them inexpensive enough, then you’re really looking at sort of a disruptive technology, because it opens lots of other markets,” Higgins said, noting television stations or smaller airports that could make use of the technology.

“Unfortunately firefighters, they’re out there risking everything. But they never have money,” Higgins said. “So it would be really great if we could build these things inexpensively enough that we could actually get a lot of these into the hands of firefighters so they could help save lives.”

Joshua Lindenstein can be reached at 303-630-1943, 970-416-7343 or jlindenstein@bizwestmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter at @joshlindenstein.

If only raising cash for prototype were a breeze

BERTHOUD — Initial reports of smoke in the Waldo Canyon area near Colorado Springs began filtering in to local fire departments on June 22, 2012. But first responders looked for the source of the smoke until dark that day, to no avail.

Flames weren’t located until around noon the next day – and by then dry and windy conditions had the blaze well on its way to becoming what was at the time the most destructive wildfire in Colorado history.

Now, a Boulder-based company has developed a wind-mapping device it…

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