Ohio sensors surge on back of Wright-Patt, regional strengths
Ross McNutt has witnessed 34 murders in the last 16 months.
Well, HE hasn't exactly witnessed them -- but his company has, using a 100-million pixel camera system that can canvass a 16-square-mile area using aerial and land-based devices. It's a boon for law enforcement -- and a sign of things to come.
Until recently, such capabilities were unheard of. These days, McNutt, president of Xenia-based, Persistent Surveillance Systems, is only one of a growing number of sensor developers who have made the Dayton region ground zero for one of Ohio's most quickly emerging high-tech industries.
Sensors -- which can include any type of electromechanical device used to obtain data and feed it back for analysis -- have long had an impact on our lives. The heating and cooling of your car, your home security system, the quality of your drinking water -- all rely on sensors.
But in the coming years we can expect the stuff of science fiction to become reality, say those with ties to the industry.
Consider a camera system that can read fingerprints in 3-D from six feet away and detect minute facial movements to tell if someone is lying. A Huntsville, Ala.-based company called Photon-X has set up shop in Dayton to perfect just such a system.
Or consider miniature, unmanned airplanes which, when mounted with sensitive equipment, can survey a battlefield or disaster area and send back detailed information to help the military tell friend from foe or emergency responders whether a hurricane victim is healthy, injured or dead. The Institute for the Development of Commercialization of Advanced Sensor Technology, or IDCAST -- Created in 2006 with $28 million from the Ohio Third Frontier -- is working with developers to make such systems real.
While examples of advanced sensor technology can be found across the state, heads increasingly are turning to the Dayton region.
"We have an 800-pound gorilla here in Dayton," explains Larrell Walters, IDCAST's director. "We have the Air Force Research Lab's Sensor Directorate. That is a group that does $700 million of work a year, has 1,300 people and provides funding all over the nation for getting the job done in safety and security types of sensor applications."
The influence of Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, which houses the lab, is the driving force behind the region's growth in new sensor capabilities, says Lou Ferraro, a former major general at Wright-Patt and now an economic development consultant for the Dayton region.
"Our sensors base was strengthened quite a bit when (Wright-Patt) won the BRAC center of excellence for sensors," says Ferraro, referring to the Air Force's Base Reduction and Closing efforts, which consolidated the Sensors Directorate in Dayton, bringing talent and new jobs from installations in Massachusetts and New York.
"At the same time, we also won very big in the medical area when we won the center of excellence for medicine, and that will be at Wright-Patt too," Ferraro says, adding that biomedical sensors are another crucial area of research and development in Ohio.
Both military needs and the state's initiative to grow high-tech jobs in Ohio are contributing to formation of new companies within the industry, Walters says. But just how many is difficult to pin down. Ferraro says a survey he conducted in 2004 for Wright State University revealed 332 sensor companies with revenues of $2.4 billion and 16,384 employees. At that time, Ohio also boasted 856 medical-related companies with revenues of $3.5 billion and more than 86,000 jobs.
Whatever those numbers are today, more companies and more commercialization of sensor technologies must occur for Ohio to reap the full economic benefits, say those like David Maldonado, business development manager for the advanced technologies unit of Nova Engineering (part of L-3 Communications}.
"We are looking to have sensors in every aspect of our lives," says Maldonado, whose Cincinnati-based company currently focuses on military force protection. "And that is, I think, where the presence of the sensor technology in the Ohio area is proliferating and where more and more research goes into it -- this includes the medical realm, biometrics, force protection, border security, any type of industry."
McNutt agrees the the future of the industry lies in the private sector.
"We find that the commercial market is 50 to 100 times that of the DOD market," he says.
In fact, Walters says, that's IDCAST's role and purpose -- commercialization and job creation. He says those jobs are growing, citing as an example the 140 jobs expected from the presence of Photon-X -- as well as jobs created through IDCAST's work with emerging companies.
"We've been at this about three and a half years now," Walters says. "We talked about having a job creation requirement of 364 positions in eight years. We've already been able to create 280 jobs that we can tie to IDCAST."
IDCAST finds funding for new startups. It makes connections between the private sector, the military and academic entities. It has lured world-class researchers to Ohio universities in an initiative to establish 12 endowed chairs in layered sensor technology. It provides 50,000 square feet of collaborative work space for business, government and academia. And it provides incubation for new companies too young to stand on their own.
"Typically, when operating money showed up, we took the vast majority of that and made it available to companies that had ideas that would create jobs and economic growth for Ohio," Walters says. "Because of that, we've had four new company startups and we're incubating about six companies in our facilities right now -- and we've also attracted two companies from outside Ohio."
Walters praises the State of Ohio, and particularly the Third Frontier for putting money behind the industry and for encouraging entrepreneurship across the state. He notes that Ohio's investment in sensor companies totals $6.4 million, with more than that matched by those receiving the funds.
Yet, it will require even greater resources from public and private sources to grow the sensor manufacturing base, say business leaders like Nilesen Gokay, president of Dayton-based photonics company INNOVA, Inc.
"Startup companies and R&D will create new high-paying jobs for 10 to 100 individuals per company at a time," she says. "However, advanced manufacturing jobs in sensors and photonics can create jobs in the thousands at a time. The . . . sensors industry still requires R&D time and major capital infusion -- many tens of millions -- for large-scale manufacturing to be established in Ohio."