Meet the Scientists is an Armed with Science segment highlighting the men and women working in the government realms of science, technology, research and development. The greatest minds working on the greatest developments of our time. If you have someone you’d like AWS to highlight for this segment, email Jessica L. Tozer at ArmedWithScienceDMA@mail.mil
WHO: Dr. Burton Neuner III. He earned a degree in physics from the University of Texas at Austin studying the control of free-space infrared radiation using metamaterials and plasmonics.
TITLE: Physicist at Space and Naval Warfare Systems Center Pacific. At SSC Pacific, he works in the Advanced Photonic Technologies Branch developing optical methods to better communicate between warfighters and Naval platforms.
MISSION: His research seeks to develop a system that automatically selects the ideal laser wavelength for OCOMMS undersea. Burton performs research on advanced optical components for free-space communication and identification, and contributes to projects developing laser-based photonic integrated circuits for improved RF analysis.
Tell me a little about yourself and your position, please.
“Well, ever since I could speak, I continually asked the ‘why’ questions. My parents answered these questions to the best of their abilities, but at some point they didn’t have the answers. Having careers outside of science and technology, they had to look them up, or simply say ‘we don’t know,’ which, in and of itself, is a great lesson. But when I was twelve years old, my interests became more narrowly focused on Einstein, relativity, black holes, and astronomy. It was at this point I proclaimed that someday I’d be a physicist. After eleven years of university education, I achieved my goal, defending my doctoral dissertation, and joining SSC Pacific as a Physicist/Scientist.”
What is your role in SSC Pacific’s Advanced Photonic Technologies Branch?
“A rather complicated question, I must admit. At the DoD’s Warfare Centers, Science and Technology professionals are uniquely positioned to serve in many roles. We perform more applied research than you’ll find in academia, yet it’s often more basic and riskier than you’ll see in industry. We can serve as the bridge between the two. Furthermore, as subject matter experts, we serve as reviewers and monitors for the countless government procurement and research contracts, ensuring top-notch results for the warfighter.”
What is the goal/mission of free-space optical research and what do you hope it will achieve?
“Free-space optical communications – or OCOMMS – provide dramatically higher bandwidths compared to all other wireless methods. When wireless data rate is paramount, OCOMMS is the method of choice. The additional limitations presented by the undersea environment—most notably the lack of high-frequency radio wave propagation—reduce our choices further. If, for example, an airborne or afloat platform requires communication with a submarine at speed and depth, OCOMMS is the only covert and high-bandwidth method available. OCOMMS can provide to the warfighter the information needed to make the right decisions.”
In your own words, what is it about what you do that makes it so significant?
“The concept of OCOMMS for the undersea domain has been around for more than 30 years, but its high cost and Navy-specific need prevented its viability. Today, system components are much more affordable, and other industries – oil and gas, for example – see the need for undersea OCOMMS, too. Now is a great time to make a leap forward.”
How could you use your work to aid the military or help with military missions?
“Of all the contested regions, the undersea domain is perhaps one of the fastest growing. If our OCOMMS innovations can lead to keeping our warfighters safer by improving their communication and situational awareness, then we’ve succeeded.”
What do you think is the most impressive/beneficial thing about your innovative, technological, laser-based work and why?
“Now, I can’t take credit for it, but OCOMMS laser systems that 30 years ago took up the size of a car and weighed nearly as much now are ten-fold smaller and lighter. Lower size, weight, power, and cost make this technology more deployable.”
What got you interested in this field of study?
“After leaving academia, it was refreshing to be presented with a clear problem that needed attention. I have extensive optics experience, but learned that free-space OCOMMS has a relative lack of manpower in the Navy. It was a perfect fit.”
Are you working on any other projects right now?
“I’m also supporting a program that is developing the wireless transmission of power and communications. What makes this work interesting is that it’s a collaboration between three Navy Warfare Centers. We are each bringing our own specialties to the table for this unique, collaborative effort.”
If you could go anywhere in time and space, where would you go and why?
“I’d love to (temporarily) visit the distant future—say, 3015—and observe the ways life is both better and worse. One thousand years is a fraction of our recorded history, so it’s a timespan that I can wrap my mind around. But it’s far enough away that extraordinary social, technological, and geopolitical will changes will have occurred. Even if I wasn’t able to implement constructive change back here in 2015, I’d take the opportunity to give thanks for the benefits of this time.”
Do you have anything else you’d like to add?
“I do have one more thought. I know I’m just one small part of a larger effort, like the NASA janitor who once famously answered President Kennedy’s question of, ‘What do you do here?’ with ‘I’m helping to put a man on the moon.’ We may not always realize it, but we all have an important role to play.”
Thanks to Dr. Burton Neuner III for contributing to this article, and for his contributions to the science and technological communities.
Jessica L. Tozer is the editor-in-chief for Armed with Science. She is an Army veteran and an avid science fiction fan, both of which contribute to her enthusiasm for science and technology in the military.