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    Optical Vortex: Unveiling the Future of Undersea Sensing

    Optical Vortex: Unveiling the Future of Undersea Sensing

    Courtesy Photo | Science, Mathematics, and Research for Transformation (SMART) mentor and senior...... read more read more



    Story by Catherine White 

    SMART Scholarship Program

    Optical vortex laser beam sounds like something you’d read about in a spy novel or science-fiction piece, but for one Science, Mathematics, and Research for Transformation (SMART) scholar and mentor pair, it’s a standard part of their day.

    SMART mentor and senior scientific technical manager Linda Mullen, Ph.D., and SMART mentee and electronics engineer, Nathaniel Ferlic, Ph.D., both civilians at the Naval Air Warfare Center Aircraft Division (NAWCAD) in Patuxent, Maryland, have joined forces with industry, academia, and government laboratories. Together, they research unconventional state-of-the-art optical sensors for monitoring underwater environments and detecting subsea threats.

    The concept started when Mullen, along with the Non-Traditional Maritime Sensing Branch at NAWCAD, pioneered the idea of using optical vortex beams for undersea sensing. An optical vortex is formed when a laser beam’s optical phase is structured so it twists like a corkscrew around its axis of travel, creating a donut shaped intensity pattern. In other words, the laser beam creates a unique pattern where the light is brightest in a ring shape, like a donut, surrounding a darker center. Mullen’s team at NAWCAD invented a technique which utilized the intensity of an optical vortex to remove scattered light from the environment. This increases the sensitivity of underwater laser systems, making them more effective and creating a new paradigm for the U.S. Navy to maintain undersea dominance.

    Recognizing the significance of this technique, Mullen utilized the SMART Scholarship Program to engage with Ferlic, whose doctorate from the University of Maryland focused on optical vortex beam propagation. Together, the pair continued to conduct impactful research in the field.

    Ferlic’s graduate work on the propagation of laser beams through atmospheric turbulence and how vortex beams are affected in similar scenarios led to a dissertation describing a new optical method to sense oceanic turbulence. Pursuing this as a Phase 1 SMART scholar – those in pursuit of their SMART-sponsored degree – provided Ferlic with a significant head start in his civilian career, allowing him to make quick and significant contributions.

    Shortly after completing his SMART-funded doctorate, Ferlic was awarded a three-year SMART SEED grant to continue exploring optical vortex interactions with undersea environments. SEED grants help SMART scholars establish foundational research and engineering efforts early in their careers. Ferlic’s findings, co-authored by Mullen, were published and presented at the 2023 International Society of Optics and Photonics Defense and Commercial Sensing Ocean Sensing and Monitoring Conference.

    While Ferlic’s research shows that optical vortex beams are highly sensitive to changes in how water bends light caused by turbulence, controlled generation of underwater turbulence for experimentation is difficult to accomplish. With Mullen’s support and encouragement, Ferlic successfully pitched a project funded by the NAWCAD Naval Innovative Science and Engineering program. He now leads the project, which aims to build a large-scale controlled environment to generate optical turbulence and incorporate controlled flow to induce various turbulent conditions. A controlled environment like this has never been constructed for undersea optics purposes and paves the way for the discovery of inventive sensing methods.

    Under Mullen’s mentorship, Ferlic presented additional research findings at the annual Office of Naval Research (ONR) Program Review to ONR project managers and researchers from academia, industry and government laboratories, establishing himself as a subject matter expert in optical vortex research.

    Ferlic and Mullen’s influential research led to their recognition with the SMART Scholar and Mentor of the Year Award, for fiscal year 2023, given to scholar and mentor pairs who showcase outstanding achievements throughout their SMART journey.

    With Mullen’s past support propelling his career forward, Ferlic now actively champions opportunities for the future workforce to be involved in cutting-edge research. His mentees have had their own successes, notably being nominated for best paper at Optica’s 2023 Imaging Congress and selected for an internship through ONR’s Naval Research Enterprise Internship Program, among others.

    A powerful team, Mullen and Ferlic have utilized their extensive network within academia, government laboratories, and industry to propel the research that originally brought them together years ago.


    Date Taken: 05.30.2024
    Date Posted: 05.30.2024 13:21
    Story ID: 472594

    Web Views: 50
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