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Under the radar

By Tony Kindelspire
The Daily Times-Call

LOUISVILLE — Seeing what can’t be seen is the foundation of a 20-year-old company here that appears to be on the brink of commercial success.

CLR Photonics is the product sales arm of Coherent Technologies Inc. Last year, CLR accounted for approximately one-sixth of Coherent’s total revenues of approximately $37 million, but in the coming fiscal year it’s expected to account for nearly one-fourth of the company’s projected revenues of $44 million.

“(We’ve) perfected how to measure the winds using a coherent Doppler laser radar and turn that into a reliable, manufacturable product, which is no small feat,” said Hal Bagley, CTI vice president and a 101/2-year veteran of the company.

CLR’s product is the trademarked “WindTracer” Doppler LIDAR system.

Doppler is a weather forecasting system based on radio waves, while LIDAR is an acronym for light detection and ranging.

“(Traditional) radar can’t see anything in clear air, and that’s when we see really well,” said Bagley. “Airports are still exploring the best way to use the technology.”

The system is catching the attention of government entities far and wide, from the Federal Aviation Administration to officials at Hong Kong International Airport.

“This wind sensing in clear air — it’s a new capability,” said Denny Chrismer, manager, sales and customer support.

Airports aren’t the exclusive venues for the WindTracer. It has multiple, and diverse, applications. Recently, the WindTracer was part of the Department of Defense’s atmospheric diversion survey, conducted in and around the Pentagon for a month during April and May.

WindTracer’s “aerosol detection” functions allow it to examine how airborne contaminants might move around — and into — a building in the wake of a chemical or biological attack.

Similar testing is being conducted by the WindTracer at the U.S. Army’s Dugway Proving Ground in Utah.

The WindTracer’s airport applications are in use at the Hong Kong airport and others in this country. The machine detects things like wind shear and turbulence, as well as “vortices” — large, violent wind movements that swirl in the wake of a plane taking off and landing.

The WindTracer is housed in a square, eight-foot cube situated somewhere on an airport’s grounds, and its lasers take readings and feed the data directly to the air traffic control tower.

St. Louis — Lambert International Airport is one place where the FAA is using the WindTracer in “exploration mode”, and another was recently deployed at Jefferson County Airport in Broomfield.

“We’ll use it for demos and to bring customers over there,” said Bagley.

The WindTracer purchased by the Hong Kong Observatory for an undisclosed sum for use at that city’s airport was installed in June 2002, and has proven to be a real success story for CTI, Bagley said.

“They were missing 83 percent of the wind shear activity that was being reported by the pilots,” he said. “They are so pleased with it they are buying a second one.”

Denver International Airport was another location used to test vortices last year as part of a joint NASA/FAA program called the “Wake Turbulence Research Program.” Aside from obvious safety issues, vortices are “what establishes the FAA rules on landing,” said Bagley. “(By measuring vortices) you can increase the capacity of the airport without building new runways.”

WindTracer even has wildland firefighting and air pollution applications.

CTI was founded in 1984 by Milton Huffaker, a veteran of NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), as a research firm searching for innovative ways to use the then, relatively new Doppler radar. The company eventually split into three divisions: research and development, “advanced programs” — which company officials won’t say much about — and CLR, the commercialization arm.

Currently operating in the Colorado Tech Center, where it moved in early 2003, the company’s rapid expansion is already leading it to move its manufacturing operations back to its former location in Lafayette, while corporate headquarters and R&D will stay in its current 65,000-square-foot home.

Since its founding, CTI’s revenues have averaged between 30 percent and 40 percent of growth per year. Currently at slightly more than 200 employees, the company is adding about 10 per quarter, Chrismer said. Nearly 25 percent of the company’s employees have Ph.D.s.

Company literature designates 10 percent of the company’s revenue sources as “confidential” — a reference Bagley won’t elaborate on.

But he does refer to the company’s product sales as “the fastest growing component of the company in the coming fiscal year,” and said the WindTracer has definitely filled a niche in the meteorological marketplace.

“We’ve got the right products at the right time, and we’re doing what we can to bring these products to market,” Bagley said.

Tony Kindelspire can be reached at 303-776-2244, Ext. 291, or by e-mail at tkindelspire@times-call.com.