By Leslie Zychowski
A “eureka!” moment can strike at any time — on a yoga mat, in the garage, or in the shower — proving that some of the best ideas can happen when you least expect them. For Alex, an innovation manager in Huntsville, Alabama, realization struck while he was sitting in his dining room-turned-office, listening to a SPARK program out-brief. SPARK is used to crowdsource innovations and create connections across the company while providing funding for employees to become innovators. Engineers Kevin and Shane were discussing µSASTM (pronounced “micro-sas”), an advanced imaging sonar for the U.S. Navy used to detect mines and other threats on the seafloor.
They were mid-sentence when Alex spoke up.
“The lightbulb went off in my head and I realized there was potential for synergy of two SPARK-funded Northrop Grumman technologies — Kevin and Shane’s, and a tool that my engineering colleague Randy built, called SLICE,” said Alex. “This collaborative forum enabled two teams, completely independent of each other, to socialize their successes.”
As Alex listened, the value was instantly obvious. SLICE, matured under SPARK funding, fit the data visualization needs perfectly for the µSAS team as they began to mature their product and add capabilities.
Unlocking Mysteries of the Deep
SLICE, short for “scene layering and indexing capability environment,” is a tactical graphics framework that bridges the gap between systems and sensors to allows operators to look in one place, gain a more complete understanding of their surroundings and respond quickly. It seems like it could be the perfect tool for supporting the undersea and maritime environment; more than 80% of the ocean is unexplored, with the seabed often being the biggest mystery.
“I’m an engineer, and I saw a need for sensor visualization for our products,” said Randy. “I wrote SLICE from the ground up, listening to my customers’ needs, to create a tool that could visualize sensor data outputs in real-time so the customer could understand what was going on in a specific domain or environment,” said Randy.
“This collaborative forum enabled two teams, completely independent of each other, to socialize their successes.”
— Alex, Engineer
It took one week for Kevin and Shane to link up with Randy after Alex’s eureka moment.
“After sitting down with Randy, we were off to the races,” said Kevin. “As soon as I saw how SLICE could turn data into detailed, three-dimensional objects on the seafloor — whether it be a mine, or a rusty anchor — I knew this technology would be a gamechanger for our customers.”
As the SLICE and µSAS team began to collaborate, SLICE found a new home at the company’s facility in Annapolis, Maryland. SLICE is a one-of-a-kind tool and allows operators and analysts — who are key to supporting Department of Defense missions — to use high resolution data outputs with ease to see objects in a totally new way.
“We began demos right away using the data collected from µSAS and realized that SLICE created a beautiful new picture of the seafloor, unlike anything we had visualized before,” said Shane.
SPARKing a Culture of Innovation
If it wasn’t for Northrop Grumman’s culture of innovation and collaboration, two disparate teams might still be operating independently of each other.
“This marriage of technology and the problem space wasn’t an accident,” said Alex, whose day job is to identify innovations across the company. “Our company culture, combined with platforms like SPARK, creates opportunities for engineers to get out of their swim lanes and explore how a technology can support a new domain, customer base or team they may not have even thought of.”
As for what’s next for the SLICE and µSAS team, they continue to find new ways to show an even clearer picture of the seafloor.
“Data is only as good as our operator’s ability to understand it — this is a Cinderella story for the undersea environment,” said Alex. “Now that the proverbial shoe fits, we are seeing an appetite from our customers that didn’t exist before.”
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