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If you are a company with a lot of acres to watch–say, a utility with electrical substations, or an oil and gas company with remote installations–how do you make sure you can protect that infrastructure? That’s a question which has been increasingly pertinent, after the widely publicized attack on California’s Metcalf substation last year — which highlighted the risk of the nation’s grid to terrorism. One company–SpotterRf, based in Orem, Utah–has a solution, in the form of a compact, mini radar. We spoke with Logan Harris, CEO of SpotterRF, to learn more about the company and its technology.
What is SpotterRF?
Logan Harris: What we do, is provide protection for the critical resources and people who have wide open spaces to watch. We do this by using what we call compact surveillance radar. It’s a small, lightweight miniature lightweight system, which you can hold in your hand, and has 20 acres of monitoring capability. It’s very small, and much different than what you might be familiar with, which is the Air Traffic Control radar systems at airports, or marine radar on boats, which you see spinning around. Compact surveillance is much different from that, because it’s small and lightweight. What we do is we bring the capability to protect critical infrastructure and assets. One area in particular, is electrical subsystems.
If you’re familiar with the Metcalf substation attack that happened last summer, that’s a perfect example of where this could be used. In that particular case, they did not have technology to look outside the fence. Most electrical subsystems have fences, and fence line protectors, which are fiber optic cables that go along the fence to detect movement. However, they have nothing to look outside of the fence. That’s what we do.
We are able to look beyond a fence, and detect threats beyond the fence line. Radar is particularly well suited for that. The military has actually been using ground radar surveillance for a long time. It covers large areas, and detects moving object in that area, and alerts people, and automatically tells a camera to go towards that area. We do the same thing, and bring that capability down to a substation security manager, or a security manager at an electric utility. It’s simple enough they can use it using a web browser. There’s actually a web-based server in SpotterRF’s miniature radar itself, which tracks movement and can be used on any platform you are on, whether that’s a PC, tablet, or phone. In the case of the Metcalf attack, you would get alerts, see tracks, and the system would automatically queue up the camera and send back information to the security manager.
Where did the technology originate?
Logan Harris: That’s kind of an interesting story. We came from a number of different companies. We’re a spinout of a spinout of another startup, which is using radar for monitoring traffic on highways and freeways. This started when myself and another engineer started to work on synthetic aperture radar. That’s an imaging radar, which right now is put on planes, such as spy drones, to be able to fly and image and area, even through smoke, dust, and clouds. From that, we started getting lots of inquires from customers about the technology, and asking us if we could do motion tracking radar for use by people on the ground. So, we took the technology we had developed, and transitioned it into this new application. We became a separate company in 2009, to focus solely on those ground-based applications.
Who are your typical customers right now?
Logan Harris: It’s applicable in many areas. Being small and lightweight, it’s easy for anyone to use. We had released a radar backpack kit several years ago, which included two radars, a tablet, a battery, and a tripod, all in a backpack. All together, it weight just over 20 pounds. That was very well received by government customers. On the other side of it, on the commercial side, we’ve mostly seen more industrial customers, electrical substations, oil and gas, anywhere they have facilities and need to protect them against terrorism, theft, and vandalism. Most of these companies are talking about covering hundreds of acres. There are not lots of options. They are acoustic devices and thermal devices, but when you want to use something that works all of the time, and is the most cost effective, you come back to radar, because one device can cover so much area. If you look at our C40, midrange commercial model, on device can cover and find someone walking anywhere within 20 acres. If you compare that to, for example, a thermal camera, those thermal camera only can handle 1/20th of the area — and because of the narrow field of view, you miss what’s happening. If you see or detect someone with a thermal camera, you have to zoom in, and you’ve then lost your field of view. Radar just gives you a much greater coverage area, more than any other technology.
Do you run into any issues with export restrictions on your technology?
Logan Harris: We have always had commercial customers, but we really started a push in 2012, when we released our C40 product. It was our first solely commercial, non-export restricted device. Prior to that, our radar systems were export restricted, much more difficult to export, and even more difficult to use. You had to be a US person or go through an extensive, export licensing process to even use such a device. However, we released our C40 product in September of 2012 at a big security show here in the US, and it’s been growing overall world wide. We now have systems installed on pretty much every continent.
How is it a company like yours–with such deep experience in radar–ended up here in Utah?
Logan Harris: It all comes down to the origin of the technology. A big reason for that is Brigham Young University. BYU has a very strong radar R&D group, and out of that group, grew the many companies here in the radara area. In Provo alone, there are four radar companies, and there are many OEMs producing radar in Utah County.