APL project scientist and lead inventor J. Hanson aboard the Research Vessel Knorr conducts a multinational experiment using APL WAVES.


J. Hanson is a master at catching waves—and he doesn’t even own a surfboard.

Instead, he uses something a little more scientific and a lot easier on the body. The senior physical oceanographer at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory has created APL WAVES, an innovative computer program that extracts and displays detailed information from wide-ranging data on ocean waves. The software can pinpoint information such as how much energy a single wave carries to exactly when a storm shaped it in another part of the globe.

Originally designed to help the Navy learn the effects of waves on underwater sound, the evolving program has found a commercial home with Shell International Exploration and Production Co., which is using it to set design criteria for oil rigs and other offshore equipment. The company’s license for APL WAVES also includes a research and development grant Hanson is using to improve the program not only for Shell but also for the Navy and other potential users.

“It represents the state of the art for gathering information on wind-sea and swell paths over time,” says Kevin Ewans, oceanographic engineer for Shell in the Netherlands. “It’s going to be a very valuable tool for us.”

Flood of Ideas
Wave forces might not matter to most folks—unless one pounds you on the beach—but they’re critical to those who operate on or under the sea. A decade ago Hanson was part of an APL project to help the Navy understand how waves breaking on the surface affected underwater acoustics, a key factor in submarine operations.

He came back from a 1992 sea test in the Gulf of Alaska with megabytes worth of data on the region’s wave heights, directions and speeds, gathered from buoys and various ship sensors. He also had a few ideas. “I was out on the boat with David Farmer, a well-known air-sea scientist from the Institute of Ocean Sciences, and he was fascinated by our work,” Hanson says. “He brought me aside and said, ‘You know, you could take this forward and get a Ph.D. with this data set.’ ”

Hanson’s doctorate studies with Prof. Owen Phillips at Johns Hopkins focused on new ways to gather information on wave fields—finding out specifically how much of the field stems from wind sweeping across the surface in that particular area and how much from swells that developed in other parts of the sea. In 1994, with an APL Fellowship and help from a grad-student programmer, Hanson began assembling the first version of his wave identification and tracking software.

Created in MATLAB technical computing language, the program offered researchers a quick, clear look at wave data that would otherwise have required countless hours and writer’s cramp to uncover. “In the past, this kind of analysis took a lot of work and time,” Hanson says. “You had to do it all by hand, looking at plots and drawing lines with rulers and pencils. So I found a way to do it on the computer and instantly spit out the results. And because it’s a computer processing technique, it can go deeper into the data than the human eye can see. You can extract a lot more information.”

The program’s initial success gave Hanson another idea. “It was research-grade software,” he says. “It wasn’t finely polished, with user-friendly inputs and graphics. But I still thought it had marketing potential.”

Untapped Market
Hanson figured this was just the tool for the Navy and its consultants to plan for ship routing and other offshore operations—but he was drilling in the wrong spot. In mid-2001 Shell’s Ewans read a paper on Hanson’s program (“Ocean Surface Waves, Automated Analysis of Directional Spectra” by J. L. Hanson and M. D. Mandelberg) and contacted him about licensing opportunities; within 3 months, the technology was part of a licensing agreement between APL and Shell negotiated by the Office of Technology Transfer.

“To design an offshore structure, Shell needs to know which waves are coming from what directions and what type of forces they carry with them,” Hanson says. “Our dissection of the wave field turns out to be exactly what they needed. I never thought of design criteria for the oil industry, but it turns out the need for technology in this area is huge.”

With Shell’s help, Hanson began work on a second version of the tracking system that became APL WAVES. Aside from a catchy name, Hanson and programmers David Colbert, Diane Nemec, Chad Bates and Erin Hackett gave it a colorful facelift and made it much easier for users to put in—and analyze—large amounts of wave data from buoys and other sources. Interactive displays allow users to check a variety of parameters and examine specific wave systems in unprecedented detail. One feature even produces a global map that identifies storms and tracks the swells they contributed to a particular wave field.

Shell has already used the product several times, Ewans says, and the company is working with APL to develop another upgrade for its operating divisions around the world. The Navy has also used the new version for sea tests near Scotland and the Bahamas.

Return on Investment
By law the Department of Defense (and its contractors) must work to transfer technologies for public use; it’s seen as a way to give taxpayers a return on their initial investment and to help fund additional research and development. APL WAVES takes that a step further, showing how the right commercial partnership can benefit the original military sponsor.

“This project started out with Navy funding,” Hanson says, “Then it was licensed, and now the Navy is using the upgraded version that Shell paid us to develop. It’s a very synergistic arrangement.”

That synergy is encouraged across DoD. “One of the major benefits from licensing is the partnerships that occur, and the further development that industry pursues in that technology,” says Cynthia Gonsalves, the DoD Technology Transfer program manager.

Development will continue on APL WAVES to the benefit of Shell and the Navy. Hanson is also designing a smaller version he hopes will appeal to buoy manufacturers, and the program has recently caught the eye of government agencies, including the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Weather Service.

“Shell helped us bring a product off the shelf and into the limelight, and now we’re able to use that product to help satisfy other Navy and national needs,” Hanson says. “There are a lot of miles between technology that works for research and what could be marketable, and I think that’s why a lot of people don’t make the leap. But if you really understand the commercial potential, then you’re motivated to make that leap.”

A license with AXYS Technologies Inc. of Vancouver, B.C., Canada, for a scaled-down executable version of APL WAVES was signed in March 2003.


With Inventors Onboard, Deals Work Out

For some inventors, creating a technology is the easy part. The first time J. Hanson went to find potential licensees for his APL WAVES program at an oceanography conference, he was petrified.

“I had a stack of brochures and a list of companies I wanted to see, but I could only talk to a few a day because it was so nerve-wracking,” he recalled. “But after a while I learned that everybody was really enthusiastic about exploring new opportunities that could benefit your company and theirs.”

He also learned that his involvement was a key part in the technology transfer process. Whether they’re talking up new tools at conferences or building contacts through day-to-day work, when inventors work closely with their technology transfer office licensing deals get done—and an inventor’s involvement can be critical in building R&D relationships with firms that license their inventions.

Hanson not only found a promising lead at that conference, he continues to work closely with engineers at Shell, the first company to license APL WAVES, to improve the program. And in June he’s heading a small team at an international meeting in New Orleans—only this time, he’s leaving the jitters
at home.


2003 The Johns Hopkins University