WHAT HE DOES
By day, he’s a technology analyst for a secretive IP-gathering firm. By night, he runs a start-up that wants to loft helicopters—and rockets—with laser light.
Intellectual Ventures and LaserMotive
He gets to blend his twin obsessions—space and lasers—in a company of his own.
This profile is part of IEEE Spectrum's Special Report on Dream Jobs 2011.
Back in the 1970s, when Jordin Kare was in high school, the laser still seemed a Buck Rogers curiosity, useful for little more than punching holes in razors. But the helium-neon laser he’d built from a kit couldn’t even burn a hole in cardboard. After Kare rode it to science-fair glory—long after—it dawned on him that the laser’s true calling might be to provide steady power at a distance.
"Push that button," Kare says, gesturing at the controls on a man-high glass booth in the Seattle offices of LaserMotive, a firm he cofounded in 2006 . I do, and a helicopter that could fit in the palm of my hand shoots up a guiding pole. A red light marks the spot where an infrared laser shines on a special solar cell, supplying the helicopter’s motor with power.
Who’d want to loft a helicopter that way? "The military could use a quiet UAV, for reconnaissance," Kare says. Today’s robotic eyes in the sky burn gas and buzz like lawn mowers, alerting their potential quarry, but electric motors are so quiet that electric cars may need noise makers, just for safety’s sake. Besides, laser-powered unmanned aerial vehicles can stay up indefinitely.
The glass booth is the type of display that gets hauled off to tech conferences as a kind of roadside attraction. More serious is the meter-wide, four-rotor helicopter that a couple of undergrad volunteers are putting together before my eyes; it could carry a camera with telescopic lenses and other optical tricks, and perhaps even serve as a rough-and-ready relay point for cellular service.
But what Kare really wants is to shine an array of laser beams onto the panel of a heat exchanger on a rocket to send it shooting into space. The idea—so far just a proposal before the U.S. aerospace community—is to economize on propellant by using its mass just for momentum, rather than burning it for energy. Laser-powered rockets could boil mere water for steam—although liquid hydrogen would be more efficient—allowing engineers to make a smaller booster. Kare estimates that in a thriving laser-launch economy, he could send stuff into orbit at a ridiculously cheap $US 550 per kilo. Once the technology takes off, as it were, Kare could turn to worthier goals, such as accelerating starships.
Jordin Kare explains how LaserMotive won NASA's Power Beaming Challenge