The invention engine
Raytheon receives the 10 millionth U.S. Patent in history
Joe Marron knew he had a good idea. But he had no idea it would make history.
Marron, an optical engineer at Raytheon, found a new way to get real-time readings from large laser radars, which use reflected light to measure speed and distance. Through Raytheon, he applied for a patent, and three years later, he got one. Not only did it confirm that his idea was novel, it made him the inventor behind the 10 millionth patent in the history of the United States.
"It's equivalent to a guy who buys a lottery ticket every month," Marron said of his noteworthy new patent number. "Eventually, it hits."
The odds of securing such a significant patent number are long, but they improve when you consider Marron's achievements and Raytheon's long history of innovation. Marron has turned his ideas into more than 20 patents over the years, starting with a 1991 concept to improve upon bifocal lenses. And Raytheon holds more than 13,000 active patents – 4,500 in the U.S. alone – with more than 4,300 applications pending.
Those numbers tell a story, Raytheon Chairman and CEO Thomas A. Kennedy said.
"Raytheon engineers and researchers like Joe have been pushing the bounds of what’s possible for generations. It’s what we do. We innovate, we solve hard problems, and we create solutions that explore new frontiers to shape an exciting future," said Kennedy, an electrical engineer with a Ph.D. and holder of four U.S. patents.
Innovators then, innovators now
Raytheon's history of innovation stretches back to its founding in 1922. Its first successful invention was engineer Charles G. Smith's design for a tube that made it practical to run home radio sets from a wall socket rather than big, messy batteries.
Marron's patent story starts just a few years ago, when he was working on the electronics design for an advanced laser sensor.
One problem with large laser sensors is that light fluctuates very quickly, creating an enormous amount of data to process. That means large laser radar arrays rely on a series of converters and processors just to create a coherent picture of what they're seeing. They can do it, it just takes time.
To get that information faster and with high fidelity, Marron called upon his knowledge of two familiar technologies: digital cameras and FM radio.
By redesigning a laser radar like a digital camera, he could spread that data out across many pixels, each with its own processing electronics. Then, using an approach called quadrature detection, which underlies many forms of wireless communications, those pixels would report only the bits of data the sensor would need to draw a picture; in essence, it's a form of data compression.
"We can take terabytes of information and translate it down into something that can be digested by a computer," he said.
The potential applications are many, he said, including autonomous cars; a laser radar that can identify objects with speed and clarity could help a car's artificial intelligence make better decisions.
And that would be another entry in Raytheon's near-century-long record; along with Smith's revolutionary S-tube, the company's famous breakthroughs include Percy Spencer's 1943 patent application for mass-producing magnetron tubes, which helped meet a critical supply need for radars in World War II. The following year, Spencer struck again, this time with a way to use the magnetron to cook food, resulting in the first commercial microwave ovens.
Raytheon's more recent patents cover many areas of emerging technology, such as a way to detect malicious code in a computer system and a sensor that can detect a single, low-energy light particle, which could pave the way for quantum communication.
For Marron, having his idea alongside those historic breakthroughs – not to mention the cool patent number – is "a real career highlight."
"As an inventor," he said, "to be able to say I have Patent 10,000,000, that's pretty good for the resume."