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By Matt Sinclair ’90

The effect is so commonplace that it’s easy to miss its significance: Drive on a foggy night, switch on the high beams, and see the light scatter. Even a new driver learns quickly that low beams are better for driving through fog.

Now imagine using a laser under water to communicate wirelessly between submarines.

Brandon Cochenour ’03 doesn’t have to imagine these things. Since 2004, he has been a civilian working for the Navy, involved in the research and development of next generation laser-radar systems using novel RF-photonic techniques for laser imaging and communication systems under water. In 2007, he was recognized as a top Navy scientist and named Engineer of the Year in the Emerging Investigator category, which was presented by the assistant secretary of the Navy for research and development.

In 2008, the Department of Defense awarded Cochenour a SMART Fellowship, which is enabling him to pursue a electrical engineering at North Carolina State University, Raleigh, N.C., while still working for the Navy.

“I’m working on laser-radar and laser communications systems, primarily for underwater applications,” he says, “which would provide detection, imaging, and wireless communication capabilities for underwater platforms like submarines, unmanned vehicles, or autonomous sensor nodes. The technology could even be used through the water surface, for example, from a plane to a sub.”

Brandon Cochenour '03 and Derek Alley '09

Brandon Cochenour ’03 (left) and Derek Alley ’09 work on laser communication systems.

But Cochenour’s work has applications beyond national defense. It could help researchers see through any turbid media, such as dust, fog, or even human tissue. Indeed, the technology could help scientists perform remote sensing of the ocean.

“For example, the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico this summer,” he says. “Satellite images can see how the oil moves on the surface, but that doesn’t say anything about what’s happening below the surface, which can often be different. A laser-radar could provide this valuable information to scientists and biologists.”

Cochenour, who completed an M.S. in electrical engineering from Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, Md., credits former Lafayette professor William D. Jemison ’85 with leading him onto his current path.

In a sense, Cochenour has followed Jemison’s example, helping to bring on Lafayette students as interns and externs thorough the College’s Career Services. “Derek Alley ’09 joined our group a year ago, and he originally began working with us through the externship program.”

Looking back on his college years, Cochenour says that having easy access to faculty was a huge benefit.

“I wouldn’t have done it any other way than being at a small place like Lafayette, where all the professors know who you are,” he explains. “Doing research as an undergrad prepared me for my life after Lafayette. It gets you in that mindset of always asking questions and not just blending in with the crowd.”

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