Development and Commercialization of a Fiber Optic Connection

Western Michigan University, designated a high research institution by the Carnegie Foundation, has an active faculty involved in research and commercialization. These research activities serve to enhance the quality of classroom teaching and student engagement in research projects of an applied nature and to demonstrate the utility and importance of research performed at WMU. One such example is the research of Dr. Mitchel Keil, a professor in the Department of Industrial and Manufacturing Engineering in the College of Engineering and Applied Sciences. He is the inventor of the multi-channel fiber-optic rotary joint.

Keil’s invention makes it possible to pass high volume information over optical fibers that, bundled on one end with a rotary joint, can be rotated to optimize signal strength and transmission to the other bundled optics thereby increasing from one to seven-fold the data transmitted along the fiber. To meet such a complex challenge required a research-oriented mind and a passion for problem solving.

Keil has been a member of WMU’s faculty for more than 10 years, contributing to the research community approximately 38 original publications. However, it was his prior working relationship with Moog Components Group that led to this invention. Moog contacted Dr. Keil after his departure from the company and asked him to work on the concept of a multi-channel fiber-optic rotary joint. It was a challenge that confounded the researchers at Moog, but they knew Keil was one of the few who understood how to approach the problem of aligning the fibers for the rotary joints so all the fibers would line up optimally in all conditions, and Moog wanted him to perfect and increase the volume of data transmitted.

Keil’s invention involves packing the fibers very precisely into ceramic tubes with precision lenses. The success of the rotary joint rested on figuring out how to align the center axis so as to keep the fibers at each end of the joint speaking to each other. The technology Keil uses builds off the technology used in submarine periscopes—where the periscope rotates to scan the surface as the observer stands still—and gets the fibers talking to each other. The key to this invention is that there is no loss of communication or data when the fibers on each end of the joint rotate. Patented in 2001 as U.S. No. 6301405, these joints rotate and are linked in such a fashion as to bring the fiber optic strands into optimal signal strength at all times.

This technology is used in ships, submarines, cars, aircrafts (MK1) and anywhere there is need to pass high volumes of information efficiently in a small space between a fixed object and a rotating object. In short, the multi-channel fiber-optic rotary joint increases the amount of information that can pass through a physically small space.

Keil’s invention, the multi-channel fiber-optic rotary joint, is sold currently by Moog Components Group. Based on a commercialization arrangement with Moog, Western Michigan University and Keil receive royalties from the sale of this product that can be used to support more research at the University. It is the goal of WMU’s Office of the Vice President for Research, through its intellectual property management and commercialization arm, to help create more of these kinds of relationships with industry.