Essex hired by Motorola for design Preliminary contract may increase business for Columbia company

Work to improve satellites

Firm may land more deals, play crucial role in ventures

Communications

November 22, 1997|By Greg Schneider | Greg Schneider,SUN STAFF

Columbia's troubled Essex Corp. has landed a preliminary contract with Motorola Inc. that could lead to the kind of substantial new business Essex needs to survive.

Motorola has hired Essex to explore how one of the Columbia company's patented opto-electronic processing devices could improve communications satellites, the companies said yesterday. Essex will perform simulation and design work for putting its innovative technology into a satellite constellation.

If the concept looks attractive, Motorola plans to sign Essex to build hardware to test the design.

And if that works, the little company could play a crucial role in multibillion-dollar telecommunications ventures of the future.

"The fact that they've given us a shot at this means an awful lot to everybody at Essex," said Chief Executive Officer Harry Letaw. "It's just the culmination of a dream that we've had for a number of years."

The companies did not disclose the value of the contract.

Letaw said he expects the design work to take about six weeks and that he hopes to reach the next phase with Motorola after the first of the year.

Essex will have to work with a manufacturing company if Motorola decides to commission hardware, and Letaw said he is already talking with several potential partners.

The technology "is obviously an interest to Motorola since it could reduce the weight of satellites and use less power than traditional electronic processing-type products," said Robert Edwards, spokesman for Motorola's Space and Systems Technology Group in Phoenix, Ariz.

Struggling with financial shortfalls, Essex sold off two divisions this year -- streamlining itself to 50 workers from 150 -- in a last-ditch effort to concentrate on marketing its opto-electronic technology. The company's scientists have developed what they say is the first commercially viable opto-electronic processor, a type of computer that uses a laser beam instead of digital electronics.

One of the devices Essex has developed with the technology is called the Iris, which can function as a high-speed switcher for telecommunications signals. Letaw envisions using the Iris on a satellite to quickly route incoming signals to their destinations back on the ground.

Because the Iris is lighter and uses less power than a traditional computer, it could make it far cheaper for Motorola to launch and operate the constellations of satellites that will run communications networks in the future. That could be a huge competitive advantage for Motorola, Edwards said.

Motorola is helping to create a $5 billion satellite system for wireless phone service called Iridium. One of Essex's few sustaining contracts in the past few years has been for computer analysis work related to Iridium. It was that relationship that led to yesterday's contract, said Mark Borota, vice president of Motorola's Mobile Satellite Systems Division.

Letaw, who has struggled to promote a technology greeted with skepticism by outsiders, said yesterday's contract is a small but significant step forward.

"This is just very exciting for us. We've worked very hard for this," he said.

Pub Date: 11/22/97

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