FIBER ARMS Md. firm makes optical cable for missiles


GAITHERSBURG -- It looks a lot like fishing line, the fine thread-like material Edmund D. Ludwig is pulling between his fingers. But it has nothing to do with catching trout or bass. This fiber-optic cable is designed to guide a tank-killing missile.

The cable, about the thickness of a human hair, is wrapped on a spool placed in the tail of a surface-to-surface missile, which also carries a television camera in its nose cone. When a tank-killing missile is fired, the cable rapidly unravels and conducts a television image of what the camera sees back to a command-center console.

The television picture serves as the eyes of the missile operator, who sends commands back through the same cable to guide the missile around trees or over hills to a target up to a hundred miles away.

While the whole concept seems something like using a string to control the flight of a toy model airplane, it is much more serious business.

The fiber-optic cable forms a communication link between the launch point and the missile that cannot be jammed by the sophisticated electronic equipment that is such a big part of modern warfare.

For Optelecom Inc., a Montgomery County-based high-technology firm that specializes in laser and fiber-optic systems, the cable in Mr. Ludwig's hand means more than just a potential military contract.

It also represents the company's hopes of expanding its commercial business -- an effort that also rests in the hands of Mr. Ludwig, who earlier this month was promoted to president.

The company had its origins in the laboratories of IBM in Gaithersburg, where Mr. Ludwig worked with William H. Culver during the early 1970s. While they were at IBM, Mr. Culver came up with the idea of having a missile linked to a command post by fiber-optic cable but, he said, IBM was not interested in the concept. So, in 1972 Mr. Culver left IBM to establish Optelecom and pursue the concept.

Two years later Mr. Ludwig, whose work at IBM included such projects as the computers used to guide the Titan II Gemini launch vehicles and the Saturn V moon rocket, joined Mr. Culver at Optelecom.

At the time there were only a handful of people at the company. Today, it employs nearly 50.

While Optelecom has grown over the years, it still is having trouble selling its fiber-optic missile technology to the Pentagon.

Optelecom teamed with Martin Marietta Corp. and Raytheon Corp. in 1989 to bid on a military contract for the development of an anti-tank missile that would have used the system, but the coalition lost out to a group headed by the Boeing Co. and Hughes Aircraft Co.

While Optelecom has not abandoned plans for development of fiber-guided missiles, Mr. Ludwig sees the same technology being applied to the production of computer connection cables, equipment used in high resolution computer graphics, and on television security cameras used at industrial sites or office buildings.

For Mr. Ludwig, a 50-year-old graduate of the Drexel Institute of Technology who had been executive vice president of Optelecom since 1975, these applications loom larger in the company's future than battlefield heroics.

"I want to take this company to a more commercial orientation," he said recently. "Not that I want to abandon government work -- this is still a big part of our business -- but I want to put more emphasis on commercial business. . . . Commercial, in the long run, will be a more stable business."

At this time, he said, about two-thirds of the company's business is in the commercial market and the remainder is government. "I would like to see that closer to 90 percent commercial and 10 percent government."

"I've grown up with this company," Mr. Ludwig said. "I think I understand its strengths and weaknesses. My job is to increase its strengths and reduce its weaknesses."

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