Laser Focus

by Sharon Aschaiek

photography by sofie Kirk

Allan Carswell’s decades-long research and business career has been as bright, focused and intense as the subject of that career: lasers. The world-renowned physicist pioneered laser radar, or LiDAR (light detection and ranging), a remote sensing and environmental diagnostics technology that has dramatically improved how we map physical features on the Earth’s surface, as well as below and beyond it. It’s an innovation Carswell says evolved with tremendous resources and encouragement from York University, and now he is returning the favour with a $1 million gift that will fund graduate scholarships for the next generation of scientists and engineers.

“It will enable students to enhance the depth and breadth of their research, strengthen science and engineering programs at York, and advance innovation in the field,” Carswell says.
He is promoting the same opportunities to pursue scientific inquiry that were first afforded to him in 1968, when he joined York’s newly established Faculty of Science and initiated the University’s research of the then-recently-invented laser. The holder of a doctoral degree in physics from the University of Toronto, Carswell had previously studied the device at RCA Victor Research Laboratories in Montreal, where he led a team in developing Canada’s first helium-neon and carbon dioxide lasers. Looking back on his early years at York, he remembers the thrill of participating in the University’s foray into scientific research.

“Because science at the University was relatively new, it was a highly dynamic time and all sorts of plans were under way,” he says.

For Carswell, those plans involved exploring the properties and applications of high-powered lasers and LiDAR, which uses light in the form of a pulsed laser to measure the distance between objects. One of his early successes with the technology was when he developed a truck-mounted mobile LiDAR system to conduct atmospheric studies throughout Ontario and Quebec. He went on to develop atmospheric LiDAR for observatories in the Arctic, and marine LiDAR for studying lakes and rivers.

By 1974, more and more companies were showing interest in his work, so Carswell decided the time was ripe to commercialize LiDAR technology. Together with his wife, Helen, and a former York colleague, he formed Optech Incorporated, a company focused on designing and manufacturing commercial LiDAR systems. They originally developed atmospheric and marine LiDAR, and later focused on topographic surveying, 3D imaging, industrial process measurement, vehicle guidance and even spacecraft tracking and landing. Under Carswell’s leadership, the enterprise evolved into a 275-employee international company that became the top LiDAR technology provider for surveyors, researchers and governments worldwide.

Because science at the University was relatively new,
it was a highly dynamic time

One particularly noteworthy accomplishment for Optech was its collaboration with NASA on its 2007 Phoenix ­mission to Mars. Part of a team of organizations led by York University under the direction of the Canadian Space Agency, Carswell shared his expertise in conducting atmospheric measurements on the red planet and provided instruments to perform temperature, pressure and wind measurement. The intensive four-year project resulted in a LiDAR system that, after 152 days on Mars, was able to capture a wealth of information about its atmosphere, including the presence of snow.

Carswell’s LiDAR research and business activities helped spur extensive innovation in terrestrial, airborne and hydrographic LiDAR. Today, the technology is used for a diverse range of functions in areas such as agriculture, archeology, mining, robotics, urban planning, geology, forestry and law enforcement. For his key role in developing LiDAR and researching the technology – his findings have appeared in more than 250 scientific and technical publications – Carswell has received many accolades, including the Order of Canada and the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal. York has also acknowledged his accomplishments with an honorary doctor of science degree and, most recently, with a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Lassonde School of Engineering.

In 1998, after three decades at York, Carswell retired to run Optech full-time. In 2012, he sold part of the business to Teledyne Dalsa, a Waterloo, Ont.-based manufacturer of high-performance digital imaging equipment and semiconductors, and last year, he sold his remaining stake in the company. He now funds education and health-care causes through the Carswell Family Foundation, which he runs with his three children and two of his eight grandchildren. The foundation’s generous gift to York, which is being matched by the University, will create an expendable fund and a permanent endowment, both of which will provide scholarships for graduate students in science and engineering programs. Carswell has made significant donations to York before. In 2005 he gave $125,000 to newly outfit a physics laboratory and to fund new courses in laser physics and atom trapping (the latter is a unique-in-Canada undergraduate course). He has also supported various awards and other causes at York.
“When I look back at what I have achieved, I have a good feeling, but I also feel the best is yet to come,” he says. “My biggest satisfaction right now comes from giving things away.”  ■