Memorial Tributes: National Academy of Engineering, Volume 20
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  • CHARLES V. JAKOWATZ JR. 1951–2015


    CHARLES V. JAKOWATZ JR. was an outstanding engineer who spent his entire working career at the Sandia National­ Laboratories in Albuquerque. His technical creations and those of the team of talented scientists and engineers he assembled and led are amazing developments in technology. His classified and unclassified advances of an esoteric tool for remote sensing and observations, called synthetic aperture ­radar1 (SAR), include many pioneering creations that won major awards for their ingenuity.

    As well, some of the inventions have been judged to be of overwhelming importance to the national security of the US (and the world). These inventions and new technologies are considered some of the most  important advances ever created for national security or for arms control monitoring and verification, with a growing list of ingenious and game-changing applications still emerging. Among the notable quotations of Sir Arthur C. Clarke, author of 2001: A Space Odyssey, was his judgment that “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

    Such a descriptor seems very appropriate for several of the major advances that Jack Jakowatz and his team achieved. They are remarkable feats of engineering. He and his team perfected the use of SAR devices, which already enjoyed the unique advantage of providing very high-­resolution imagery for surveillance through fog and clouds as well as at night. In addition, as is often the case, some of the very best achievements of Jack’s team resulted in very diverse arrays of new and unforeseen capabilities, whose existence and ultimate performance have enabled new and important as well as some highly secretive applications.

    These should be expected to remain under tight classification restrictions for a very long time, which motivated me to request to write this memorial, so that I can give witness to the great importance of Dr. Jakowatz’s enduring legacy of contributions to our nation’s security. The productivity of these advances has been widespread across many diverse fields of application such that aspects of some can be openly discussed. These representative advances provide tangible witness of a larger body of ingenious technologies that have been created.

    For example, in the mid-1990s, Dr. Jakowatz and his team developed a system to rapidly create images in near real time (and in three dimensions) over large expanses of land through processing of controlled pairs of images that can be created at great distances and in any weather. Using high-speed computers to create computer visualizations—with accuracies better than 1 foot—provides images of great clarity. These efforts enable new possibilities for earthquake predictions and warnings by precise monitoring of ground fault slippages over great distances. The 3D nature of these processed images has given birth to very accurate topographical maps, taken from aircraft or satellites, that have already proved invaluable for studying glacier motions and changes.

    This technology also holds great promise to predict impending floods or to detect the groundswell precursors that often precede volcanic activity. Massive databases—generated in a similar manner— have enabled unique change detection methods that can be employed over wide areas. These are useful to spot and follow events over time and highlight even minute details—of small or large changes—between successive images, to monitor suspected (but prohibited) activities for proliferation prevention, to monitor border areas between combat troops, and to generally assess the damage resulting from either military hostilities or adverse natural events. In 1996 Dr. Jakowatz was awarded an E.O. Lawrence Award—one of the Department of Energy’s top prizes—for achievements that advance the use of SAR to detect exceptionally small changes in landscape.

    The award read: “For fundamental work in signal analysis and image processing and its applications to national security, specifically, through overhead detection and identification of weapons of mass destruction.” Since 1990 Jack had served as the manager of the Sandia Radar Signal Processing Group. He displayed his exceptional but usual modesty in accepting the award, as he said, “I am both honored and flattered to receive this award. But I would like to make it clear that a single person doesn’t make these contributions by himself. I see this as an award for my many Sandia colleagues who together have done a tremendous amount of good work.” In 1990 a patent was issued to Dr. Jakowatz and two of his colleagues for the invention of the SAR autofocusing technique.

    Called the phase gradient autofocus, it is a very compelling advance. This trio also received an R&D 100 Award for their work when the autofocus advancement was judged one of the top 100 best technical contributions in the US that year. Besides the many responsibilities of the programs he led, Jack always wanted to “give back” to subsequent generations through teaching. From 1978 through 1993 he served as an adjunct professor in the College of Engineering at the University of New Mexico, where he taught both graduate and undergraduate courses. And as the power and importance of the new SAR technologies grew and became recognized in the defense and security communities, Jack was tireless as he traveled the nation to teach short courses to government and industrial entities.

    An unexpected but singular accomplishment came when Dr. Jakowatz and his team were granted permission to write and publish a book on many of their important unclassified accomplishments. They completed and published a massive (429-page) volume entitled Spotlight-mode Synthetic Aperture Radar: A Signal Processing Approach (with Daniel E. Wahl, Paul H. Eichel, Dennis C. Ghiglia, and Paul A. Thompson; Springer, 1996). This important book was quickly published in both hardback and paperback, and soon entered its second printing. It has been cited 864 times in books and technical papers. Jack’s personal history reflects both his solid Midwest upbringing and a longstanding family passion for engineering.

    He was born on March 5, 1951, in Urbana, Illinois, where his father was completing his PhD in electrical engineering at the University of Illinois. Jack then spent his early years in Schenectady, New York, with the family moving to Kansas when his father became dean of engineering at Wichita State University. Jack chose Purdue University for his own college training, earning a BS in 1972, an MS in 1974, and a PhD in 1976, all in electrical engineering. His doctoral research work—still cited today—addressed issues of improving images obtained by computerized axial tomography­ (CAT) scans using either x-rays or ultrasound.

    Jack began work on national security issues immediately on his arrival at the Sandia National Laboratories in 1976. In the mid-1980s, when a problem arose in SAR imagery, Jack’s background in 3D images, along with his novel mathematical insights, resulted in revolutionary improvements. Jack then started building the very powerful research and development team that he led and mentored until his retirement in 2014. Jack and his wife thrived in Albuquerque and had two daughters. Jack found time in his busy life to engage in many forms of athletic activity: cycling, swimming, running, weightlifting, golf, and racquetball.

    With his characteristic sense of humor he would say “anything worth doing is worth overdoing”—a sentiment that is all too evident in the way he approached his work life as well. In 2003 Jack achieved the highest award that can come to a US engineer when he was elected to membership in the National Academy of Engineering. He continued his leader­ ship role of his talented research team at Sandia, including a branching of portions of the work into Sandia’s Systems Research Center.

    He retired in October of 2014, having completed 38 years of providing “exceptional service in the national interest.” His death on February 7, 2015, ended a ten-year battle he had been waging with heart disease.

    His wife Carol wrote:

    "As incredibly accomplished as Jack was in his professional life, his daughters Amy and Courtney would argue that he was perhaps an even more accomplished father. His dedication to his family was unwavering. Jack encouraged, supported and inspired all of his daughters’ professional, athletic and personal dreams. He never missed a single swim meet or cross country event. He ever was (and ever will be) cheering for them in all aspects of their lives. Jack would often say that he loved his daughters and his wife of 43 years, Carol, more than his own life."

    How should we best remember Jack Jakowatz? Earlier this year there was a very popular movie, “American Sniper,” in which the lead character tells a military psychologist, regarding his accomplishments, that he would like to be remembered only for “the large number of people whose lives were saved because of my actions.”

    That is a legacy that Jack Jakowatz certainly deserves, as the number of American servicemen and women, as well as Allied forces, whose lives have been saved is very large because Jack’s technologies were deployed. His and his team’s efforts have been key to the detection and elimination of a large variety of battlefield threats that previously had produced very high numbers of deaths and casualties.

    One story that characterizes Jack, the man, so well is the way in which he always encouraged the next generation of engineers; his own words seem the most fitting to close this tribute: “Not only can you make the world a better place, but [engineering] is a fascinating field. If you can find a job where you are driving to work and you want to be there that day because it’s going to be interesting—you can learn something, you can teach something, you can do a meaningful piece of work for the country—man, you’ve got it made! You won’t have to work a day in your life because your job won’t be work. Engineering affords a chance for people to do that.”

    * Radar works by sending out microwaves that bounce off objects, with the reflected waves—captured by an antenna—allowing images that are limited only by the size of a rigid antenna you can fly to create images of what’s out there. SAR works by firing pulses of more than 1,000 per second, correlating a plane’s flight path very precisely by integrating these pulses—effectively creating a much longer antenna—that allow much higher-resolution images to be created.This maximum correlation length for accurately determining the flight path is dubbed the synthetic aperture. Rather than images that are limited by the wavelength of the radar wave itself, a variety of postprocessing techniques can improve the resolution for returned waves with far greater precision. They also allow one to detect changes in subsequent images.

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