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Cable-Tec Expo: Kamen: Distributed Power, Techie Kids Are the Future

Orlando -- Inventor Dean Kamen proselytized the cable industry on two big ideas that have been near and dear to his heart for more than a decade: providing reliable power to areas that can’t get electricity from “the grid” and getting kids excited about science and engineering.

Kamen, interviewed here in the opening general session at the SCTE’s Cable-Tec Expo by Time Warner Cable CTO Mike LaJoie, joked that he was making a “thinly veiled attempt to grovel and beg to your industry” to support his energy and educational-outreach efforts.

On the power front, Kamen’s DEKA Research and Development Corp. has spent $50 million over the last 10 years to develop a device with an external-combustion engine that uses the principles of the Stirling engine. That converts almost any fuel into electrical power in a way that is clean, quiet, easy to use, easy to maintain and has a long operating life, according to the company.

For cable and telecommunications providers, the concept could provide “microgrids” for handling not just backup power but also peak-demand periods, Kamen said.

Today each 10-kilowatt device from DEKA costs $250,000 to manufacture, but in volume quantities that could come down to $10,000 each, Kamen said.

“The big power companies laugh at 10 kilowatts,” Kamen said. “But IBM laughed at the first PC.”

Kamen is best known as the inventor of the Segway motorized scooter, which grew out of a project to create balancing standup wheelchair. He also created the first wearable infusion pump, and holds 440 U.S. and foreign patents.

DEKA created the Stirling engine device to solve the problem of providing clean water for the 4 billion people in the world who don’t have access to it. Water-borne pathogens cause 50% of all diseases globally, Kamen said, and that requires continuous and reliable power.

With the backing of The Coca-Cola Co., which has 740,000 employees worldwide and 300,000 in Africa alone, DEKA installed five experimental “Slingshot” machines with power generators and water distillation in Ghana. Kamen is hopeful the project will expand to many more countries.

“In the next decade, we will have point-of-use generation of clean water and point-of-use generation of energy,” he said.

Time Warner Cable’s LaJoie said the MSO is exploring ways it might be able to use DEKA’s Stirling engine concepts to power its network components, although it’s still at a very early stage.

“We have this growing demand for power,” LaJoie said. “It’s more about, are there ways we can do distributed power in a smarter way…. We do need to think about this in a new way.”

Nationwide, TWC has 1,400 hubs and some 100,000 nodes that require active backup power in the field, and 99% of the time the backup generators sit idle, LaJoie noted.

Kamen also lobbied cable operators to get behind his not-for-profit For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology (FIRST) organization, which has sponsored robotics-design competitions involving more than 250,000 kids aged 6 to 18 since its founding in 1989.

“We have to get their attention by making science and engineering every bit as exciting as bouncing a ball,” he said. “We have a culture that’s gone anti-technology for so many reasons. It’s workforce, workforce, workforce… 20 years ago, I said America is going to lose its innovation edge.”

LaJoie said SCTE has signed a memorandum of understanding with FIRST to stage a robotics competition at the 2013 Cable-Tec Expo in New Orleans. Kamen is “one of the most exciting, stimulating guys I’ve ever talked to. His intellect is ranging and expansive and seems to know no limits,” he said.

Kamen said he’s often asked about how to be an innovator, which he said is “a lot like love, everybody wants it -- nobody knows what it is.”

He continued, “To me innovation is not the invention. The innovation is getting the gizmo to be accepted, which is hard… To accept innovation people need to do something big. People, organizations don’t like to change. They’ll stay with the devil they know.”

DEKA determines whether to work on a new technology by examining whether it can use a different systems integration approach to solve a problem in a substantially better way than existing methods. “We don’t want to make things 2% cheaper or 3% better,” he said. “We want to have a huge impact on the world.”