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The Charles Stark Draper Laboratory, Inc. Business Information, Profile, and History

mit system systems guidance

555 Technology Square
Cambridge, Massachusetts 02139-3563

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The organization's mission is to serve the national interest in applied research, engineering development, education, and technology transfer by: Helping our sponsors clarify their requirements and conceptualize innovative solutions to their problems; Demonstrating those solutions through the design and development of fieldable engineering prototypes; Transitioning our products and processes to industry for production, and providing follow-on support; Promoting and supporting advanced technical education.

History of The Charles Stark Draper Laboratory, Inc.

Originally a unit of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), The Charles Stark Draper Laboratory, Inc. established a stellar reputation for its inertial guidance systems. When man wanted to go to the moon, Doc Draper and his MIT Instrumentation Lab pointed the way. Although the lab acts as a design agent for the government, after the Cold War Draper has expanded the range of its work to include medical and commercial applications for its technologies, including ultra high tech micro-electromechanical systems.


Charles Stark Draper was born in Missouri on October 2, 1901. After earning a degree in psychology at Stanford in 1922, he came to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Four years later, with a bachelor's degree in electrochemical engineering in his pocket, he began working at MIT as a research associate under a Sloan fellowship. He became a professor there after receiving a Ph.D. in physics in 1938--two decades after starting college.

Draper began teaching aircraft instrumentation at MIT in the late 1920s. The subject matter was a natural concern to Draper, a pilot himself. He founded the Confidential Instrument Development Laboratory in 1932, which later became known as the MIT Instrumentation Laboratory. Walter Wrigley, an early student of Draper, described Draper's early inertial navigation experiments in a 1940 thesis.

One of the lab's first widely disseminated products was the Mark 14 Gunsight used by Allied forces in WWII. Developed for the U.S. Navy, the shoebox-shaped optical device used gyros, springs, and linkages to bring an unprecedented level of accuracy to anti-aircraft gunnery. The lab continued to design fire control systems after the war. The FEBE system (named for Phoebus) incorporated celestial references for improved accuracy and was first demonstrated in 1949.

The development of inertial navigation allowed for a truly historic flight in 1953, when the lab's 2,700-pound Space Inertial Reference Equipment (SPIRE) system guided a B-29 bomber from Massachusetts to Los Angeles without the aid of a pilot. Draper himself and several associates flew aboard that 12.5-hour trip. The next year, 1954, saw the introduction of the first self-contained submarine navigation system (SINS).

Cold War

Said Draper, 'An inertial system does for geometry ... what a watch does for time.' The lab's precision gyroscopes and accelerometers made possible the new era of ballistic missiles. Further, they could not be jammed like existing radio guidance systems.

The launch of the Sputnik satellite by the Soviet Union in 1957 brought new urgency to the U.S. Air Force Thor intermediate range ballistic missile (IRBM) program. Work began on the Navy's historic Polaris guidance system the same year. Before the end of the decade, the lab had started work on its FLIMBAL (floating inertial measurement ball) inertial guidance system as well as the Mars Probe project.

Draper was a more charismatic figure than most physicists. He tooled around the MIT campus in a Morgan sports car and entertained the press with stories of extracurricular activities on the baseball field and in the boxing ring. He became known for his work on the Apollo space program, and Time magazine named him one of its 'Men of the Year' in January 1961.

The success of the Titan and Poseidon missile programs in the 1960s validated the lab's inertial guidance systems. Draper also guided a new Deep Submergence Rescue Vehicle (DSRV) for the Navy, first introduced in 1970. The Apollo 11 manned moon landing in 1969, however, brought the lab its greatest fame. The Draper Lab had received NASA's first contract for the Apollo program. It borrowed upon its design work from the unlaunched Mars Probe of the previous decade as well as the Polaris missile program to construct the navigation and guidance system. According to the New York Times, Charles Draper 'guided the astronauts to the moon.'

Subsequent missions brought more high-visibility challenges. The Apollo 12 guidance system was damaged by lightning after takeoff and had to be reset in orbit. When the Apollo 13 crew reported those famous words, 'Houston, we have a problem,' the Draper Lab recommended the fix. They transmitted a modified computer program to the crew of the Apollo 14, which was dealing with a faulty switch.

Vietnam Era Conflict

The lab employed 2,000 people in the late 1960s. Half of its work came from NASA by this point. NASA issued the lab a contract to work on avionics for the Space Shuttle in 1971. The next year saw the development of the first digital fly-by-wire system. Skylab was launched in May 1973, with Draper supplying the algorithms for its guidance and control system.

Draper occupied 14 buildings on the MIT campus. Protesters against the Vietnam War targeted the lab for its role in developing military weapons. The students and faculty involved in the protests ceased their research activities.

Although the lab was renamed The Charles Stark Draper Laboratory as a result of the controversy, Draper himself was forced into a brief retirement in 1970. He soon returned, however, and the lab was divested from MIT in 1973, becoming a not-for-profit corporation after three years as an independent division of MIT. It remained closely tied to the institution, however, and Draper employees continued to enjoy campus amenities. Robert Duffy, a newly retired Air Force general, was the lab's first president and CEO while Dr. Albert G. Hill, MIT vice-president for research, headed the board of directors. The lab moved into a new headquarters near MIT in late 1976.

Asked by the U.S. Navy to develop a new guidance system for use in the Trident I long-range C-4 missile, the Lab designed a system with a star-tracker, providing the required accuracy at extended ranges. The Trident I became operational in late 1979. During the 1980s, Draper Lab designed the Mk6 guidance system for the Trident II D5 missile. The system provided increased accuracy over the Trident I system. For U.S. Air Force missiles, the Lab designed instruments; Draper's Missile Performance Measurement System (MPMS) Advanced Inertial Reference System (AIRS) flew on a Minuteman III in 1976 and was adopted for the MX in the 1980s.

Hill retired in 1982, to be succeeded by Kenneth McKay as board chair. The lab opened an annex named in Hill's honor two years later. In 1983, Draper Lab helped defeat a referendum to designate Cambridge a Nuclear Free Zone.

In 1984, the lab began its involvement with micro-electromechanical systems (MEMS). The extremely tiny, cheap guidance instruments promised proliferation in many types of equipment. Work on the Space Station program began in 1987.

Ralph Jacobson, a retired Air Force General, succeeded Robert Duffy as president and CEO in 1987, while Joseph Charyk became chairman of the board. Charles Draper died the same year. The lab endowed the Charles Stark Draper Prize in honor of its founder in 1988. Its honorarium was worth $500,000 in 1999.

Adjusting Course in the 1990s

The Cold War appeared to have ended by 1989 and defense cutbacks soon followed. Draper would reduce its work force by almost 50 percent in the next few years. New legislation encouraged competitive bidding on government contracts, although an Omnibus Basic Ordering Agreement, awarded in 1994, simplified the contracting process between government agencies and Draper.

In 1990, Draper integrated GPS (Global Positioning System) in the guidance system of A-10 Warthog attack aircraft. The lab had increasingly begun yoking its technology to civilian applications, however. It designed robots to manufacture clothing in an attempt to help American companies compete with low-cost Asian labor. The PC-driven Draper Knitwear Machine could make three pairs of sweat pants a minute.

Draper turned more and more to automation in its own production as miniaturization to smaller and smaller tolerances became the order of the day. Human beings simply breathed and sloughed too many stray particles into the air to reliably assemble parts measured in micrometers. An effort begun in the 1970s fashioned the gentlest of robot hands to fit parts together.

Low-cost, micromachined silicon MEMS devices began to enter the consumer marketplace in full force. In December 1993, Rockwell International entered a strategic alliance with Draper to bring these inertial sensors into a variety of consumer applications, from camcorders (image stabilization) to antilock brakes.

Significant projects for NASA and the Navy proceeded at the same time. Draper helped configure the Space Shuttle for special missions, such as its historic docking with the Russian Mir space station in June 1995. It completed demonstrations

1922:Charles Stark Draper begins undergraduate studies at MIT.

1932:Confidential Instrument Laboratory established.

1942:The Mark 14 gunsight designed by Draper first sees battle.

1953:A B-29 bomber flies cross-country guided only by the SPIRE system.

1957:Sputnik accelerates work on ballistic missiles.

1969:Draper guides Apollo 11 to the moon.

1973:Lab divested from MIT because of political considerations.

1979:Trident I, guided by celestial cues, becomes operational.

1984:Draper begins developing micro-electromechanical systems (MEMS).

1988:Charles Stark Draper Prize created to recognize engineering achievements.

1993:Rockwell contracts to bring MEMS devices into the consumer marketplace.

1997:First digital autopilot for submarines demonstrated.

Vincent Vitto succeeded Ralph Jacobson as CEO in July 1997. Vitto was a physicist with 32 years of experience at MIT's Lincoln Laboratory. That year, Draper demonstrated the first digital autopilot for submarines. Fitted to the Seawolf class of attack submarines, it paralleled the fly-by-wire systems found in fighter and civil aircraft. The lab also had begun developing controls for a new, small submersible for Navy SEALs.

Other military products in development included gun-launched, guided munitions using MEMS technology. Aside from inertial guidance systems, MEMS could produce 2mm-wide microphones as well as extremely tiny hydrophones, seismic vibration sensors, and chemical sensors. Space projects included the X-33 and X-34 unmanned, reusable launch vehicles, as well as an emergency escape vehicle for the Space Station.

Draper Lab was using the same technology to pioneer new frontiers in medicine. MEMS devices could be used to track surgical instruments inside the body. Engineers were researching the possibilities of implanting inertial sensing devices in the inner ear to improve balance. Retinal implants and improved artificial voiceboxes were also on the drawing boards. Intriguingly, reports surfaced in the spring of 2000 of Draper creating a silicon template on which networks of capillaries could be grown. If successful, the technique would enable the medical community to grow viable organs for transplantation.

Principal Divisions: Strategic Systems; Tactical Systems; Space Systems; Systems Technology; Special Operations and Land Robotics; Biomedicine.

Principal Competitors: Litton Guidance and Control Systems; Honeywell; Aerospace Technology, Inc.

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