To the world, Malibu’s image may be one of surfers, superstars, sunsets and, yes, floods and fires. But industry? Although Malibu is hardly in danger of becoming a new Pittsburgh, industry there is: real estate, of course, and Pepperdine. Since 1960, it has also had in its midst and housed in an ivory-tower aerie perched high above Malibu Canyon, another industry so esoteric in many of its activities that some people are incapable of describing what it does: Hughes Research Laboratories. In 1997, it became HRL Laboratories, still a cutting-edge, central research facility but now co-owned by Hughes and the Raytheon Company (which bought the defense part of the Hughes industrial complex after the billionaire’s estate was settled). General Motors, which bought Hughes Aircraft, is also an element in the mix at HRL.
Headed since 1988 by Dr. Art Chester, a theoretical physicist and Malibu resident who has been with Hughes for 30 years, the high-tech, 250,000-square-foot think tank is Malibu’s biggest employer, with an annual budget of $70 million (Pepperdine is outside the city limits).
First, to dispel the rumors: It is not true that everyone at HRL — even the janitors — have Ph.D.s. Of their 430 employees (down from 560 some years ago because of streamlining and downsizing), 120 or so hold doctorates, the affable, indeed ebullient, Chester says. Government work isn’t calling the tune as loudly today either; since the end of the Cold War, defense research has dropped from 60 percent to 45 percent of the lab’s business.
Watched over by two photographs of Albert Einstein, a scientist who never had to worry about the bottom line, Chester explains that, for a research laboratory to survive today, it has to be economically viable. “Doing advanced research is expensive, so it has to produce results,” he says”. In the ’50s and ’60s, with the postwar boom in technology, there was plenty of money to invest in science; you could say that the Internet, the computer and the transistor came out of such relatively undirected research. But today, our mission is to discover and apply science and technology for new and improved services which Hughes, Raytheon and General Motors can turn into money-making products. We don’t build the satellite or the missile,” he says, “we develop the materials, the components, the processes that go into things, and our owners figure out how to make them useful. We made the laser,” Chester cites as an example, “but it was the Hughes people in El Segundo who turned it into a billion dollar rangefinder business.”
To a great extent, that link between basic research and the tools we use has always been part of HRL’s (and Hughes’) reality. Today, lasers are part of our daily lives, from enabling fiber optics to reading bar codes in supermarkets and the blips on compact discs. The future of such research is also in sight from Malibu: High above Central America, a Xenon ion engine derived by HRL from the same wave research keeps a communication satellite in synchronous orbit, while, in Malibu, two larger ion engines are being tested in an environment simulating the frigid cold of outer space. They’re part of the next step in a technology that could eventually propel us to the stars.
A less esoteric example of HRL’s activity is contained in four cars and SUVs parked behind a group of temporary buildings housing GM DELCO Division researchers in what Adrian Popa, director of the Hughes Programs at HRL, laughingly calls the “low rent district” of the 72-acre complex. They’re the work benches for HRL’s information systems research for automobiles, the first application of which is an adaptive cruise control that will automatically slow you down if you approach a car too closely (as well as warn of blind-side cars when changing lanes). It will be offered on the 1999 Jaguars and is clearly the first step toward completely automated driving. Included in other consumer research are nonwired communications between your home computer and household appliances (“Embedded Real-Time Systems” in HRL’s jargon) and the development of improved food plants by Ceres, an independent plant genetics research operation housed at HRL.
But government work is still there, plenty of it. “We are working on the next, high-speed Internet,” Popa says, “and what they call the ‘digital battlefield’; if we have to go into a war zone one day, the military won’t have to watch CNN to find out what is going on anymore,” he laughs. Nor has a relationship to the community been overlooked; HRL’s George F. Smith Auditorium hosts Malibu City Council meetings.
One wonders how Einstein, gazing so benignly over Chester’s shoulder, would feel about all of this? “This is a new world,” Chester says, returning to the mission of HRL. “We try to reach out to Einstein on one hand, and to the integrated circuit,” he says, pointing to a photograph hanging over one of Einstein, “and bridge the gap between them. That’s the role we’ve chosen in life.”
HRL at a glance:
Successor to Hughes Research Laboratories, a presence in Malibu since 1960.
Created in 1997 as a central research laboratory jointly owned by Hughes Electronics Corporation and the Raytheon Company.
Four major technical laboratories: Information Sciences; Microelectronics; Communications & Photonics; and Sensors and Materials. The technical labs also develop synergistic technologies for the Department of Defense, as well as other third parties including General Motors.
Employees: 430 (plus 150 in independent research labs).