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Ex-Honeywell engineer’s invention could power moving EVs and aircraft. Could it be weaponized, too?

By Mike Hughlett, Star Tribune
Published: May 24, 2024, 8:39am

Christopher Fuller scored a breakthrough at his Honeywell lab in Plymouth, Minnesota, devising a way to transmit wireless power over long distances.

Honeywell International estimated it could wrangle $1 billion in sales from Fuller’s discovery. EVs could be charged on the go — so could airborne cargo drones. A Honeywell executive, in an internal email, called Fuller “the inventor of the next multi-industry disruptor.”

But Fuller, who is suing Honeywell under Minnesota’s whistleblower act, claims his discovery also could be used to make a radio wave-based “directed energy” weapon capable of devastating electronic systems — on a citywide scale — many miles away. “Typically weapons now are much shorter range,” he said. “This vastly increases the range.”

Fuller went to the federal government last year, concerned that Honeywell was downplaying the technology’s weapons potential so it could sell commercial wireless power products abroad. He feared the company was running afoul of U.S. export restrictions on military technology.

The U.S. State Department looked at his claims but said it doesn’t comment on investigations. The Federal Bureau of Investigation, which also declined to comment for this story, contacted Fuller late last year about the technology.

Honeywell International said in a statement that Fuller’s claims are “baseless and without merit.”

“We take all our compliance obligations extremely seriously — and as we have in this matter, we adhere to and comply with U.S. export laws and regulations,” the statement said.

The company declined to comment further for this story.

Honeywell, once headquartered in Minneapolis but now based in Charlotte, North Carolina, still has significant operations in the Twin Cities area, including a Plymouth aerospace campus where Fuller worked. He quit earlier this year, claiming Honeywell made his work intolerable after he reported his concerns to the government.

Fuller, who has found another job, claims in his lawsuit that Honeywell retaliated against him, violating the whistleblower statute.

“If I would have kept my mouth shut, it probably would have been better for my career,” he said.

Honeywell has asked a federal judge to dismiss the suit.

It’s far from clear whether Fuller’s breakthrough could lead to a groundbreaking weapon; one expert at the University of New Mexico called it “unrealistic at this point.” What is clear: Global powers are salivating over the potential for directed energy weapons like lasers and microwave beams.

Making breakthrough in 2021

Fuller has been tinkering with technology since he was a kid, building kit radios and operating his own ham radio while in high school.

The 59-year-old, who lives in Bloomington, Minnesota, earned undergraduate and graduate degrees in electrical engineering, respectively, from the University of Minnesota and Johns Hopkins University. He’s named on 13 U.S. patents.

Fuller had worked for defense companies before landing at Honeywell in 2017. There, he continued his longstanding work on shrinking the size of radio antennae. His goal: to transmit electromagnetic energy over long ranges — and at a low cost.

In October 2021, he had a breakthrough, devising a new composite material to fashion antennae. The technology won the “Next Big Idea” award at an internal Honeywell tech symposium in October 2022.

“This big idea was made possible by a patented novel antenna composite developed by Honeywell engineer, Chris Fuller,” a Honeywell executive said in an internal email. “Imagine a one-meter sized antennae able to deliver 400 kilowatts of power to a distance of 100 kilometers with efficiency greater than 90%. Without Honeywell’s new composite, the antenna would need to be 10,000 times larger, the size of a Manhattan city block.”

Efficiency refers to delivering power without losses during transmission; 100 kilometers, or 62 miles, is considerably greater than the range of most current wireless power technologies, which are usually measured in feet.

Honeywell saw many possible commercial applications for the new technology, forecasting potential revenue of $1 billion by 2030, according to a December 2022 Honeywell internal document.

The U.S. military was one of the interested parties.

Fuller and others from Honeywell made presentations in 2022 to the Defense Advanced Projects Research Agency (DARPA), an arm of the Defense Department that funds upcoming military technology.

“We are excited about the potential here,” a DARPA program manager wrote in an email to Fuller in October 2022. Two months later, another DARPA program manager wrote to Fuller saying: “This is an exciting technology. As discussed, there is a lot of further information we need.”

DARPA was particularly interested in wirelessly transmitting power from the ground to airborne aircraft.

Fuller said Honeywell originally sought funding from DARPA for wireless power, but the company changed course by late 2022. If Honeywell accepted federal money, its new technology would have been immediately subject to export controls, potentially limiting its commercial market, Fuller contends.

“Honeywell did not want U.S. government funding until after the technology was exported in order to prevent the U.S. government from limiting exports of the technology,” Fuller said in a court affidavit.

Fuller said in an interview that Honeywell also pitched DARPA on a directed-energy weapon, but the idea was met with skepticism. Still, two DARPA officials, who knew of the technology’s weapons potential, “expressed grave concerns” about Honeywell’s export plans, Fuller said in a court affidavit.

DARPA declined to comment.

Taking the case to the government

Fuller took his concerns about the technology’s weapons potential — and possible export restriction issues — to the office of his congressman, Rep. Dean Phillips, in January 2023.

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Phillips’ office declined to comment to the Star Tribune. Emails provided by Fuller indicate that his complaint was forwarded to the State Department.

In March 2023, Fuller made a web conference presentation to representatives of the State Department and the U.S. Department of Commerce. The State Department regulates exports of military technology, while Commerce covers exports of “dual use” technology for commercial and military applications.

The State Department had previously cited Honeywell for alleged export violations. The department found that in the 2010s, Honeywell on several occasions disclosed technical data for military aircraft and electronics to multiple countries, including China. Honeywell self-reported the potential violations.

In 2021, the company agreed to pay a $13 million civil penalty, with $5 million to be suspended if Honeywell beefed up its compliance program.

As for Fuller’s concerns, the State Department’s Office of Defense Trade Controls Compliance conducted a review. Hearing nothing of the investigation’s progress, Fuller sent an Aug. 31 email to the State Department saying he would stop sending updates “if the government no longer cares about this issue.”

The State Department responded: “At this time, we do not need further information from you regarding this matter.”

Fuller alleges in court documents that Honeywell “deliberately misrepresented the pace” of his project to the State Department, and told the government the technology was “very immature.”

Fuller said the FBI called him in November about his Honeywell concerns. At the agency’s request, he also provided written information, which an FBI agent in Minneapolis acknowledged receiving in an email to Fuller.

An FBI spokeswoman said the bureau reviews allegations of criminal conduct, though not all reviews result in an investigation.

Starting in 2022, Fuller said he told his Honeywell supervisors of his worries about wireless power exports. It’s not clear when Honeywell discovered he’d brought his concerns to the government.

But in September, Fuller told Honeywell he’d informed the State Department of his beliefs the company had misrepresented the technology’s maturity. Workplace retaliation that began earlier in 2023 then ramped up, Fuller claims.

It culminated with Fuller being placed on administrative leave Dec. 1, soon after he told Honeywell he’d talked with the FBI. “A quiet firing is what we have here,” Fuller’s attorney, Charles Goldstein, said at a recent federal court hearing in St. Paul.

Honeywell argues in court filings that Fuller can’t show “his working environment was objectively intolerable.” The company said an administrative leave “pending an investigation” doesn’t constitute an “adverse employment action” if employees maintain their pay and benefits, as Fuller did.

Honeywell was investigating Fuller for downloading proprietary data onto a personal computer in 2023. Fuller claims he had Honeywell clearance since 2018 to back up company files on his hardware.

Development heats up

Scientists have been working on directed-energy weapons — be they lasers or microwave beams — for decades. But the technology has ripened in recent years.

A 2023 report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office said the Defense Department spent about $1 billion annually over the past three years developing directed-energy weapons.

While laser and microwave weapons both face technological challenges, they promise huge economic advantages, analysts say. Directed-energy weapons cost far less per shot than missiles, and they provide a deep well of ammunition as long as they have sufficient access to power.

Fuller claims his technology could allow for a weapon with a potential range of hundreds if not thousands of miles — and it could fry electronics over a wide area, like a city.

“The technology enables the development of terribly dangerous weapons that previously not even governments could afford, but which are now within the budgets of rogue nations and terrorist organizations to implement and utilize for potentially mass destruction,” Fuller said in a court affidavit.

Honeywell dismissed such concerns at a federal court hearing earlier this month. “We don’t agree his technology is a matter of public concern or a threat to the citizens of the United States,” Joseph Schmitt, a Minneapolis attorney representing Honeywell, told the court.

In an interview, Fuller said his technology could be used to develop weapons within five years. “There’s no new science needed to discover to build these weapons. It is an engineering challenge, a scaling challenge.”

Edl Schamiloglu, head of the University of New Mexico’s Directed Energy Center, is skeptical of Fuller’s proposal. “This is just so down the road. It’s nowhere near where the technology is (today).”

Fuller acknowledged such skepticism, saying his radio wave research niche, which utilizes low frequency radio waves rather than higher frequency microwaves common in directed-energy weapons, has been sort of a “backwater” of inquiry.

“The first response is, ‘That is impossible,’” he said of reactions to his work. “The scientific method is that you are supposed to be skeptical.”

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