ECE: Electrical & Computer Engineering
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Scholarship Fund Being Established For Alum, Magnetometer Expert

Photograph of Donnie King

Donnie King (EE '69)

Friends and colleagues of Donnie Marvin King are establishing a scholarship in his name to honor his drive, technical expertise, and problem-solving insights, along with his ability to inspire others.

King is an expert and technical leader in the small, but critical field of magnetometers, which are devices used to measure the earth’s magnetic field to detect submarines and mines. His dogged determination to solve problems and his unshakable good nature have inspired many friends and colleagues over the years. King continues to work at the forefront of magnetometer technology, while battling increasing handicaps from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.

As Lloyd Bobb, president of Applied Science Corp. puts it, “I have been in many meetings with Donnie over the years and sometimes we were not on the same side of the table. In all my years of working with a diversity of personalities, I don’t know anyone who is more honest and hard working. He is always good-natured and he has a keen sense of humor. Beyond these wonderful qualities, he brings a great deal of insight and experience to each new problem. There is no one in the community that I have more respect for.”

King’s enthusiasm for problem-solving and technology reflects the drive of many who choose electrical and computer engineering, according to Jim Thorp, ECE department head. “We are honored when our alumni make such a strong mark on the field and on others,” he says. “We hope that future ECE students who are helped by this scholarship can follow King’s example in all areas of their lives.”

Those persons wishing to contribute should note the Donnie King ECE Scholarship Fund on their checks and send them to Kathy Atkins, ECE Business Manager: 302 Whittemore Hall, Virginia Tech, Blacksburg, VA 24061.

When joining MADmen is an honor

Since earning his BSEE in 1969, alumnus Donnie King has become one of the world’s few experts in magnetometry—magnetic measurement technology that helps the U.S. Navy to track underwater submarines and locate dangerous mines. King spent half his career developing technology to hunt and track Soviet submarines, then after the Cold War was thrilled to collaborate and become friends with some of his former technical competitors from Russia.

King’s expertise and contributions have greatly improved the safety of U.S. Naval personnel, and he is one of the rare civilians who are honorary members of the Navy’s Society of MADmen—an elite group of people who work with magnetic anomaly detection (MAD). Today, King continues to develop technology in his chosen field, serving as vice president and engineering director at Polatomic Inc., in Dallas, Texas.

He is often described as driven, “especially concerning magnetometers,” adds Gary Kuhlman, president and CEO of Polatomic and a long-time colleague. “Donnie has spent his entire career perfecting these devices…He is always thinking about a problem and usually comes up with the solution—and it can happen at any time of day or night.”

Photograph of a submarine visiting Prudhoe Bay, Alaska

Magnetometers are deployed under water or airborne, towed behind helicopters, or in the back of jets or aircraft carriers. Donnie King's travels took him near Prudhoe Bay, Alaska to test his equipment's ability to detect submarines under the Arctic ice. Tests were conducted over a period of weeks and temperatures would reach -40º F. Shown above is a photo of a friendly submarine that came to visit while King was there.

Magnetometers are extremely precise measurement devices for tracking the earth’s magnetic field intensity. The field ranges from 25,000 nanotesla at the equator to more than 60,000 nanotesla at the North and South Poles. Modern magnetometers can measure the total field intensity to within .3 picotesla. “This is an extremely precise measurement to keep stable over vibration and high and low temperature extremes,” Kuhlman adds. “Most of the time, magnetometers are installed in or towed from aircraft when hunting for submarines. We look for small anomalies in the magnetic field, caused by the presence of a submarine.” In addition to antisubmarine warfare (ASW), magnetometers are used in underwater mine-countermeasures, space exploration, and detection of improvised explosive devices.

King’s work with magnetometers reflects the changes in computer and optics technology that have changed electrical engineering in the past several decades. He has developed equipment based on ever smaller and more powerful microprocessors, then implementing PC-based magnetometers, and today is working on a laser-based system to replace helium tubes.

A native of Roanoke, Virginia, King graduated from Franklin County High School in 1965. That year, a 59-pound IBM computer flew on all Gemini space flights. It was the same year Digital Equipment Corporation introduced the world’s first mass-produced minicomputer, the PDP-8, which had a 4K 12-bit word core memory and sold for $18,000.

After graduating from Tech, King joined Texas Instruments (TI) as an electronic design engineer on the AN/ASQ-81 magnetometer ASW program and within six years, was the lead system engineer in charge of implementing the random maneuver compensator using the TI 9900 microprocessor. In 1977, he was named program manager and lead systems engineer of the program to complete design and flight testing of the first microprocessor-based digital aircraft compensation system.

Often, when a sensitive magnetometer is put on an aircraft, the biggest contributor to anomalies is the aircraft itself. King helped develop the method used today that measures the contribution from the aircraft, then electronically removes the noise. Flight testing involved many long flights “in the back of a P-3C aircraft while flying in very uncomfortable conditions. Some of these flights were nine or 10 hours long,” says Dick Swyers, who served as manager of the Navy’s development on new MAD equipment while King was at TI. “Donnie was able to walk off the plane with a smile and humor, while I was just trying to walk off. I always prayed that I would never have to do that again, but many times we did it again the next day.”

In 1986, King was inducted as a member of the TI Group Technical Staff, then, in 1990 was named to the Senior Technical Staff. In 1997 Raytheon acquired the TI Defense Systems and Electronics Group, and King was named a Raytheon Engineering Fellow in 1998. In 2001, he joined Polatomic and directs the technical development of laser-pumped helium magnetometers (see sidebar).

While at TI/Raytheon, he developed a digital phase locked loop discriminator that demonstrated 1 part in 1 billion stability. He played an integral role in five successful experiments in underwater mine detection, and in improving helium magnetometers that may represent a 40 dB improvement over current AN/ASQ-81 airborne magnetometer sensitivity.

Despite his many technical accomplishments, his colleagues note that he was most thrilled by his work with Russian counterparts in the 1990s. From 1993 to 1995, King served as lead systems engineer on a project to implement and demonstrate the Russian ASW detection system using U.S. PC-based processors. He spent the next two years in charge of the Advance Capability MAD System (Project ADCAP MAD), developed in conjunction with a Russian partner. During the Cold War, both sides “were doing the same thing in different ways,” Kuhlman explains. “For so many years, we were isolated and competing.” The project involved combined expertise from both countries. “Donnie was thrilled to befriend the Russians and find out how similar our solutions were to the same problem.”

In addition to his work in the international arena, King has been equally involved in local activities. He has been a member of the planning and zoning committee for Hew Hope, Texas and has served as a deacon, elder, and trustee of his church, including as chairman of the board. He has also been involved in yearly mission trips, helping to build facilities in low-income areas of Texas from 1992 to 2003.

It was on returning from one such trip that his first symptoms showed up from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). Also called Lou Gehrig’s disease, ALS is a degenerative disease that affects the function of nerves and muscles. It involves progressive muscle weakness and paralysis. ALS attacks only motor neurons, so the senses of sight, touch, hearing, taste, and smell are not affected.

King uses a joystick-controlled, high-tech motorized wheelchair and with the help of his wife, Carol, gets into the office daily. His current project is developing Polatomic’s fleet version of a laser-pumped helium magnetometer that is roughly 30 times more sensitive than those he developed at TI/Raytheon.