A project to design and manufacture an entirely new class of precision optics that conform to the contours of unusually shaped objects such as airplane wings or fuselages has received a shot in the arm with a $12.3 million contract from the U.S. Department of Defense. A consortium that includes four businesses and the University of Rochester's Center for Optics Manufacturing (COM) will develop technology enabling the creation of the first generation of these optical elements over the next four years.
The money comes from the DOD's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. It will fund work on conformal optical elements, which include a wide variety of irregularly curved optical elements -- such as windows that reduce air friction and weight by closely mirroring the curves of high-performance planes.
"The work is truly ground-breaking," says Harvey Pollicove, COM director. "These asymmetric, irregularly shaped lenses have never been economically produced before. As a matter of fact, we don't even know the best way to design them right now."
Pollicove says that both the performance and costs of some aerospace and defense equipment, now hampered by the limitations of optical manufacturing, are expected to improve with the incorporation of advanced optical elements.
COM's industrial partners in the project include lead member Texas Instruments of Dallas, the Boeing Company's Defense and Space Group of Seattle, and two local companies: Rochester Photonics Corporation of Rochester and Sinclair Optics, Inc. of Fairport. COM will be responsible for developing the design processes and machinery to produce the new lenses, while Texas Instruments will actually produce the lenses that Boeing will test in airplanes. Rochester Photonics and Sinclair Optics will provide hardware and software support for diffractive optical elements and computer-aided design of lenses, respectively.
The technology has strong commercial potential. Hypersonic airplanes of the future -- which will rapidly ferry passengers all over the world -- will require windows and other optical elements that are very precisely fitted to the contours of planes to avoid burning up or melting while in flight. In addition, both military and commercial planes of the future are likely to benefit from optical sensing systems that are tightly fitted to their curved bodies. Such optical systems might be key to crash- avoidance and landing systems that would be superior to current radar systems, which are hindered by inclement weather.
Computer chips will also benefit from the advanced lenses: conformal optics can produce ever-smaller and thinner electronic devices in more intricate patterns on computer chips. Computer chip wiring just one-thousandth of a millimeter in thickness will be made possible by incorporating conformal optics into the photolithographic methods used to image patterns on chips.
COM, a cooperative effort by the American Precision Optics Manufacturers Association and the University's Institute of Optics, was established in 1989 to modernize the optics industry and to help the U.S. recapture its position in the global economy as a leading manufacturer of the precision lenses, prisms and mirrors used in cameras and copiers as well as in high-tech defense systems.