An optics project with widespread applications in both the military and the commercial sectors has received a major boost, with a grant of up to $3.2 million by the Department of Defense to the Center for Optics Manufacturing (COM) at the University of Rochester.
The money will help fund a $6.8-million effort at COM to automate the manufacture of an aspherical lens or asphere, an optical component that is now very difficult and expensive to produce. Besides the DOD grant, funding comes from several industrial partners who are devoting time and laboratory resources to the project. Partners include Eastman Kodak, CNC Systems, and Sinclair Optics Inc., all of the Rochester area; Apeiron of Minneapolis; Lockheed Martin of Orlando; Moore Tool Co. of Bridgeport, CT.; and Texas Instruments of Dallas.
The project will develop precise computerized equipment to automate and reduce the cost of production of aspheres, which provide higher performance in optical systems but are also more costly than their spherical counterparts. Traditional lenses create tiny distortions as a beam of light travels from point to point; such distortions must be corrected by adding extra lenses to a system. Aspheres, in contrast, correct the light as it goes along, eliminating the need for extra lenses.
"One asphere can take the place of several spherical lenses," says Michele Richard, COM program manager. "Using aspheres can bring down the weight of a system phenomenally. That usually means a smaller, lighter, and less expensive device. And by having fewer lenses, there are fewer potential flaws." The few ways now available to make aspheres are prohibitively expensive.
Optical technology is critical to more than 350 current military systems, including many where aspheres would be useful. COM will work closely with Lockheed Martin to develop new components for the night vision system on Apache helicopters. DOD also hopes COM's aspheres will help equip the soldier of the future, whose equipment may include a night vision system, optical equipment to capture and convey images from the front lines back to commanders via wireless connections, and small "smart" missiles guided by precision optics.
The DOD's support comes through the Technology Reinvestment Program (TRP) of the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA); the TRP focuses on technology important both to military and commercial markets. Less expensive aspheres would help bring down the size and cost of high-definition television, a research project that COM is pursuing with Texas Instruments. The work could also help Eastman Kodak produce a more compact advanced digital camera. Other commercial applications include lighter satellites, automatic crash-avoidance systems for automobiles and airplanes, and even smaller endoscopes to help physicians see inside the human body.
COM plans to produce the prototype of an asphere machine, the Opticam AM, by next year. The machine will probably sell in the range of $150,000 to $300,000, much like the automated machine for producing spheres, the Opticam SX, that COM has produced and that has been acquired by several companies.
Of the 34 TRP awards, this project is one of only two to be led by a university. The TRP also funded another Rochester-based effort in precision optics: a $14 million effort led by Rochester Photonics Inc. to develop diffractive optics technology for battlefield management systems. tr