News Feature | November 10, 2021

Bright Ideas — U.S. & Russia Pursue HEL Technology, Fiber Optics "Father" Honored With Google Doodle

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By Abby Proch, Electronics Editor

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A new high energy laser (HEL) weapon system will have “lethal output greater than anything fielded to date,” according to GA-EMS President Scott Forney. Boeing and General Atomics Electromagnetic Systems (GA-EMS) are joining forces to prototype a 300 kW-class solid state distributed gain HEL and integrated beam director. The announcement comes on the heels of an emerging technologies report by the Congressional Research Service (CRS) identifying directed energy (DE) as one of the emerging technologies the U.S. must embrace to maintain military dominance. Last year, the two agreed to create a 100-kW laser scalable to 250kW, according to DefenseNews.

Just this past week, Russian president Vladimir Putin reiterated his country’s focus on advancing hypersonic missiles and high-energy lasers (HEL), according to the AP. Putin noted the capabilities of the Avangard and Kinzhal hypersonic missiles and pointed to the near completion of Zircon, a missile that reportedly flies nine times the speed of sound and has a range up to 620 miles. Zircon isn’t the most powerful or longest reaching of the three, but it will arm the country’s cruisers, frigates, and submarines. Details of the Russian Peresvet laser system are sparse but the AP reports it’s capable of dazzling adversary satellites to prevent detection of mobile launchers carrying intercontinental ballistic missiles.

Not to be outdone, the U.S. Congress is funding the creation of the new Directed Energy Center, according to a University of New Mexico press release. At the center, UNM and part of the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) will make advances in fiber lasers and high-energy electromagnetics for “national security” use. The $2.4 million, four-year agreement allows UNM to create a rare facility that provides expertise in both laser and microwaves. The center is expected to open in Albuquerque in 2025. This announcement, coupled with Putin’s perseverance, illustrate the attention being paid to DE by the world’s strongest militaries as identified by the CRS report.

In UAS/UAV news, a drone that crashed outside a Pennsylvania power substation in 2020 is being now recognized as the first modified unmanned aerial system (UAS) to intentionally target U.S. infrastructure. According to  ABC news, a memo from the FBI, Department of Homeland Security, and National Counterterrorism Center claims the July 2020 occurrence was the first of its kind but likely not the last. The incident caused no damage, but officials did say that was likely the original intent. The drone’s operator is still unknown.

On the legal side of things, tethered drone provider Fotokite is partnering with Axon to add another UAV option to its arsenal, according to a press release. Fotokite’s tethered drone deploys quickly, does not require a pilot license or further FAA authorization, and has found use cases in search and rescue, disaster response, traffic management, and other mission critical operations. The partnership builds upon Axon’s existing Axon Air UAS offerings and Axon’s proprietary wireless livestreaming capabilities.

In business news, German laser communications company Mynaric announced it’s setting terms for a U.S. initial public offering (IPO) and contracting with Northrop Grumman to supply the aerospace and defense powerhouse with optical communications terminals and other laser accessories. According to a report by Renaissance Capital, Mynaric is claiming a market value of $356 million and will enter the New York Stock Exchange at $17.48. The release notes Mynaric’s hallmark CONDOR and HAWK terminals, with the former being of interest to Northrop Grumman. Northrop Grumman also names Mynaric as a preferred partner in developing laser communications solutions for U.S. space programs, according to a report by Via Satellite.

In mergers and acquisitions, CACI International has plans to acquire SA Photonics for $275 million. According to a CACI press release, the move bolsters CACI’s existing role as the leading U.S.-based free space optical (FSO) communications provider and significantly expands CACI’s manufacturing capacity. Also beneficial to CACI is SA Photonics’ robust IP technology and low-earth orbit (LEO) satellite links (OISL) technology.

In another move, Lumentum is set to acquire NeoPhotonics in a roughly $918 million deal wherein Lumentum will pay $16 per share in cash, according to a company press release. The deal is said to strengthen Lumentum’s presence in the market for high-speed optical components for cloud and telecommunications network infrastructure, as well as provide for enhanced research and development opportunities, design and manufacturing capabilities, and growth into new and emerging markets, like industrial sensing, safety and security, and life sciences. The transaction is expected to be completed in the latter half of 2022.

Finally, over the past four years, the company formerly known as Cree has shed two-thirds of its business and pivoted its focus to fully embrace silicon carbide and semiconductor devices. It will now be known as Wolfspeed. According to a company announcement, Wolfspeed’s technology supports “electrification of the drivetrain to support the shift to electric vehicles, wireless infrastructure to unlock the potential of smart cities, and power storage to enable broader adoption of renewable energy.”

Just for fun, on Nov. 4, the Google doodle celebrated the 88th birthday of Charles K. Kao, who some consider the “father of fiber optics.”  The Chinese-born, British-American physicist and educator — along with collaborator George Hockham — proposed that purified glass fibers could carry 1 GHz of data using lasers. Their vision became reality in 1977 when the first telephone network transmitted signals through optical fibers.

Kao, along with fellow physicists Willard S. Boyle and George E. Smith, won the Noel Peace Prize in 2009 for his contributions to “optical communication and image recording.” Interestingly, in 1969, Boyle and Smith had invented the charge-coupled device (CCD), which allows the recording, storage, and read-out of high-resolution digital images. CCDs are now integral to digital cameras, TVs, medical devices, and astronomical telescopes.