Laser weapon technology could ‘revolutionize’ manufacturing

The U.S. Navy plans to launch a warship this year armed with a laser cannon. The Navy’s directed-energy weapon, developed over six years at a cost of $40 million, uses fiber optic solid-state laser technology.

Similar directed-energy technology, unrelated to the Navy project, is being developed at the University of Dayton for the U.S. Department of Defense, said Mikhail Vorontsov, the Wright Brothers endowed chair at UD’s School of Engineering and director of the university’s Intelligent Optics Laboratory.

Military applications of Vorontsov’s technology are still some years away, but it has the potential today to transform the manufacturing industry, he said. However, funding for commercial applications can be difficult to obtain.

Vorontsov has developed a fiber optic array laser transmitter system that combines multiple laser beams to create a single “brilliant” beam that can be controlled with high accuracy. He developed the technology with Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency funding for directed-energy systems research.

Fiber-array laser technology is already at a point where it can be used for such non-military applications as advanced materials processing, 3-D manufacturing and advanced laser communications, according to Vorontsov. “It will revolutionize an entire industry,” he said.

Advanced laser manufacturing systems would require about one-tenth the power of military laser weapons, Vorontsov said.

Unlike current laser manufacturing technology, fiber-array laser systems would provide excellent beam quality, micron-accuracy control, and the ability to deliver multiple beams to predefined locations, he said.

For example, the system would allow manufacturers to weld dissimilar materials such as steel and aluminum, which have different melting temperatures, without cracking.

Fiber-array technology also could be used to remotely charge unmanned aerial vehicle batteries while the UAV remains aloft. In addition, it could be used for secure network communications via laser.

In 2009, Vorontsov co-founded Optonicus, a spinoff company headquartered at 711 E. Monument Ave. at the Dayton Tech Town office park. The company shares lab space with the Intelligent Optics Laboratory at UD’s College Park Center at 1529 Brown St.

Optonicus’ goal is to transition defense-related laser technology to commercial industry.

Optonicus, launched with three employees and a $63,000 grant, now employs about 18 engineers and research scientists, and is on track for $3 million in projected contract revenues for 2014, said Tom Tumolillo Jr., the company’s vice president of operations.

Optonicus’ clients include DARPA, the Air Force, Navy, Boeing Co. and Riverside Research Institute.

Vorontsov does nearly $1 million dollars in annual funded research through UD, plus another $1.5 million through Optonicus.

UD’s School of Engineering is leading a five-year, $5.3 million project with the Air Force Institute of Technology and a number of other universities to study how atmospheric conditions affect the performance of a wide range optical systems operating over long distances. Researchers are trying to find ways to mitigate those effects and build better systems for laser communications, laser-based radar, imaging and laser beam projection.

UD receives $650,000 annually under the Air Force Office of Scientific Research Multidisciplinary University Research Initiative grant awarded in 2012, Vorontsov said. His group has studied laser beam propagation over 4.2 miles between College Park Center and the Dayton VA Medical Center at 4100 West Third St., as well as a laser transmitted more than 92 miles between two Hawaiian islands.

Vorontsov said research and development funding for commercial applications of fiber-array laser systems has been difficult to obtain because his research crosses between defense and industrial disciplines.

Optonicus has done low-power testing of a fiber-array materials processing system, but requires additional funding to purchase fiber-amplifiers to create a high-power prototype.

Vorontsov has submitted a proposal to the National Science Foundation seeking $1.2 million for system development.

UD’s Intelligent Optics Laboratory and Optonicus also requested $1.5 million in state funding toward a $4 million program to transition fiber-array laser weapon technology into a new generation of advanced laser manufacturing technologies, according to documents obtained by this newspaper.

That proposal, submitted last year to the Dayton Development Coalition’s Priority Development and Advocacy Committee, said the advanced laser manufacturing program would create 64 jobs within 10 years.

The program received a “recommended” rating, but was not among the 36 priority projects submitted to Ohio Director of Budget and Management Timothy Keen for potential inclusion in the 2015-16 State Capital Budget.

UD and Optonicus are seeking further funding opportunities for the program, Tumollilo said.

Tumolillo said he is heartened to see laser technology reach a point where it is being launched and used by the Navy to protect U.S. troops. “Optonicus is hopeful that in the future we will be able to contribute to improvements in this technology,” he said.

Vorontsov said the Navy’s laser weapon system is “a first step,” capable of shooting down UAVs and scaring off small speedboats. “There is a development, and we are part of it, of a more advanced system, but it will take 5, 10 years — maybe more,” he said.

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