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And Now: The Optical Arms Race

Light Reading
News Analysis
Light Reading
5/29/2003

Venture capitalists poured billions of dollars into optical technology during the boom. Needless to say, not all of it has been deployed. Now some investors are looking for ways to use the idle technology (other than as landfill, that is).

William Quigley, a venture partner at Clearstone Partners is bullish on optical technology transfer -- particularly for use in the U.S. military, where the budgets are big and the technology advanced. He believes it’s a massive new market, particularly for communications applications.

“For this industry to get out of the doldrums it’s going to have to start looking at markets that are totally different,” says Quigley.

There is evidence that the market for advanced communications is heating up in the federal government. A range of public systems companies are now pursuing large-scale government communications networks being built in the much-hyped DISA project (see DISA Deal D-Day Approaches).

So how would optical technology be used by the armed forces (apart from busting the enemy's bunker by dropping a Sonet crossconnect on it)? The growth in the use of laser-guided bombs, for one, has been well publicized. But there are other elements of high-tech warfare to consider. Intelligence data is hefty and needs to be moved quickly over advanced telecom networks. The computers aboard unmanned drone aircraft, for example, are constantly processing gigabits of information and need some way to communicate with humans on the ground.

Quigley has invested in one company called Aoptix Technologies, a company that has developed a MEMS (micro-electro-mechanical system) technology that he calls the “bendy mirror.” Unlike the MEMS devices used in optical switches, which are usually based on tilting flat mirrors, the bendy mirror can be curved by applying a voltage. According to Quigley, this allows for the mirror to correct for the distortion in laser signals, which makes it optimal for catching communications signals sent to moving targets [ed. note: and it can also make you look really fat, with little short legs].

Aoptix is working on such military communications applications via a free-space optics communications system. For example, a vehicle on the ground could use lasers and bendy MEMS to communicate with a drone plane in the sky.

Another one of Quigley's companies, Phasebridge, is working on long-haul optical technology as well as RF and microwave communications for the military.

Apparently this has been enough to have sold other investors besides Quigley. Last year Aoptix raised a Series B round from investors led by Lehman Brothers and 3i Group plc. Quigley's Clearstone also participated in the round, along with top-tier Silicon Valley VC Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers.

Quigley’s not stopping with unnmanned drones. He points out that optical technology has applications in the shipping, mining, navigation, and even agriculture industries.

“Farmers need sophisticated laser equipment to make sure they plow their fields straight,” says Quigley. And no, he’s not joking. He also says that lasers are big in shipping ports, where they are used to line up container ships for unloading, and for ship-to-ship communication -- again an application of free-space optics.

But Quigley says transferring optical technology from telecom to the military or other industries is not as easy as renaming a company. It takes a whole new line of research and relationships. He says much of the work involves cultivating the likes of lobbyists, industry giants, and government purchasing agents.

“Taking a company from the telecom space and retrofitting it for the military doesn’t work. You have to start over.”

Some optical technologies started out being developed for other industries and were adapted for telecom applications. Examples of this include MEMS, liquid crystals, and holography. In other words, some companies may be going back to the markets from whence they came.

— R. Scott Raynovich, US Editor, Light Reading

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skeptic
skeptic
12/4/2012 | 11:59:39 PM
re: And Now: The Optical Arms Race
“Farmers need sophisticated laser equipment to make sure they plow their fields straight,” says Quigley. And no, he’s not joking.
----------------
He is right but he is also wrong. The key word
in the above is "sophisticated". While there
is an application, its not one that needs state
of the art optics.

As far as free-space optics and the military,
I dont see the application. free-space opticial
communcation with the ground doesn't seem
terrian or weather robust enough to work in
the applications they describe.
whyiswhy
whyiswhy
12/4/2012 | 11:59:37 PM
re: And Now: The Optical Arms Race
Agree with Skeptic. For those of VC-like ignorance, farmers have been leveling their fields with laser equipment for over 30 years. In fact, its over-the-hill technology.

This is all done with differential GPS today, not optics. Good to less than a quarter inch, dirt cheap, work.

Free space optics with the military will be done by one of the established DoD contractors, not some start-up for goodness sake. Go ahead and get one of those massive SBIR Phase 1 contracts...right.

If there is a VC dumb enough to fund a business plan with that as the premise....well, that's where I started this message.
DarkWriting
DarkWriting
12/4/2012 | 11:59:35 PM
re: And Now: The Optical Arms Race
When in doubt (and in a bad economy) get the government (i.e. us) to pay for the business research via SBIR grants. Not that I have a big problem with this so long as the SOBs don't complain about paying the taxes on their options when they go public. Heaven forbid the government (i.e us) should get some return on our investment.

DW
skeptic
skeptic
12/4/2012 | 11:59:33 PM
re: And Now: The Optical Arms Race
The "bendy mirror' referred to in this article is actually an adaptive optics system that is designed specifically to make technologies like free-space optics capable of providing reliable signals through poor weather.
---------------
Being able to operate in poor weather solves
half the problem, but does it solve the terrain
problems. (i.e. is the system limited to open
sky situations like desert and does it fail
in places with lots of tree cover).
edgehead
edgehead
12/4/2012 | 11:59:33 PM
re: And Now: The Optical Arms Race
The "bendy mirror' referred to in this article is actually an adaptive optics system that is designed specifically to make technologies like free-space optics capable of providing reliable signals through poor weather. Aoptix was conceived to solve that particular problem and have some bright people from the astronomy world that have already solved it for that field.

While I agree that the ag business may not need AO right away, the military application is real and solvable, particularly with Aoptix's technology.

Before you ask, no I don't work there, but I am familiar with their early work and it's pretty cool stuff
edgehead
edgehead
12/4/2012 | 11:59:32 PM
re: And Now: The Optical Arms Race
Terrain will always be an issue, true. However, a mobile platform capable of OC-192 connections (last I checked, Aoptix was designing for such speeds) would be extraordinarily useful, even it was appropriate only for specific theaters.

topolino
topolino
12/4/2012 | 11:59:32 PM
re: And Now: The Optical Arms Race
HA! HA! HA! Are these the same VCs who wouldn't dare touch you during the telecom boom if you did any work for the military? And I quote one of them: "I am very much against government funding."
verstand
verstand
12/4/2012 | 11:59:25 PM
re: And Now: The Optical Arms Race
Bill Quigley is simply doing his job as VC trying to create a new round of media hype. They will try to talk about anything to stir up public interest. But, this time he will go out of the box of the "Market" section of business plans.

If no taker for adaptive FSO, hey, try boundle it with a 60GHz transceiver and screwed it to the tail of the drone. If it still doesn't fly, then replace both by a 10 micron stuff. Later, some junior staff at Pentagon may say "We will beam data from the back of the drone, Sir!" ".....: "What wavelength is transparent to the exhaust...gas?" .... "BTW, what is the speed...?"

BobbyMax
BobbyMax
12/4/2012 | 11:59:23 PM
re: And Now: The Optical Arms Race
Optical business is by and large a battered business in the commercial sector. There is a very little or no possibility that the military would use any significant optical system/component in the battle field.

Regardless of whicg VC provides the funding, it is very unlikely that this would be any significant part of the business.

There could be nothing more insane to base civilian sector of the business on military needs.
opticalweenie
opticalweenie
12/4/2012 | 11:59:15 PM
re: And Now: The Optical Arms Race
Booby,
You write:
"There is very little or no possibility that the military would use any significant optical system/component in the battle field"

Boy are you really wrong this time!
Weenie
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