Every component of an optical system has become lighter and smaller over the last century, except for the optics themselves. With hundreds of optics-dependent systems in use across the DoD, this creates significant limitations on current defense systems. However, recent advances in the design and fabrication of gradient index (GRIN) optics have changed the technological landscape for specialized optics manufacturing and provide far-reaching implications for the U.S. military. DARPA’s Manufacturable Gradient Index Optics (M-GRIN) program seeks to leverage these advances to make custom GRIN lenses readily available to the warfighter within the next three years.
As light generally travels in straight lines and, although an ordinary lens can bend light, it is often impossible to get a single lens to make all the light end up in its desired location. Instead, legacy optics systems must use a combination of many lenses, which leads to large, heavy, and complex optical assemblies, higher manufacturing costs, and limited capability. However, recent advances in plastic extrusion, which enable thin films of different refractive indices to be combined and shaped to direct light arbitrarily through a lens, have drastically reduced the size, scope, and cost of specialized optical assemblies.
The M-GRIN program seeks to advance GRIN design and fabrication technology for military initiatives. SPC provides the M-GRIN program with financial, administrative, and SETA support services, along with technical analysis for imaging sensors such as night vision and laser radar (LADAR) and materials with optical or non-imaging applications. These applications can include tagging and tracking, upconverting films, and providing low-cost or high efficiency solar cells and LEDs. The program seeks to design, fabricate, and demonstrate manufacturing feasibility of GRIN-based optical assemblies for a high-performance color camera lens and a two-color solar concentrator. The program addresses all of the following technology areas: materials development, optical element design, test and evaluation methods (metrology), and manufacturing.