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SPIE DCS 2016: AIM Photonics still seeking partners

19 Apr 2016

Speakers outline interest in the potential application of integrated photonics devices to threat detection.

by Ford Burkhart in Baltimore
Although the US military was a driving force in creating the national AIM Photonics activity headquartered in New York State, the center’s presentation at the SPIE Defense and Commercial Sensing (DCS) meeting in Baltimore was broadly on its manufacturing capabilities for non-military clients.

Growth in members is “really healthy,” said Justin R. Bickford, a civilian research engineer based at the US Army Research Laboratory in Adelphi, Maryland, who works with the AIM Photonics network, although the organization is still looking to add more partners.

Areas of major interest to AIM Photonics at DCS include wearable devices, chemical and biological threat exposure warnings, and water quality, Bickford added.

Full-court press
Established last July after a bidding process managed by the Department of Defense, AIM Photonics is nearing the one-year marker with a full-court press for new members at several levels, in the US and even abroad.

The coast-to-coast network has established hubs across the US, in Arizona, Massachusetts and California, as well as New York, putting to use an initial grant of $110 million in federal funds. Subsequent matching funds from states, industry partners and other institutions so far exceed $500 million.

Bickford described the AIM Photonics challenges as creating an integrated photonics ecosystem, using new and more efficient technologies but “without spending billions and billions of dollars.”

The program operates under the management umbrella of RF SUNY, the Research Foundation of the State University of New York, a non-profit entity set up at SUNY. It is the largest university research foundation in the US.

“The electronic revolution is being mirrored by photonic integrated circuits,” Bickford told the opening conference session on chemical and biological sensing applications of integrated photonics, part of a day-long series of talks on Integrated Photonics Sensing of CBRNE (Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear and Explosives) Threats.

Packaging challenge
Another speaker, Todd H. Stievater from the US Naval Research Lab in nearby Washington, DC, cited AIM Photonics as capable of working on challenges like packaging of integrated photonics and other themes mentioned at the CBRNE Threats meeting.

With integrated circuits, said Bickford, “you can have photonics and electronics right next to each other. It allows you to have not just electronics on a chip but a wide range of device capability.”

Such challenges, Bickford said, are what AIM Photonics has set out to meet, by offering the full manufacturing cycle, from concept and design to fabrication, testing and packaging, along with education of practitioners in the industry.

“We are creating a national institute to support the original vision of President Obama to provide an ecosystem for end-to-end integrated photonics manufacturing,” he said.

Any success, he added, would depend on following the public-private partnership model, allowing open access to “world-class shared-use resources.”

Manufacturing partnerships
With the Department of Defense in the lead, the activity also relies on members from industry, including the likes of Intel, IBM, Raytheon and Cisco. Together with academic partners like SUNY; the University of California Santa Barbara; the Rochester Institute of Technology and the University of Rochester, they want to create manufacturing centers of excellence, or “MCEs”.

That is designed to enable the small and medium-sized enterprises within the ecosystem to access technology platforms usually restricted to the major players who can afford them.

Bickford said key areas will be creating photonic components on a smaller scale, including new optical cables for computing systems and sensing devices. AIM is setting up “key technology manufacturing areas,” or KTMAs, that will showcase this capability.

“It’s not the old government top-down model,” Bickford said, explaining how companies can get involved by becoming part of the technology working group. It is open to institute non-members, offering multi-project wafer processing and assembly, or MPWA, to bring down costs to levels better suited for market entry.

Companies, he said, can have their photonic integrated circuits (PIC) designs fabricated, tested and packaged at the institute. “It’s a great avenue for basic research and product prototyping,” Bickford added. “You don’t have to have your devices completed to the final stage to take part.”

Call for proposals now open
Joining rates for AIM Photonics members range from $1 million highest tier for industrial partners, to $100,000 for smaller enterprises. The latest call for proposals is now posted on the AIM Photonics web site, with AIM saying it will select project ideas based on quality.

Under the scheme, “class A” partners from academia and industry can get help developing new PIC manufacturing capability that will be shared in open-access fashion. However, “class B” partners can support their own projects and are under no obligation to share results at the conclusion. “You can walk away at the end, and license your own project,” Bickford said.

Coming up on June 9-10 is an open meeting in Rochester, New York, that will serve as a proposers’ day and teaming event for those who expect to respond to the 2017 call for proposals.

Emphasizing that AIM Photonics must be self-sufficient after five years, based on its success as a commercial entity, Bickford told delegates, “That’s why its decisions are commercial first, with government benefits second.”

About the Author

Ford Burkhart is a writer based in Tucson, Arizona.

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