Follow the money

The growing success of SPIE’s Defense & Security Symposium (D&SS; March 28-31; Orlando, FL) results from its dedicated focus on military and homeland security markets.

May 1st, 2005

The booming IR market requires sustained investment.

The growing success of SPIE’s Defense & Security Symposium (D&SS; March 28-31; Orlando, FL) results from its dedicated focus on military and homeland security markets. More than 5000 attendees crowded the technical sessions and the exhibition, which attracted 330 exhibitors, up 13% from last year. In addition to military and law-enforcement equipment, new companies entered the market with novel technologies or products repurposed from other applications.

Imaging-and especially infrared imaging-has benefited from the growth and investment in these markets, and small companies have been inspired to create new products. For example, QmagiQ (Nashua, NH) showed a dual-waveband IR camera based on its quantum-well infrared photodetectors (QWIPs). PosID (Lexington Park, MD) used a low-cost microbolometer from DRS Infrared Technologies (Dallas, TX) to create an IR biometric authentication system. And both Equinox (New York, NY) and Sarnoff (Princeton, NJ) have developed products that allow visible and IR images to be merged in real time.

This boom in innovation in IR-imaging technology raises hopes for new business ventures and commercial applications. However, whether the federal funding for new technologies is real and sustainable was a matter of debate. The answer, it seems, is “tenuous,” with some exceptions.

Into the red

The federal budget deficit is driving most future spending plans and, after several years of record spending for defense and security, the “high water mark” probably came in FY 2005, according to Kei Koizumi, program director of the R&D Budget and Policy Program at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (Washington, D.C.). Kei was one of several speakers who talked about funding issues and opportunities at SPIE’s Photonics Market Opportunities Forum, held during D&SS. Kei said that this year’s budget deficit could be a record $427 billion and even higher in FY 2006. This projection doesn’t include the impact of extensions of expiring tax cuts, Social Security reform, or the costs of Iraq. As a result, he said, the brakes have been applied to spending for homeland security, defense, and domestic programs.

Of greater concern for the development of new technologies, overall federal funding for research will fall in FY 2006 by 1.4%, with defense R&D staying level and homeland security R&D increasing slightly. The Department of Homeland Security will see a 3.6% increase allotted to radiological and nuclear countermeasures and to counter the threat of shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles.

Most of the U.S. Department of Defense’s R&D budget is spent supporting the troops in Iraq. The department’s requested science and technology (S&T) budget is 21% lower than in FY 2005, with more resources shifted to short-term solutions for Iraq. Steep cuts will also be made in Army, Navy, and Air Force support of research, with only DARPA and research on chemical and biological defenses seeing increased funding.

New opportunities do exist for rapid development of prototype equipment that can help in Iraq, explained Terence Hess, chief of staff at the Combating Terrorism Technology Support Office, which manages the national R&D program to combat terror known as the Technical Support Working Group. His office controls a $130 million to $140 million budget and welcomes proposals to develop prototypes for potential IR-related tasks such as detecting suicide bombers and roadside explosives, uses in crime scene investigations, surveillance, and entry point screening. More information is available at www.tswg.gov.

As the Federal budget growth levels off, the immediate impact on IR imaging companies is unclear. On one hand, funding pressures will result in the scaling back of programs such as the U.S. Army’s Future Combat Systems with its goal of a lighter, faster combat force, and use of numerous advanced imaging technologies. At the same time, the U.S. military has recently announced awards worth tens of millions of dollars for night-vision and thermal-weapons systems. More than one IR camera company at D&SS talked of substantial military sales made on the show floor. For the moment, a critical mass exists for a booming IR-imaging market but sustaining this boom will require investing in the research for new generations of products.

CONARD HOLTON is editor in chief of Vision Systems Design; e-mail: cholton@pennwell.com.

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