Axsys Technologies sees healthy military market for 2009

August 7, 2008--Executives at Axsys Technologies foresee continuing strength in military and defense spending in advanced electro-optical sensors and systems, saying any draw-down of U.S. troops that occurs post-election won't likely crimp spending.

August 7, 2008--Any draw-down of U.S. troops in Iraq that occurs post-election won't likely crimp military and defense spending in advanced electro-optical sensors and systems, say executives at Axsys Technologies (Rocky Hill, CT, and Nashua, NH). The U.S. Armed Services are hungry for advanced capabilities to keep ahead of enemy combatants. Spending on optics and optoelectronics-based technology will continue long past any potential troop exodus from the Middle East. That is the feeling of those in the know, such as Thomas Breen, vice president of sales and marketing of the Surveillance Systems Group at Axsys Technologies (Nashua, NH).

"The U.S. Army wants every soldier to have their own thermal weapon-sight," says Breen of forward-looking infrared (FLIR) weapon sights used on automatic weapons, machine guns, and rifles. Although the U.S. Department of Defense inventory has approximately 500,000 night-vision goggles, mostly based on photomultiplier-tube technology, the U.S. Army's Thermal Omnibus I program and more recent "bridge" program called Thermal Weapons Sight (TWS) II, is designed to bring the newer thermal-weapon-sight technology to its troops as soon as possible, recognizing its far superior performance advantage. Not only does the Army hope to place the sights on every weapon, they expect to use the same technology on tens of thousands of Army vehicles such as tanks as driver's viewing sights. "Manufacturers have worked hard to ramp up to meet the customer's demand," says Breen. Or maybe he just means Axsys, due to the $13.5 million infrared lens order they received in May from a prime contractor supporting the Army's TWS II program. "The market is at the front end of the cycle, past development. It's not yet a mature market so we anticipate years of demand yet to fulfill."

According to Jim Howard, president of Axsys Technologies Imaging Systems Group (Nashua, NH), Axsys has one of the largest diamond-turning manufacturing floor in the U.S. if not the world, with 24 processing machines that carve precision germanium infrared lenses 18 hours a day. These infrared lenses are used in night-vision cameras, lens assemblies, and remote-sensing systems on Army and Marine Corps vehicles, helicopters, and in handheld devices. In law enforcement, thermal sensing systems are mounted beneath helicopters on a gyro-stabilized gimbal, enabling remote detection of perpetrators sometimes before they can hear the helicopter. Such technology is called a "force multiplier," a term that used to apply to tactics, but is now the buzz word in military, defense, law enforcement, fire fighting, and other first-responder applications. Force-multiplying technology enables existing troops and law-enforcement agencies such as the Border Patrol to do the job of a much larger force with the same number of personnel. "This is why our manufacturing floor is going to remain busy, draw-down or not," says Breen.

Other programs keeping contractors like Axsys busy includes the U.S. Army's Common Remotely Operated Weapon Station (CROWS) program. The CROWS technology enables a gunner in an armored vehicle to drop down into the hatch and be concealed without losing the target. In May 2008, Axsys received a $16.9 million follow-on order to produce dual-field-of-view infrared lenses for the CROWS program.

Although the U.S. has a head start in developing advanced sensing technology, the international sales potential for all U.S. manufacturers faces strict export control requirements. This necessary oversight and control by the Departments of State and Commerce helps ensure that the advantages this technology provides the U.S. Warfighter don't end up in the hands of the enemy. Even with that international market handicap, Axsys Technologies, a publically traded company, saw a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 28% from 2003 to 2007. "We expect tremendous growth over the next two years with the demand for high-end vibration-stabilized cameras mounted on helicopters and fixed wing aircraft for military applications and programs. This military technology can also be applied to the needs of law-enforcement agencies, traffic monitoring, and other commercial applications," says Breen. And in this tough, down-turned economy, that makes the diamond-turning capabilities of Axsys a gem.

--Valerie C. Coffey

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A version of this article originally appeared in the Jul. 15, 2008 issue of Optoelectronics Report. To get more photonics industry news, click here to subscribe to OER.

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