San Diego Business Journal

Daylight Solutions, the Rancho Bernardo subsidiary of Leonardo DRS, is seeing success in an innovative aircraft protection system, to which it contributes key laser technology.

The contractor started producing the system under an urgent contract from the U.S. Navy. The customer was so happy with the results that it recently asked the company to refine the system under a $120 million engineering contract. If the company does well under the four-year deal, a low rate manufacturing deal could follow.

The system is currently fitted on military helicopters; company representatives are prohibited from saying which models. The electronics are able to sense an incoming heat-seeking missile and dazzle the missile’s electronic eye, giving the helicopter carrying the system time to take evasive action.

The system is the work of several DRS offices, including one in Dallas and two in Florida (in Fort Walton Beach and Melbourne).

San Diego is home to some 31% of work on the DAIRCM (distributed aperture infrared countermeasure) advanced aircraft protection system.

Sensing and Blinding a Missile

The system works in multiple steps. Sensors on the helicopter alert the system’s brain (a processor) to possible threats. The processor directs the system to aim an infrared laser beam in the direction of the threat. The infrared beam is channeled to the outside of the helicopter via optical fibers.

Company executives said it’s similar to a person shining a flashlight into the eyes of another person running at them.

The San Diego office takes care of the laser and the fiber optic network.

It’s not just a Navy product. Other service branches could use the system for their helicopters. Ground-based soldiers might use it to protect themselves and their vehicles. “It is really critical that these systems find their way to the soldiers,” said Eric Takeuchi, vice president for strategy and business development for the business.

Armed With Intellectual Property

The Navy contract was a no-bid contract, since Leonardo DRS holds 54 patents related to the technology. The portfolio is “far and away largest portfolio in quantum cascade lasers,” said Tim Day, Ph.D. the company’s senior vice president and general manager of the Daylight Solutions unit. Day was one of three co-founders of the San Diego business and was CEO prior to its sale to Leonardo DRS three years ago.

Quantum cascade lasers generate laser emission through the direct conversion of electricity into infrared radiation. That stands in contrast to legacy solid-state lasers that need several frequency conversion stages in order to generate emission in the infrared. Leonardo DRS says its lasers have an advantage in size, weight and power (or SWAP), as well as better reliability than those made by competitors.

SWAP is a common puzzle among defense contractors, particularly in aerospace. Those working to solve it seek maximum power from minimal size and weight.

Daylight Solutions does 70% of its business with the military. The remaining business is commercial. Its mid-infrared lasers have applications in medicine.