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Tucson tech: Military laser maker expanding at U of A tech park

U.S. Army Reserve Soldiers' boots. (U.S. Army Reserve photo by Staff Sgt. Ken Scar)

A longtime Tucson developer of specialized lasers and directed-energy systems is expanding at the University of Arizona Tech Park, after winning millions of dollars in Pentagon research contracts and grants since last year.

Applied Energetics is adding 8,300 square feet to its 13,000-square-foot space at 9070 S. Rita Road, where the company relocated its headquarters and labs in 2021.

The company said the expansion will support the company’s anticipated future growth and provide more space for research, product development, training, testing, evaluation and production of its proprietary ultrashort-pulse lasers and directed-energy systems.

Gregory Quarles, president and CEO at Applied Energetics, said the Tucson area has provided world-class talent while the Tech Park has supplied business support and infrastructure needed to help the company grow.

“This expansion represents an exciting milestone for our Tucson facility and supports our long-term strategy to scale our operations, invest in our infrastructure and execute on our strategic plans to be a leader in the development of directed energy technologies,” Quarles said. “We look forward to the continued growth of our workforce here as we advance our program activities with our customers.”

After some recent key hires, the company now has 14 employees.

Founded as Ionatron Inc. in 2002, the company worked to develop directed-energy systems for the military, including a system to defeat improvised bombs, but after failing to win production contracts, it suspended operations in 2014.

The company relaunched in 2017, and in recent years has won a series of Pentagon research contracts to develop optical systems to defeat sensors used aboard aircraft, though many details of the programs remain classified or “controlled unclassified.”

The company’s technologies are protected by 26 patents and 11 additional “Government Sensitive Patent Applications,” which are held under U.S. government secrecy orders and allow the company extended protection rights.

Applied Energetics’ space at the Tech Park, formerly occupied by laser maker Coherent/DILAS, is compliant with federal arms-control regulations and laser-safety standards and includes a 4,800-square-foot Class 1,000 clean room.

Major grant, contracts

In June 2022, the company was awarded a $3.9 million, two-year grant by the Office of Naval Research to develop an optical system “capable of defeating customer-specified threats” for use on Marine Corps platforms.

The Marine Corp recently fielded a light air-defense system that includes an electronic system to disrupt enemy drone communications and control, as well as a system to launch Raytheon Stinger surface-to-air missiles.

Also last year, Applied Energetics was awarded a $172,000 Phase I Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) contract by the Army for research and development of a ultrashort-pulse laser infrared source as a countermeasure to electro-optical sensors.

Such sensors are used in military aircraft, including some drones, for navigation and targeting, as well as in some ground applications.

Last month, the company was awarded a follow-on $1.15 million Phase II STTR its to continue research and development.

‘Dazzle’ or damage

While the grant contract awards don’t mention specific enemy threats, the Phase I Army contract description says the Army is interested in “systems that can ‘dazzle’ or damage (electro-optical) sensors with ultrashort laser pulses” in the mid- and long-wave infrared spectrum “because it is difficult to protect sensors from this type of counter measure.”

The Army, Navy and Air Force have been developing a range of directed-energy weapons, to disrupt or destroy drones and and munitions like rockets and mortar rounds.

A 50-kilowatt laser system made by Raytheon Technologies and partner Kord Technologies is in operational testing with the Army, with Raytheon citing more than 400 “kills” in more than 25,000 operational hours.

Applied Energetics says such continuous lasers take time to act on a target, while it has already delivered ultrashort-pulse lasers that top five terawatts, or trillions of watts, delivered in a pulse of less than a trillionth of a second to produce instantaneous results.

Finding partners, funding

Despite failing to find traction for its technology in the past, Applied Energetics has attracted investors, as well as research partners, even as it continues to lose money.

The company raised $5 million in 2017 to restart its development program.

In 2019, Applied Energetics acquired Applied Optical Sciences, a company founded by Applied Energetics co-founder and chief scientist Stephen McCahon.

McCahon, who formerly headed Raytheon’s directed-energy programs, was later named chief scientist and full-time consultant to the merged company.

Quarles, a physicist well-known in optical sciences circles as former chief scientist for the Optical Society (now known as Optica), also came on board as CEO in 2019.

Also in 2019, Applied Energetics announced a research agreement with the University of Arizona to advance “frequency-agile” optical sources and ultra-short pulse lasers for applications that include “counter-threat and dual-use manufacturing technologies.”

In December, the company announced it had raised about $6.6 million in a private placement of its stock, which is traded on the over-the-counter market. The company’s stock has been trading publicly in the range of $2.20 to $2.65 per share since the beginning of the year.

Last year, Applied Energetics posted a $5.8 million net loss on revenues of $1.3 million, and for the 2023 first quarter, the company reported a net loss of $1.9 million on revenues of about $487,000.


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