DARPA seeks engineered optical materials that go beyond the “laws” of classical optics

Developers of imaging systems have long been beholden to certain rules of optics designs so well established and seemingly immutable as to be treated as virtual “laws” of physics. One widely considered pillar of optical design, for example, is that imaging systems must be built from a series of complex and precisely manufactured optical elements arranged linearly. The result of such assumptions is that certain high-performance imagery devices inevitably end up being large and heavy, composed of dozens or more optical elements. DARPA’s EXTREME Optics and Imaging (EXTREME) program aims to break from that well-worn paradigm by introducing engineered optical materials (EnMats) and associated design tools for creating innovative optical systems with improved performance, new functionality, and drastically reduced size and weight.

DARPA’s EXTREME Optics and Imaging program envisions revolutionary optical devices, systems, and architectures made possible by new engineered optical materials and 3-D volumetric components enabling devices to perform multiple optical functions simultaneously.

We’ve seen significant technical advances in recent years in the communities of optical system design, materials science and fabrication, and multiscale modeling and optimization,” said Predrag Milojkovic, DARPA program manager. “EXTREME seeks to capitalize on this momentum by uniting these separate communities to revolutionize optics and imaging as we know it.”

To achieve its goal, EXTREME is focused on developing new EnMats—both two-dimensional metasurfaces as well as 3-D volumetric optics and holograms—that manipulate light in ways beyond classical rules of reflection and refraction. EXTREME also will address multiscale modelling to enable design and optimization of EnMats across vastly different scales, from nanometer to centimeter, for example.

The program aims to demonstrate an optical system with engineered surfaces where control of light propagation is decoupled from a specific geometric shape and can be tuned. EXTREME also seeks to demonstrate a volumetric optical element the size of a sugar cube or larger that can perform a multitude of functions simultaneously in visual and infrared (IR) bands, such as imaging, spectrum analysis, and polarization measurements, among others.

If successful, EXTREME could introduce a new era in optics and imagers for national defense. EXTREME optical components would be lighter and smaller, enabling miniaturization of imaging systems for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) applications. The multifunctional nature of these devices could offer improvements in a wide variety of imaging systems by reducing size and weight without compromising performance for systems as diverse as night vision goggles, hyperspectral imagers, and IR search and track systems.

DARPA anticipates that reaching the objectives of the EXTREME program will require formation of cross-cutting teams bringing together expertise from disparate communities and fields, including but not limited to engineered material design and fabrication, multiscale modeling/simulation/optimization, and optical system design

The overarching goal of the EXTREME Program is to develop new optical architectures designed in concert with the maturation of practical EnMats (i.e., wide spectral bandwidth, low loss, etc.) to enable new functionality and/or vastly improve Size, Weight, and Power (SWaP) characteristics of traditional optical systems. If successful, the EXTREME program will open up a heretofore unexplored optical design space, redefining (if not completely breaking), trade-offs and limitations that are inherent to traditional optical design processes.