Researchers ask industry to develop miniature optical beam steering for laser communications and lidar

Sept. 15, 2022
SOAR will identify promising new approaches to optical beam steering in miniature form factors, and demonstrate receivers with small apertures.

ARLINGTON, Va. – U.S. military researchers are asking industry to develop miniature optical beam steering for applications like free-space laser optical communications and light detection and ranging (lidar).

Officials of the U.S. Defense Advanced Projects Agency (DARPA) in Arlington, Va., issued a microsystems exploration topic on Tuesday (DARPA-PA-21-05-01) for the Steerable Optical Aperture Receivers (SOAR) project.

SOAR will identify promising new approaches to optical beam steering in miniature form factors, and experimentally demonstrate their operation in receive mode with small aperture sizes.

Today, optical beam steering primarily is mechanical, using a gimbal or motor to point optical lenses. The size weight of gimbal-based beam steering systems, however, typically is too big for small and autonomous vehicles that need onboard laser communications and lidar capability.

Related: Air Force eyes chip-scale lidar sensors for 3-D mapping, navigation, and long-range communications

The rise of integrated photonics, in which microscopic devices on chips replicate the functions of discrete optics. This offers not only dramatic size reduction, but also the potential for new and complex optical system architectures until now have been impractical at the macroscopic scale. The SOAR project seeks to answer key questions about optical receiver performance, scalability, and integration.

SOAR seeks to develop optical interfaces that can receive light from any direction without knowing the incoming angle by steering the angle of acceptance to acquire and couple the input beam into a common output mode, or detect the optical signal within the receiver interface.

The first phase of SOAR will focus on lidar and laser communications receiver design and process development. The second phase will fabricate the receiver, and include a transceiver design study on aperture scalability and system integration.

DARPA researchers want steering components to be significantly smaller than 100 cubic centimeters, and be able to steer light beams at high speed, with pointing time faster than 100 microseconds, and with modest power consumption.

Related: Four companies to develop enabling technologies for tomorrow's electro-optical lidar sensor

SOAR is technology-agnostic and open to any concept that meets program goals. Researchers would consider, for example, two-dimensional optical parametric amplification (OPA), non-planar integrated photonics, optical metasurfaces, directional optical scattering techniques, and discrete micro-optics. Researchers also are interested in the ability to generate several simultaneous beams.

Companies interested should upload unclassified proposals no later than 13 Oct. 2022 to the DARPA submission website at

Email questions or concerns to Jonathan Hoffman, the DARPA SOAR program manager, at [email protected]. More information is online at

About the Author

John Keller | Editor-in-Chief

John Keller is the Editor-in-Chief, Military & Aerospace Electronics Magazine--provides extensive coverage and analysis of enabling electronics and optoelectronic technologies in military, space and commercial aviation applications. John has been a member of the Military & Aerospace Electronics staff since 1989 and chief editor since 1995.

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