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High-performance electro-optics typically are complex, costly, and can stretch size constraints in small unmanned aerial vehicles. The size and weight on onboard infrared and visible-light sensors make their integration on small UAVs difficult; conventional optics have several stages and occupy much more volume than the lenses themselves.

The US Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) is looking to apply new optical technologies to compact infrared and visible-light sensors for attritable and low-cost, small, unmanned aircraft.

For such sensors, the optics are held in place by a supporting structure that maintains the alignment of the optical elements. Often there are tradeoffs between volume and weight, size and performance, and complexity/cost.

The use of meta optics, however, has the potential to yield relatively small and high-performance infrared sensors, thanks to flexible optical system design and component manufacturing. Meta optics, or metalenses, is a new flat lens technology for sensing and imaging in unmanned vehicles, augmented-reality displays, and consumer electronics.

According to, the Low-Cost Optical Systems Technology (LOW-COST) project seeks to reduce the cost, size, and weight of optical systems in small UAVs operating in combat conditions by using meta optics to realize increased system performance through hybrid and planar optic systems.

Enabling configurable meta optic systems to work with computational imaging and image processing is expected to demonstrate increases in system performance outside of imaging applications is a primary goal of the program.

This will provide a new capability for active and passive infrared and visible-light sensors and provide autonomous sensing capabilities such as incoming missile warning, laser warning, and infrared search and track (IRST).