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Australia on Target to Bring Laser Tech up to Speed

The University of South Australia has been awarded an AU$1.8 million Federal Government contract to develop technology that underpins the next generation of high-powered lasers in Australia for the defence and manufacturing sectors.

UniSA Professor of Laser Engineering, David Lancaster, will lead the three-year project, funded by the Defence Science and Technology Group (DSTG), in collaboration with the University of Adelaide.

Professor David Lancaster has a 30-year track record in high-power laser R&D, including 10 years as a senior research scientist at DSTO, where he initiated and led the program to develop local capability in high power fibre lasers, Directed Infrared Counter-Measure (DIRCM) lasers and DIRCM systems. This technology was used by the Australian Defence Industry to manufacture the F-MURLIN laser to protect aircraft from increasingly sophisticated infrared-guided missiles.

Professor Lancaster, who heads one of the country’s leading laser and photonics manufacturing research laboratories at UniSA, will use the funding to help build sovereign manufacturing capability, bringing Australia up to speed with other developed nations.

He noted that high-powered lasers are increasingly being used in defence and manufacturing, but despite a long history of developing lasers in Australia, our technology is still relatively immature compared to other countries. There is a substantial gap between the research outputs and the needs of our defence industry, so Australia has had to buy this technology from other countries, which is quite restrictive because most nations severely limit their exports of lasers, he said.

Over the next three years, Prof Lancaster aims to build a new type of high-powered laser that combines multiple smaller lasers, fine-tuning the manufacturing process so it is cheaper and more efficient. He believes it is more important to put years of effort to develop the technology and manufacturing processes to build many miniature and safer lasers which cost hundreds of dollars each. That is the team’s aim, he said.

UniSA’s Laser Physics and Photonics Devices Lab will manufacture the lasers and the University of Adelaide’s Institute for Photonics and Advanced Sensors will develop the specialist laser glass. Prof Lancaster says Australia’s universities and defence sector need to be more closely integrated to build sovereign independence in laser technology.

The reason that UniSA and the University of Adelaide have been selected for this project is that their miniature laser technology and manufacturing processes are world-leading and will supercharge the DSTG’s laser system program.

High-powered lasers are also the preferred tools for the manufacturing sector as they can cut, shape and weld most industrial materials with high precision. Their ability to manipulate and transform materials makes them ideal for the automotive, computer and clothing industries as they can create extremely fine features that are near impossible to make using traditional machining equipment.

The Federal Government’s Next Generation Technologies Fund, managed by DST, was established in 2016 to link research and technology with the future needs of Australia’s defence industry. NGTF will make further investments worth approximately $1.2 billion over the next decade on a forward-looking program focussing on research and development in emerging and future technologies for the “future Defence force after next”.

NGTF is focused on the following nine priority areas:

  • Integrated intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance
  • Space capabilities
  • Enhanced human performance
  • Medical countermeasure products
  • Multi-disciplinary material sciences
  • Quantum technologies
  • Trusted autonomous systems
  • Cyber
  • Advanced sensors, hypersonics and directed energy capabilities
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