Sometimes a reputation for expertise in one area can bring in work in others. That is the case for Polaris Sensor Technologies, which finds that its command of the science of polarization makes it a go-to company for customers with difficult problems in optical physics.

Founded in 2003, Polaris is a woman-owned small business based in Huntsville, Ala., that specializes in high-performance optical systems, including sensors and seekers, that exploit polarization—the phenomenon behind three-dimensional movies.

The principals behind Polaris are the products of an optics program at the University of Alabama in the early 1990s. “The core team has worked together for about 25 years. We started working together at university and reconvened at Polaris to do polarization research,” says Larry Pezzaniti, chief technology officer. “Our backgrounds address a lot of different things. We are not just optical physicists.”

Polaris got its start building high-end electro-optical sensors for the U.S. Army and Air Force Research Laboratories under small business innovative research (SBIR) contracts. “We completed the Phase 2 SBIR projects, started several other programs, developed more customers and became the go-to company with several customers for high-end imaging,” he says.

“For the past 10 years we have been bringing state-of-the-art technologies to polarization problems,” Pezzaniti says. Polarization helps optical sensors pick out artificial objects from natural clutter. “Man-made objects tend to be polarized, while natural objects are unpolarized,” he says. “So when a man-made object at thermal equilibrium disappears in infrared, you can still see it in the polarization.”

Polaris has built small numbers of advanced polarimetric sensors in various wavebands, including visible, short-wave, mid-wave and long-wave infrared. “Any optical sensor can be converted to measure polarization as well,” says Pezzaniti. “When you add polarization, you lose some of the light, so it is part of our bag of tricks to be able to minimize and compensate for that.”

Now the company is moving beyond sensors, drawn by customers seeking help in solving difficult problems. “What started out as solving a polarization problem in a 3D display developed by the Army ended up with us manufacturing the whole thing. It blossomed into a whole business area,” he says.

“For some products we have made the transition to offering them commercially,” says Pezzaniti. “We have licensed technology to a larger company and also become an original equipment manufacturer for special products. But our model is to operate as an R&D company and, when a technology matures, transition it to commercial production by licensing.”

An example is a 3D-vision upgrade kit developed by Polaris for the Talon unmanned ground vehicle, which can be purchased from the robot's manufacturer, Qinetiq, to replace the standard non-stereo camera and display—a swap-out that takes just 15 min., says Pezzaniti.

Some R&D funding still comes from SBIRs, but more and more is coming from other programs, with Polaris responding to requests for proposals from the Army, Air Force, Navy, Energy Department and NASA. Organizationally the company is highly matrixed, so its engineers work on multiple projects. “There is no boss who is always the boss, on all programs. There are four senior project leads and we all trust each other's judgement.”

A reputation for excellence has been key to the company's growth. “We have 6-8 strong customers and advocates who know our sensors well, and we have a good reputation within the community in our special niche,” says Pezzaniti. “We did a really good job for our first customer and he is still our customer, and has given us a lot of business over the years. He has published a lot of research papers and that has endeared us to the scientific community.”

Polarimetry remains a niche technology, but Polaris has developed connections with the larger aerospace and defense primes that could stand the company in good stead as the market evolves. “The polarization application space is still being developed. There are no commercial applications to put it into the mainstream yet, but several niche applications,” he says.

“We are looked at by the large defense contractors as a sub,” says Pezzaniti. “[But] some of the areas involving polarization could get big and we have contacts in the large companies that we could approach to offer our sensors and software through. We are known by a lot of the key players.”