As budget deficits prompt spending reductions in the U.S. and Europe, defense programs are suffering cutbacks. But technological advances and changes in military requirements continue to bolster the market for infrared (IR) imaging systems and night-vision equipment.
Earlier this year, Paris-based Sofradir garnered the top spot as a developer and manufacturer of advanced infrared detectors for military, space and industrial applications. The company has mroe than a 25% market share by volume for supplying second-generation mercury-cadmium-telluride (MCT) infrared sensors to the aerospace and defense industry, according to a market survey on military IR imaging detectors and systems initiated by Maxtech International.
Sofradir's IR detectors are used in thermal imagers; missile seekers; infantry fighting vehicles and other surveillance, targeting and homing infrared equipment; and Earth-observation satellites. While volumes for cooled MCT IR detectors are not high, only a handful of IR manufacturers worldwide are able to produce more than 2,000 units per year. In 2011, Sofradir delivered 5,000 units, an increase of about 600 over the previous year. The company is jointly owned byand , two companies that this year increased their stake in the optronics maker to 50% from 40% each through the purchase of a 20% share held by Areva, a nuclear energy group.
Consolidation came on the heels of a December 2011 agreement between Safran and Thales to form a partnership combining areas of expertise in optronics and expanding product lines to support modernization programs and develop new equipment. The IR detector technologies the companies are independently developing will be transferred to the new partnership.
New systems under consideration include the optronics pod for the modernized Atlantique 2 maritime patrol aircraft; the imaging system for the upcoming French-British Medium Altitude, Long Endurance (MALE) drone; modular optronics systems for army land vehicles; and optronics for next-generation helicopters.
Sofradir, which employs 550 people, the majority of whom work at a development and production center in Veurey-Voroize in southeastern France, generated around €150 million ($188.2 million) in revenue last year. The company, which has produced infrared detectors since 1986, credits its success to running a safe and reliable production line and its ability to anticipate market demand, including development of the 15-micron-pixel pitch IR detector that is now the industry standard.
Because the image quality of an infrared detector depends on its spatial resolution, which is related to the size and number of pixels, producing a greater number of smaller pixels yields sharper imagery. Since mastering the art of manipulating the alloy in MCT, Sofradir has now developed a 10-micron-pixel pitch medium-wave IR detector that can double the number of pixels on a standard-size chip, giving pilots and soldiers the ability to see smaller objects at greater distances of up to 10 km in all weather, day or night.
The MCT cooled IR technology uses a silicon-like photodiode implantation process that is effective at controlling pixel diodes. The company's highly accurate iridium bump positioning process affords the flexibility to enhance image resolution by fitting more pixels on existing IR chips or develop smaller ones for overall IR system cost-savings.
Applications for the enhanced technology include IR search-and-track systems, targeting and reconnaissance pods, and long-range surveillance.
The company expects the new technique to enable a single production line to make short-, medium-, long- and very-long-wave detectors. New detector products that run at higher temperatures are in the works.
Sofradir is also becoming a top choice for satellite and space missions. In 2010 the company delivered 26 detectors for space programs, and last year was selected to deliver custom IR detectors for Europe's Meteosat Third Generation (MTG) satellite constellation, a manufacturing contract led byof France. The detectors will be integrated into two payloads: the Flexible Combined Imager to take IR images of clouds and the infrared Sounder to analyze the chemical composition of the atmosphere versus altitude. A total of six satellites will be launched under the program, with Sofradir developing six different types of detectors and delivering up to 24 flight models for the MTG program.
The company is also developing IR detectors for the engineering and flight units of the Musis/CSO next-generation Earth-observation optical and infrared military satellites designed to replace the Helios 2A and 2B constellation. It will also provide shortwave infrared detectors for the Tropomi/Sentinel 5 Precursor mission as part of the Global Monitoring for Environment and Security initiative.