Accuracy is everything in the metrology world, and Vermont Photonics already supplies the highest accuracy measurement instruments in the United States. Could that bar be raised even higher? A Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) Phase I grant from the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) is making it possible to find out just how accurate we can go with the development of a high-accuracy angle generator.

About the SBIR Grant

While Vermont Photonics has been toying with the idea of creating an ultra-high-accuracy angle generator for decades, the demand from autocollimator users was simply not there. Now, between a rising demand for higher accuracy calibrations and this Phase I grant, the project is able to take off in earnest.

The highly-competitive SBIR program consists of three phases and gives small businesses a nudge towards engaging in Federal Research/Research and Development (R/R&D). Earning a 59 out of 60, NIST evaluators gave us the green light to go forward with the first NIST SBIR grant awarded to a Vermont company since 1997.

Going Through the Phases

Phase 1 hardware configuration

Schematic for the Phase I hardware configuration.

The initial phase of the SBIR grant is to provide proof of concept for further research and development toward a prototype. For Vermont Photonics, this means developing the software for an advanced calibration algorithm and testing it with off-the-shelf hardware. Following the success of Phase I, approval for Phase II would allow for the production of the prototype angle generator and shift a large part of our focus to a commercialization plan.

How exactly could this grant turn into profit and/or future jobs? Vermont Photonics is initially focusing on the calibration services we would be able to provide. We already sell instruments for measuring angles at the highest accuracy level, and the outcome of the grant would allow us to calibrate them at the highest level possible as well. This is good for us and good for several industries where our products are critical to enabling technology for their innovations.

Why a High-Accuracy Angle Generator?

Right now, no tool exists in the United States that is available to industrial practitioners with an accuracy level better than about 0.5 microradian (0.1 arcsec), which puts progress on hold for several fields. We are aiming for better than 50 nanoradian over a full 360º. The aerospace and defense industries are prime examples. These industries calibrate their missile and aircraft guidance systems by rotating the guidance sensor a “known” amount and checking it against their system. The new instrument would be a vital asset as an in-house calibration tool. One to two orders of magnitude better than anything available here, it would improve the accuracy that can be achieved in the United States and open up the possibility of new innovations.

The Work Doesn’t Stop After Phase III

After achieving the prototype through Phase II, Vermont Photonics will have a platform with which to explore further research. One area of study, which sparked the project idea itself, will be on autocollimator inaccuracies caused by curvature of the mirror used as the reflector. It’s an error source that is known on a conceptual level, but quantifying it remains impossible for practitioners. A high-accuracy angle generator must come first before it’s possible to delve further into this research.

From automotive supplies to precision manufacturing companies, there are many current autocollimator users that need to ensure consistent products and services through metrology. With the availability of the new angle generator and calibration service, there’s no telling how quickly more markets could emerge or grow.

No one can be sure what the future holds, but one thing is certain: An engineer’s job is never done, and grants like this NIST SBIR grant make it possible for us to continue advancing.