UK Photonics SWOT – Security Metrology and Sensors including defence and aerospace

Note this SWOT looks at the complete area of Security metrology and sensing and specifically includes photonics related to defence and aerospace applications. Sensing related to healthcare is included in 3.Life sciences – biophotonics and industrial process control in 2. Industrial manufacturing.

5- Security Metrology and Sensors including defence and aerospace


  • Globally significant defence/security electro-optic system manufacturers
  • Globally leading large format imaging components from IR to visible
  • Experience in component supply to large scale projects (telescopes etc)
  • Multiple niche defence coating suppliers
  • Strong smart materials, infrared laser/ emitter, optics and imaging research base
  • Strength of imaging systems integrators (from traffic monitoring to industrial process control)
  • Diverse number of UK laser suppliers including next generation tuneable infrared lasers
  • Established expertise in high power, high reliability components and coatings
  • Well established SBIR program for defence requirements
  • EPSRC centre for Innovative Manufacturing in Metrology (Glasgow)
  • Established laser range and test facility at dstl

  • Shortage of component suppliers and perceived complexity of supplying aerospace and defence
  • Shortage of security clearable Engineers
  • Low and highly variable volumes in defence apps
  • Lack of research interest in extreme reliability engineering vs photonics functionality
  • Limited translation of imaging chip research to commercialisation
  • Major design and production of high volume CCD / CMOS imaging chips is outside EU
  • Focus on rapidly deployable solutions to immediate ‘In theatre’ problems

  • Globally leading aerospace, space and defence primes
  • Positive public perception of space applications
  • Reputation of UK as defence supplier
  • Remote sensing with tuneable infrared sources
  • Sensing applications in real time process control (see industrial manufacturing) for increased efficiency
  • Diversification and dual use opportunities e.g. healthcare / telemedicine
  • Real-time communication and processing of large datasets with minimal latency

  • Export control e.g. ITAR
  • Time and investment for reliability qualification
  • Greater on chip integration of functionality
  • Requirement for fully integrated sensing solutions embedding photonics
  • Diversity of sensing applications, from high performance defence apps to low cost, high volume environ monitoring

  • Reduction in defence spending in USA
  • Cost focus of emissions/ environmental monitoring applications
  • Focus on small scale feasibility projects rather than larger scale projects capable ofcapable of fostering development in larger companies and pulling integrated systems through to high TRL


  1. Ewan Findlay - Reply

    Not sure if this is the right box to put this in, but there are a number of distressing aspects to this report – not just in the Defence Sector.

    Firstly, a threat not mentioned -California. Most of those who studied alongside me are in CA now as well as good portion of those who worked with me at previous employers. The better qualified experienced engineers ask themselves, “Why should I stay in a small pool with no real prospects when I can move to a bigger one with better pay, more recognition and potential promotion?” The answer is being poached by US companies that value and use optical/lasers/opto-electronic system engineers to do engineering.

    Secondly another threat which is evident in the report – no joined up thinking. The Defence section complains about not getting security cleared engineers. The education sector complains about the lack of UK nationals taking up PhDs. Could it be that the domination of this area by the defence sector puts off a lot of potential graduate students? Could it be that potential optical-PhD students are now savvy enough to spot the low number of jobs out there with “Optics/Laser” in the title – very few. Sensor guys usually want electronics engineers.

    Thirdly, and probably the main threat to the sector, the UK OE base is dominated by defence companies. Defence procurement is under threat from the Treasury. All points about the supply of engineers, the need to train more fitters etc become irrelevant if lots of workers are being laid off. The defence sector is not known for true innovation and commercial drive – why should it be, it is based on government contracts. We need more commercial optics based companies.

    In short, the major threat to UK OE comes from the lack of critical mass (especially outside the SE England and defence sector). Critical mass drives up wages, therefore encouraging initial career choice. Critical mass adds to security of employment within a sector, therefore making people more likely to join and stay in it. Critical mass increases the skill set within that sector. Compare the number of jobs advertised for digital HW engineers in the UK (a small corner of electronics) to those for optical engineers and you’ll see the real problem in why people are reluctant to enter optics/OE – industry size.

    More private investment in OE technology companies and a more Californian attitude to how to make things happen would go a long way to improve the UK situation. Also something more akin to the US DoD rapid funding of small companies with big technical ideas would help. The UK OE sector is driven primarily by defence. So how do we improve the overall situation?

  2. Keith Lewis - Reply

    I wouldn’t say that the UK EO system/imaging capability is globally leading – it may be amongst the global leaders in a few cases, but there is plenty of evidence particularly in the USA of more capable organisations – eg Northrop, Lockheed Martin, BAE Systems.

    Compared with the USA, the SBIR Defence program is hardly established. Out of the $2.5bn US SBIR budget in 2006, the total spend on early stage R&D projects by DoD at small technology companies was $1.16bn. Even NSF, which normally only funds academic activity was able to fund small businesses at a level of $97m out of its $3.8bn extramural budget.

    With the current trend in increasing support for small companies in the UK (eg by TSB) there is a potential threat emerging which could result in the disappearance of capabilities at larger companies. Such organisations depend on equipment purchases by the UK Government and others overseas to help make the case for internal investment on new products. As defence spending falls and Government R&D funding becomes more difficult to access for these organisations, I can see UK positioning amongst the global leaders being eroded.

    There is UK capability in “imaging chips”, ranging from advanced CCD/CMOS technology at e2v to comprehensive IR detector activity at Selex for both passive and active imaging systems.

    Opportunities are in diversification to enable products to be developed for other markets other than defence and security, eg healthcare, environmental monitoring.

    For defence, challenges in the real-time communication and processing of large datasets with minimal latency with downstream impact on networked operations to ensure the appropriate level of situational awareness.

Leave Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.