Metamaterial Technologies: protecting the protectors from laser strikes

Anti-laser membrane maker Metamaterial Technologies is only weeks away from inking a deal to provide its MetaAIR product to the RCMP to protect officers working in airborne enforcement.

The dollar value of that deal is admittedly small. But its strategic value means it is expected to punch above its weight class. 

George Palikaras, Metamaterial Technologies’ chief executive officer, said in an interview Friday the deal is being done through a part of the Build in Canada Innovation Program that has a $500,000 cap on contracts.

The deal will see the Dartmouth-based company supply the RCMP with its MetaAIR membrane to protect the police force’s pilots from laser strikes on cockpits as they investigate cases of people using lasers to blind commercial pilots.

Bursts of laser light are more than a mere nuisance. They can at least temporarily blind pilots, train conductors and truck drivers, leading to serious accidents.

“Airborne police officers . . . need protection from the people who are lasering other aircraft,” said Palikaras.

Once the RCMP begins using MetaAIR to protect its pilots from laser stikes, Metamaterial Technologies’ founder and top exec is hoping the company will then be able to start making deals with other Canadian government departments.

“Once that is done, then this innovation becomes of interest potentially to other government departments, including the military,” said Palikaras.

MetaAIR is a nano-fabricated, flexible metamaterial that can be applied to any transparent surface to block out unwanted light sources without interfering with visibility. The company claims the material can block beams from high-powered lasers at a wide variety of angles.

Under regular daylight conditions the membrane can also provide ultraviolet ray protection for pilots, a long-standing worry for flight crews because excessive exposure to UV rays has been linked to a higher incidence of cancer.

Metamaterial Technologies’ anticipated deal with the RCMP comes as the company is taking its technology to the global marketplace.

Earlier this week, the tech company inked another deal, that one with Airbus subsidiary Satair Group, for the exclusive worldwide distribution of MetaAIR to the civil aviation market.

“This is a big milestone,” said Palikaras. “Satair is a global leader for air supply management.”

Satair is expected to introduce MetaAIR to the commercial aviation market starting next year. 

It’s a distribution deal expected to be worth millions of dollars, but Palikaras shied away Friday from divulging revenue targets.

“We don’t know how successful we will be,” he said.

The terms of the agreement are also being kept under wraps, as is the price Metamaterial Technologies will charge for its MetaAIR product. According to Palikaras, that pricing will be worked out with Satair and vary based on the type of aircraft and the volume of material each customer buys. The membrane comes in 1.2-metre wide rolls and Palikaras is hoping to be able to eventually sell it by the kilometre.

It’s clear the potential global demand for MetaAIR by the aviation industry is huge.

“There are 70,000 aircraft (throughout the world) that are for commercial use, airplanes and helicopters, and there are about 200,000 more in terms of smaller aircraft,” said Palikaras.

Throw in military helicopters and planes used by governments throughout the world and the total number of aircraft jumps to about 400,000, said the Metamaterial Technologies founder.

In a phone interview from the Paris airshow this week, Copenhagen and Hamburg-based Satair’s head of marketing and communications Manja Brichmann Andersen declined to specify how much this distribution deal might be worth.

“It’s too early,” she said.

But Anderson did hint that there is already interest for MetaAIR in the global aviation industry, saying her company has been speaking to “several airlines.” She would not name those airlines nor say in which countries they operate. 

In the first four months of 2017 alone, the American Federal Aviation Administration recorded more than 2,000 laser incidents in the United States. In 2015, there were more than 10,000 such laser strikes reported to that aviation authority, the United Kingdom’s Civil Aviation Authority and Transport Canada.

“We are delighted to pick up the baton for this exciting technology from our colleagues at Airbus Corporate Innovation and Airbus Aircraft Security who have steered it through the verification and testing stage,” Bart Reijnen, Satair’s chief executive officer, said in a statement.

Metamaterial Technologies is already considering other applications for its product, including as a film for sunglasses and visors and protection of self-driving cars' optical sensors which can be overloaded and stop working when hit by a powerful burst of laser light. 

The company employs 50 people throughout the world. As it shifts from its research and development phase to production, Palikaras said Metamaterial Technologies will start hiring more production staff.

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