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Tucson tech: Longtime optics firm part of growing sensor business

When tech entrepreneur Matt Pobloske bought longtime Tucson optics firm Breault Research Organization about five years ago, the idea was to rejuvenate and grow the somewhat stagnant company.

He has done that and more, hiring new engineers and key senior staff and expanding the company’s defense business.

Most recently, Breault won a Navy small-business research contract to develop a next-generation missile warhead, and the company is also working on landing lights for a U.S. aircraft carrier.

Breault is now part of a larger Tucson-based company Pobloske founded to tie together firms focused on remote sensing using optics with unmanned aircraft and more recently, marine research platforms.

A veteran of the unmanned aircraft and remote-sensing business, Pobloske was director of business development for Advanced Ceramics Research, which developed a line of semi-autonomous drone aircraft with the Navy in the 1990s.

That company was acquired in 2009 by defense giant BAE Systems which sold the company to Pobloske in 2014. The company operated as Sensintel Inc. until it was acquired by Raytheon in 2015.

After acquiring Breault in 2018, Pobloske founded AdaptiSense LLC to include Breault and two other businesses he had spun off, AUV Flight Services, which provides aerial drone piloting services for commercial and defense customers; and Unmanned Systems Source, a unmanned aircraft parts distribution business.

And AdaptiSense’s added to its portfolio of companies in December 2021 with the acquisition of San Diego-based Biospherical Instruments Inc., a longtime provider of oceanic instruments such as thermal sensors whose customers include NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Military focus

New defense work has buoyed Breault, which was founded in 1979 by University of Arizona optics alumnus Bob Breault and worked on many Pentagon projects over the decades.

Breault Research — one of the original firms forming Tucson’s “Optics Valley” — provides software that allows engineers to design and model the performance of lenses and other optical components, as well as in-house design and engineering services.

Breault’s software has been used to design optical devices ranging from space telescopes to lenses for auto headlights.

But Breault’s defense work had fallen off, and Pobloske set about boosting it by hiring key industry veterans and beefing up the engineering and scientific staff.

After some recent hirings, Breault has about 10 employees in Tucson, and AdaptiSense overall has about 30 including Biospherical Instruments’ operation in San Diego, Pobloske said. Bob Breault remains chairman emeritus of his namesake company and still comes to the office regularly, he added.

In May 2021, Pobloske hired John Spilotro, an aerospace engineer who spent nearly 22 years as a program manager at Raytheon Missiles & Defense in Tucson including work on advanced missiles and drones, as a vice president and later named him Breault’s chief operating officer.

Vieri Tenuta, a defense research and cybersecurity expert, was hired as chief technology officer.

The pair have devoted a lot of their attention to reviving Breault’s defense business, for good reason, Pobloske said.

“We’ve been expanding the engineering services and have been trying to get re-entrenched into the DoD (Department of Defense), which is where we’d spent a big chunk of our time and energy,” he said, noting that the company has been focusing mainly on fuzing and triggering systems for kinetic weapon systems.

“That fits well with our legacy systems, our unmanned systems business, as well as our current and our legacy optics business because most of those targeting systems are all optical or thermal in nature,” Pobloske said.

Improving warheads

Breault recently completed work on a Phase I Small Business Innovation Research contract for an “Enhanced Lethality Warhead” awarded by the Office of Naval Research in June and is working on a proposal for a Phase II contract, which would include prototyping and proof-of-concept testing.

According to the Navy’s SBIR contract solicitation, the objective is to develop new warhead designs using existing and new explosive materials to decrease the size and weight of warheads while maintaining the lethality of weapons such as the Harpoon anti-ship missile and the Long-Range Anti-Ship Missile, and to increase the lethality of smaller weapons.

“It’s to create the next-generation warhead that enhances the range capability in the system so it’s a lighter weight warhead, and with equivalent or better lethality capability,” Spilotro said. “So it’s a drop-in replacement, not to reinvent that whole system, it’s to improve the warfighter capability, to improve the pointy end of the spear.”

Other current Navy programs at Breault include a Phase II SBIR to develop improved centerline landing lights, which guide pilots as they land, for the new Gerald R. Ford-class supercarrier USS Enterprise, which is under construction in Virginia and planned for delivery by 2028.

Breault has been working on heat-resistant landing lights under prior SBIR awards for the Navy since 2013, and the current work is under a $744,000 contract award in 2019.

“This is a game-changer program for us right here, we’ve been working on it for a couple of years,” Pobloske said as he showed off lights being built in the company’s lab.

Besides research work for government agencies, Breault collaborates with Raytheon and other defense contractors to aid their contract work.

Pobloske said the company’s biggest current project is ongoing work for aerospace and defense giant Northrup Grumman to help design a satellite-based telescope.

“Breault’s legacy customer list is unbelievable, especially on the software side — pick a fortune 1000 company and I will almost guarantee we sold them something,” he said.

Measuring oceans

Meanwhile, Biospherical Instruments has been working under SBIR contracts to NASA since the mid-2000s to develop microradiometers — small light sensors — for surface and underwater research vehicles used to help NASA calibrate the satellite instruments it uses to study ocean conditions such as temperature.

Last August, NASA awarded Biospherical Instruments a $150,000 Phase I SBIR contract to develop new technology to prevent “biofouling,” the undesirable growth of organisms such as algae, barnacles and seaweed, on underwater scientific instruments.

While ultraviolet lights have been used to prevent marine biofouling, Breault is working to design a system that can be integrated with a translucent housing to guide UV light over instrument surfaces to prevent biological growth, Tenuta explained, adding that early results show promise for an array of underwater applications.

“That application is really like limitless to anything that’s underwater, because you can imagine that any kind of optic or any kind of window where anything that’s underwater, sensors or anything, requires a clean surface,” he said.

Pobloske said Biospherical gives AdaptiSense a company with established products and longtime relationships with customers in marine sensing, complementing Breault’s expertise in sensor design and the drone flight and hardware businesses.

AdaptiSense is finalizing a deal to acquire another company involved in remote sensing, Pobloske said.

“The endgame with that, of course, is to consolidate those under the name of AdaptiSense as we’re growing and using that as the corporate brand… remote sensing is ultimately the play,” he said.


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