Swedish Firm Seeks To Lighten Satellite Payloads with Miniaturization

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WASHINGTON — The rising demand in the defense and aerospace industries for miniaturized electronic systems is expected to boost the fortunes of ÅAC Microtec, a small but growing Swedish nanotechnology company.

It specializes in microelectronics and micro-electro-mechanical system (MEMS) technology. The computer controls developed by ÅAC Microtec for satellites and aircraft are generally the size of a postage stamp and weigh about 3 grams, reducing the platform’s weight and payload.

ÅAC Microtec’s recent $3 million deal with the U.S. Air Force and ambitious expansion plans will position the company as a global leader in its niche product areas, said Mats Magnell, who became managing director Oct. 1.

“I am walking into a strong and growing company with talented and driven staff,” Magnell said. “My goal is to continue to raise the bar for what we can achieve with our miniaturization technologies in the military and industrial sectors.”

ÅAC Microtec had 21 employees and $3 million in revenue at the end of 2008. Founded in 2005, the privately owned company was known as Ångström Aerospace before it changed its name last November. Its clients include the European Space Agency, the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory, the Swedish National Space Board, Saab Aerosystems and BAE Systems Bofors.

The company’s expansion will be steady rather than rapid, said Kjell Lindqvist, ÅAC Microtec’s chief financial officer. “Our plan is to grow in a controlled manner. We are now expanding our work force, although there is a shortage of qualified MEMS designers,” he said. “We are also investing quite heavily in our laboratories, among other things creating our own clean room resources.”

The company is creating new divisions to expand its market reach. Fredrik Bruhn, a company founder and former chief executive, will direct ÅAC Aerospace, which delivers nanotechnology systems to defense and aerospace customers. The industrial applications unit also will expand.

ÅAC Microtec bills itself as an international leader in developing and manufacturing 3-D systems-in-packages, with a five-year head start on the rest of the market.

“Space applications will remain our core business, but our technology has a lot to offer to other customers also,” Lindqvist said.

In January, ÅAC Microtec became Sweden’s first nanotechnology company in space when it supplied a MEMS subsystem to Sprite-Sat, an Earth observation satellite built by Japan’s Tohoku University. But the company’s potential for growth became evident Sept. 23, when India launched an orbital rocket bearing the RubinSat 9.2, an experimental spacecraft that carried nanosatellite electronic components supplied by ÅAC Microtec. They included miniaturized computers, control systems and digital mass memories for testing in space.

Robert Thorslund, a project manager with the company, said the space mission is the start of “a revolution which makes it possible to fly very advanced instruments on small satellites in the future using miniaturized control electronics.”

With the launch, ÅAC Microtec became the first company in the world to demonstrate a nanosatellite equipped with 3-D wafer level packaged microelectronic and MEMS technology, Thorslund said.

The nanosatellite’s architecture is called INOVATOR, short for In Orbit Verification of ÅAC Technologies on Rubin. It consists of miniaturized subsystems for data handling, communication, attitude control and digital mass memories. “This was the first time that a nanosatellite system entirely built in a 3-D packaging technology is demonstrated in space,” Thorslund said.

“Using INOVATOR, we demonstrate the basis for the small satellites of the future; the total mass of our subsystems is only 120 grams.”

The INOVATOR technology, along with robust demand from ÅAC Microtec’s defense and industrial clients, will help the company rapidly expand its global operations, said Lars Nielsen, an industry analyst in Copenhagen, Denmark. The recent U.S. Air Force contract “is a signal of ÅAC Microtec’s growth potential,” he said. “The $3 million size of the order should not diminish its significance. The … company’s reputation as a supplier of patented advanced electronics and sensor packaging is growing. It is now a world leader and key player in its nanotechnology segments.”

ÅAC Microtec could feasibly achieve a 100 percent to 150 percent annual growth rate in sales in the next five years, Nielsen said. While it remains to be seen how the impending growth is managed, the company has several positives in its favor, he said.

“Historically … rapid implementation of advanced micro technologies and MEMS in space missions could be impeded by [the lack of] opportunities for space validation,” Nielsen said. “This was referred to as the Catch-22 Valley of Death for new technologies, since they could not be flown unless they had flown before. ÅAC Microtec is a giant step ahead of the competition in this respect.”

Under the U.S. Air Force deal signed in August, the partnership includes FMV, Sweden’s defense materials procurement agency. The alliance will develop technologies for electronic standardization and miniaturization for Sweden’s Gripen fighter jet and U.S. Air Force aircraft. The initial objective of the alliance is to identify ways to manufacture electronic components up to 300 times smaller than current ones. The three-year deal will see Sweden become the first country in the world to deploy the U.S.-developed Space Plug and Play Avionics (SPA) standard for miniaturizing electronic systems, including aviation-related electronic microcomponents. ÅAC Microtec will develop advanced subsystems for the SPA. “This is a very significant contract for ÅAC Microtec,” said Rickard Nordenberg, a strategic technical adviser to FMV. “It recognizes the company as having the potential to become a leading global developer of space and aviation components based on the SPA standard.”

ÅAC Microtec’s task will be to find ways to reduce printed circuit board parts and components, as well as the size and weight of computers, sensor gear and electronic warfare equipment.