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Thursday, August 27, 2015
Welcome to the World, Drone-Killing Laser Cannon
As reported by Wired: HANG ON TO your drone. Boeing’s developed a laser cannon specifically designed to turn unmanned aircraft into flaming wreckage.
The aerospace company’s new weapon system, which it publicly tested this week in a New Mexico industrial park, isn’t quite as cool as what you see in Star Wars—there’s no flying beams of light, no “pew! pew!” sound effects. But it is nonetheless a working laser cannon, and it will take your drone down.
People keep flying their drones where they shouldn’t. In airport flight paths. Above wildfires. Onto the White House lawn. Luckily, there haven’t been any really bad incidents—that is, no one has been killed by a civilian quadcopter or plane, yet.
But governments and militaries around the world are terrified by the prospect of drones carrying explosives or chemical weapons (and now, pornography) into places where they shouldn’t.
Forget all that. Boeing thinks the best way to kill a drone is to zap it with a precision laser, burn a hole in it, and bring it down. So it created a weapon system to do just that—and the result could someday be installed everywhere from LaGuardia to the Pentagon.
Wednesday morning, the company showed off its Compact Laser Weapon System for media in Albuquerque, New Mexico. It’s a much smaller, significantly more portable version of the High Energy Laser Mobile Demonstrator (HEL MD) Boeing demonstrated last year. This setup looks like an overgrown camera, swiveling around on a tripod.
In the demo, Boeing used the laser to burn holes in a stationary, composite UAV shell, to show how quickly it can compromise an aircraft. Two seconds at full power and the target was aflame. Other than numerous safety warnings to ensure no one was blinded by the two-kilowatt infrared laser, there was no fanfare. No explosions, no visible beam. It’s more like burning ants with a really, really expensive magnifying glass than obliterating Alderaan.
Instead of a massive laser mounted on a dedicated truck, the compact system is small enough to fit in four suitcase-sized boxes and can be set up by a pair of soldiers or technicians in just a few minutes. At the moment, it’s aimed primarily at driving drones away from sensitive areas.
The new system is more scalpel than sledgehammer. Its laser, and, especially, the off-the-shelf gimbal (a fancy motor that can aim the laser and camera in any direction) it’s mounted on, make it precise enough to target different parts of a UAV. Want to zap the tail so it crashes and then you can go retrieve the mostly intact drone and see who is trying to spy on you? Can do. Think it’s carrying explosives and you want to completely destroy it? No problem. Boeing wouldn’t get specific on its range, but company reps suggested that if you can see a target, even with binoculars, you can kill it.
Depending on the target’s speed and distance, Boeing’s weapon can fire its laser within an inch or two of what it wants to hit. Because the laser moves at the speed of light, it’s easier to be precise—there’s no need to lead the target. The speed of the gimbal is the primary limitation on the targeting front.
The laser is controlled with a standard Xbox 360 controller (“If it breaks, just head to the barracks to get a replacement!”) and a laptop with custom targeting software. Once in range, the system can take over from the human operator and control targeting and tracking automatically. Though current prototypes are meant to be used from static positions, the new weapon could be used on a moving vehicle or ship with minimal upgrades.
“This represents a low-cost way to deal with the threat,” said David DeYoung, director of Boeing Laser & Electro-Optical Systems. Boeing wouldn’t reveal a total price of the system, but says it’s a one-time purchase. Once you’ve got the system, the only cost is electricity. The company expects the system to run for “years” with basic maintenance (the gimbal is the only moving part) and near-zero ongoing costs since there’s no traditional ammunition.
The necessary electricity can come from standard 220 volt outlet, a generator on a military vehicle, or a battery pack for ultimate portability. Boeing has several battery solutions depending on situational need, but all should give enough juice for at least a few shots.
The company hopes to have the Star Wars-inspired weapon ready for market in a year or two, with many refinements and developments to come over the next few years. But don’t expect lasers to replace traditional armaments like Raytheon’s Patriot missile defense system and Israel’s Iron Dome. “There will be times where it makes sense to use a missile and there will be times where it makes sense to use a laser,” says DeYoung.
As with any military weapon, Boeing would need to work through export control regulations before selling to foreign governments. It’s also not clear whether civilian agencies running prisons and airports could deploy the system under current regulations, or even what regulations might apply to something like this.
Perhaps the biggest disappointment is that the laser doesn’t make any noise. A Boeing rep did say the company’s planning to add a number of sound effects to the control station, to help multi-tasking operators keep an eye on what’s going on when it’s in an automated tracking mode. Hopefully they’ll hire Industrial Light and Magic to appease disappointed laser-lovers.