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We finally have drones with "frickin’ laser beams"

Tue, 11/05/2013 - 4:43pm
Jason Lomberg, Technical Editor

Dr. Evil would be proud.

Lasers have always been the next frontier (some would say pipe dream) of weapons development — also, real lasers don’t look anything like they do in Star Wars. But recent developments have brought Sci-Fi closer to reality. And now this — the Pentagon has awarded a total of $26 million to defense contractors to develop a laser countermeasures system for manned and unmanned aircraft.

DARPA’s Project Endurance is an outgrowth of the Excalibur program, which aims to develop “coherent optical phased array technologies to enable scalable laser weapons that are 10 times lighter and more compact than existing high-power chemical laser systems.” Laser countermeasures systems are nothing new — the Navy plans to deploy a shipboard laser by 2014 — but most existing technologies are large and bulky.

Indeed, DARPA itself had noted that “existing high-power chemical laser systems are too large and too inefficient for deployment on tactical airborne platforms.”

To that end, the Pentagon has given Northrop Grumman $14.6 million and Lockheed Martin $11.4 million to develop lasers that can protect manned and unmanned aircraft and defeat electro-optical and infrared (EO/IR)-guided surface-to-air missiles.

This is probably more relevant for UAVs than jets — the MQ-9 Reaper, for example, chirps along at a relatively sluggish 194 MPH, making it vulnerable to small arms and conventional anti-aircraft systems. If we become embroiled in more asymmetrical warfare, UAVs will see further action, making protecting these slow-moving targets a top priority.

According to Military & Aerospace Electronics, Project Endurance will focus on miniaturizing component technologies and developing laser pods that can perform target identification and engagement functions along with intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR). Perhaps the operational platform will include autonomous functionality like the Navy’s PHALANX Close-in Weapon System

DARPA’s timetable calls for an initial design by the end of its 2013 fiscal year and full-scale deployment by 2016.

The completed system will cost — say it with me — one meeeeelion dollars! (give or take $10 million) Finally, our drones have frickin’ lasers!

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