Anti-Drone Laser Weapon – Admit It, You Want One
The phasers and photon torpedoes are still in, ah, development. But drones everywhere are shaking in their landing skids. Boeing publicly tested their new anti-drone laser cannon last week at a New Mexico industrial site.
Anti-drone laser weapon – A Modern Magnifying Glass
Lasers make for interesting weapons. There are no projectiles, and even concentrated light has no kinetic energy to knock down an aircraft. Essentially, a laser weapon is akin to using a magnifying glass to burn ants or start a fire. The concentrated light beam transmits energy in the form of heat to the target eventually setting it aflame.
Laser technology has been around for decades. The breakthrough is creating a laser with enough power to be effective, and small enough to be mounted on an aircraft, tank or Humvee. Boeing’s new Compact Laser Weapon System (CLWS) is a smaller version of their High Energy Laser Mobile Demonstrator (HEL MD) they demonstrated last year.
Contained within four (4) four boxes about the size of large suitcases, too big for the overhead compartments, but manageable nonetheless. Two technicians assembled the laser cannon in a few minutes. Looking a lot like a tripod mounted camera, the 2 kilowatt laser was ready to blast drones out of the sky.
Unlike modern jet aircraft which are covered in radar and other sensors to alert the pilot when they’re being targeted, today’s UAVs and drones have little if any built in defenses.
We’re all familiar with the Predator Drones able to prosecute targets with it’s on board Hellfire missiles. But the role of most drones is data collection, using on board sensors to gather photo or signal intel. This intel is vital in planning and executing combat missions.
The Boeing CLWS tracks the drone while concentrating laser energy onto the drone’s flight control surfaces. In the demonstration last week, the tail surfaces were set aflame with the laser energy, crashing the drone. It took 15 seconds of continual laser fire to crash the drone. That’s not too bad considering most drones would not even recognize they are being targeted with laser fire before flames consumed the drone.
Because the laser must be continually targeted onto a moving target, the effectiveness is limited by the gimbal and tracking system. Boeing utilized an off the shelf gimbal system adequate for the relatively low speed drones, reducing the cost of the transportable anti-drone system.
Boeing would not discuss the system’s maximum range, but suggested if you can see the drone, even with binoculars, you can kill the drone. Depending upon terrain and drone size, that’s put the range at about 1.5 miles. Not bad for a 2 kilowatt system.
More Power, Scotty!
To be an effective weapon against larger armored targets like fighter aircraft or tanks, lasers will require much more power. Two kilowatts of power can be generated with a gasoline powered home generator. For the starship killing destructive power of lasers seen in Star Trek or Star Wars, the energy level would be measured in 1000s of megawatts. To put this in perspective, most power station generators produce 500 megawatts or less.
Also missing from actual laser technology, are the cool sound effects familiar in Hollywood productions. When the Death Star fired their energy beam destroying Alderan, the explosion and resulting boom was a cool effect, forgetting that in space there is no air or other medium to transmit sound. In reality it would be a silent explosion.
Other than the hum of the targeting electronics, or the gimbal turning, lasers are silent. Boeing’s CLWS is lacking the ‘pew pew’ sound we’re used to hearing in Hollywood productions. But don’t worry, Boeing officials say they will incorporate sound effects to alert and confirm firing for the user in the final model.
Controlled with a standard Xbox 360 controller and a laptop, once a target is in range the software is capable of taking over to automatically track and target the offending drone.
Coming to an Airport Near You
Drones flying too close to commercial airliners endangering aircraft and passengers could be a thing of the past. Boeing thinks the system could be available for purchase and distribution in about a year, but wouldn’t speculate on a price for the compact system.
Director of Boeing Laser & Electro-Optical Systems, David DeYoung says,
“This represents a low-cost way to deal with the threat.”
The system is a one time purchase, expecting the system to run for ‘years’ with basic maintenance of the gimbal system (the only moving part) and the only expense being the electricity needed to operate it.
Yeah, I want one. Hmmm……I wonder if the Second Amendment applies to lasers?