Uncrewed drones have become popular with armed forces around the world and they are tricky to defend against, but a truck-mounted laser that can shoot them down could dilute their usefulness (Image: Boeing)
Uncrewed aerial vehicles are "revolutionary" technology that America must invest more in. Not the military's view, but that of President Obama in a statement on his defence priorities.
But a technology designed to make UAVs history is already showing promise – aerospace firm Boeing reports that their prototype truck-mounted laser has shot down a UAV at a missile range in New Mexico.
Uncrewed aircraft are powerful tools because they remove pilots from harm's way and because they can be built smaller than conventional spy or combat planes, making them harder to knock out of the sky.
Track and destroy
The Laser Avenger is an infrared laser with power levels somewhere in the tens of kilowatts range mounted on a Humvee off-road vehicle. It is designed to take down the smaller variety of UAV, which are hardest for conventional air-defence weapons to target.
The power of its laser has been doubled since 2007, when it was shown off destroying a stationary improvised bomb. Now it has tracked three small UAVs – the exact model has not been given – and shot one of them down. The laser tracks an object and holds fire until the target is close enough for it to cause burning with a single blast.
Late last year, an airborne laser carried by a modified 747 destroyed its first target, albeit from the ground, using an IR laser in the megawatt range.
Marc Selinger, a Boeing spokesman based in Crystal City, Virginia, won't say at what distance this was achieved, saying it was "an operationally relevant range". The feat is all the more important, he says, because the tracking was achieved against the complex, cluttered visual background of the New Mexico mountains and desert scenery.
The Laser Avenger is a modified version of an existing US Army air defence system that uses two Stinger missile launchers and a heavy machine gun, with one missile pod swapped for the laser and its target tracker. "If funded by the Pentagon, the Laser Avenger could be available within a year," says Selinger. Boeing has so far funded the project itself.
Surface to air missiles designed to target normal-sized aircraft struggle to lock onto small, light, UAVs sometimes made from plastics rather than metal, Nick Brown, editor-in-chief of the journal International Defence Review told New Scientist. "Lasers are a natural extension of their capability."
Firing a laser multiple times would also be cheaper than firing many missiles, and could continue as long as power can be supplied.
However, Brown's colleague Peter Felstead, editor of Jane's Defence Weekly, says the first battlefield lasers will not have UAVs in their sights. "Laser weapons are more likely to be fielded first to counter rockets and mortars, and that capability is not that far away," he says.