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The laser weapon, once a fanciful notion that was strictly the domain of Hollywood, is moving closer to reality.
Yes, people have been saying that for decades. But now it’s really just a few years away. On Thursday, the U.S. Navy awarded Lockheed Martin Corp. a $150 million contract to develop a high-powered laser system to integrate with a destroyer by 2020.
The deployment of a laser weapon system represents “a watershed moment for directed energy,” Rob Afzal, a Lockheed Martin senior fellow, told reporters. “Laser weapons systems have been desired for decades. One of the missing pieces to actually deploying laser weapons was that we didn’t actually have a laser that was powerful enough and small enough and efficient enough.”
The Pentagon has been highly interested in “directed-energy” platforms as a way to protect U.S. forces from drone swarms, missiles and mortar fire. In the future, lasers will likely play a larger role as weapons systems, given their lower cost relative to missiles. Over time, these types of lasers may evolve into larger weapons that could target ballistic missiles and aircraft. Such future weapons may come in handy for the U.S. in what’s quickly becoming a second Cold War.
The new system the Navy aims to field is called Helios (High Energy Laser and Integrated Optical-dazzler with Surveillance) and is designed to track and destroy small, unmanned aerial vehicles or boats that approach a ship. The 60- to 150-kilowatt system will be integrated into the Arleigh Burke-class destroyer’s power systems and incorporated with its Aegis Combat System, a ship-defense system used across the Navy—and also built by Lockheed.
A second version will be sent to White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico for land testing.
The laser’s tracking cameras and sensors will also provide new, long-range surveillance data for the Aegis system. The laser can be used to disable a drone’s cameras with its extremely bright “spotlight” effect, Afzal said. The laser will initially be fired manually, by a human operator, but could be automated over time.
High-energy lasers of the sort that interest the Pentagon require significant power and cooling infrastructure, along with space on board a ship, truck or aircraft.
While Helios is a major step toward laser combat, it’s by no means the first. A year ago, Lockheed delivered a laser weapon to the Army for installation on a truck as part of a $25 million contract. In November, the Air Force Research Lab gave the company $26 million to develop a high-energy laser to test on a fighter jet by 2021. The Navy tested a 30-kilowatt laser system aboard the USS Ponce in late 2014. That laser was on the ship but not integrated into its systems, as is expected for the Helios weapon. Raytheon Co. has gotten into the game with a tactical vehicle and dune buggy.
“This high-energy laser technology is suitable for applications from land, air and sea,” Afzal said, predicting smaller, more powerful lasers. “It’s not just a one-mission capability.”
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