Fast Company

DARPA Unveils Drone-Slaying War Laser

A weapon that used to be the size of a passenger jet now fits on the back of a flatbed truck. (Shark mounting apparatus sold separately.)

DARPA is unveiling a portable laser weapons system, HELLADS, which seems like something out of a sci-fi movie. The new laser application, created by General Atomics Aeronautical Systems with a custom power system from Saft Batteries, will help change the way the American military fights future wars. Current military laser systems are bulky contraptions which are mainly the size of a passenger jet, while the proposed DARPA weapon can fit on the back of a flatbed truck. The 150-kilowatt, solid state laser weapon is strong enough to take down drones or other aerial targets; a prototype is expected to be available by the end of 2012.

HELLADS stands for High Energy Liquid Laser Area Defense System. Since laser beams work at the speed of light, it's effectively impossible for aerial targets to dodge them. The use of laser beams against land targets is complicated by line-of-sight issues, but the miniaturization of laser technology makes them perfect for use against aerial and naval targets. The demonstration laser for DARPA will be the first 150-kilowatt laser weapon of its kind. DARPA plans to use the completed prototypes against targets at White Sands Missile Range in early 2013--this will include ground testing against rockets, mortars, and surface-to-air missiles.

Although video footage of HELLADS is not available yet, this clip of a previously developed American-Israeli laser system (which will be discussed later) from Northrop Grumman gives a good idea of how the system will work.

The big advance with these weapons is in the strength of the lasers and in their portability. Saft's Annie Sennet-Cassity told Fast Company that while previous military laser prototypes were stronger, they were also about the size of a passenger jet. This creates obvious difficulties in battlefield or aerial use. A 150-kilowatt laser beam is powerful enough to destroy aircraft. Previous military laser weapons primarily relied on blinding pilots with laser beams, rather than destroying the aircraft itself. For the United States Air Force, the ultimate goal is to equip bombers and UAVs with HELLADS weaponry.

However, the United States is not the only nation developing laser weapons. The Israeli government and American defense contractors have quietly been working for years on the Nautilus laser system, which in the words of Wired's Danger Room blog, gave the country a “ray gun defense.” Russia has been working on aerial military lasers since at least 2010, and India has also been developing a laser weapon system of its own.

While the idea of military lasers, death rays, and ray guns encourage all sorts of futurist fantasies, there will be major limitations to these weapons. Despite the fact that DARPA's laser can destroy airplanes, the strength of the laser beam is greatly weakened by clouds, haze, and dust clouds—something that can limit on-the-ground use in warzones.

[Image: Saft Batteries]

For more stories like this, follow @fastcompany on Twitter. Email Neal Ungerleider, the author of this article, here or find him on Twitter and Google+.

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7 Comments

  • Simon Wolfers

    Surely this amount of laser power is not needed. A much weaker laser can  temporarily blind the drones 'eyes' to frustrate their targeting etc?

  • Jym Allyn

    Wasn't this already done in a 1985 Val Kilmer movie.  (William Atherton was hilarious.)

    Where's the popcorn?

  • Thomas J Smith

    Its settled science that missle defense does not work, please quite stirring up the nut jobs.

  • Joe Smith

    Sure the solid state laser will be much smaller but far less powerful than the chemical laser seen in the video.  Its understandable why they would want to go with the solid state systems but its far from certain they will be able to duplicate the demonstrated capability of the THEL device anytime soon.

  • Humphrey

     Yeah, quit stirring up the people who care about technology and creative ambition more than what type of potato chips to buy.