Here in the U.S., small consumer drones are fairly benign nuisances—buzzing around beaches, filming neighborhoods from 400 feet, and hopefully keeping clear of airports. To U.S. armed forces fighting overseas, though, small drones can be huge threats. They can be rigged with explosives and firearms, or simply be deployed as surveillance tools to spy on the soldiers.
Raytheon rolled out its answer to this threat yesterday at the Association of the United States Army Exposition in Washington, DC. And boy, it looks kinda fun.
Because come on—how could a laser-shooting, drone-killing dune buggy not be fun? The defense contractor’s answer to an evolving threat can zap quadcopters out of the sky for up to four hours on a single charge and for up to 30 shots. That’s a lot of melted drones.
The system uses a high-energy laser coupled with a targeting system adapted from Raytheon’s Multi-spectral Targeting System (MTS), which combines optical and infrared sensors to acquire and track airborne targets, and direct the beam it fires. The Massachusetts-based company, which invented the first working laser in 1960, has installed variations of these systems on Apache AH-64 attack helicopters, successfully striking a series of targets last year at the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico.
For the anti-drone role, Raytheon modified the system’s ability to track types of drones preferred by terrorist organizations—Class 1 drones under 20 pounds and Class 2 drones, between 20 and 55 pounds. “We had to adjust our algorithms within the MTS to account for Group 1 and Group 2’s dynamic motion characteristics, and to ensure we maintain a weapon-quality aim point,” says project manager Ben Allison, an engineer in Raytheon’s Space and Airborne Systems. In practice, the MTS would receive a signal from a separate sensor scanning the environment, and then acquire and positively identify the target. A human operator would be responsible for verifying the information provided by the sensor system and then ultimately firing the laser.
The point of the dune buggy setup is to have it be able to race into spots like forward-operating bases or convoy stopovers. Throw in a generator (outlets can be hard to find on the battlefield), and you don’t even have to worry about the four-hour battery lifespan. You can move the whole contraption via cargo aircraft or helicopter. Right now, the buggy has to stop before firing, but Raytheon’s engineers are working on versions that can shoot on the move. The company successfully demonstrated this version last week at New Mexico Tech’s Energetic Materials Research and Testing Center in Socorro, New Mexico; the Army will run its own trials in December.
The benefit of laser tech over mechanical and kinetic countermeasures like missiles, firearms, or snares in drone-hunting is that the laser can easily track the target and move the beam even as it’s firing. It’ll be more accurate and more reliable. Nor can the geofencing tech that keeps drones away from airports and military bases here in the US save the troops in combat, as adversaries would simply use drones without it. Ultimately, though, using a laser to zap drones provides a degree of parity in combat. “You want to make sure your response is scaled against the specific threat,” Allison said. “This system provides a cost-to-kill ratio for Group 1 and Group 2 unmanned aerial systems that is significantly more affordable than a wide-range of traditional kinetic weapons.” In short: You don’t want to waste million-dollar missiles on thousand-dollar drones. Frikkin’ lasers will do just fine.
Raytheon’s trick here is making a smaller, less powerful but still effective laser, one it can run from small ground vehicles that offer limited power resources. The dune buggy is a Polaris MRZR. The stock version of the military ride comes with an 88-horsepower engine and can reach up to 60 mph, though Raytheon hasn’t said how much the laser system weighs, whether it has messed with the powertrain, or how the extra load might limit the vehicle’s capability.
Though a relatively modest application compared to, say, shooting lasers from Apache helicopters swooping into battlefields, the whole setup—dubbed the HELWS MRZR, based on the high-energy laser configuration and the name of the buggy—is indicative of how Raytheon sees the future of warfare. “High-energy laser technology is a big priority for us right now,” says CEO Tom Kennedy. “It possesses a limitless magazine, as long as you have electricity.”
Power up, drone down.