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Navy Works to Laser-Proof Its Drones


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In May and June, the U.S. Navy sent four drones crashing into the Pacific Ocean, after blasting them with a prototype laser weapon. If follow-up tests are successful, there’s a chance the ray gun might be ready for deployment some time around 2016. Other countries’ energy weapons will come years afterward — if they ever come at all. But the Navy isn’t taking any chances. It’s pushing ahead with research to laser-proof its drones, just in case anyone else has the bright idea of using ray guns to down America’s robot planes.


“Directed Energy Weapons (DEWs) are an emerging weapon technology with the ability to change the face of the battlefield…. As the technology matures, other countries will undoubtedly pursue DEW development. Therefore it is imperative that the United States develop countermeasures to defend U.S. forces and assets against the DEW threat,” the Navy recently noted, as it announced a pair of contracts to start work on countering the blasters.


Irvine, California’s Adsys Controls, Inc. is starting work on an “early threat detection mechanism that occurs prior to high-power engagement and the ability to deploy novel countermeasures to disrupt the DEW tracking mechanisms.”


Austin, Texas’ Nanohmics, Inc. will begin development of a laser detector that can be mounted on drones, so the unmanned aircraft can spot the ray guns before the ray guns zap them. The idea is to protect the spy cameras and other sensors on board the robo-planes. The “low-cost” system, to be “constructed from light and extremely low-cost glass or injection-molded polymers,” would give the drone time to “quickly take evasive action or engage optical sensor protection systems.”



It’s not the first push by the American military to defend against this still-hypothetical threat. The Navy announced last year that it wanted to “counte[r] or negat[e]” ray guns’ effects on “troops or civilian personnel.” Navy researchers are also looking into ways to laser-proof its ships using “metamaterials” — the spooky substances that could one day work as real-world invisibility cloaks.


The Air Force, for its part, is focusing on shielding U.S. bombs from enemy energy weapons. American precision munitions rely on GPS receivers and other electronics to direct them to the right place. Bursts of high-powered radio frequency energy could fry those electronics, turning those smart bombs dumb. So the Air Force is looking for researchers to come up with “protection/mitigation techniques,” including software changes and absorbent coatings.


In phase one of the program, researchers will build an ersatz bomb and evaluate coatings to block the radio frequencies, according to an Air Force request for proposals. In phase two, simulated circuits will be added, “selected shielding and coatings applied, and their effectiveness verified. Hardening of electronics will also be employed as necessary to demonstrate survivability.” Phase three ends with an “‘operational’ flight simulation,” complete with electromagnetic blasts.



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