The drones are here to stay.
Drones can aid search-and-rescue efforts, and they can capture that perfect aerial view of your beach vacation. They are simple to make, cheap to buy and available to almost anyone in the world. But drones can also present a serious risk to military forces. Because they're readily available, adversaries can buy them off the shelf and turn them into weapons.
There is no single perfect solution for countering drones. But there are proven, advanced technologies to address the threat — from weapons that can blast drones out of the sky to RF technology that can take control of a drone and put it on the ground safely, to other futuristic tools.
You don't want to use a large, expensive missile to knock out a small drone. Better to use a mobile system with near-infinite firing capacity to take out a drone, or a swarm of drones. A high-energy laser fits the bill.
“Small and cheap threats need adequately priced and available responses,” said Dr. Ben Allison, a former product line director at the former Raytheon Company.
Raytheon Technologies offers a modular system that works like this: A radar detects an object overhead. The radar then sends a list of contacts of interest to an advanced variant of the company's fielded Multi-spectral Targeting System, a suite of optical sensors, to figure out whether the unmanned aircraft system is a threat or a friend. If it's a threat, the system's beam director tells the laser where to zap the target.
The laser is fired with an Xbox controller. The cost per shot is basically the cost of electricity.
The system can be tailored to fit a vehicle or other platform, Allison said.
“The only thing that changes is how we package the power, which determines how long you want it to last in the field, and the size of the thermal system," he said.
Both the power and thermal systems are based on the same technology featured in Raytheon Technologies’ Patriot Air and Missile Defense System.
The company recently demonstrated its scalable system at the U.S. Army’s Maneuver Fires Integrated Experiment, where the laser weapon system mounted on a small, all-terrain Polaris MRZR vehicle downed 12 airborne Class I and Class II UASs. The system also engaged targets from an Apache AH-64 helicopter.
Next up: a preliminary design of a powerful 100-kilowatt laser for the Army’s Family of Medium Tactical Vehicles.
So what does the future hold for lasers battling drones? “We’re definitely going higher power,” said Allison. “You could see naval surface ships equipped with hundreds of kilowatts of lasers. On the airborne side, we will see lasers on rotary platforms, fighters and large airborne transport platforms.”
Microwaves vs. Drones
A laser can pick off a drone from afar. But if there are hundreds of drones closing in to attack, you may want a high-powered microwave.
Currently mounted on a shipping container-like box, the Phaser™ high-power microwave system emits radio frequencies in a conical beam from a dish. Raytheon Technologies plans to reduce the size significantly in future versions.