Pew Pew Pew! US Military Developing Laser Weapons to Down Enemy Drones

Laser weapon
The military's laser weapon would shoot down unmanned aerial vehicles that try to target U.S. Marines. (Image credit: Office of Naval Research)

Sci-fi authors and gamers have long imagined this day, and now it has come: The U.S. military is developing a laser weapon to shoot enemy drones out of the sky.

The Navy has already developed such a weapon that it plans to deploy on a ship later this summer. The Office of Naval Research (ONR), based in Arlington, Virginia, announced this week that they are now interested in developing a similar laser weapon for ground vehicles.

The somewhat ominously named GBAD program (short for Ground-Based Air Defense Directed Energy On-the-Move) aims to provide "an affordable alternative to traditional firepower" to guard against unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) that could track or target U.S. Marines on the ground, ONR officials said. [How Do Laser Weapons Work? (Infographic)]

"We can expect that our adversaries will increasingly use UAVs and our expeditionary forces must deal with that rising threat," Col. William Zamagni, acting head of ONR's expeditionary maneuver warfare and combating terrorism department, said in a statement.

The ONR is working with Naval Surface Warfare Center Dahlgren Division and industry partners to develop the laser system, which includes a beam director, batteries, radar, cooling system, communications and control.

Researchers are designing the futuristic weapon to be used on lightweight military vehicles, such as the Humvee and Joint Light Tactical Vehicle.

The laser system was developed in response to the Marine Corps Science and Technology Strategic Plan, which called for a mobile directed-energy weapon that could target and destroy enemy drones.

"Everything about this program is geared toward realizing a viable directed-energy capability in support of that objective to allow our Marines to be fast and lethal," Lee Mastroianni, program manager for force protection in ONR’s expeditionary maneuver warfare and combating terrorism department, said in a statement.

Several components of the laser have already been tested in detecting and tracking drones of all sizes, according to the ONR. Later this year, researchers will test the complete system using a 10 kilowatt laser, with plans to eventually move to a more powerful 30 kW laser, which is expected to be ready for field testing in 2016. At that time, the program will conduct more complex assessments of the laser on tactical vehicles, evaluating how well it detects, tracks and fires on its targets.

The Navy has already developed a ship-based laser weapon. An updated prototype will be installed on USS Ponce for at-sea testing in the Persian Gulf, Navy officials said recently. The Navy's weapon will target unmanned and light aircraft, as well as small attack boats that could deny access to U.S. forces, officials said. The laser was used in demonstrations aboard a warship in 2011 to destroy multiple small boats, and in 2012, the weapon successfully downed several unmanned aircraft in tests.

The Department of Defense High Energy Laser Joint Technology Office, MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory, the Penn State Electro-Optics Center and the U.S. Army Space and Missile Defense Command have invested money and research into developing the technologies used in the new laser system.

The weapon is being developed as part of the ONR's Future Naval Capabilities program, which aims to rapidly translate proven technology into something the military can use.

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Tanya Lewis
Staff Writer
Tanya was a staff writer for Live Science from 2013 to 2015, covering a wide array of topics, ranging from neuroscience to robotics to strange/cute animals. She received a graduate certificate in science communication from the University of California, Santa Cruz, and a bachelor of science in biomedical engineering from Brown University. She has previously written for Science News, Wired, The Santa Cruz Sentinel, the radio show Big Picture Science and other places. Tanya has lived on a tropical island, witnessed volcanic eruptions and flown in zero gravity (without losing her lunch!). To find out what her latest project is, you can visit her website.