A futuristic battle was fought over the Pacific Ocean recently, where laser beams targeted four robotic aircraft and set them on fire, sending the flaming drones plummeting into the sea.

A grainy black-and-white video of the event, which was staged off of the United States Navy facility at San Nicolas Island, 75 miles (120 kilometers) west of Los Angeles, Calif. was released yesterday at the U.K.'s Farnborough International Air Show 2010.

The demonstration paired the Navy's Laser Weapons System (LaWS) with the sensor suite found on Raytheon's Phalanx Close-in Weapon System, an anti-ship missile and aircraft defense rig found on all Navy combat ships.

The Phalanx consists of an automated, radar-guided Gatling gun that fires 3,000 or 4,500 rounds of 20-millimeter ammunition per minute. The Navy has been using the domed weapon system for over three decades as a last line of defense to destroy incoming mortars, rockets and aircraft that have penetrated the outer fleet perimeter.

The Navy is looking to extend the range of its maritime Phalanx systems, and with the continuing rise of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), the battlefield of tomorrow is shaping up to include new sorts of robotic threats.

Previous tests of the LaWS laser cannons in recent years had destroyed unmoving or relatively slow-moving targets over land. But with the latest test, the military has shown that LaWS can shoot down moving targets at a distance, though the Navy would not disclose the actual range attained in the new round of tests, conducted in May and June.

Another goal of the latest trials was to prove LaWS can work at sea where something as prosaic as humidity can actually thwart cutting-edge laser weapons.

"Laser beams can be absorbed and deflected in the atmosphere by moisture," explained John Eagles, a spokesperson for Raytheon.

The sophisticated sensor suite on Phalanx detected, tracked and acquired the flying drones, then fed the targeting data into LaWS, which fired all six of its lasers at the bogeys and took them out.

"It's not like shooting a missile or a bullet at a target where you have an explosion," said Eagles. "This laser brings high energy onto the target [and] disrupts its flight by catching it on fire. You would like to get [the laser] to disintegrate the target in the air, but as long as you interrupt its flight, chances are it's not going to get to where it was going."

Raytheon and the Navy will attempt to put LaWS on an operational ship next, likely side-mounting it to a Phalanx system (as depicted in the artist's rendering above) and conducting further tests of this enhanced defensive setup, Eagles said.

"Down the road, we'll be looking at production [of this system] and installation Navy-wide," said Eagles, though deployment is unlikely for a handful of years yet and the Navy has not budgeted the project beyond basic research and development.

As for how a real laser-equipped Phalanx system might look in action, the energy beam is invisible to human eyes, Eagles noted, which might be a disappointment for science fiction fans. Nevertheless, here's a computer animation from Raytheon of the lasers zapping two missiles from the sky.

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