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Military tries lasers against small UAVs

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ALBUQUERQUE — The military is looking at ways to counter possible threats from the increasing number of small, low-flying unmanned aerial vehicles, including those that could be carrying bombs.

One potential way is through the use of lasers, which are themselves starting to become cheaper and more common.

“There aren’t a lot of ways to deal with UAVs right now,” said David DeYoung, director of Boeing’s Laser and Electro-Optical Systems. “Lasers, it turns out, very effective against UAVs.”

Recently a number of flights at major American airports, such as Chicago O’Hare, had to contend with small drones hovering around the runways.

With hundreds of thousands more privately owned unmanned systems expected to take to the skies over the next few years, it’s a problem that’s not going to go away, DeYoung said.

“Pretty much all countries in the world have them, have access to them,” he said.

Boeing on Wednesday demonstrated a two-kilowatt laser shooting at stationary targets and successfully igniting them. If the targets had been UAVs in flight, they would have gone down.

Boeing said the military has access to lasers with 10 kilowatts of power.

Laser systems could easily be used to destroy any UAV threats, and could be mounted at the edges of airports or forward operating bases, DeYoung said.

What’s more, the systems are becoming compact enough to be mounted onto a Jeep or truck for deployment down range.

Boeing has successfully installed a laser system onto a helicopter, and is looking at other aircraft.

DeYoung said the restrictions on mounting lasers onto vehicles come down to three things: size, weight and power.

The lasers have pinpoint accuracy and are able to target specific portions of an aircraft. They also have variable power settings, and could be used to knock off a specific piece of a UAV or to set it on fire.

Plus, DeYoung said the laser systems are cheap to operate, having only electricity costs.

“Once you own the thing, it’s very low cost,” he said.

Exact operational info on the lasers are considered secret, but DeYoung said they are able to destroy drones that would be beyond the sight of troops.

And he added he does not believe training would be an issue, as troops that Boeing worked with were able to learn about the system and fire the laser in about an hour.

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