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Profile: Out of Sight

At the Pentagon's mad-science wing, Stefanie Tompkins is figuring out how to see without looking

3 min read

When Stefanie Tompkins was a NASA-funded geologist at Science Applications International Corp. trying to analyze the mineral composition of moon rocks, she would have killed for a pair of glasses that let you "see" heat and ultraviolet light. Now one of her projects is a lens that allows you to do just that. In fact, most of her work can be roughly pigeonholed as an attempt to give soldiers a sixth sense.

Tompkins is a program manager at the Strategic Technology Office of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. DARPA is the mad-science wing of the Defense Department, which cemented its reputation for creating technology "so crazy it just might work" by inventing the stealth fighter and the Internet. Tompkins fits right in. She’s working on ways to augment GPS, another DARPA-conceived innovation.

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Economics Drives Ray-Gun Resurgence

Laser weapons, cheaper by the shot, should work well against drones and cruise missiles

4 min read
In an artist’s rendering, a truck is shown with five sets of wheels—two sets for the cab, the rest for the trailer—and a box on the top of the trailer, from which a red ray is projected on an angle, upward, ending in the silhouette of an airplane, which is being destroyed

Lockheed Martin's laser packs up to 300 kilowatts—enough to fry a drone or a plane.

Lockheed Martin

The technical challenge of missile defense has been compared with that of hitting a bullet with a bullet. Then there is the still tougher economic challenge of using an expensive interceptor to kill a cheaper target—like hitting a lead bullet with a golden one.

Maybe trouble and money could be saved by shooting down such targets with a laser. Once the system was designed, built, and paid for, the cost per shot would be low. Such considerations led planners at the Pentagon to seek a solution from Lockheed Martin, which has just delivered a 300-kilowatt laser to the U.S. Army. The new weapon combines the output of a large bundle of fiber lasers of varying frequencies to form a single beam of white light. This laser has been undergoing tests in the lab, and it should see its first field trials sometime in 2023. General Atomics, a military contractor in San Diego, is also developing a laser of this power for the Army based on what’s known as the distributed-gain design, which has a single aperture.

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