The thing in this picture isn’t a photon torpedo. But, it’s close. It’s a photon cannon, currently under development by General Atomics. Small, versatile, and completely self-contained, it turns anything onto which you stick it into a powerful laser weapon. And at just two cubic meters in volume, you should have no trouble mounting it on the roof rack of your Volvo.
General Atomics’ Tactical Laser Weapon Module is one of those pieces of futuristic technology that can show up out of nowhere at a military expo (in this case, the Navy’s Sea-Air-Space Exposition) and just sit there, attracting plenty of attention while also being almost entirely classified.
What we were able to find out about this thing is that it’s a laser weapon with output energies (that's output, not total power in the system) ranging from 75 kilowatts all the way up to 300 kilowatts. To put that in perspective, about a year ago we wrote about how Lockheed was using a portable fiber laser to shoot down rockets at a range of 1.5 kilometers using just 10 kilowatts of power. Suffice it to say, 300 kilowatts is rather a lot. The weight of the system is dependent on its output power and the number of shots you want, but General Atomics engineers say that they’ve gotten it down to just 4 kilograms per kilowatt.
The module in the picture above represents almost the entirety of an operational laser weapons system. You’ll have to wire it up to your own controller, but otherwise, all it needs to finish it off is a beam director—basically, a glorified steerable telescope that can intercept the laser beam as it comes out of that hole on the front of the module and then point it at what you want it to torch. You don't even need to connect the module to an outside power source; it’s packed with enough lithium-ion batteries to give you some number of shots (although, as with almost every question we asked, General Atomics won’t give us specific numbers, because it’s, well, classified).
General Atomics did go so far as to suggest that this laser would be great as an add-on to the AC-130 gunship or V-22 Osprey. Since it’s so small, though, it would also fit onto UAVs like the Predator C. It could even be carried by ground vehicles like the Joint Light Tactical Vehicle, which means that I bet my Volvo could handle it as well. Take that, traffic jams.
Evan Ackerman is a senior editor at IEEE Spectrum. Since 2007, he has written over 6,000 articles on robotics and technology. He has a degree in Martian geology and is excellent at playing bagpipes.