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UAV flies on laser light

Lockheed and LaserMotive power an unmanned aircraft from a distance

1 min read
UAV flies on laser light

Lockheed Martin and its Seattle-based partner, LaserMotive, yesterday announced that they have successfully powered an unmanned aerial vehicle, Lockheed's Stalker, with laser light. It was the first outdoor test of a system that’s meant to keep an electric UAV aloft far longer than its batteries alone could manage.

Other companies have used photovoltaic cells to harvest solar energy in fight. But you can’t do that at night or on cloudy days.

Last month Lockheed and LaserMotive powered this same military surveillance aircraft in a wind tunnel for two full days. The laser reaches just 600 meters, but that’s enough to keep a UAV in an orbit that gives troops a bird’s-eye view of their surroundings. The point of the test was to show that the laser beam could draw a bead on the UAV’s photocells without damaging the craft, despite the plane's maneuvers and despite air turbulence.

LaserMotive is based on the more general idea of using lasers to transmit power. Co-founder Jordin Kare, whom IEEE Spectrumprofiled in 2011, had long wanted to use lasers to carry rockets into space by boiling a liquid propellant into vapor. But LaserMotive started small, winning a prize from NASA for its success in powering a robot cable-climber and then moved to toy helicopters before tackling military-grade UAVs.

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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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