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Boeing achieves laser weapons breakthrough

Boeing engineers conduct a demonstration test of the Thin Disk Laser system, which is part of the Department of Defense Robust Electric Laser Initiative, Aug. 13, 2013, in Albuquerque, N.M.

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Boeing Co.’s Directed Energy Systems division in Albuquerque has developed a solid-state laser system that eventually could be used by the U.S. military to destroy IEDs, shoot down rockets and take out drones.

“Our team has shown that we have the necessary power, the beam quality and the efficiency to deliver such a system to the battlefield,” said Michael Rinn, the Directed Energy Systems division’s vice president and program director.

The company said a recent demonstration here of its “thin disk laser system” — which integrates a series of high-power industrial lasers to generate one concentrated, high-energy beam — exceeded the Defense Department’s technical requirements for potential use in weapons systems.

The new system was developed in part through a $6 million contract under the DOD’s Robust Electric Laser Initiative. That program aims to design new solid-state lasers to replace chemical-based ones, which can be more complicated to deploy.

“Chemical lasers involve hard-to-handle chemicals and require cumbersome procedures for soldiers, whereas the ones under development are closed-loop, all-electronic systems, making them more mobile and supportable on the battlefield,” Rinn said.

Boeing will now seek DOD funding to package the laser system into a design that can be mounted on weapons such as a conventional deck gun on a Navy warship.

“This is still lab technology for now, so we hope to get government funding to take it forward,” Rinn said. “It remains to be seen if the Army picks this over other solid-state lasers being developed.”

Rinn said the new system meets the test of achieving high brightness while simultaneously remaining efficient at higher power.

The technology basically combines individual, commercial lasers used by industry to create a much more powerful beam that can be applied for weapon use, Rinn said.

Boeing worked to retain the reliability and efficiency demonstrated in the original laser heads, which run continuously in industrial applications, while increasing the power and improving the beam. The company needed to reach 30 percent electricity-to-laser efficiency.

“We produced a 30 kilowatt laser with 90 kilowatts of electricity,” Rinn said. “Those are the military-utility-class numbers needed, and we achieved it.”

Future contracts could depend on federal defense budgets, which are under pressure in Washington, D.C., Shaun McDougal, Forecast International’s North America military market analyst, told the Journal .

Even if budget constraints slow technology development, it’s unlikely to be discarded, given the benefits laser weaponry can bring to the battlefield.

The military has high hopes, for example, for another solid-state laser system Boeing is developing for mount on an armored truck under an Army contract.

That system, called the High Energy Laser Mobile Demonstrator, or HEL-MD, also could be used on improvised explosive devices, rockets, artillery, mortars and unmanned aerial vehicles.

“Say there’s an IED spotted on the road. They can just burst it with a laser instead of sending a person or a robot out to diffuse it,” McDougal said.

The military also could increase the laser power for longer distances.

“It could then be used to disrupt optics and sensors on unmanned aerial vehicles and surveillance aircraft,” McDougal said. “If they can’t take the aircraft down, then they can disrupt the mission.”

Boeing decided in 2010 to center its directed energy work in Albuquerque, where much of the company’s work on the now-defunct Airborne Laser Program was concentrated. Boeing was the prime contractor on that program, a nearly two-decade, $5 billion effort by the DOD’s Missile Defense Agency to mount a high-powered laser on a Boeing 747 to destroy ballistic missiles as they take off.

That program ended in 2011, but Boeing continues to work on contracts with the Army and Navy to develop laser systems for mounting on ground vehicles and ships, such as the thin-disk system.

The Directed Energy Systems division now employs 350 people, 200 of whom are located full-time in New Mexico.
 

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