DARPA Plans to Arm Drones With Missile-Blasting Lasers

The Pentagon this week edged closer to mounting missile-destroying lasers on unmanned and manned aircraft, awarding $26 million to defense contractors to develop the technology.

Northrop Gumman and Lockheed will develop technology for pod-mounted laser weapons to protect manned aircraft and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) from electro-optical and infrared (EO/IR)-guided surface-to-air missiles.

Under the name Project Endurance, DARPA, the Department of Defense’s research agency, awarded Northrop Grumman $14.6 million and Lockheed Martin $11.4 million in contracts for the effort, according to Military and Aerospace Electronics. Called “Project Endurance,” the research will “develop technology for pod-mounted lasers to protect a variety of airborne platforms from emerging and legacy electro-optical IR guided surface-to-air missiles,” according to DARPA’s 2014 budget request.

The project focuses on “miniaturizing component technologies, developing high-precision target tracking, identification, and lightweight agile beam control to support target engagement,” as well as “the phenomenology of laser-target interactions and associated threat vulnerabilities.”

According to DARPA, the design phase of the laser technology will be completed by the end of its 2013 fiscal year. In 2014, fabrication, assembly and testing of the systems will occur with an eye toward full implementation in 2016.

Project Endurance evolved out of DARPA’s Excalibur program, which was designed to “develop coherent optical phased array technologies to enable scalable laser weapons that are 10 times lighter and more compact than existing high-power chemical laser systems,” according to DARPA.

The laser phased arrays developed in the Excalibur program were to combine low-power electrically driven lasers, such as diode lasers and fiber laser amplifiers, in a coherent way. The program also focused on laser beam-steering technologies to make laser arrays conformal with aircraft.

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