A military soldier is clearing a set of buildings when he hears the whir of a cheap consumer drone. He spots it above, and before the UAV is capable of dropping a weapon or relaying his location, a laser attached to a ground vehicle shoots it out of the sky.
“There’s dramatically increased pull from the Department of Defense,” Iain McKinnie, Lockheed Martin’s business development lead for lasers and sensor systems, tells Inverse. “A series of threats are hard to address with traditional kinetic weapons so there’s a real need for laser weapons that can address a swarm of inexpensive threats.”
He says there are a number of advantages to laser weapons, most of which were highlighted in this new hype video showing off the potential for the technology. The company showed drones being shot out of the air, ballistic missiles exploding mid-flight, and a navy ship defending attackers from air and sea at the same time.
Lasers don’t really run out of ammo, they’re fast because they travel at the speed of light, and they are actually cheaper to shoot than a gun or a missile. McKinnie estimates it costs roughly a dollar to shoot a laser once, which is important when you have to take down multiple low-value targets. Of course, the upfront cost is a lot steeper.
Lockheed Martin claims its own fiber laser systems have some added benefits beyond others. The company says its lasers are module, which allows defective parts to be quickly swapped out in the case of a malfunction. Competing lasers, the company says, are like a faulty strain of Christmas tree lights — if one goes out the whole thing goes dark.
The weapons company is in its second generation of laser systems and McKinnie said the device is about half the size of its first generation proof of concept, which could only operate on large aircraft. Today’s systems he says can fit on Navy ships and ground tanks. The third generation, which he says is at least another two years out, will fit on even smaller Stryker transport vehicles.
To get there, Lockheed Martin is aiming to increase power, while enhancing the cooling mechanism to maximize efficiency. McKinnie says Lockheed Martin’s lasers are 40 percent effective, which means 60 percent of the energy is still lost to heat. These are the same problems researchers would have to contend with to make a handgun laser McKinnie says, speculating fighters would need some sort of backpack to make a handgun laser work. He notes that the company isn’t working on any such system.
Today’s lasers can also effectively be set to stun, just as Captain Kirk ordered. The military would likely use it to take out camera systems on drones without bringing the whole thing down.
“(We want) to improve laser systems so that they become practical,” McKinnie says. “They’ve been around for 30 years in research and development, but what we’re doing is developing these fiber capabilities to make them smaller and lighter in order to fit on platforms and be more useful to the war fighter.”