Drones Armed With High-Energy Lasers May Arrive In 2017

USAF Master Sgt. Jennifer Oberg explains the features of a ground control station to Staff Sgt. Jason Avera and Senior Airman Raquel Martinez.

U.S. Air Force photo by Val Gempis

AA Font size + Print

USAF Master Sgt. Jennifer Oberg explains the features of a ground control station to Staff Sgt. Jason Avera and Senior Airman Raquel Martinez.

Predator maker looks beyond Hellfire missiles to the weapons of the future.

Flying military robots armed with high-energy lasers? It’s a future that is exciting, terrifying — and perhaps just two years away.

General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, Inc., or GA-ASI,  the San Diego-based company that makes the Predator and Reaper drones, is undertaking a privately funded study to integrate a 150-kilowatt solid-state laser onto its Avenger (née Predator-C) drone. If the company succeeds, a drone with a high-energy laser will be a reality at some point in 2017, company executives told Defense One.

“We’re funded right now to develop a laser module compatible with the aircraft and study putting it on the Avenger,” Michael Perry, Vice President for Mission Systems at GA-ASI, told Defense One. “We hope to be funded to do that,” he said.

The company is far better known for its MQ-1s and MQ-9s — the backbones of the Pentagon’s drone strike force — than for its work with lasers. But in June, the company delivered a 150-kilowatt liquid laser to the Pentagon for extensive testing at the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico. For comparison, the 30 kw laser (output) currently on the Ponce in the Persian Gulf has more than enough output to destroy an enemy drone or blow a hole in a boat. In addition to 5 times the power, the significant increase in beam quality provides significantly higher lethality than the system on the Ponce.

Bringing these two technologies together involves a lot more than strapping a laser cannon under the drone’s wings. Hitting a target with a laser mounted on a vibrating platform moving quickly through air laden with dust and water vapor is tougher than launching a Hellfire at a moving vehicle.

“Before you spend any money on a laser you better darn well show that you can acquire, ID, and track the objects of interest so that you could put a laser on them,” said Perry. “You have to be able to compensate for aero-optic distortion.”

After you solve the targeting problem, the laws of physics present their own challenges. Lasers in the 150-kilowatt range are big, heavy, and power-hungry. Shrinking size-weight-and-power, or SWAP, scores to workable levels remains the biggest obstacle to arming aircraft with lasers. Weight alone will likely bar 150 kw lasers from the MQ-1; engineers have set their sights on building weapons for the Predator-C and its 3,000-pound payload capacity.

GA-ASI has designed a power system for drone lasers that works almost like a hybrid car, the non-plugin kind. “You use the aircraft power to charge an intermediate storage system, and then that runs the laser when it’s doing laser shots,” said Perry.

He said the current design can get off five or six shots before needing to recharge, which happens in the air, over the course of several minutes.

“If there’s enough time between shots you never have to recharge at all. It depends on how much time you have to re-target,” said Perry.

While GA-ASI is underwriting the current research, the military is keen get lasers onto aircraft. The Missile Defense Agency, or MDA, has funded research on tracking and targeting capabilities for drones.

“The work that we’re doing with the General Atomics Reaper and the work that we did with the Boeing Phantom Eye starts to show it can be done, in terms of these long-range sensing and tracking capabilities that we need,” MDA director Vice Adm. James Syring told reporters last month.

“We’ve been funded for years to develop high-energy laser systems. The maturity of our approach is further along than others because we’ve been working on it for a long time, for 15 years. [high-energy laser research is] coming out of the laboratory in a leakage-type way” GA-ASI’s Perry said.

The company has another advantage over its competitors in the race to build laser-armed drones: they make the ground control stations, including the next generation ground control station that the Pentagon hopes will improve the dreary job of drone operation. This gives them an advantage when it comes to creating the virtual gunsights and trigger for the laser.

“What we’ve shown is that the laser control is compatible with the new ground station,” he said. ”From a hardware standpoint, all the hardware exists to control it inside the station.”

However, Perry says that laser drones will require an entirely new software load, and that’s not all: “You’ll have a whole new concept of operations. Completely new training will be required,” he said.

If GA-ASI  — or someone else — succeeds in making lasers into a practical wing-mounted weapon, it will usher in a new battlefield role for medium-sized tactical drones. Perry imagines a completely different mission than simple loitering and striking targets, one more geared toward protecting U.S. forces from enemies that are firing on them.

“You would have a capability for close-air support, aircraft defense, counter-air, and even some types of non-lethal actions. You would really be expanding the mission space… The focus at this point is principally defensive missions,” he said.

Close [ x ] More from DefenseOne

Thank you for subscribing to newsletters from DefenseOne.com.
We think these reports might interest you:

  • Federal IT Applications: Assessing Government's Core Drivers

    In order to better understand the current state of external and internal-facing agency workplace applications, Government Business Council (GBC) and Riverbed undertook an in-depth research study of federal employees. Overall, survey findings indicate that federal IT applications still face a gamut of challenges with regard to quality, reliability, and performance management.

  • PIV- I And Multifactor Authentication: The Best Defense for Federal Government Contractors

    This white paper explores NIST SP 800-171 and why compliance is critical to federal government contractors, especially those that work with the Department of Defense, as well as how leveraging PIV-I credentialing with multifactor authentication can be used as a defense against cyberattacks

  • GBC Issue Brief: Supply Chain Insecurity

    Federal organizations rely on state-of-the-art IT tools and systems to deliver services efficiently and effectively, and it takes a vast ecosystem of organizations, individuals, information, and resources to successfully deliver these products. This issue brief discusses the current threats to the vulnerable supply chain - and how agencies can prevent these threats to produce a more secure IT supply chain process.

  • Data-Centric Security vs. Database-Level Security

    Database-level encryption had its origins in the 1990s and early 2000s in response to very basic risks which largely revolved around the theft of servers, backup tapes and other physical-layer assets. As noted in Verizon’s 2014, Data Breach Investigations Report (DBIR)1, threats today are far more advanced and dangerous.

  • Information Operations: Retaking the High Ground

    Today's threats are fluent in rapidly evolving areas of the Internet, especially social media. Learn how military organizations can secure an advantage in this developing arena.


When you download a report, your information may be shared with the underwriters of that document.