Lasers - the stuff of science fiction or a battlefield reality?
Tempest, the new sixth-generation fighter aircraft being developed jointly by Britain and it’s partners, is set to be equipped with lasers designed to tackle advanced threats such as hypersonic surface-to-air missiles. Meanwhile, the Royal Navy has already invested the new Dragonfire system, which can defeat swarms of drones that are at a safe distance from a ship.
Using lasers to destroy a target, rather than just disable it, requires highly advanced technology due to key challenges. Lasers heat the air through which they travel, which expands, and causes the beam to be distorted. More energy – more problem and therefore there is a natural limit on the power lasers can convey to a target. But recent advances, based on sending the light in very short, concentrated pulses, and multiple beams which converge at a point, are fast raising the threshold of power that lasers can deliver.
In a very worrying civilian context, you may recall an event in November 2015 when a Virgin Atlantic airliner flying to New York had to be re-routed after the pilot was dazzled by a laser (likely purchased cheaply on Amazon), aimed at the plane from the ground just outside Heathrow airport. The threat grows: insurgents with military-grade lasers are now a real danger to helicopter pilots in parts of Africa and Asia, and in recent years American pilots have reported hundreds of ‘lasings’ around Syria, Iraq and Iran.
The rapidly advancing threat posed by lasers on the modern battlefield makes finding ways to defend against them a priority. One solution may lie in nanotechnology. Based on graphene and other nanomaterials, our team at AMD is developing a system that will only allow certain frequencies of light to pass through a “lens,” meaning a pilot (for example) would still be able to see clearly, even though the offending laser was completely blocked out.
Laser-shielding based on nanotechnology may be introduced not just in pilots’ goggles, but potentially in windows and other vital pieces of equipment vulnerable to directed energy. Such a technology may even be applied as a thin film on in-service equipment, providing a cheap and effective defence against the most readily available laser devices. Using nanotechnology in films to protect against specific laser frequencies also means materiel may be very rapidly modified – if the enemy system uses a new colour of laser light for example, a defence against it could be in place within hours.
In this very real Star Wars scenario, it is good to know that defence might have as much hope as attack.