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The Bulletin

Powerful laser weapon system is a drone-killer

Posting in Design

Predator drones may have met their match. The latest warning shot that the laser technology is on the cusp of radically redefining warfare comes via reports that the German defense firm Rheinmetall has developed an enemy-zapping prototype capable of shooting down elusive drones from over a mile away.

The successful field-testing of this particular weapon is significant for a number of reasons. While long-range high energy lasers (HEL) have shown enormous potential as a game-changer on the battlefield, they've also been hampered by something as simple as changing weather. For instance, a focused beam, while powerful, can easily be absorbed or scattered by moisture in the air as it passes through the atmosphere.

Rheinmetall said the 50kW weapon they designed and built was tested in extreme environmental conditions such as snow, rain and blinding sunlight to showcase how much progress has been made compared to a 10kW version demonstrated last year. The company cites a five-fold increase in laser power that's readily available for combat situations such as intercepting rockets or mortar artillery. Because of obvious confidential reasons, the press release announcing the test results didn't delve too much into the nuts and bolts other than to say the boost in beam intensity was achieved by combining two separate systems: a newer 30kW weapon station into an older 20kW version. There were also additional modules for supplying power.

From a distance of roughly 1,000 meters, the prototype fired lasers that sliced through a massive, 15mm-thick steel girder. Further out at a range of two kilometers, it was able to bring down several nose-diving target drones. Meanwhile, a built-in radar and optical tracking system was able to promptly detect and tag the incoming unmanned aerial vehicles as far out as three kilometers and flying at speeds over 50 meters a second.

The developers theorize that the technology can be scaled up to something as potent as a HEL weapon system with a 100kW output, though for now, the next step would be to build a 60kW unit before the end of the year. The canons are currently being designed for use atop different military vehicles and to also integrate a 35mm revolver cannon into it.

(Sorry no video of the test, I tried looking everywhere.)

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— By on January 22, 2013, 8:40 PM PST

Tuan Nguyen

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Tuan C. Nguyen is a freelance science journalist based in New York City. He has written for the U.S. News and World Report, Fox News, MSNBC, ABC News, AOL, Yahoo! News and LiveScience. Formerly, he was reporter and producer for the technology section of ABCNews.com. He holds degrees from the University of California Los Angeles and the City University of New York's Graduate School of Journalism. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure