Northrop Grumman tests new laser weapon
By David Szondy
The Gamma laser was tested against the skin and components of a BQM-7 drone
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Practical laser weapons came another step closer to reality recently as defense contractor Northrop Grumman tested the latest version of its Firestrike solid-state lasers. On May 1st, the company announced that it had completed trials at its Redondo Beach laboratory of a more powerful and rugged generation of its slab lasers, that combine with improved sensor capacities to create a general laser component that can provide the military with a wide range of greatly enhanced defensive and offensive laser capabilities.
The dream of a laser “death ray” has been around since the invention of the laser in the 1960s. This isn’t surprising, since lasers are coherent light beams with enough focus to bounce a beam off the Moon, and a laser can concentrate enough energy on a target to burn through steel. The latter was a common laboratory trick in those early days, where engineers would show off the power of the laser by cutting through razor blades so often that an early unit for measuring laser power was in “Gillettes."
Cutting through a razor blade on a bench top and piercing armor plate or bringing down a missile in flight are very different things, however. The potential of laser weapons was offset by problems with power, waste heat, aiming, atmospheric interference, and the bulk and fragility of the apparatus, to name just a few. Though laser weapons became a staple of science fiction, in the real world lasers were relegated to industry and medicine with the only military applications being in range finding and communications.
However, this didn’t mean that the military lost all interest in laser weapons. In the1980s, the United States poured billions of dollars into anti-ballistic missile lasers, the British deployed a system for dazzling enemy pilots and the Soviets experimented with a tank armed with a laser weapon. By the 1990s, the Americans had installed an anti-missile laser inside a Boeing 747 for field tests and in the 21st century, Coalition forces in Iraq and Afghanistan were using lasers to detonate IEDs ... and yet, practical weapons remained elusive. Despite setbacks, the American airborne laser, for example, had considerable success, but the system was based on a laser that used highly toxic chemicals to generate the beam. The equipment was expensive, extremely fragile, dangerous to be around, and a logistical nightmare.
The Firestrike laser was developed with a different philosophy than previous efforts. Instead of building an extremely powerful laser and then figuring out how to make it practical, Northrop Grumman took the approach of making small, rugged lasers and then working on how to scale them up to practical size. The Firestrike system tries this by using a “slab” laser, in which the lasing element of the device is a slab of glass or crystal about the size of a microscope slide that’s been doped with a rare earth element such as neodymium or chromium. This is pumped with a light source, such as a flash lamp, and the photons inside the slab are induced to “cascade," that is, move in the same direction, and generate a laser.
The latest Firestrike laser, named Gamma, generates a stable, high-quality beam for 1.5 hours. Its power output is only 13.3 kilowatts, which isn’t nearly large enough to do much on its own, but the recent tests did prove the power and ruggedness of the system. The Gamma is smaller than previous Firestrikes, weighing in at only 500 pounds (227 kg) and measuring about the same size as a pair of countertop microwaves.
The Gamma’s small size and low power may give the impression that it doesn’t come to much on the battlefield, but Northrop Grumman’s design makes the Gamma “chainable." That is, individual Gamma units can be linked together to combine their individually weak lasers into one extremely powerful, high-quality beam. By linking together the slab laser elements from several Gamma units, a laser of 100 kilowatts, the lower threshold for a battlefield laser, that weighs in at 1.5 (1.4 tonnes) tons and requires one megawatt of power to operate, is possible.
A view of how the Firestrike laser system can be scaled
One and a half tons seems pretty heavy for a weapon, but mounted in an armored vehicle, a warship or at a land base, it’s fairly light. The Gamma is also an improvement on previous iterations of the Firestrike system in that the laser is much simpler and more rugged with fewer components and new mounts that greatly reduce vibration.
The tests carried out at the Redondo Beach laboratory consisted of firing the Gamma laser at the skin of a surplus BQM-7 drone and other components at short range, under conditions that simulated a full-scale combat laser operating at a range of several miles. "The Gamma laser was tested at a beam quality of 1.4, which beat the design goal of 1.5, and we expect it to keep improving," said Dan Wildt, vice president, directed energy systems, Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems. "A perfect beam quality is 1. Owing to its excellent beam quality, the 13.3 kilowatt Gamma is also brighter than its design goal, meaning it can put more power on target at range.”
As far as applications of the Gamma laser and the Firestrike line in general, Wildt said, "The Firestrike laser, announced in 2008, forms the backbone near-term laser weapon systems from Northrop Grumman. Combined with advanced electro optical and/or infrared sensors, Firestrike line replaceable units and their subsystems can provide military services with active defense, offensive precision strike and enhanced situational awareness capabilities, all in the same weapon system."
Given the Pentagon’s continuing interest in lasers and the increasing need to develop defenses against new, faster missiles of all grades, it appears as if the age of the laser weapon is fast approaching.
One of the Firestrike tests can be seen in the video below.
14:20 GMT, July 6, 2012 DARPA recently released an image of a gigapixel camera currently being developed by DARPA’s Advanced Wide FOV Architectures for Image Reconstruction and Exploitation (AWARE) program (see http://goo.gl/b75Ji - high resolution). As part of the program, DARPA successfully tested cameras with 1.4 and 0.96 gigapixel resolution at the Naval Research Lab in Washington, DC. The gigapixel cameras combine 100-150 small cameras with a spherical objective lens. Local aberration correction and focus in the small cameras enable extremely high resolution shots with smaller system volume and less distortion than traditional wide field lens systems.
The DARPA effort hopes to produce resolution up to 10 and 50 gigapixels—much higher resolution than the human eye can see. Analogous to a parallel-processor supercomputer, the AWARE camera design uses parallel multi-scale micro cameras to form a wide field panoramic image.
The AWARE program is developing new approaches and advanced capabilities in imaging to support a variety of Department of Defense missions.
For more information, please visit the program page at http://goo.gl/rsugl.
March 18, 2014
DARPA tasks four companies with designing new aircraft to revolutionize vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) flight capabilities
For generations, new designs for vertical takeoff and landing aircraft have remained unable to increase top speed without sacrificing range, efficiency or the ability to do useful work. DARPA’s VTOL Experimental Plane (VTOL X-Plane) program seeks to overcome these challenges through innovative cross-pollination between the fixed-wing and rotary-wing worlds, to enable radical improvements in vertical and cruise flight capabilities. In an important step toward that goal, DARPA has awarded prime contracts for Phase 1 of VTOL X-Plane to four companies:
Aurora Flight Sciences Corporation
The Boeing Company
Karem Aircraft, Inc.
Sikorsky Aircraft Corporation
“We were looking for different approaches to solve this extremely challenging problem, and we got them,” said Ashish Bagai, DARPA program manager. “The proposals we’ve chosen aim to create new technologies and incorporate existing ones that VTOL designs so far have not succeeded in developing. We’re eager to see if the performers can integrate their ideas into designs that could potentially achieve the performance goals we’ve set.”
VTOL X-Plane seeks to develop a technology demonstrator that could:
Achieve a top sustained flight speed of 300 kt-400 kt
Raise aircraft hover efficiency from 60 percent to at least 75 percent
Present a more favorable cruise lift-to-drag ratio of at least 10, up from 5-6
Carry a useful load of at least 40 percent of the vehicle’s projected gross weight of 10,000-12,000 pounds
All four winning companies proposed designs for unmanned vehicles, but the technologies that VTOL X-Plane intends to develop could apply equally well to manned aircraft. Another common element among the designs is that they all incorporate multipurpose technologies to varying degrees. Multipurpose technologies decrease the number of systems in a vehicle and its overall mechanical complexity. Multipurpose technologies also use space and weight more efficiently to improve performance and enable new and improved capabilities.
The next major milestone for VTOL X-Plane is scheduled for late 2015, when the four performers are required to submit preliminary designs. At that point, DARPA plans to review the designs to decide which to build as a technology demonstrator, with the goal of performing flight tests in the 2017-18 timeframe.
quieren quitarnos a los pilotos y ahora a los francotiradores
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