Non-lethal laser to defend against pirate attacks developed by BAE Systems

Click to EnlargePosted by John McHale

BRISTOL, England, 15 Jan. 2011. BAE Systems demonstrated a prototype laser device that will serve as an effective non-lethal deterrent against pirate attacks on commercial vessels such as oil tankers and container ships. In order to help combat the growing piracy threat BAE Systems conducted a study of pirate behavior and a company-wide capability survey. This led to the development of the concept of using a non-lethal laser, which would leave only temporary effects, to distract and deter potential attackers from a distance.

"Laser distraction is part of a wider program of anti-piracy technologies being developed by BAE Systems, including radar systems, which utilizes expertise and knowledge from the military domain," says Bryan Hore, BAE Systems business development manager and the lead for the anti-piracy program. "The aim of the laser distraction project is now to develop a non-lethal deterrent to pirates, which has no lasting effects, which can work in a maritime environment, be operated by the crew at no risk, and be cost effective."

Leveraging the capability of its Optics and Laser Technology department within its Advanced Technology Centre, BAE Systems researchers conducted a number of experiments to assess the feasibility of laser distraction as a non-lethal weapon. The research team has now demonstrated a suitable laser at the Pershore Trials Range in Worcester, England over a variety of distances in a variety of conditions.

The laser beam is capable of providing a visual warning to pirates at distances greater than two kilometers, and of disorientating attackers sufficiently at lesser distances so that weapons cannot be targeted effectively. At all times the power levels of the laser remain eye safe.

"The effect is similar to when a fighter pilot attacks from the direction of the sun," says Roy Clarke, BAE Systems capability technology lead for laser photonic systems. "The glare from the laser is intense enough to make it impossible to aim weapons like AK47s or RPGs, but doesn't have a permanent effect."

The laser was trialed during night and day in varying weather conditions at the Worcester facility. Cameras were placed at the target location to demonstrate the level of beam intensity and divergence produced by the test runs. Beam oscillation techniques were also demonstrated.

The researchers have developed a bespoke Neodymium Yttrium Aluminium Garnet (Nd:YAG) laser which is an effective deterrent at relatively low power levels. By utilizing targeting systems and changing beam patterns, the distraction effect can be made more pronounced and be used against multiple targets.

"We successfully showed that the laser works not just during the night, but also in full daylight," Clarke says. "But, there are many more requirements to meet before placing a non-lethal laser weapon on commercial ships."

When fitted on commercial ships the laser distraction system could utilize its own targeting capability or integrate with existing ship radar and sensor systems to control the direction and power of the beam. It could therefore work semi-autonomously and would also include security features to ensure it could not be used by pirates if they boarded the ship.


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