BAE Systems pushes non-lethal laser to defend against pirate attacks

BY John McHale

BRISTOL, England-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. 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 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."

Click to Enlarge
This artist's rendering depicts how a new BAE Systems non-lethal laser might help merchant vessels repel pirate attacks.

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 aluminum 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."

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June 2015
Volume 26, Issue 6
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