DARPA, Air Force search for a better way to steer military lasers

WRIGHT PATTERSON AFB, Ohio - U.S. military scientists are moving ahead with a plan to develop chip-scale laser beam control components for what they claim will be a "revolutionary beam-control system" for several different defense applications.

By John Keller

WRIGHT PATTERSON AFB, Ohio - U.S. military scientists are moving ahead with a plan to develop chip-scale laser beam control components for what they claim will be a "revolutionary beam-control system" for several different defense applications.

This project is called Steered Agile Beams - STAB for short. Officials of the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory at Wright Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, awarded a $7.3 million contract last June to Raytheon Co. of Bedford, Mass., to provide research support and data for the STAB program.

Air Force researchers are working under supervision of the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) in Arlington, Va., which is overseeing the STAB project.

Military forces use laser beams to jam enemy infrared sensors, designate targets, and help provide laser communications. Hindering improvement of systems like these, however, is today's lack of small, lightweight, low-cost, rapid laser beam steering, pointing, and tracking capability, DARPA officials say.

A new and efficient laser beam-steering mechanism would particularly benefit military laser applications that depend on adaptive optics to correct for atmospheric-induced laser degradation, experts say.

New beam-steering technologies might help systems designers reduce size, weight, and power consumption, DARPA experts say.

Potential benefits of the program, DARPA officials say, include:

  • the ability to scan a laser beam more widely than 45 degrees;
  • eye-safe laser operation;
  • rapid acquisition of laser receivers;
  • the ability to keep a laser designator on mobile targets from as far away as two or three kilometers;
  • correction for atmospheric degradation;
  • covert optical data communications as fast as one gigabyte per second;
  • and the ability to operate lasers in strong daylight.

DARPA officials say they also are looking for covert target-designation capability, and compatibility with existing target-designation and infrared-jamming systems. Covert laser communications will significantly extend the range of operations of scout missions without compromising operational security, experts say.

The ability to steer several different laser beams rapidly from a small, lightweight package will enable systems designers to mount IRCM systems conformally to vulnerable places on military aircraft, and help military leaders deploy the kinds of laser illuminators that can engage several different targets at once, DARPA officials say.

DARPA leaders are structuring the program first to design a STAB system at the component or subsystem level for military applications, then to develop prototype chip-scale beam steering components, and finally to demonstrate two or more competing STAB subsystems. Expected completion is June 26, 2004.

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