By Spencer Ackerman
Some jerk has fired a heat-seeking missile at your Black Hawk. You’ve got a few options. You can try to dodge the thing, but good luck with that. You can fire off a flare in order to fool the missile into no longer following you as you maneuver. Or you can shoot off a laser from on board your bird to do the same thing. Not really a choice, is it?
OK, so Black Hawks and other military copters don’t have lasers yet. But a University of Michigan professor with a million dollars in Darpa and Army money is building a highly portable laser to keep U.S. helicopters protected from insurgents wielding shoulder-fired missiles. “It’s a jamming laser, not a knock-it-out-of-the-sky laser,” explains its creator, Mohammed Islam, a little sheepishly.
Islam’s Mid-Infrared Supercontinuum Laser (MISL, get it?), pictured below, is still in the prototype stage, so its effectiveness isn’t yet proven. But it’s got some advantages over existing military laser tech. Namely: You can fit it onto a helicopter, it won’t break, and it’s cheap.
Gene Roddenberry promised us energy weapon firepower in the form of a sidearm. But it turns out lasers are tragically heavy. The Airborne Laser might be able to shoot a ballistic missile out of the sky, but it’s so corpulent that it barely fits into a Boeing 747. It’s just “too large and expensive to field in large numbers on many operational airborne platforms,” sighed the Missile Defense Agency. The Pentagon is still stumped for portable alternatives.
Enter Islam’s MISL. It’s about the size of a DVD player, meaning you can screw it onto an onboard console. We’re not talking about needing a separate laser-equipped jet to pop out from behind the Afghan mountains on-demand and zap Taliban. Not that that happens anyway.
Then there’s another problem. Most lasers from the big defense firms consist of dozens of tiny pieces of bulk optics to generate their blasts. That means a lot of fragile moving parts. Add to that the pitch and roll of a wobby helicopter and your laser is practically calling out to be smashed.
But Islam used commercial, off-the-shelf materials that go into fiber-optic telecom lines to create a laser platform without any moving parts. “With our all-fiber integrated design, the laser is much more robust to environmental variations,” he brags. The industry-standard materials that go into the MISL are supposed to last for up to 25 years in a typical office setting. “Combine the no moving parts with parts from the telecom industry, and we get the potential for higher reliability,” Islam adds. That also means it should be cheap to manufacture, owing to Moore’s Law.
How’s it work? Heat. Islam’s laser shoots out longer wavelengths than your typical visible laser, so no columns of (invisible) red or white light. The emission from the MISL wouldn’t be visible to your limited eyes. But if he shot you with it, you’d get a burning sensation, from as far away as 1.8 miles. Shoot that thing off when a heat-seeking missile comes at your helicopter and the missile should chase the heat ray, not your engine.
And because of its broad array of wavelengths — that’s the “supercontinuum,” the S in MISL — Islam’s laser should be able to beat sophisticated heat-seekers that flares can’t deceive, since it burns as hot as a copter engine. “We have the entire spectrum of that engine,” Islam says. “We become much harder to fool.”
Sure, the ancient surface-to-air missiles used in Afghanistan against U.S. troops may not have actually downed any helicopters. But there is never a good reason not to put a laser on something.