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Laser Precision: The Key to Countering the Rising UAS Threat (Studio)

12th June 2024 - 14:00 GMT | by Studio

The rise of drones in warfare is revolutionising the battlefield, introducing new threats that require innovative countermeasures. Lasers, with their advantages of precision and efficiency, are at the forefront of this technological defence.

Uncrewed aerial systems (UAS) are reshaping the modern battlespace, presenting significant threats to both personnel and equipment.

Lasers, with their high precision, long-range, and cost-effectiveness, could be the key to effectively countering these threats.

The UAS market has expanded rapidly, with substantial deployments by state and non-state actors in global conflicts, including Yemen and Gaza.

Most notably, the Ukraine war has highlighted the critical role of drones in modern warfare, as observed by Matty Todhunter, senior UAS analyst at Shephard Defence Insight.

The Growing UAS Threat

For example, Todhunter said Ukraine’s Bayraktar TB2s were militarily effective in the early stages of the conflict, playing a role in destroying multiple Russian tanks, armoured fighting vehicles (AFVs), helicopters, vessels and other systems and equipment. This has evolved over the first two years of the full-scale Russian invasion.

‘Smaller ISR drones and loitering munitions have become increasingly vital, with Ukraine and Russia operating many domestically produced and imported platforms, such as the Switchblade 300 and Shahed-136,’ Todhunter explained.

The military applications of such systems are clear. UAS offer key advantages to militaries, with core strengths in endurance and range. They can carry a wide range of payloads and are cheap to produce, with many adapted from commercial, off-the-shelf systems. Most importantly, they substantially reduce the risk to personnel.

These advantages have fuelled a surge in demand for the systems. Data from Shephard Defence Insight shows that the global unawarded military UAV market stands at $137.8 billion, with $1.485 billion expected to be awarded in the remainder of 2024 alone, as of the time of writing in May.

As investment surges in UAS, so militaries are ramping up efforts to counter the potential threat. Directed energy (DE) weapons and laser technologies should be central to their plans.

The Interconnected Battlespace

Dr Ben Greene, founder and chief innovation officer of Electro Optic Systems (EOS), emphasises the interconnected nature of CUAS systems within the broader battlespace.

‘Laser technologies must work alongside radar and air defence systems, complementing and enhancing kinetic countermeasures and other CUAS technologies,’ Greene explained.

A complete CUAS solution includes laser technologies integrated with radar and air defence systems, complementing and enhancing kinetic countermeasures and other CUAS technologies. (Photo: EOS)

Today’s CUAS options include jammers and hard-kill effectors such as guns or cannons. While effective, these methods have drawbacks based on the threat type. Kinetic solutions face issues with collateral damage and limited effectiveness against overhead attacks and are only capable of neutralising five to six drones per minute versus swarms of up to 20.

There is also the cost-effectiveness aspect to consider. Unless specifically designed for CUAS, kinetic measures like guns or cannons aren’t effective options to neutralise Group 3 drones, which can weigh anywhere from 25-600kg. However, it is also too costly to deploy surface-to-air missiles (SAM) against such a prolific threat.

Laser Benefits

Greene explains that DE weapon systems provide an effective alternative, providing a cost-effective capability to disable or destroy UAS, whether individually or in swarms.

For example, the drone defence system from EOS uses a powerful laser as its DE source. It has disabled Group 1 drones at an effective rate of 20 drones per minute – at ranges of more than 1,000 metres.

The company has developed the laser technology as part of its Titanis Counter Drone Defence System, which utilises a combination of leading CUAS technologies to counter both individual UAS threats and smarms of drones.

UAS threats are detected and tracked through an AESA pulse Doppler radar and passive RF detection, along with high-precision IR and daylight cameras and advanced video tracking software. Titanis can deploy kinetic ballistics, EW jammers, and the 54kw high-energy laser to defeat the drones.

Greene noted that EOS has extensive experience developing CUAS technologies, including kinetics-focused systems. This includes Titanis, as well as the company’s Slinger system, which comprises a radar, a 30mm cannon with specialised ammunition, and EOS stabilisation and pointing technology.

The company has built upon this CUAS heritage with its work in high-energy lasers and DE more widely, particularly in space-based systems.

EOS has for decades provided telescope ground stations for imaging, tracking and laser beam delivery.

By combining this experience and expertise with its work in CUAS – covering kinetic effectors, sensors and beyond – the company is developing a holistic approach.

‘We’ve taken that complex weapon system and complemented the kinetic weapon with a laser weapon, which comes from our space heritage,’ Greene explained.

Cost Considerations

Cost is a crucial consideration in CUAS, given the prolific nature of the threat. While kinetic measures could be cheaper in the short term, they have higher costs than DE in the long run because they’re more expensive per shot. DE systems may currently represent a more expensive choice up front, but they offer long-term economy.

‘It’s a simple capital cost issue,’ explained Greene. ‘The cost per shot is already below what customers are willing to pay, so it’s very cost-effective.’

Still, he noted that the current costs of many models are ‘higher than what you would want to pay if you’re buying 1000 systems’, which could be required in the future battlespace. But he said these higher costs relate to largely experimental models and will drop as the systems enter operation at wider scale and manufacturing increases.

Given the rapid advancement of these technologies and the pressing need to counter UAS threats, Greene predicts a pivotal role for DE-based CUAS in the near future.

‘I think we’re less than five years away from mass deployment,’ he concluded.




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