Aussie Firm Jumps in High-Energy Laser Game, Aiming for Deals Down Under
CANBERRA — Australian defense technology company Electro Optic Systems (EOS) has successfully field-tested a counter-drone high-energy laser system which, if the Australian Defence Force desired, the company says could be immediately operational.
This is a 36-kilowatt laser, scalable to 50 kilowatts, housed in a standard shipping container and able to be powered by a lithium battery pack, delivering more than 100 shots before requiring charging.
Development began three years ago, leveraging EOS’s three decades of work on lasers for tracking space debris and on remote weapon stations (RWS).
Matt Jones, EOS executive vice-president for defense systems, told Breaking Defense it was an internally funded program, initiated because the company saw an opportunity in the market for directed energy (DE) systems.
“There has been promise of DE systems for decades and the technology has now moved to sufficient maturity where you can start to field tactical DE systems with ranges that provide effective performance in sizes and at price points that are competitive,” he said.
One such system is the Israeli Iron Beam, which developer Rafael says will be deployed next year as an part in the Iron Dome missile defense system designed to counter rockets fired into Israeli territory from Gaza and Lebanon.
The US military also has conducted multiple laser programs, of which perhaps the most famous, or infamous, was the USAF airborne laser installed aboard a Boeing 747 and intended to target ballistic missiles in boost phase. This worked but was cancelled in 2011 after 16 years and $5 billion. More recently, the US Army and Navy have been pursuing their own high-energy laser programs.
Jones sees more room in the market, noting there is not one DE system that suited everyone.
“Some want them in small packages which require lower power, and they are happy with lower ranges, and they are going after particular target sets,” he said. “The system we are working on here is really targeted at the counter-drone market, small through to group three target size.”
That includes hobby quadrotors through to drones the size of a light aircraft. In recent field trials, EOS’s laser successfully engaged and destroyed small target drones at a range of 780 meters, about half a mile, Jones said.
Australian firm Electro Optic Systems demonstrated its laser’s ability to take out quadcopter drones. (Credit: EOS)
“We are very confident, because of the technology and the way we are actually applying it, we can double that range,” he said. “We are targeting a four-kilometer [2.5 mile] engagement range. We have more work to do to achieve that.”
The long gestation of viable DE weapons is down to a series of technical challenges – their vast power requirement and beam quality deterioration caused by the atmosphere. Further, very precise tracking is required to hold the beam on target for the period of seconds needed to deliver lethal damage.
“If you look at the laser beam in the lab, at close distance you can see it is well distributed. But with increasing distance, after 200 metres the beam profiles gets worse,” Jones said. “It wobbles because of atmospheric turbulence. That is why in our system we had to develop a very advanced optical system to guarantee the best beam quality so that a small divergence can be delivered onto the target at long distance.”
The EOS laser system used a combination of optical and radar tracking developed from their remote weapon system programs.
“In many respects directed energy is easier than what we traditionally use, which are cannons and machine guns. We have no ballistics to manage,” he said. “It really comes down to the performance of the optical sensor. Again, it is something that EOS builds. It’s the same optical sensor with some minor modifications which we deliver on our remote weapon stations.”
He said much of the technology in the DE system was an evolution of technology EOS employed for space debris tracking and moving.
“The active beam management we require to enable a laser to get through the atmosphere and be concentrated in space is the sort of technology we are applying here,” he said.
Though some others working on DE systems are coy about their capabilities, and others include some of the world’s largest defense contractors, Jones and his team believe much of their work is world leading.
So where to now?
With the current state of development, the EOS laser is fully viable, he said.
“We can deploy the container now. In situations where we are looking at manoeuvring to support mobile forces that were protecting vital assets, port infrastructure, airports, bases headquarters that are static, we can deploy a system now,” he said. “We can supply more systems in 9 to12 months.”
Jones said they were talking to a number of countries, though he said EOS would prefer that this remains an Australian program with Australian personnel.
“We have gone as far as we can go with internal resources. We are now at the point where we have a proven capability and we have proven performance,” he said. “We have a system which, if push came to shove, we could actually deploy now. We have a road map to develop the technology to higher-power and longer-range performance. We are talking to [Australian] Defence about how this can be progressed. They have been quite supportive, but we don’t have a contract.”
In early April, the Australian Defence Force announced a $12.9 million AUD ($8.7 million USD) contract with QinetiQ Australia, subsidiary of the UK parent, to co-develop and manufacture a high energy defensive laser system prototype.