BAE Systems reveals atmosphere-bending laser mounted on rocket craft

18 Jan 2017

The Laser Developed Atmospheric Lens bending the Earth’s atmosphere for surveillance. Image: BAE Systems

Lasers are heading to the upper atmosphere, as the British defence company BAE Systems revealed its concept for a new atmospheric laser system that can be both a deflector shield and an advanced surveillance system.

While the US is usually seen as the place where some of the latest military photonics technology is being developed, the UK is also establishing itself as one of the world’s busiest laser weapon producers.

Earlier this month, the UK Ministry of Defence revealed that it had signed a £30m contract with a number of different European defence companies to produce a laser weapon capable of being deployed on both land and sea.

Now, BAE Systems, one of the world’s largest defence companies, is looking to take this a step further with an airborne venture that literally takes the laser weapon concept to a whole new level.

Called the Laser Developed Atmospheric Lens (LDAL), this laser system is rather unlike many we have seen before, in that it is capable of turning our planet’s atmosphere into a focused photographic lens for spying.

According to BAE Systems, the LDAL works by simulating naturally occurring phenomena, temporarily – and reversibly – changing the Earth’s atmosphere into lens-like structures to magnify or change the path of electromagnetic waves such as light and radio signals.

‘This is a tremendously exciting time in laser physics’

This exploits a physics phenomenon known as the ‘Kerr Effect’ to temporarily ionise or heat a small region of atmosphere, creating a mirrored effect and revealing territory in a specific location on Earth.

In doing so, an aircraft at the upper reaches of our atmosphere could monitor a battlefield or priority location from unprecedented distances, without ground-based weapons systems reading that the aircraft is even there.

But in the event that an enemy may have a laser weapon of its own that is capable of targeting the aircraft, the LDAL can be deployed as a deflector shield and return the original laser back to its source, with devastating results.

Craig Stacey, CEO of LumOptica, worked with BAE Systems on the LDAL, saying: “This is a tremendously exciting time in laser physics. Emerging technologies will allow us to enter new scientific territories and explore ever new applications.

“We are delighted to be working with BAE Systems on the application of such game-changing technologies, evaluating concepts which are approaching the limits of what is physically possible and what might be achieved in the future.”

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic