DARPA wants super-power lasers for imaging, sensing, targeting

DARPA said it expects the new laser technology to draw from phased array concepts that revolutionized RADAR systems.

It’s not supposed to blow things up like Star Trek’s photonic emitter , but the type of super laser the US military wants for futuristic surveillance, 3D imaging, precision targeting and navigation is perhaps just as powerful.

The extreme scientists at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency today said they want to develop a laser system the goes way beyond today’s opto-mechanical, acousto-optical or electro-optical systems to establish photonic integrated circuit (PIC) technology that will provide video frame rate beam steering speeds, and emit multiple beams with a total output power of 10 W.

DARPA said Opto-mechanical scanning devices are usually bulky and relatively slow, while acousto- and electro-optical technologies utilize devices that while small in size, cannot provide the steering speeds and versatility necessary for many of the advanced applications the military envisions.

Known as the SWEEPER, which is short for short-range wide-field-of-view extremely-agile electronically-steered photonic emitters, DARPA said it expects the new laser technology to draw from phased array concepts that revolutionized RADAR systems. 

DARPA said it expects SWEEPER will provide a compact, agile alternative to mechanically steered technology, and recognizing the recent advances in photonic device density, circuit complexity, and performance capabilities in the emerging PIC technology, the SWEEPER program should extend phased array beam steering to the optical domain in the near infra red (0.8 to 2 μm range) by developing PIC technology for optical phased arrays. Such arrays will require the integration of thousand of closely packed optical emitting facets, precise relative electronic phase control of these components, and all within a very small form factor with a total output power of 10W, DARPA stated.

The idea is that such an array of emitters allow agile laser beam steering but also beam forming and multiple beam generation, with tons of application possibilities, such as surveillance, 3D imaging, precision targeting, fusing, IFF/tagging, terminal guidance, navigation, chem-bio sensing, ballistic detection, and point-to-point low probability of intercept (LPI) communication.

To achieve “video rate” scanning with the phased arrays will require high-speed control and coordination of the phase elements in the array so that the beam can be scanned in a continuous manner at very high slew rates across the far field of view, DARPA stated.

DARPA has had a long interest in developing beyond bleeding edge laser technology. For example it currently is developing what’s know as Blue Laser for Submarine Laser Communications which provides large area submarine communications at speed and depth, which no other future or existing system, or combinations of systems, can do. DARPA said.

Then there’s the High Energy Liquid Laser Area Defense System which the agency defines as a novel, compact, high power laser enabling practical small-size and low-weight speed-of-light weapons for tactical mobile air- and ground-vehicles.

DARPA already has the FORESTER radar which operates at frequencies that penetrate the forest canopy. Algorithms, running either on an aircraft or by the network at a ground station, compare images taken at different times to detect changes that signify either departures or arrivals. Because radars operate in all weather and at long ranges, this technique can discover the location of potential targets over very wide areas.

DARPA is also networking radars together. Its NetTrack program uses airborne radars to gather features of moving vehicles and pass that information over a network to maintain tracking information over extended periods. This network of radars will allow us to track the enemy even if they move behind obstructions or into urban canyons.

To identify targets in response to these cues, DARPA has developed laser radar, or ladar sensors that can obtain exquisitely detailed, 3-D imagery.

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