Attack of the Drones: How Far is the Weaponry of the Big Screen from Current Warfare?

The newest Star Wars: The Force Awakens opened to rave reviews. 

All over the country, excited fans were transported to a world of space exploration, droid destruction, laser blasters and lightsabers. But how far away is the world and weaponry of the big screen in 2016?

“Hokey religions and ancient weapons are no match for a good blaster at your side, kid.” Han Solo to Luke Skywalker.

Earlier this year, at the DSEI (Defence and Security Equipment International) exhibition, First Sea Lord Admiral Sir George Zambellas announced that the Ministry of Defence was looking for defence firms to get involved with projects aiming to construct a military laser weapon.

Yes. Laser weapons. Move over Han Solo, we’re due to get our very own laser blasters.

Battlefield Domination

Intending to use these “laser based weapons” to destroy missiles and drones, the Ministry of Defence is keen to garner support from defence firms in order to develop prototypes – enabling the UK to “dominate battlefields” within the next decade. This concept, incorporating seemingly space-age technology into our naval warships, comes from the “highly effective” laser weapon the US has previously tested on the USS Ponce in the Persian Gulf.

Capable of shooting drones out of the sky, the US deployed the laser in 2014, but have been working closely with Raytheon on laser weapons since 2010. These Directed Energy Weapons (DEWs) will be used more and more within modern warfare, emitting energy without the means of a projectile, and using infra-red, microwave radiation and visible light. MBDA have also successfully demonstrated a 40kw laser – hitting targets at an airborne range of 2,000m.    

Newly Debuted

The Boeing Compact Laser Weapons System – coincidentally also debuted at DSEI late last year – features a tri-pod mounted device which, whilst portable, still packs enough (unlimited) fire-power to burn a hole in a quad-copter (unmanned helicopter with 4 blades) in a matter of seconds.

“These aren't the *drones* you are looking for.”

Whilst there are some similarities to Star Wars, there’s a big difference in the restrictions imposed upon usage of these new weapons. Under the rules set out in the Geneva Convention, you still can’t use lasers to target personnel.

Instead, these lasers will be used to shoot down drones and unmanned aircraft, and deal with incoming missiles.

“Pew Pew!”

Whilst the lasers in the films glow red or green, and fire with that satisfying “pew” sound we’ve all come to associate with energy beams, those in real life are silent and invisible. To counter this, Boeing’s HEL MD (a truck that shoots lasers automatically at flying targets) will actually play laser sound effects so that those operating them can hear when it’s done firing.

The best part? They’ll be using genuine sci-fi sound bites.

With the development of these laser blasters continuing to progress, it’s interesting to consider how many more “space age” weapons will begin to appear over the next decade. Tasked with imagining how the warships of the future might look, naval architects in the Royal Navy and MoD proposed the incorporation of ultra-strong composite graphene into the structure of the hulls, which could switch from opaque to transparent. Armed with electromagnetic “railguns” and, of course, laser DEW, the ideas put forward for this ship (dubbed “Dreadnought 2050”) 

“…push today’s boundaries in science and engineering, [but] there is no reason why elements could not be incorporated into future designs.” Muir Macdonald.

With the news today that Dorset based Cobham have been selected to provide the motors for the NASA’s 2020 Mars mission – creating the actuators that drive the wheels and control steering – it truly does seem like our technological development has been thrust into hyperspace.