A commercially available hobby-drone is flying on White Sands Missile Range in support of advanced laser testing.
Engineers at the High Energy Laser Systems Test Facility are using a commercially available quad copter drone in the calibration of the Joint High Power Solid State Laser system.
The JHPSSL is a 100kw laser system originally developed as a technology development program to advance high power solid state laser technology and boost US laser programs to the 100kw power level. While successful in meeting that objective, JHPSSL wasn’t intended for use as a deployable system, however its installation at HELSTF makes it perfect for use as a test and evaluation platform. Using the JHPSSL to replicate the effects of a tactical laser, HELSTF test personnel can evaluate both laser system components as well as laser performance and capabilities.
One such performance evaluation set is a test series at WSMR that collects data using various laser settings and scenarios.
“We’re trying to determine what it actually takes to shoot down targets under various conditions so we can do a better job of designing systems and the scaling they need,” said Chuck Malone, a senior system engineer for the JHPSSL program. “How much power you need, and the accuracy on target.”
In preparation for this test series the JHPSSL laser is sequenced through a battery of checks and calibrations to ensure its ready when actual testing begins. Calibration requires the laser’s targeting system be run like expected in the test. To do this HELSTF personnel used an off the shelf quadcopter as a stand in target.
Available at photography and hobby shops for a few thousand dollars, this simple drone isn’t really suited for combat. Unprotected from attack, with a flight time of only a few minutes, and a wide angle camera without any zoom or low light features the military applications of a commercially available quadcopter are currently somewhat limited. However as a simple target for calibration the quadcopter is working quite well.
“The beauty of the off the shelf system is that it’s easy to fly, is a cheaper option, and the constraints behind doing just an aimpoint and tracking test are a lot less, making it easier and cheaper for this kind of exercise,” said Nahim Flores, a HELSTF test engineer.
Being simple to fly and lightweight, the aircraft is fairly easy to get approved for limited operation in WSMR’s controlled military airspace without the expense of licensed pilots or extensive range support. Using its hover and VTOL capability the drone is able to be placed in a known location so the laser targeting systems can begin calibration without needing to search for the target, and the drone can then execute maneuvers comparable to the fixed wing tactical and target drones planned for the test.
“The platform itself is very stable and the other advantage, as far as tracking, is that it allows us to start at a stationary point and it gives the tracking system the ability to go to that point without having to use a radar,” Flores said. “Once it’s acquired, we have the ability to move to a different point and have the system track it.”
The drone also met important safety goals. High energy lasers like JHPSSL can have a very long range. While the laser might not be able to burn a hole in a target past a certain distance, it’s still possible for the beam to continue on with enough power to damage sensitive technology. As a simple and stable platform the drone can be kept within a flight path that ensures the laser propagation is within the range designated “fire permit window.”
As a key location for the development of laser and directed energy systems for the entire DoD, HELSTF conducts extensive laser systems testing year round. Making use of WSMR’s good and adverse weather, safe location, and experienced personnel, HELSTF has made a name for itself, both among defense and commercial customers, as an excellent place to test new and developing systems. By adding commercial drone systems to its capability set HELSTF and WSMR are keeping current with the emerging technology that many different sectors of government and industry expect will only see expanding use in the years to come.