The answer is the laser dune buggy

Agile, mobile and effective, this invention will protect troops from new threats

In a windowless room on Raytheon Intelligence & Space’s campus in McKinney, Texas, a small team of blue jean-clad engineers and physicists was doing something that had never been done before. They moved back and forth between computer screens and a vehicle that looked straight out of Mad Max.

“Basically, we’re putting a laser on a dune buggy to knock drones out of the sky,” said Dr. Ben Allison, who at the time was the director of the business' high energy laser product line.

It’s actually a little more complicated than that. The team was combining a high energy laser with an advanced variant of Raytheon Intelligence & Space's Multi-spectral Targeting System – a sophisticated package of electro-optical and infrared sensors – and installing it on a Polaris MRZR, a small all-terrain vehicle.

"It's not sharks with laser beams on them," said Art Morrish, RI&S's vice president of Advanced Concepts & Technology, in a reference to Austin Powers, "but it's pretty close."

A defense against drones

The idea came after Allison and Morrish heard that a U.S. ally had used a Patriot missile to shoot down a cheap, store-bought drone outfitted with a grenade-like munition.

Drone in flight

Raytheon Intelligence & Space targeted and disabled a small Unmanned Aerial Vehicle using its High Energy Laser Weapon System onboard a Polaris MRZR in New Mexico.

“That cost-to-kill ratio is high,” Allison said, “but the threat is clear. So, the question became, ‘What can we do for a counter-UAS system using a high-energy laser, and do it quickly?' We didn’t want to go out and do a bunch of research and development. We wanted to take the assets and capabilities we have today and use them to really affect this asymmetrical threat. We settled on a small system that’s hugely capable.”

Good things come in small packages

The team first looked at putting its laser on a standard-size military container but soon realized it took up only a quarter of the available space. At the same time, an undisclosed customer was exploring ways to put a laser weapon system on vehicles small enough to fit in an airplane’s cargo bay or inside a helicopter.      

“When we saw how small we could make it and we saw a clear customer need, we immediately wanted to find a very tactically relevant vehicle that could get out to forward operating bases and do its mission,” Allison said.

The system is standalone, with a footprint of roughly 30 square feet. On a single charge from a 220-volt outlet, the same kind you plug your washing machine into at home, the HEL system onboard the MRZR delivers four hours of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capability and 20 to 30 laser shots. The system can also be coupled with a generator to provide virtually infinite magazine depth.

While the laser and the vehicle are sure to draw all the attention, it’s the weaponized MTS sensor package that is the core of the system. In this configuration, the MTS provides its standard setting ISR and tracking capabilities while also serving as a beam director.

That’s something Allison said sets this combo apart from bigger, more power-hungry systems. “If you have a good beam director, then you can use a smaller, more efficient laser. You can make your system smaller and more flexible,” he said. 

Hitting the road

Morrish believes the solution is particularly suited for expeditionary missions.

“Right now, it’s a shoot-on-the-halt capability,” he said. “You drive the vehicle wherever you’re going to drive it. You stop and then you fire up the laser. That makes it great for protecting forward-operating bases and places where convoys have to stop. The next step is to set it up so you can actually shoot on the move.”

After Raytheon Intelligence & Space began field testing of the HELWS MRZR, the company held a demonstration at the U.S. Army’s Maneuver Fires Experiment at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, in December.

“The idea is to quickly take this solution out of the lab and put it in the hands of the operators,” Morrish said. “The folks in uniform are going to find ways to use it that those of us in lab coats never have.”