In the days leading up to Super Bowl LV in Tampa, Florida, the local county sheriff reported nearly 70 drone intrusions into an FAA-mandated no fly zone. While many drone operators might just be looking for a bird’s eye view of the game, the FAA has issued past warnings about the dangers of weaponized drones.
“Drones are becoming more sophisticated and dangerous, and many can be easily designed to be immune to things like jamming,” said Evan Hunt, director of high-energy lasers and counter-UAS at Raytheon Intelligence & Space, a Raytheon Technologies business. “To defeat them, authorities around sporting events need new ways to precisely identify and track these drones at long distances and, if deemed threatening, quickly eliminate them.”
RI&S’ high-energy laser weapon system, or HELWS, uses electro-optical sensors that give operators a clear image of the target and track it. Paired with a radar, HELWS can see drones that would otherwise go undetected from several miles away. Once system operators identify the drone as a threat, with a simple push of a button, they can accurately aim the laser beam at their mark, bringing the drone down within seconds.
But that, of course, raises a question: How do you do that safely in crowded environments like stadiums, with potentially tens of thousands of people on hand?
“To mitigate risks to the public, HELWS can be pre-programed with safety zones where the system will automatically inhibit the laser from being used,” said Justin Martin, program area chief engineer for HELWS. “Conversely, areas that are determined safe to bring down a drone, such as an empty field or body of water, are pre-loaded into the system – these areas are ideal to stop a threat.”
The laser system is relatively compact and can be placed on top of a stadium or other strategic vantage points like tall buildings. HELWS can also be mounted on tactical vehicles or even the back of pickup trucks.
“The key is to position these systems strategically on or around the stadium and to hit the drones at a distance, long before they get close to any areas with crowds around,” said Martin.
The clear image enabled by HELWS’ electro-optical sensor lets trained operators distinguish between drones that are carrying a weapon and those that aren't. That allows them to focus on the dangerous ones. And the sensor's integration with the laser beam adds a layer of risk reduction.
“Lasers don’t miss – you hit the exact thing you are looking at, at the speed of light,” said Hunt. “And if another object gets in the way of the beam, the operator can pause the engagement instantly.”
Another safety mechanism: operators can adjust the laser's power to match the threat.
“If the drone is just carrying a camera for surveillance, for example, operators can simply aim the laser with extreme precision to blind or damage the camera without downing the drone,” said Martin.
HELWS works as a standalone system but can also connect to other sensors and effectors, as well as command and control networks to feed real-time information or video to a local command center. This gives those in charge of security a more complete picture of the surrounding environment and a more precise target-tracking capability.
“Ultimately, whether you’re protecting a stadium at the World Cup, the Olympics or any other sporting event, or critical infrastructure like an airport or a military facility, it’s important to have a layered defense – a diverse set of tools to take the appropriate action against the different types of drone threats,” said Hunt. “And HELWS is a proven part of that toolkit.”