DARPA laser research boosts airborne death rays, tiny laser scanners

This week has been laser week at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, with two very different laser-based programs hitting major milestones: an inexpensive array of lasers on a single chip that can be used as sensors on drones and robots and a killer laser system that could blow up missiles, shells, and possibly vehicles and people.

Yesterday, DARPA announced the successful test of a single-chip laser detection and ranging system that makes it possible to build inexpensive, lightweight short-range “phased array” LADAR that could be mounted on small unmanned aircraft, robots, and vehicles. The technology could bring low-cost, solid-state, high-resolution 3D scanning to a host of devices in the near future.

Called SWEEPER (Short-range Wide-field-of-view Extremely agile Electronically steered Photonic EmitteR), the sensor technology embeds thousands of laser-emitting dots microns apart on a silicon chip—creating a “phased array” optical scanning system that can scan rapidly across a 51-degree arc without the need for mechanical rotation. In the latest test, the system was able to scan back and forth across that entire arc more than 100,000 times per second.

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