Aerospace giant Boeing held a media demonstration of its Compact Laser Weapons System this week in Albuquerque, N.M.
The portable device aims a silent, invisible laser at a target and tracks it as it moves, heating it until it burns a hole — a process that takes about 15 seconds. It's possible because all the energy in the laser beam is concentrated in a very tiny spot.
"Think of it like a welding torch being put on target but from many hundreds of metres away," said Isaac Neal, a Boeing engineer, in a video of the demonstration posted online Thursday.
"If you were on the receiving end of laser energy, you'd have no idea where it was coming from or what was even happening."
It's something you've likely seen many times in science fiction movies, but it's only now becoming a reality.
The media demonstration followed a successful test in Point Mugu, Calif., that Boeing calls a milestone. The test was the first time the system managed to disable a moving drone that wasn't restrained by a tether.
Boeing has several systems under development, all of which are designed to target drones or unmanned aerial vehicles. Drones have raised a variety of security concerns because of their ability to easily fly into unauthorized areas that are otherwise inaccessible. Because of that, they can be used in espionage, disturb wildlife, or create hazards for aircraft carrying human pilots and passengers, for example. They can also carry weapons such as guns or smuggle illegal goods such as drugs.
The system demonstrated this week, equipped with a two kilowatt laser, is the smallest that Boeing is developing — when fully set up, it looks to be about the size of a large microwave oven perched sideways on a heavy-duty tripod. According to Boeing, it fits in four boxes and "sets up in minutes."
Some of the larger laser systems Boeing is developing are also designed to counter small boats or projectile weapons such as mortars and rockets in addition to drones.