Earlier this month in California, Boeing's second-generation, compact-laser weapons system disabled a moving, untethered drone. That's important as enemies can easily acquire commercially available drones -- also known as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) -- and use them to deliver explosives or perform reconnaissance.
Using a laser of up to two kilowatts, the weapons system can focus on a target located at a tactical distance up to "many hundreds of meters" away, according to a Boeing video of the technology.
It only took a few seconds for the drone to ignite and crash. The laser is typically aimed at the tail of the drone because, once that section of the drone is disabled, it becomes impossible to control the drone, according to Dave DeYoung, director of laser and electro-optical systems at Boeing.
Sometimes it doesn't make sense to fire a missile, which may range in cost from $30,000 to $3 million, at a drone that may cost a few thousand dollars, he said in an interview.
It costs "a couple of dollars" for each firing of the new laser weapons system, he said.
"It's not an either-or situation," he said. "There will be instances when missiles make sense."
One of the drawbacks of using lasers, DeYoung said, is that light, unlike a missile, keeps going. The Boeing weapon uses a safeguard to make sure there is a clear line of sight both to and beyond the target.
Boeing is developing the laser system for the U.S. military and wouldn't reveal certain details like its effective range or cost. DeYoung did say that the laser is a commercial, off-the-shelf product and that Boeing developed the control and target acquisition system.
He also said that while the military will be the main customer, the product would be for sale for use in broader applications and that "there isn't a market we wouldn't explore."
In previous tests, the system was able to target and destroy a tethered drone. This new test challenged the system to track a drone in the air.
This new system is portable and packs up into four large plastic boxes. It can be run on a generator and takes about two cups (473 millimeters) of diesel fuel to power.
DeYoung said that Boeing is collecting feedback from the U.S. Department of Defense and incorporating it into further iterations of the prototype, but wouldn't reveal the commercialization timeline. The previous generation of the laser system took about two years to develop.