The US Air Force Research Lab (AFRL) granted a $49.1 million contract to UES Inc. to help research and develop technologies to counter laser attacks on aircraft.

Laser attacks are rising this year as China’s military forces have allegedly used beams to blind and harass US military pilots flying near Chinese territorial claims in the South China Sea and a military base in Djibouti, according to the Department of Defense.

For its part, UES operates the Laser Hardened Materials Evaluation Laboratory at Wright-Patterson AFB in Dayton, Ohio. The lab is a research and development centre, managed by AFRL’s Materials and Manufacturing Directorate, that specialises in laser and materials interaction testing, including thermal simulation testing, and features lasers ranging in power from 1kW to 100kW, according to UES’ website.

“The objective of this programme is to increase aircrew survivability to flash-blindness and directed energy threats through unique and innovative research and development solutions, and to advance the current state-of-the-art in photonic materials technologies, interactions, and applications,” says AFRL’s notice, posted online 10 August. “These efforts will ultimately result in developed technologies that can be transitioned to legacy, developmental and future Air Force system components to provide an increase in aircrew protection, performance and efficiency while reducing cost and accelerating [manufacturing].”

One focus of the Laser Hardened Materials Evaluation Laboratory is the development of metamaterials, a synthetic composite that in some cases can re-route light around objects. Separately, Metamaterial Technologies Inc. and Airbus partnered in 2017 to validate and bring to market a laser-bouncing metamaterial coating for the windscreens of commercial airliners.

However, UES has not committed to metamaterials or any particular technology at this point, says Rob Hull, director of UES’ photonic and electronic technologies division. Though, the company is focusing on wearable visors or spectacles, instead of windshield coating, he says.

“Coating a windscreen is much more complex and expensive. Now you’ve got more environmental issues: rain, sleet, sun [damage],” says Hull. “There are optical issues as well with a canopy. It may not protect a pilot where he is looking at any particular time.”

Making a laser-protective wearable presents its own challenges too, he says.

“They have to be resistant to sun and pilots throwing them down on the ground, and various things like that. Things you wouldn’t think about,” says Hull. “Sometimes, it’s a little challenging to get all those things in one place.”

Work for the programme is expected to be completed by 10 November 2024, according to the notice. The award was the result of a competitive acquisition and four offers were received, though the other three bidders were not named.

AFRL did not immediately respond to a request for comment.