Unmanned air giant General Atomics scored the contract for the first phase of the Missile Defense Agency’s low power laser demonstration contract this week, marking the first step on the road toward a high-altitude, long-endurance UAV with a high-energy laser.

Before creating a UAV that can prosecute intercontinental ballistic missiles in the boost phase, the preliminary effort will establish beam stability at long range and the ability to dwell on a single spot on a target. Under the $8.8 million contract, General Atomics will address laser power and aperture size by integrating and testing a low power laser on an unmanned aerial vehicle, according to a 6 November Defense Department notice.

MDA is aiming for a low-power flight test by 2020 and beam stability testing by 2021, FlightGlobal previously reported. Under a previous MDA contract, General Atomics demonstrated precision tracking on its MQ-9 Reaper using Raytheon’s Multi-Spectral Targeting System-C electro-optical/infrared turret. While Raytheon's MTS-B system has short- and mid-wave infrared (IR) sensors, the MTS-C’s long-wave IR sensor allows the system to track cold bodies or ballistic missiles in their cruise phase.

The low-power laser demonstrator would not have the capacity to intercept a missile in the boost phase, but marks a stepping stone for that more ambitious directed energy project. Instead, the LPLD system would demonstrate beam control technology on a less-capable UAV, such as the GA-ASI's Avenger.

During an August media visit at General Atomics’ facility outside San Diego, California, officials would not comment directly on the competition for the MDA award. But while the company’s newest Avenger Configuration, Angel One, is being pushed as a humanitarian relief platform, the company could have laser ambitions for the UAV. Posters tacked across the production line illustrated the family of General Atomics UAVs, including an Avenger prosecuting a tank with a laser.

Like the baseline Avenger, the sleek Angel One is jet-powered by a Pratt & Whitney PW545B turbofan engine, can climb up to 50,000 feet and includes six external hardpoints. While Angel One holds about half the payload of the extended range Avenger, 3500lb compared to 6000lb, and a maximum endurance of six hours, the prototype boasts a broad payload bay. Rather than the traditional pallet drop, payloads would release in a “confetti drop” from Angel One.

A FlightGlobal interview with GA last year hinted the company’s strategy with the ample payload did not always point to humanitarian efforts, though the latest GA brochures on Angel One emphasize weapons would not be used on the platform.

“The internal payload drop bay mechanism was not specifically designed for this application, however, it could easily be used for the rapid delivery of humanitarian relief packages,” company officials told FlightGlobal last year.

Source: FlightGlobal.com