The US Air Force wants to add directed-energy weapons (DE) to its fighters and has conducted a wind tunnel test to assess how changing airflows influence a DE system’s beam quality and effectiveness.
Unlike traditional weapon systems, DE systems do not use physical projectiles. Instead, they employ high-energy lasers or microwaves.
When utilizing such systems in flight, aircraft shockwaves can distort the weapon’s beam. Testing in a wind tunnel allows engineers to evaluate how the beam reacts to and resists wind, factoring in variables such as speed and altitude.
Wind Tunnel Test
Aero-optical DE testing recently conducted by researchers in a four-foot transonic wind tunnel was the culmination of eight years of work.
“Simply put, this system transmits a laser to the model, uses a miniaturized optical bench of sorts inside the model, then uses fiber optics to pipe the data to a wave front sensor system,” said Dr. Rich Roberts, chief of the Aerodynamics Branch Store Separation Section.
“From there, we can analyze data that tells us how the laser was impacted by the tunnel flow field around the model.”
The test marked the first time the system was trialed in supersonic conditions. Roberts reported the session went “very well.”
Growing Interest in DE Systems
Directed-energy weapon systems can provide critical advantages to a force, including increased speed, accuracy, and lower costs per engagement.
“There is a growing interest for directed energy systems within the DOD [Department of Defense] for many purposes, especially defending our systems and personnel,” said Roberts. “There are a number of systems in use and being developed across the DOD. Integrating the DE systems on aircraft has obvious benefits, but also creates challenges, especially at higher speeds.”