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Boeing Wins Contract to Develop Lasers for Drones

An MQ-9 Reaper remotely piloted aircraft assigned to the 163d Attack Wing taxis at March Air Reserve Base, California, on April 5, 2017. Airman Michelle Ulber/Air National Guard
An MQ-9 Reaper remotely piloted aircraft assigned to the 163d Attack Wing taxis at March Air Reserve Base, California, on April 5, 2017. Airman Michelle Ulber/Air National Guard

Laser-armed drones are one step closer to becoming a reality.

The Missile Defense Agency recently awarded Boeing Co. a nine-month, $9 million contract as part of its Low Power Laser Demonstrator program, according to a Defense Department contract announcement.

Boeing is the third defense contractor to begin work on the agency's first phase of the project, which aims to design, integrate and test a low power laser on an unmanned aerial vehicle.

The agency awarded a $9.4 million contract to Lockheed Martin Corp. in October and an $8.9 million contract to General Atomics in November.

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For now, the goal is to integrate airborne platforms with precision tracking lasers.

For example, under a previous contract, the agency successfully tested General Atomics' MQ-9 Reaper incorporated with Raytheon's Multi-Spectral Targeting System -- an electro-optical/infrared, long-range surveillance, target tracking and range finding, and laser designated sensor package -- during a Navy exercise last year.

Those capabilities may even be able to identify and track North Korea's intercontinental ballistic missile launches, according to Richard Matlock, program executive for advanced technology at the Missile Defense Agency.

Matlock told Smithsonian's Air & Space Magazine in May the infrared-sensor technology on UAVs will allow the agency to more accurately track hundreds of miles beyond radar range to see missiles before they launch into the sky.

The technology could eventually evolve into "kill lasers," for more advanced high-altitude drones that could take out ICBMs in the boost phase before cruise altitude, Matlock told Air & Space.

In 2016, MDA awarded five contracts to General Atomics, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, Boeing and Raytheon for preliminary, low-power laser concepts.

Boeing will work on its LPD laser in Huntington Beach, California, and Albuquerque, New Mexico, through September, according to the contract announcement.

-- Oriana Pawlyk can be reached at oriana.pawlyk@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @Oriana0214.

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