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News | Dec. 15, 2009

Researchers Test Non-Lethal Laser Windshield Obscuration Technology

By Nancy Koreen Joint Non-Lethal Weapons Directorate

DAHLGREN, Va. – The Department of Defense’s Joint Non-Lethal Weapons Program (JNLWP) is working to meet warfighter needs by developing technologies to fill identified capability gaps. One of the biggest challenges U.S. operating forces face today is dealing with suspicious vehicles at checkpoints and entry control points and determining drivers’ intent. As a result, non-lethally stopping or disabling vehicles are top-priority capability gaps that call for new non-lethal escalation-of-force options to help diffuse these dangerous situations and minimize casualties.

The Department of Defense defines non-lethal weapons as “weapons, devices and munitions that are explicitly designed and primarily employed to incapacitate targeted personnel or materiel immediately, while minimizing fatalities, permanent injury to personnel and undesired damage to property in the target area or environment. Non-lethal weapons are intended to have reversible effects on personnel and materiel.” Non-lethal weapons provide warfighters with escalation-of-force options when lethal force is not the best first response.

The JNLWP is funding several efforts to address the Services’ non-lethal capability gaps. One such effort is the laser windshield obscuration project, which is exploring the use of directed-energy technology to non-lethally stop or disable vehicles. The Directed Energy Warfare Office at the Naval Surface Warfare Center Dahlgren Division, Va., is performing the research for the project.

“Determining whether an approaching vehicle is carrying friendly or hostile passengers is a daily challenge for U.S. operating forces overseas,” said Colonel Tracy Tafolla, Director of the Joint Non-Lethal Weapons Directorate (JNLWD). “The JNLWP is sponsoring efforts to develop new technologies that enable our troops to engage potential threats at extended ranges while minimizing casualties and collateral damage.”

The laser windshield obscuration project is investigating the use of laser technology to physically obscure vehicle windshields, blocking the driver’s view and compelling him to slow or stop the vehicle. While currently fielded laser distracters can cause temporary optical incapacitation, they are most effective at night. The laser windshield obscuration effort is working to produce the same obscuration effects regardless of ambient light conditions.

Initial research attempted to identify the best laser parameters to either crack or blacken a windshield so that the driver could not see through it. Researchers successfully discovered the laser parameters that could crack a windshield without harming the vehicle occupants. In the process, they found that the same parameters produced a bright white flash on the windshield regardless of lighting conditions, which may cause temporary optical incapacitation to the driver, according to Scott Griffiths, systems engineer at the JNLWD. The project is planning to conduct human effects and behavioral research to verify that the white light flashes can temporarily incapacitate a driver’s vision and compel him to halt his vehicle.

Researchers have now begun testing the technology at realistic ranges over real road surfaces with a configuration built using commercial-off-the-shelf parts. The outdoor testing began in August to study how atmospheric conditions will affect the laser beam over a road surface.

Researchers tested the configuration along a real roadway against static vehicle windshields hundreds of meters away. During this testing, the laser windshield obscuration system demonstrated the ability to produce the windshield effects identified in the laboratory at tactical ranges of hundreds of meters, according to Griffiths. Researchers will now use the information to refine the technical objectives for the prototype laser and optical subsystem.

In addition, researchers have discovered a new windshield effect using a pulsed laser. By creating a plasma on the surface of the windshield, the new pulsed laser causes a flash of light and a loud bang, an effect similar to the explosion of a large firecracker. Researchers will now work to determine the optimum laser parameters for this new effect, which may have additional counter-personnel applications for warning, hailing or suppressing individuals.

Fiscal year 2010 plans for the laser windshield obscuration project include conducting dynamic testing against moving vehicles to provide information to refine the specifications for the prototype laser. As this technology advances, the JNLWP will continue to support efforts to develop new non-lethal technologies to address the Services’ identified capability gaps.