Scotland will host a European hub for the development of high-energy laser weapons against small attack drones.
Defense technology and intelligence firm Raytheon UK has unveiled plans to build an “advanced laser integration centre” in Livingston, around 15 miles from Edinburgh.
The center will focus on the testing, fielding and maintenance of defensive high-energy laser (HEL) weapons, which will counter the threat posed by drones, which has been highlighted by the use of this technology during fighting in Ukraine.
The company’s electronic warfare systems president, Annabel Flores, told the BBC that “demand is skyrocketing for cost-effective lasers” capable of defeating “asymmetric” threats from drones, rockets and mortars.
Last year, The British armed forces began trials using laser weapons designed by the company, which were small enough to install on UK Wolfhound land vehicles.
The invasion of Ukraine and the ensuing armed clashes between Russian and Ukrainian forces demonstrated the success of small commercial drones, which were used to direct and correct artillery fire as well as to transport explosives. They also have a low cost, often in the range of 100 euros (£85).
The use of drones has been so successful for the Ukrainian forces that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky recently requested public “dronations” to help the country build an army of 200 military reconnaissance drones as part of the war effort.
“The idea comes from knowing how to effectively defend yourself against them, which makes our ongoing conversations with customers much deeper and much more pronounced,” Flores said.
To counter this threat, Raytheon UK has developed high-energy lasers that target drones. The company said that the laser system has 20,000 hours of operational use, but Flores is not yet determined whether the system has been “used in anger”.
Although the company is also not drawn to how much it will ultimately invest – citing pending financial results – the BBC said it has already spent around £20m developing the Livingston site, which could potentially create “hundreds of jobs” in the future.
However, despite the appeal of the idea, the weapons developed by Raytheon do not resemble popular sci-fi lasers, as their drone-killing beams are invisible.
“Hollywood makes it feel like it’s very, very interesting and very dramatic. And it’s a little different. It might feel a little disappointing,” Flores said.
The company said the announcement was a “statement of faith” both in the UK engineering industry and in the important nature of the technology, which Raytheon believes itcould represent up to 30% of future air defense infrastructure.
The UK has recently increased its investment in drone technology, and not just for defense purposes. Earlier this week the government revealed plans to build the world’s largest automated drone highway and last March, The O2 mobile network and drone company Skyfarer have announced that they are creating the infrastructure for a new network of drones, intended to facilitate the rapid delivery of Covid-19 supplies and blood samples.
The Advanced Weapons Center announcement comes shortly after the Ministry of Defense announced that a £160million contract had been awarded to Raytheon UK to support the training and development of personnel at the Royal Navy at Scottish Naval Base HM Clyde.
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