by Andy Extance
Silently, the drone aircraft glides above the arid terrain of New Mexico — until it suddenly pivots out of control and plummets to the ground.
Then a mortar round rises from its launcher, arcs high and begins to descend towards its target — only to flare and explode in mid-flight.
On the desert floor, on top of a big, sand-coloured truck, a cubic mechanism pivots and fires an invisible infrared beam to zap one target after another. This High Energy Laser Mobile Demonstrator (HEL MD) is a prototype laser weapon developed for the US Army by aerospace giant Boeing of Chicago, Illinois. Inside the truck, Boeing electrophysics engineer Stephanie Blount stares at the targets on her laptop’s screen and directs the laser using a handheld game controller. “It has a very game-like feel,” she says.
That seems only natural: laser weapons are a staple of modern video games, and ray-guns of various sorts were common in science fiction for decades before the first real-life laser was demonstrated in 1960. But they are not a fantasy anymore. The Boeing prototype is just one of several such weapons developed in recent years in both the United States and Europe, largely thanks to the advent of relatively cheap, portable and robust lasers that generate their beams using optical fibres.
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