US Air Force Completes Flight Tests for Directed Energy Laser System Beam Director
US Air Force Completes Flight Tests for Directed Energy Laser System Beam Director

US Air Force Completes Flight Tests for Directed Energy Laser System Beam Director

The U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory completed a successful flight-test campaign for a new beam director concept that can be used with directed energy laser systems integrated onto aircraft. The Hybrid Aero-Effect Reducing Design with Realistic Optical Components, or HARDROC, team, consisting of personnel from AFRL’s Aerospace Systems Directorate here and Directed Energy Directorate at Kirtland AFB, New Mexico, along with prime contractor MZA Associates, developed and tested a low-power, sub-scale beam director to evaluate the ability of various aerodynamic flow control techniques to mitigate optical and mechanical distortions imparted on a laser beam leaving an airborne platform travelling at high speeds.

“Using advanced computational fluid dynamic, or CFD, simulation techniques, we were able to demonstrate significant reduction in aero-effects across a wide range of speeds and look angles. We effectively utilized a substantial amount of computational hours provided by the Department of Defense High Performance Computing Modernization Office to establish which flow-control techniques could work, which techniques were worth pursuing and which were not,” said Dr. Scott Sherer, CFD lead for the HARDROC program.

“The HARDROC beam director is a leap forward in technology to minimize aerodynamic degradations. This series of flight tests demonstrated the effectiveness of flow control to reduce the aerodynamic effects on the beam director,” said Rudy Johnson, HARDROC program manager.

The flow-control at the heart of HARDROC has been in development for several years by researchers at AFRL. The Aerospace Systems Directorate team worked closely with their counterparts at the Directed Energy Directorate and leaned on previous efforts in beam director development to further the technology used in the HARDROC Program. While advanced flow-control techniques were at the heart of the HARDROC Program, tying these aerodynamic modifications in with realistic optical components was crucial to demonstrating overall system effectiveness. To get to these answers, AFRL contracted with MZA Associates, a world leader in the modeling, analysis, design, development, integration and testing of High Energy Laser, or HEL, and advanced optical systems to design a sub-scale system that could be either utilized in a wind-tunnel or on an aircraft.

The resulting design was ground-tested in an environmental chamber as well as a wind-tunnel to ensure functionality and performance under load before culminating in flight-testing on a business jet during the summer and autumn of 2022. During the flight-tests, the aircraft cruised at high speed and a variety of sensors were used to measure aerodynamic disturbances. The data demonstrated that the HARDROC beam director enlarges the envelop that airborne directed energy systems can operate in, providing 360-degree field of regard across extended speed regimes with reduced size, weight and power, or SWaP, compared to other state-of-the-art turrets. The Air Force Research Laboratory, or AFRL, is the primary scientific research and development center for the Department of the Air Force. AFRL plays an integral role in leading the discovery, development and integration of affordable warfighting technologies for our air, space and cyberspace force.ent.

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