Lasers, helicopters and heat-seeking missiles.
While the combination of those three things may not be that surprising in a big-budget action movie, some might be shocked to find they are in fact the focus of one University professor’s research.
Mohammed Islam, a professor in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at the University, is developing a way to use lasers to defend United States military helicopters from heat-seeking missiles. The research is in collaboration with OmniSciences Inc., an Ann Arbor-based technology startup founded by Islam.
Islam said the mid-infrared, super-continuum fiber lasers are designed to “essentially throw sand in the eye of the missile.”
Heat-seeking missiles, or “smart missiles,” target the hot metal and the plume of a helicopter engine. By using lasers that emit the same wavelengths of light as the engines, Islam said, helicopter operators will be able to effectively hide their aircrafts from missiles.
“What our laser does is put out a signal from roughly one to 4.5 microns that can basically fool this missile or that can emulate the heat of the engine,” he said.
According to Islam, the heat waves emitted by the lasers are comparable to the heat waves coming off of a barbeque.
Islam sent the first prototype of the laser system, which he said was about the size of a DVD player, to the U.S. Army in 2008. The army responded by recommending that he acquire more funding for his research.
The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and every branch of the Defense Department that uses helicopters have since contributed funds for Islam’s research.
Since submitting the first prototype, Islam said he’s focused on developing higher-powered lasers that will be able to better emulate the heat from a helicopter engine and will be able to target missiles from farther away. He said he’s also been working on specializing the lasers so they have more energy in certain wavelengths that missiles might be more sensitive to.
“What we do is we provide (the military) with the capability to put it on whatever modulation they want and we can also customize the optics to what they want,” he said.
Islam said he plans to send the second prototype to the military sometime next year.
Having received his B.S., M.S. and Sc.D. degrees in electrical engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Islam said he decided to focus his research on fiber optics and lasers because “the technology is very mature and very solid.”
Over $10 billion dollars was invested in telecom research, including fiber optics and its applications during the telecommunications boom that came with the invention of the Internet, according to Islam.
Islam said he wanted to “use telecommunications and technology for anything but telecom.”
He began his work with laser-based missile defense in 2004 in response to the heightened concern for helicopter safety in Iraq and Afghanistan after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
According to an April article in Defense Industry Daily — a news source for military purchasing and defense procurement — heat-seeking missiles are responsible for 90 percent of all U.S. air combat losses over the last 25 years.
Islam said his work demonstrates how academic research can have large-scale impacts beyond the University.
“I think it’s a great example of where we’ve taken basic research from the university setting and used it to solve a problem in our defense arena,” he said.
Islam is now looking into other uses of mid-infrared super-continuum lasers, including applications for border control and remote sensing of explosives.