Pentagon Wants Wearable, Lightweight Laser Detectors For the Troops


The challenge will be getting a sensitive enough sensor into a small enough package

Lightweight, high-powered lasers have become a problem on the battlefield, and the Defense Department’s future-forward research arm, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, is looking for a lightweight, wearable sensor that can detect when those lasers are targeting U.S. servicemembers.  

The state of small, high-powered lasers today is the result of “decades of research activity,” according to a solicitation posted last week. “The small form factor makes these systems easy to disguise and bring into environments without detection. For example, such systems could be hidden in a delivery van or in a truck carrying supplies. Small lasers could be hidden in a backpack and carried into public venues.”

To combat this reality, DARPA wants small businesses to develop a wearable sensor capable of detecting laser irradiation near-instantaneously, day or night.

“The system must have very low weight and volume; detect and alert of lasing in real time; and detect laser illumination over the visible to shortwave infrared region of the electromagnetic spectrum,” the solicitation states.

Ideally, the tech will weigh less than 3.5 pounds—1.6 kilograms—including the device at no more than 100 grams and a “rechargeable conformal wearable battery” that weighs in at less than 1.5 kilograms, including wiring. The system must be able to be powered on continuously for 72 hours and be “comfortable to wear and be easily integrated into existing military use headgear,” the call states. “The system should also be compatible with integration into standard civil and military issued headgear without significantly increasing the bulkiness or weight.”

The main goal is to “warn personnel of potential ocular damage or damage to electro-optical and infrared sensors in near-real time,” according to the solicitation.

DARPA scientists anticipate the biggest issue will be ensuring the system only detects laser irradiation, particularly at such a diminutive size and scale.

“The system should not react to bright non-laser sources such as solar phenomenon, flares, background light, thermal light, headlights, rocket plumes, muzzle flashes and other sudden bursts of high intensity light not related to laser illumination as these would be considered system false alarms and degrade functional performance,” the call states.

DARPA is only accepting Phase 1 proposals, with up to $225,000 available over 12 months for research and development of new ideas over the. Projects that show promise during those 12 months will get a call from DAPRA program managers offering funding of up to $1.5 million for Phase II, which focuses on development of a “deliverable prototype” over 18 months, according to the original broad agency announcement.

This call is the fifth this year for DARPA’s Small Business Programs Office’s 2020 research and development broad agency agreement.

As part of DARPA’s Small Business Innovation Research and Small Business Technology Transfer, or SBIR/STTR, program, the solicitation is only open to small businesses.

While DARPA is chiefly interested in protecting Defense Department personnel, the call notes this technology could be of great use in the private sector, as well, with potential markets in the airline and commercial aviation sector.

Proposals are due no later than 2 p.m. May 26.