NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. – With small unmanned aircraft systems – frequently called drones, becoming more common every day, the Air Force Research Laboratory Directed Energy Directorate at Kirtland Air Force Base, New Mexico, has developed a counter-swarm high power weapon that should cause those with nefarious intentions of using drones against United States forces at U.S. military installations at home or overseas to think twice about such actions.
AFRL exhibited the technology, called the Tactical High-power Operational Responder (THOR), at the 2019 Air Force Association Air, Space, and Cyber Conference at the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center, located just across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C. and Virginia, September 16-18.
Although AFRL’s THOR is not a hammer-wielding god associated with thunder and lightning, it is a counter-swarm electromagnetic weapon that AFRL developed for airbase defense. The system provides non-kinetic defeat of multiple targets. It operates from ground power and uses energy to disable drones.
“THOR is essentially a high-powered electromagnetic source that we put together to specifically defeat drones,” said Stephen Langdon, chief of the High-Powered Microwave Technologies Branch of AFRL’s Directed Energy Directorate.
A demonstration system has been built and tested on military test ranges near Kirtland AFB where it has successfully engaged multiple targets. Further testing against a larger set of drone types in swarming configurations is being planned.
THOR stores completely in a 20-foot transport container, which can easily be transported in a C-130 aircraft. The system can be set up within three hours and has a user interface designed to require very little user training. The technology, which cost roughly $15 million to develop, uses high power electromagnetics to counter electronic effect. When a target is identified, the silent weapon discharges with nearly instantaneous impact.
Rather than being used just as harmless hobby systems, drones can also be employed as weapons intended to cause harm at long standoff ranges. As they become more common and technically mature, it is important that there be a safe way to protect air bases against these threats.
With much of the necessary basic research previously completed at AFRL, THOR was rapidly developed and tested in 18 months.
Although there are other drone defensive systems available, including guns, nets and laser systems, THOR looks to extend the engagement range to effect and decrease the engagement time over these other deterrent devices.
Langdon said the THOR team hopes to transfer the technology to a System Program Office soon in order to get it into the hands of U.S. warfighters as soon as possible.