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updated 3/14/2011 2:10:33 PM ET 2011-03-14T18:10:33

A new laser technology aims to protect helicopters in combat operations from heat-seeking missiles.

The laser-based defense system, under development by the University of Michigan (UM) and Omni Sciences, Inc., a UM spin-off company, could essentially "blind" self-guiding ordinance as it nears its flying target.

"Our lasers give off a signal that's like throwing sand in the eyes of the missile," said Mohammed Islam, a professor in the department of electrical engineering and computer science at UM.

Islam said that the technology could save soldiers' lives in hostile environments.

"Battlefield terrain in places like Afghanistan and Iraq can be so rough that our troops have often had to rely on helicopters, and they can be easy targets for enemies with shoulder-launched missiles," Islam said.

Using inexpensive, off-the-shelf telecommunications fiber optics, Islam is developing sturdy and portable "mid-infrared supercontinuum lasers" that could scramble heat-seeking weapons from a distance of 1.8 miles (2.9 kilometers) away.

The technology is being commercialized through Islam's company, Omni Sciences, which has recently received $1 million in grants from the Army and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to build a second-generation prototype. The Army grant is for $730,000 and the DARPA funding is $300,000.

The lasers are promising for helicopter protection because their robust, simple design can withstand shaky helicopter flight and their mid-infrared supercontinuum mode can effectively jam missile sensors.

Most lasers emit light of just one wavelength, or color. But supercontinuum lasers give off a focused beam packed with light from a much broader range of wavelengths. Visible-wavelength supercontinuum lasers, for example, discharge tight columns that appear white because they contain light from across the visible spectrum.

Islam's mid-infrared supercontinuum laser does the equivalent, but it is the first to operate in longer infrared wavelengths that humans can't see, but can feel as heat. Heat-seeking missiles are designed to home in on the infrared radiation emitted by helicopter's engine.

Because this new laser emits such a broad spectrum of infrared light, it can effectively mimic the engine's electromagnetic signature and confuse any incoming weapons, Islam said.

This new light source has many military applications, he added, but it is especially well-suited for helicopters.

"The laser-based infrared countermeasures in use now for some aircraft have 84 pieces of moving optics. They couldn't withstand the shake, rattle and roll of helicopters," Islam said.

"We've used good, old-fashioned stuff from your telephone network to build a laser that has no moving parts."

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