The modern battlefield: harnessing the power of lasers

Two former Dstl researchers and inventors use their expertise to manufacture laser detection and protection systems for defence and security industries

The realm of laser technology has revved up; finding applications in various industries ranging from manufacturing to medicine. The rise of lasers has also led to an increased need for laser detection systems for defence.

Technological advancements have always driven the evolution of warfare, and so the use of lasers in the modern battlespace is a prime example of this progress.

Our scientists are tasked with researching and advising on specialist technologies, such as lasers, to understand their risks and opportunities and make sure the UK has the right capabilities both now and in the future.

Our work often has applications outside defence and security, and as well as boosting the UK economy through our work with industry and academic partners, our innovations can sometimes even be the basis of brand new businesses, creating jobs and wealth for the UK.

Background on lasers

Laser detection refers to the process of identifying, measuring, and analysing laser radiation or beams. It involves the use of specialized devices and techniques to detect the presence, intensity, and characteristics of lasers.

Not all lasers are dangerous. For example, you can find a laser in your phone’s facial recognition system, car parking sensors or a golf rangefinder – but in the battlespace, lasers are used to highlight, pinpoint and engage targets. Being able to distinguish harmless lasers from threats to life is therefore a difficult task, particularly in congested and cluttered urban warzones.

Lasers have different characteristics and identifiable signatures, so with the right laser detection system you can find out what’s targeting you, whether it’s lethal or not and where you’re illuminated from.

Existing laser detection systems can be bulky, expensive and difficult to integrate onto military platforms. Systems intended for mounted use must either be part of the original capability project, or part of an upgrade or enhancement programme to ensure full integration and testing.  Such upgrade and procurement cycles can take years, or even decades.

A system based on lower cost, off-the-shelf components that deploy in haste onto either vehicles or soldiers would offer a disruptive capability enhancement. That’s exactly what 2 scientists invented at Dstl Porton Down.

Sentinel Photonics - Who are we? - YouTube

Creating an innovative business

As Dstl researchers and inventors in the field of optics, Chris and Sean saw a gap in the market for innovative sensing products that:

  • were platform and system agnostic
  • could be deployed easily
  • required minimal training

So in 2020 Chris and Sean started Sentinel Photonics with investment from Ploughshare

Ploughshare is wholly owned by Dstl and engages with industry to negotiate license deals and create spin-out companies and get extra impact from innovations by all MOD departments.

Sentinel Photonics’ human-mounted laser threat detection technology is simple to deploy and distribute to the human forces that are still critical to the army and battlefields of today.

The defence market is the primary focus for Sentinel Photonics, but there is also potential application in aviation. This could be private or commercial as their technology allows pilots to have increased knowledge of what might be targeting them and from what direction.

Chris said:

“Sean and I shared a vision of taking the outstanding science and technology done by Dstl and continuing to develop it into tangible, life-saving technologies. 

“Since setting up Sentinel Photonics in partnership with Ploughshare, we’ve developed 3 laser protection products which build upon and incorporate at least 5 distinct pieces of Dstl Intellectual Property. These products are now available to, and used by, Dstl’s customers, showing that the spinout model is a great tool for the exploitation of Dstl’s innovations.”

Find out more about laser development from one of our laser physicists. Dr Tim Kendall

Defence Science and Technology Laboratory