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U.S. Homeland Security seeks to arm commercial airliners with antimissile lasers

The persistent concern of when and where terrorists will strike next—heightened by the Mumbai attacks—has led to a number of tech innovations over the past several years, including full-body airport security scanners and adhesives designed to keep buildings from blowing to pieces if bombed. One of the most  intriguing of these inventions is a laser system developed to keep terrorist-fired infrared, "heat-seeking" missiles from striking unsuspecting aircraft (both military and civilian).

The Jeteye infrared beam, developed by London-based BAE Systems, blinds a heat-seeking missile's navigation capabilities, giving an airliner a better chance of getting away unscathed. (Although that doesn't solve the problem that the missile could do damage wherever it lands.) Jeteye senses the incoming missile's "infrared tracking signal (with which the missile paints its target) and pulses a super-intense beam of light into the missile's reticle, or eye, scrambling its brains," Conde Nast Traveler reported this week on its Web site.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security has given BAE Systems $105 million since 2004 to develop and test its infrared aircraft missile defense system for use on commercial aircraft. The feds are evaluating whether Jeteye could work from the under belly of a jumbo jet, be operated by an airline crew and be maintained by airline mechanics. BAE already demonstrated to the military that Jeteye was effective in defeating missiles in earlier tests. The government wants to determine whether missile-defense technology on commercial aircraft will work properly without adding too much weight or aerodynamic drag (not to mention cost to the already cash-strapped airline budgets).

BAE tried out Jeteye in July on an American Airlines aircraft flying from New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport to Los Angeles International Airport, after earlier evaluations on an American Airlines test aircraft and an ABX Air, Inc. cargo aircraft. Jeteye is set to be installed on two more American Airlines 767-200 aircraft for daily cross-country flights by March 2009. Passengers will be pleased to know that BAE promised in a press release that there "will be no live-fire testing during these flights."

The test is part of Homeland Security's work to fend off potential "Man-Portable Air-Defense Systems" (MANPADS) attacks, primarily shoulder-launched antiaircraft missiles, reports Defense Update, a U.K. bi-monthly defense magazine published online. BAE Systems already makes infrared defense systems for use on military aircraft.

Travelers would prefer to believe that it's impossible for a terrorist with a shoulder-mounted antiaircraft missile launcher to gain access to a runway.  But it's not. In 2002 attackers fired two missiles at an Arkia Airlines charter flight taking Israeli tourists from Mombasa, Kenya, to Tel Aviv (the missiles narrowly missed). Homeland Security is taking steps to prevent a replay in this country.

 

Images courtesy of BAE Systems

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