The military relies heavily on helicopters in Afghanistan, where rough terrain can make it hard for airplanes to land and for troops and vehicles to travel on the ground. Unfortunately, the U.S. armed forces’ roughly 3,000 helicopters, which fly relatively slow and low to the ground, are easy targets for enemies with shoulder-launched missiles.

Current state-of-the-art missile defenses, built originally for airplanes, cannot withstand the vibrations helicopters generate. But Mohammed N. Islam, a laser and fiber-optics scientist at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, and his colleagues are now developing a way to thwart missile attacks with off-the-shelf lasers rugged enough for helicopters. The lasers jam the sensors on the missiles’ heat seekers by shining infrared beams at them, buying the helicopters enough time to make a getaway.

The new technology, which Islam plans to commercialize, comes from telecommunications providers, who rely on multiple-wavelength lasers to create lanes for data signals to travel within fiber-optic cables. These “midinfrared supercontinuum lasers” give off a much broader range of wavelengths than typical lasers, ranging from the visible (800 nanometers) to the midinfrared (4.5 microns). “It’s a clever way of using lasers that you can essentially buy off the shelf,” says laser scientist Anthony M. Johnson of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, who did not take part in this research.

Helicopters probably face the greatest need for such laser-based protection against missiles, but, Islam says, the technology is potentially applicable to all aircraft.