For more than a year, Palestinian terrorists in Gaza have use simple, helium-filled balloons floating with the wind to spread fires and rain explosives over southern Israel. While they are not rockets or missiles, they have caused plenty of anxiety and physical damage. 

Now, a laser expert at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev (BGU) in Beersheba has developed a laser-based defense system called Light Blade (Lahav-Or in Hebrew), that will be able to bring down the next generation of attack drones. He and his colleagues from the industry have formed OptiDefense to develop and commercialize the system, and the company is currently seeking investments to facilitate future development.

A simpler model operated by Israel’s Border Police and – combined with Elbit’s SupervisIR threat detection system – had great success downing the explosive balloons that came over the border from Gaza last month. 

Attack drones are becoming increasingly common threats. Current drones must still maintain some communication link – either to their handler or to GPS and therefore electronic jamming systems can exploit that weakness – known as a “soft kill.” But in the future, attack drones will be completely autonomous, navigating via onboard sensors and cameras without needing any kind of exploitable communication link. To order to neutralize them before they reach their target, a “hard kill” option is needed to physically target and shoot down the drone.

Laser expert Prof. Amiel Ishaaya of BGU’s School of Electrical and Computer Engineering in the Faculty of Engineering and Dr. Udi Ben-Ami and Dr. Rami Aharoni from the industry developed a system with enthusiastic support and funding from Border Police Commander Yaakov Shabtai, its main advantage is that it can be used in urban environments.

When the fire balloons started coming over the Gaza border in early 2018 and burning fields in the Western Negev, Ben-Ami called Ishaaya and suggested a collaboration to find a solution. “He said: ‘We just worked on a laser system for cutting thick plastic for greenhouses. Kites and balloons are made of similar materials,’ ” Ishaaya recalled.

Ishaaya made some calls and when the two colleagues discovered that no one else was developing a system to combat the kites and balloons, they got to work. Operating on a shoestring budget of just a few million shekels, they scaled the laser up to take out the balloons at a distance. In addition to the funding, they also received materials and testing grounds from the Border Police, and the support enabled them to produce a working prototype in just a year. Last month, paired with Elbit’s SupervisIR threat detection system, “we succeeded in downing everything that came within our field of fire,” declared Ishaaya.

“To operate most high-powered laser defense systems, the airspace needs to be cleared for many kilometers around so the laser doesn’t accidentally blind anyone. Our system operates on a lower frequency that makes it safe for urban environments. Airports, for example, could station our systems around to provide complete coverage without endangering any pilots or passengers,” said Ishaaya.

Other potential applications include defending public events such as concerts or speeches. The system’s range is several kilometers.