For just a few thousand dollars terrorists in Somalia bought a heat-seeking missile and took down a commercial airliner as it was taking off. Now the U.S. government wants to put an eye in the sky to keep watch over our airports and make sure that never happens again.
Enter Project Chloe, an innovative program commissioned by the Department of Homeland Security. DHS plans to fly an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) at 65,000 feet that will zap the missiles with a laser and put them out of commission.
Chloe, named after the “24" character who serves as Jack Bauer's eyes and ears, uses a mounted laser to blind the missile’s infrared eye, deflecting it and saving planes from certain harm.
Shoulder-launched missiles, also called MANPADS (man-portable air-defense systems), pose “a significant threat to aviation,” according to Jay Cohen, under secretary for science and technology at DHS.
The missiles are easy to fire, weigh just 35 pounds and are usually under five feet long. In the world of military arms, they're fairly cheap, costing between $5,000 and $10,000.
Terrorists had been threatening to target commercial planes with the heat-seekers since 2002, and they finally succeeded with the Somalia attack on March 24 of last year when they brought down a plane full of humanitarian cargo, killing 11.
Commercial planes are vulnerable to infrared tracking, as their engines and power sources offer easy targets. But Project Chloe’s UAV’s can do some heat-seeking of their own.
Here's how it works:
If a terrorist launches a missile, the UAV’s sensors immediately detect the missile’s thermal scar. In just seconds, it fires its laser to jam the missile’s guidance system.
A terrorist need be within only 10 miles of a runway to bring down a plane as it lands or takes off, and MANPADS can strike planes at altitudes up to 15,000 feet within a 2-3 mile range.
But Project Chloe could surmount that threat, offering 360-degree protection over a vast area. “... One of these devices flying above 60,000 feet would cover all of the commercial airports in the L.A. County area,” Cohen said.
Not only can Chloe protect planes — its sensors could help defend against other security threats, from illegal border crossings to strikes against critical infrastructure near the airports.
Fitted with a high-magnification camera, a Chloe UAV could immediately zoom in to provide real-time visuals and investigate threats nearby without having to wait to send up helicopters for a look.
Homeland Security had previously commissioned a project to mount another version of the detect-and-deflect technology on individual planes, but airlines have balked at the cost — over $1 million a pop.
Airlines are hoping for a solution that won't compel them to foot the bill or operate the machines, and Homeland Security's flying laser may just be the ticket.
There may be one catch, however: deflecting those missiles can save hundreds of lives, but there's no telling where they'll hit the ground.