Protesters in Chile bring down police drones using simple laser pointers. Lots and lots of laser pointers

In Chile, protesters are using lasers en masse to bring down hapless police drones.

Videos of Chilean protesters bringing down police drones using nothing but green laser pointers have been hitting social media since Wednesday, attracting quite a large helping of attention. Still, how is it possible for what are essentially toy lasers to bring police-grade technology to the ground?

To kill a spying bird

Chile is in the grip of public protests after a proposed increase in subway fares sparked nation-wide demonstration over low wages and economic inequality. And, in a very fitting allegory of their cause, the protesters have started using cheap laser pointer pens to bring down police drones (which can cost up to several tens of thousands of dollars apiece).

Footage of these protesters hit Reddit late Tuesday, showing how, as more and more light beams found their unmanned aerial mark, the drone begins slowly drifting towards the ground. At one point the UAS (unmanned aerial system) almost escapes, until more beams are trained on it bringing it down for good. Here it is in all its glory (turn the volume down, headphone users, you’ve been warned):

The collective cheer at the end is the best part. So now, the question that’s been plaguing Reddit — how did the humble laser pointer do it?

Christopher Williams, CEO of Citadel Defense Company (a company working with the U.S. Customs and Border Protection to deploy anti-drone “bubbles” along the border) told Aaron Boyd, Senior Editor at Nextgov, that one of two things likely happened.

First, if the drone was piloted by a human operator, they likely used a camera for the pilot to navigate through; in this case, the bright massed beams of several laser pointers could very easily have ‘blinded’ the camera, making navigation extremely difficult if not downright impossible.

Alternatively, in the case of an autonomous drone, Williams says, the laser beams could have caused its onboard sensors to go haywire: its infrared landing sensors would give false altitude and proximity readings, and the craft’s downward-facing cameras (used to spot obstacles) would also give out false readings — all in all, this would cause the drone to either flay about or even perform a forced safety landing.

The Reddit hivemind also proposed that the combined heat of the laser pointers melted the drone’s circuitry or caused the battery to give out; personally, I am strongly inclined to disagree. There just isn’t enough energy in a single laser pointer beam that, even en-masse, it could melt wiring.

What the humble pointer may lack in sheer power, however, other lasers don’t. A recent collaboration between U.S. defense contractor Raytheon and the Air Force resulted in a laser weapon that does just that — melt internals and explodes batteries — in drones.

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