Although classified as “non-lethal,” the infrared laser projector can “burn through clothes in a split second … If the fabric is flammable, the whole person will be set on fire,” according to a South China Post report. The device is called ZKZM-500 and has been prototyped by the Xian Institute of Optics and Precision Mechanics at the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Shaanxi province.
It weighs about 3kg, has an effective range of 800 meters and is powered by a lithium battery pack. It fires in bursts of no more than two seconds and lasts for over 1,000 ‘shots’ before requiring recharge.
The inventors see their “laser rifle” as a means to disable hostiles, for instance during a hostage situation. It can be also used for sabotage, for example, buy causing gas tanks of enemy vehicles explode with no apparent cause. There is a potential use as a crowd control tool, although a beam that can burn through clothes is probably overkill for such a task.
SCMP says the developer is now seeking a partner with a license to produce weapons to put the ZKZM-500 into series. It estimates that it will cost about $15,000 per unit when mass-produced. Basic documentation about the weapon was released last month at a government-run website for military-civilian collaboration.
Lasers have been used in military applications for decades for things like range detection or projectile guidance. But their use as directed energy weapons was not feasible until recently due to energy requirements and other drawbacks of the technology. Powerful lasers tend to produce plasma in its path, which causes the beam to defocus, and are cheaply countered by smoke screens.
The US is currently in the latest stages of introducing large laser devices on Navy ships, which are to be used against high-speed targets like incoming missiles or speedboats. There were also tests of a vehicle-borne laser meant to destroy mines from a distance.
A number of projects for portable low-lethality laser weapons were announced over the years, most of them in the US, but none of them reached maturity.