American weaponry globocorp Raytheon has been awarded a contract by the US military to improve the state of the art in microwave blasters for ground troops, offering "lighter-weight, non-lethal" rayguns as an alternative to deadly force.
The company announced a deal with the Pentagon's Joint Non Lethal Weapons Directorate (JNLWD) to provide "a gallium nitride solid-state source for use in non-lethal weapons" this week.
The US forces already have microwave weapons, of course - most famously the crowd-frying Active Denial System (ADS), intended to play a beam of millimetre-wave goodness across riotous mobs and so forth. This is supposed to heat up the outer layer of the targets' skin, causing intense pain but no lasting harm.
The idea is that this is actually one of the nicer things that heavily outnumbered US troops might do to testy mobs if reasoning with them didn't work. A crowd-scattering dose of microwaves would be painful, but less so than a lengthy burst from a machine gun or a close encounter with a tank - so goes the thinking. It's even thought by proponents of the ADS that it might be a kindlier option than everyday beanbag projectiles, rubber or plastic bullets, taser electro-cattleprod guns, riot gas, metal truncheons etc.
Nonetheless it remains unclear whether millimetre-wave weapons will ever see military service. If they do, however, the rayguns are a trifle cumbersome at present. The ADS in its smallest form has to be mounted on a Humvee, and with the cooling equipment it would require to function somewhere like Iraq it's a lorry-load of gear.
Thus the Pentagon push for something a bit more lightweight. That's where Raytheon come in with their new gallium-nitride semiconductor tech, which they think will be a lot lighter-weight for a given output than present day gallium-arsenide kit. Raytheon spokesmen have previously said that they could deliver tenfold power for a given amount of semiconductors.
This could see the long-heralded, semi-mythical handheld microwave blaster become a reality, perhaps. A prototype "rifle sized" man portable raygun is known to exist. This would possibly offer pain-blaster settings and potentially be able to act as a handheld nudie through-clothes millimetre wave scanner - or at least a person-tracking radar - as well. However this has not seen field service, perhaps due to issues of power vs weight.
Raytheon's gallium-nitride tech could help out here, potentially putting a multifunction pain-blaster/electropulse electronic weapon/perv scanner/mantracker radar device in the hands of US grunts on the ground.
The weapons firm is keen to develop less aggressive applications too, of course. The pain-ray gear has already been tried out in the form of enormous patio-heater towers for warming up fruits in California, for instance. It is intended to see service in radars and communications too.
At the risk of triggering an outbreak of mass hysteria among the tinfoilclad Wi-Fi-fearing community, we can also point out that Raytheon intend this same gallium nitride pain-raygun technology for use in cell towers.
"We want to get it inserted in the base stations of cell towers very quickly," a corporate tech partner exec told the Boston Globe in 2005.
Boringly though, that's because cellphones have always used these frequencies. Much as the prospect of cell towers able to see through your clothes or inflict a sizzling heat-beam enforcement whiplash from afar would be professionally satisfying news, we reluctantly offer the assessment that there's no need for the tinfoil undergarments just yet. ®