An old friend familiar to every tech buff and sci-fi fan - namely, the circuitry-addling electropulse blaster - has moved a large step closer to reality, according to reports. A vehicle mounted pulse weapon capable of stopping a (modern) car at 200m is to be demonstrated "next month", apparently.
Flight International has the story, uncovered while following up on a recent US Air Force request for an aircraft weapon capable of "disabling moving ground vehicles while minimising harm to occupants". The USAF is more than capable of stopping such vehicles at present, but its existing methods generally reduce the car or truck and its occupants to a few mangled scraps - not to mention destroying a large section of road and quite likely anything else in the general vicinity.
Just how the Air Force will proceed remains to be seen. However the US Marines have for some years been working with California firm Eureka Aerospace to produce an electromagnetic pulse (EMP, aka High Powered Microwave or HPM) weapon for this sort of task.
Historically, EMPs with serious effects have been produced only as a side effect of nuclear weapons going off. But the advanced militaries of the world have striven for less drastic methods for years - without success thus far, despite endless media reports to the contrary.
Eureka, which has been working on electropulse blasters since it was founded in 2001, hasn't done terribly well thus far. Its initial blaster weighed 200lb and measured six by three feet; despite that it had an effective range of no more than 15 metres. Even worse, it was only capable of stopping fairly modern cars with microprocessor-controlled engines: its pulses weren't strong enough to affect the more basic electronics found in older vehicles.
Understandably, the Marines weren't vastly impressed, and at one point Eureka was compelled to tout the machine for use in police pursuits, to be mounted on the roof of cop-cars and powered by the vehicle's alternator (presumably via the cigarette lighter socket).
Now, however, company chief James Tatoian tells Flight that a new and improved pulse blaster is almost ready. It is said to be able to scramble a car's engine chips from 200m and has now slimmed down to 55lb, though it still requires an antenna 1.2m wide. The new zapgun is apparently to be demo'd for the Marines "next month".
Such a device might be of use to military customers in rural or wilderness areas, unconcerned about the inevitable collateral damage which would result if it were used in modern cities - lifts paralysed, computers scrambled, Wi-Fi allergic teachers up in arms etc etc.
But in a military context, there are already methods for stopping vehicles without harm to the occupants: snipers - often helicopter-borne - have specialised in putting big-bore bullets into moving engine blocks for years. And a .50 slug, unlike an electropulse blast, works on an engine without microprocessor controls - or one whose electronics modules have been wrapped in tinfoil, say. Even better, a bullet won't scramble the possibly intelligence-crammed personal gadgets - sat phones, laptops etc - of anyone riding in the target vehicle.
The car-stopping electropulse blaster, even if it works, would seem to fall under the heading of a solution in search of a problem. But the US Air Force could provide an alternative customer for Eureka should the Marines prove unimpressed. ®