Set Your Phasers on Sting.
Although this may seem like science fiction, the Air Force and Marine Corps took a big step toward making this science fact in March, when they announced a breakthrough technology designed to project an energy beam that drives away adversaries without injuring them.
This emerging and revolutionary force-protection technology gives service members an alternative to using deadly force, said Marine Corps Col. George Fenton, director of the Joint Non-Lethal Weapons Program at Quantico, Va.
Two Air Force Research Laboratory teams led the technology development. One team was the laboratory's directed energy directorate at Kirtland Air Force Base, N.M., and the other was from the human effectiveness directorate at Brooks Air Force Base, Texas.
The development responded to Department of Defense needs for alternative options to the more traditional weapons that can cause serious injury or death, Fenton said.
"A weapon like this could be particularly useful when adversaries are mixed with innocent [people]," he said.
The Vehicle Mounted Active Denial System technology uses millimeter-wave electromagnetic energy traveling at the speed of light to stop, deter and tum back advancing adversaries.
While the exact range of the beam is classified, Fenton said the goal is to employ the nonlethal weapon against adversaries before service members come under small arms fire.
To accomplish this, the transmitter sends a narrow beam of energy to the target and penetrates less than 1/64th of an inch into the skin, quickly heating up only the skin's surface.
When the beam is focused on a subject, within a few seconds the person feels pain that only stops when the transmitter is shut off or when the subject moves out of the beam, according to Dr. Kirk Hackett of the directed energy directorate at the Air Force Research Lab at Kirtland.
The technology exploits a natural defense mechanism -- pain -- that has evolved to protect the human body from damage.
According to Fenton, the heat-induced pain produced by the energy beam is similar to the experience of briefly touching an ordinary light bulb that has been left on for a while.
Pain from the heat makes a person remove his or her finger from the light bulb before a burn can happen, he explained. Similarly, exposures from this nonlethal weapon technology cause a repellent effect but not physical damage to the body.
"We've done a lot of research on this technology and have shown there are no harmful health effects," said Dr. Michael Murphy, head of the Biological Effects Research Team at Brooks. "There isn't any injury because of the low energy levels that are used. The beam only needs to be on for a few seconds to achieve its purpose."
"There is more physical damage to skin from exposure to visible light, such as sitting on a sunny beach, than from the energy that this technology exploits," Hackett said.
Current testing is being conducted under field conditions at Kirtland.
Although additional testing is expected to continue into this summer, officials have begun examining the technology for use on a vehicle-mounted version. The vehicle-mounted version will fit on a high mobility multi-purpose wheeled vehicle, or Humvee. Future versions might also be used aboard planes and ships.