The idea of a powerful ray gun has been a staple of science-fiction writing for decades. But a "weapon" that shoots invisible beams of energy could be making its way into law-enforcement hands soon.
The technology isn't exactly something that would replace a police officer's handgun. In fact, the system being developed by Eureka Aerospace in Pasadena, Calif., couldn't even be crammed into a standard pistol holster.
But the developers say their device, which uses technology more closely related to flash cooking than Flash Gordon, may help stop criminals and terrorists in their tracks.
James Tatoian, chief executive of Eureka, says the High Power Electromagnetic System is designed to disable cars -- say, those fleeing from police officers -- using bursts of microwave energy.
"Basically, since the 1970s, every car is built with some sort of microprocessor-controlled system -- like the ignition control and fuel pump control a lot of vital car systems," says Tatoian. "If you introduce a parasitic current into their wires, it leads to a power surge which in turn burns out those microprocessors."
Once the car's chips are disabled, the vehicle will gradually slow to a halt, allowing police or other security forces to safely approach and apprehend the driver.
Tatoian is quick to admit that the company's experimental device isn't the first or only directed energy system designed to attack cars. Others have developed similar concepts and prototypes before. And some, like Eureka, are continuing their work using partial funding from a U.S. military research project that seeks to study the feasibility of "less than lethal" weapons.
But Tatoian believes his designers and researchers have come a lot further in terms of power, portability and usability than other alternative solutions.
"It's still in development stages, but the system is about 200 pounds in total weight. It will fit in a car with the [microwave] antenna mounted on the roof," says Tatoian. "It's also worthwhile to say that produces about 10 to 15 kilovolts per meter." During tests of the early unit, that was enough power to burn out chips in cars up to 100 meters distant.
More importantly, the Eureka system is "tunable"
"What's interesting is that every car has its own set of vulnerable frequencies -- in the range of 350 megahertz to 1,300 megahertz," says Tatoian. "The most ideal case [for our system] is where police officers pursuing a vehicle know the make and model of the car, they then can dial in the right frequencies that that car is vulnerable to in order to stop it."
Such capabilities have caught the interest of the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department, which has helped Eureka study the High Power Electromagnetic System.
"Everything works on paper and in the lab," says Cmdr. Charles "Sid" Heal, who is in charge of studying new technology for the sheriff's department. "If this thing works [in the field] as well as described, it would tremendously help reduce risky high-speed pursuits."
As seen in recent news video coverage, police typically try to end high-speed chases with a so-called "spike strip" designed to puncture and deflate the tires of a fleeing vehicle. While spike stripes can be effective in stopping suspects' cars, Heal points out they can be difficult to deploy properly and safely.