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.
"With spike strips, you have to lay them down before the suspect gets there," says Heal. "And that raises the basic question, if you know where they're going, then why chase [the suspects] at all?"
But if police cruisers and helicopters were equipped with a working version of Eureka's system, the nature of "hot pursuits" could change dramatically.
"It changes the strategy of how to safely end car chases," says Heal. "We can pick and choose where and when to disable the car where it would put the least amount of risk to the safety of our officers, the suspects and the public."
Still, Tatoian and Heal admit that there are quite a few questions and concerns that will need to be addressed before police can stop fleeing suspects with a push of a power button.
For one, Tatoian still needs to figure out whether the system will work in "real world" conditions. And there are plenty of factors that Eureka engineers will have to consider in further research and design.
For example, while Tatoian is confident that every car has particular "vulnerable frequencies," so far they've only been able to test the theory on about 13 cars. And with thousands of different makes and models of vehicles on the road today, it may be impossible to identify and isolate the right combination for each car.
And for the energy beam to be effective, researchers will have to deal with factors that are beyond their control.
"The difficult part of the technology is in 'coupling' -- getting the microwave energy into the chips so they overload," says Heal. "A vast majority of cars today are coated with rust coatings, thick paint or have bodies made of plastic -- all not good conductors of energy."
Tatoian believes that these concerns can be answered -- especially with the help of Heal and the officers in the L.A. sheriff's department. One possible theory that Eureka and Heal's department would like to test is whether there are specific spots on cars that are particularly vulnerable to microwave energy.
Both Tatoian and Heal expect that by the end of this year, Eureka Aerospace will be able to field a prototype that will test these theories and other concerns.
"When Dr. Tatoian is ready, we'll take this out to our chase test facility," says Heal. "Our officers are all jazzed on it."
But even if all the technical bugs get worked out, Heal says it still might take quite a while before the system becomes another high-tech, non-lethal tool for police officers on highway patrol.
Heal pointed to a recent university study which documents that police departments used less-than-lethal weapons -- Tasers, bean bags, batons, pepper spray -- more than 60,000 times in the last 10 years.
"One of the things we found out -- which we're often accused of by detractors of less-than-lethal weapons -- is that when we get a new device, we tend to overuse it," says Heal. "We'll have to go through fairly rigorous steps before we implement new technology -- including involving our legal department."
In other words, lawyers ultimately will have the final say if highway police really do live up to their "smokey" nickname.