Monday, February 27, 2006

Sonic Weapons


As someone who has read alot about psychoacoustics and the various intricate mechanisms which link sound to speech and thought, I alone seem to have a dread of the coming advances in sonic weapons. And least you think the idea of sound waves killing people, consider two recent examples: the use of a large-scale weapon known as the Scream in Israel, with reputedly horrific consequences for the hearing of those Palestinians caught in its wake; and the far cooler and more apparently newsworthy story where a sonic cannon defended a cruise ship from RPG-wielding Somali pirates. Admittedly from the latter story, there are non-lethal benefits of this technology, as well as precedents from Joshua's Trumpet to the modern LRAD system being deployed in Iraq (and disturbingly, Katrina and the 2004 Republican Convention). And the effective use by ships of sonar as an anti-frogman measure.
Another more insidious form is the sonic laser: a battery of ultrasonic (too high for humans to hear) emitters around a normal-but-highly-focused speaker, the effect of which is to produce a beam of sound which can be transmitted across significant distances, only to appear as if someone is whispering in your ear. Thus, you could hold a private conversation with someone in your line of sight a mile away. Thus we are in the mall in Minority Report, sonic lasers beaming viral adverts (hey, try a Snarfler!) causing who knows what kind of effect on all those delicate little bones in our heads normally, to say nothing of what happens when a catstrophic failure in a local supermarket causes a cereal advert to blast into little Timmy's ears at 120 dB. Or worse, some of these systems could be marketed with a dual ad/security feature, perfect for convienence stores, any would-be stickup ending in bleeding eardrums.
None of that is so impossibly Orwellian as the non-lethal pain inducement capability of sonic weapons, especially those being demonstrated as the Active Denial System. Most versions of that system seem to involve something like a wide-angle microwave oven, which penetrates only so far into the skin. Thus, a blinding heat or even a freezing cold can be generated by targeting the specific tactile receptors for that kind of feeling.
A directed handheld sonic weapon would have many of the same features, also capable of inducing targeted pain, making this a non-lethal weapon with significant capacity towards causing deaths, the causes which are not immediately detectable, what is charmingly called 'less-lethal' as in less lethal than a gun but quite a bit more lethal than a marshmellow. All of this is possible today and probably available at your Radio Shack. Under some of the specific uses of such a device, just think of the infrasonic effect of heavy sub-bass noise that you get from standing to close to a speaker at a rave, which at the right frequency will make your stomach turn. A powerful-enough ultrasonic weapon could liquify tissue. Distortion of vision can be produced by vibrating the eyeballs with an infrasonic pulse. And there is the potential for all sort of structural damage from sonic bullets, sonic mines, sonic grenades and sonic cannons. It would be nice if we got a weapon as compact and functional as the stunning rifle from Minority Report, but more likely non-lethal we are to end up with will use the Brown Note, the legendary infrasonic tone which has the power of causing people to shit all over themselves involuntarily, like the bowel disruptor in Transmetropolitan, or as in the 3rd season South Park episode, World Wide Recorder Concert.
The DoD has demonstrated phased arrays of infrasonic (below human hearing) emitters. The weapon, about the size of a truck, usually consists of a device that generates sound at about 7Hz. The output from the device is routed (by pipes) to an array of open emitters, which are usually one wavelength apart. At this frequency, armor and concrete walls and other common building materials vibrate, and therefore provide no defense. The frequency is chosen to be near the resonant frequency of internal organs, causing illness, deafness, and internal injuries.As a defense to such a weapon, mechanical "diode walls" to convert the oscillating air into a steady flow have been demonstrated. Although not common at this time, they could be mass-produced and would provide an effective countermeasure.

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