30 June 2010

Radio Waves Counter IEDs

Popular Mechanics reports that a new radio wave-based technology may help to defeat the threat of roadside IEDs.

Last week the Pentagon revealed the existence of a new weapon in the war against roadside bombs: a beam of radio-frequency energy that can detonate hidden Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) at a distance.

And its creators say the potential does not stop there—the beam could be also used to set off other types of warheads before they reached their target. In theory it might be used to set off ammunition before the enemy even has a chance to fire. "The capabilities are not limited to improvised devices," Lee Mastroianni, program manager at the Office of Naval Research (ONR), told Popular Mechanics.

The ONR remain tight-lipped about virtually every aspect of the technology, which is highly classified. But there are enough details to piece together a fascinating picture of the new device.

Radio-frequency devices can output extremely powerful, short-duration bursts of energy using a technology known as a Marx Generator. This uses a number of capacitors that are charged in parallel and then discharged simultaneously in series. Texas Tech University's Center for Pulsed Power and Power Electronics has been working on this area under contract for the ONR, with the specific aim of developing pulses strong enough to defeat IEDs. Their 3-million-volt Marx Generator is the size of a bus, and it is probably not a coincidence that the anti-IED beam weapon is said to be the size of a tractor-trailer. The TTU team is also working on a one-shot pulse generator the size of a coffee can and antennas suitable for carrying and directing an intense burst of energy lasting less than a billionth of a second.

There are many questions about the new device, such as the range, width of the beam and the types of explosives that it will work on. However, whatever the capabilities of the current system (which are classified), the next one may be different. "As with any radio-frequency system, the directionality and beam width are design parameters that influence the overall system design and can be tailored, based on application, during the design phase," Mastroianni says.

It may prove impossible to generate a beam with a long enough range to be effective, and, at this early stage, other game-stopping technical issues may arise. Then there are also the issues that can come up when first using new weapons. Pre-detonating roadside bombs may cause all sorts of damage, for example, which may be blamed on the team setting the bomb off instead of on those who planted it. However, if (as has been suggested) an airborne version could sweep the road ahead of convoys, it could make things much more difficult for the bombers. Especially if they happened to be next to their bombs when the device flies overhead.

By: Shelldrake

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