Boeing, the aerospace industry giant, was granted a patent last week for a method of thwarting some of the impact of improvised explosive devices (IEDs). The patent describes a technology straight out of Star Trek: an electric force field that bends and reflects a bomb's shock waves.
IEDs plague the campaign against ISIS in northern Iraq, causing deadly burns and shrapnel wounds. The shock waves from these blasts have caused brain injuries in perhaps 230,000 U.S. soldiers — a lasting signature of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The new invention, approved by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office last week, aims to protect against these shock waves. Brian Tillotson, a staff scientist at Boeing, said the electric force field idea came when DARPA (the Defense Department's advanced research arm) issued a call for technologies to defeat roadside bombs.
After a roadside bomb explodes, "it's all a matter of milliseconds," Tillotson told BuzzFeed News. In those milliseconds, the patent essentially proposes placing the equivalent of electrically charged banana peels into the path of IED shock waves to trip them up before the blasts hit people's skulls and cause brain damage.
"This is definitely a force field right out of the movie Forbidden Planet," Mark Grubelich, a research and development engineer at the Sandia National Laboratory in Albuquerque, New Mexico, told BuzzFeed News.
The physics is legit, though the patent's technology is a long, long way off, he added.
"This is a Tony Stark type patent," Grubelich said. "Its basis is in sound science, but this is a really advanced concept."
Tillotson and colleagues envision that their invention — described as a "method and system for shock wave attenuation via electromagnetic arc" — would detect incoming blasts from roadside bombs or explosions speeding toward a truck, plane, or building.
Once alerted, the sensors would trigger lasers or charged wires to spark a beach-ball-sized arc of high-temperature air into the path of the blast. Since the speed of sound in air rises as temperatures increases, the shock wave from the blast would suddenly encounter a slick patch hanging in the air, Tillotson said, which would "reflect and diffuse the shock wave."
The key to the effect is the curved convex shape of the arc, which would act as a lens to defocus the power of the shock wave, he added.
When a shock passes through different types of material, some of its force is typically lost in the transition, Grubelich said, comparing the electric arc to the foam padding inside a bicycle helmet.
"But this is a pretty futuristic idea," he said. "You are not going to buy the equipment for this at Home Depot."
DARPA declined to comment on the patent. Tillotson said the agency wasn't interested in the technology because it does not deflect shrapnel, only shock waves.
"Stopping a bomb blast right underneath a vehicle is a much harder problem," he said.
The Pentagon's Joint IED Defeat Organization (JIEDDO) — founded in 2006 to coordinate efforts by all the military branches to defeat roadside bombs — focuses one-third of its efforts today on new technologies to defeat roadside bombs, JIEDDO spokesperson David Small told BuzzFeed News by email. Its efforts also look at ways to defeat networks of roadside bombs and training soldiers to recognize IEDS.
The YouTube channel PatentYogi first trumpeted the patent in a video on Sunday as a Star Wars-style force field. But as Boeing spokesperson Candace Barron pointed out, that's not the best pop culture reference.
"It's more like the Star Trek one," where the shields only go up on demand, Barron told BuzzFeed News. "We've found that this is an important difference to a lot of people out there."