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Ray guns: will they ever be more than cool toys


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Humans have dreamed of weaponised lasers since HG Wells first mooted them. Should we be careful what we wish for?


You can thank HG Wells for the idea of a ray gun. Weaponised lasers, microwave beams, particle beams and so on ... Wells’s Martian death rays in 1897’s War of the Worlds sparked the concept.


Twenty years later one Albert Einstein offered a proof of concept in 1917, and then Charles Townes finally made one (OK, a laser) in 1951. Star Trek injected further vim to the fantasy of handheld zappers with its phasers, followed by the blasters of Star Wars – enough appetite to stimulate real military research – remember Ronald “Ray gun” and his Star Warsprogramme?

Charles Townes with his maser, the forerunner to the laser.  Charles Townes with his maser, the forerunner to the laser. Photograph: AP

Military research into so-called directed energy weapons (Dew), continues to this day. So why, in the 21st century, are we still hurling bits of hot metal about? Where’s my ray gun?


Compared with conventional weapons, a laser could be deadly accurate, silent, light speed, cheap to use and would never run out of ammo. But so far, the chemical reactions in guns and artillery are just heaps more efficient.


Bang bang rather than pew pew, still


To pack the same kinetic punch as a bullet, you need a lot of energy to deliver the mass. For a laser beam, say, made of (massless) photons, that’s around 2,000 joules of sharply focused energy – at least 30,000 watts per zap. At present, that entails a colossal power pack – a battery the size of a bedstead is fine on a large vessel such as a boat or a plane (and don’t worry, they’re working on them), but problematic for a handgun.


Compounding this is the fact that lasers are notoriously inefficient. Air is an awful medium for a laser beam to travel through, made worse by rain, fog or smoke – the sort of conditions you’d find on a battlefield. It’ll have to be as powerful as possible, so wave goodbye to those rapid-fire rods of glowing death you see in Star Wars because visible light scatters energy, so isn’t efficient enough (and besides, photons can’t be persuaded to do that). And with all that power comes the problem of overheating so your gun might melt before you could hit anything. However, a new technology called adaptive optics, which was developed for telescopes to compensate for atmospheric noise and concentrates the beams, aims to overcome some of these challenges.


Naturally, the world’s various militaries are still developing these types of weapons, but the US has the only one known to be in use – a lower-energy laser system that can zap landmines, called Zeus. Nearly all research programmes seem to become defunct, the funding withdrawn, only for a successor project to pop up like a space-age Whac-A-Mole.


And these are just the ones they’ve told us about. Star Wars, or the Strategic Defense Initiative, envisioned satellite-borne x-ray lasers zapping intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) out of the sky.


The US army’s tactical high energy laser (Thel) was a sort of son of Star Wars. It could shoot down incoming missiles travelling at Mach 1 from more than six miles. Discontinued in 2005, Thel begat the US Air Force’s Airborne Laser,nicknamed YAL-1, which can destroy a ground target 60 miles away from a jumbo jet cruising at 12,192 metres (40,000 ft). The US Navy’s version, the Free Electron Laser, looked promising but funding ceased with the introduction of Northrop Grumman’s Firestrike array in 2008. Costing just 59 cents (44p) a shot, and being powerful and accurate enough to disable airborne ICBMs, rockets and even flying shells, it’s easy to see why Firestrike proved popular.

An infrared image of the Missile Defense Agency’s Airborne Laser destroying a target missile.

 An infrared image of the Missile Defense Agency’s Airborne Laser destroying a target missile. Photograph: AP


A frightening (and for now unlikely) future


Plasma weapons might trump lasers. These fire a beam of plasma – basically what lightning and the sun is made of. As far back as 1993, the US was working on the mysterious Marauder project, designed to hurl doughnut-shaped plasma projectiles at near the speed of light. It proved remarkably successful but suddenly the lab fell silent after 1995. The latest effort, the BBC reports, is a laser-guided lightning weapon developed by the US Army called the Laser-Induced Plasma Channel. It uses a laser beam so intense it creates plasma along its beam – if that works it will be scary.


The US air force also developed a microwave weapon used for riot control. The Active Denial System causes debilitating pain by heating the water in your skin but is still being tested for long-term side effects.Naturally, police forces in the US and China are holding out for a handheld version.


These microwaves – such as the ones given off by your mobile phone signal – might also be used to zap missile and plane electronics remotely. Likewise, EMP strikes could be potentially catastrophic – enough to fry an entire city’s electrical infrastructure. Experts at the University of Michigan are looking at those to direct at airborne threats.


The idea of particle beam weapons, which emit a high-energy beam of subatomic particles that can turn a target’s atomic structure into scrambled eggs, has even been mooted. The downside of this idea is, while they would work fine in a vacuum, those particles scatter and bounce around in an atmosphere, bathing the assailant in a lethal dose of radiation. Hoist by your own atomic petard.


Adaptive optics may soon make dogfights, or even missiles, a thing of the past but are we any closer to our handheld ray gun? Perhaps the closest we have is the US Army’s PHASR, designed simply to temporarily blind and disorient targets. And engineer Pete Bitar, whose company develops non-lethal directed energy weapon tech to fry the electronics of potential truck bombs, is just one expert among many who say his tech could easily be adapted for handheld devices – even smartphones – within years.


You may have to wait for your ray gun – but anyway, haven’t we got more pressing things to worry about?




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China brings Star Wars to life with ‘laser AK-47’ that can set fire to targets a kilometre away

UPDATED : Monday, 02 July, 2018, 8:15am

he ZKZM-500 laser assault rifle is classified as being “non-lethal” but produces an energy beam that cannot be seen by the naked eye but can pass through windows and cause the “instant carbonisation” of human skin and tissues.

Ten years ago its capabilities would have been the preserve of sci-fi films, but one laser weapons scientist said the new device is able to “burn through clothes in a split second … If the fabric is flammable, the whole person will be set on fire”.




“The pain will be beyond endurance,” according to the researcher who had took part in the development and field testing of a prototype at the Xian Institute of Optics and Precision Mechanics at the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Shaanxi province.

The 15mm calibre weapon weighs three kilos (6.6lb), about the same as an AK-47, and has a range of 800 metres, or half a mile, and could be mounted on cars, boats and planes.

It is now ready for mass production and the first units are likely to be given to anti-terrorism squads in the Chinese Armed Police.

In the event of a hostage situation it could be used to fire through windows at targets and temporarily disable the kidnappers while other units move in to rescue their captives.

It could also be used in covert military operations. The beam is powerful enough to burn through a gas tank and ignite the fuel storage facility in a military airport.

Because the laser has been tuned to an invisible frequency, and it produces absolutely no sound, “nobody will know where the attack came from. It will look like an accident,” another researcher said. The scientists requested not to be named due to the sensitivity of the project.

The rifles will be powered by a rechargeable lithium battery pack similar to those found in smartphones. It can fire more than 1,000 “shots”, each lasting no more than two seconds.

The prototype was built by ZKZM Laser, a technology company owned by the institute in Xian. A company representative confirmed that the firm is now seeking a partner that has a weapons production licence or a partner in the security or defence industry to start large-scale production at a cost of 100,000 yuan (US$15,000) a unit.

Given their potential for misuse, the design and production of the devices will be tightly monitored and the only customers will be China’s military and police.

A technical document containing basic information about the weapon was released last month on the Public Service Platform for National Civil-Military Integration, a website run by the central government to facilitate collaboration between the military and commercial sectors.

Chengdu Hengan Police Equipment Manufacturing company, a major hardware supplier for Chinese law enforcement agencies, also released a laser “machine gun” last month.

The weapon has a range of 500 metres and it can fire several hundred shots per charge, according to the company’s product brochure.

Only a decade ago, such powerful laser weapons were something out of science fiction. In 2009 a US attempt to design a handheld laser gun resulted in something that “only works on nudists” because its beam was too weak to even penetrate a shirt.

But in 2015 Beijing upped the ante with a two billion-yuan fund to develop compact, powerful laser devices – an unprecedented budget for the field and one that triggered concerns in the US and other Western nations.

In recent years US forces operating in strategically important areas such as the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea have complained that they have been subjected to an increasing number of laser attacks from Chinese military bases or vessels that look like fishing boats.

Last month, the US government lodged a formal complaint that a “weapons-grade” laser device fired from a Chinese naval base in Djibouti had left two military pilots with minor eye injuries.




Wang Zhimin, associate researcher at the Research Centre for Laser Physics and Technology at the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing, said technological improvements in recent years meant scientists were able to develop smaller and more powerful devices in the same way that mobile phone manufacturers had done.

“This is no longer science fiction. They are already a fact of life,” he said.

In the early days, due to technical limits, it was necessary to fire several beams and get them to converge on a target to cause any damage. They also needed a precise distance reading to have any chance of working.

Furthermore, the only devices available were slow, bulky and heavy, had a short range and required enormous supplies of power.

But the latest devices fire a single beam and can cause as much damage as large, truck-mounted laser cannons would have done.

But these developments increase the risk that the weapons could more easily fall into the hands of criminals and terrorists who could exploit their destructive capacity, for instance by conducting arson attacks without being detected.

Wang, who was not involved in the Xian project, warned that allowing these weapons to proliferate could be a threat to all countries.

There are no specific international protocols in place to regulate the development or use of this type of laser weapon.

The United Nations Protocol on Blinding Laser Weapons, initiated in 1980 and signed by over 100 nations, concentrates on earlier generation weapons and prohibits the use of those that could cause permanent loss of eyesight.

The document on Chinese government website classifies the ZKZM-500 as a “non-lethal weapon”,

meaning they are deemed less likely to kill a living target than something explicitly designed to do so, such as a gun.

The lasers cannot kill a target with a single shot, but if fired at a person for long enough the weapons would start to burn a hole in their body, cutting through them like a surgical knife.

Researchers stress that scientists in this field generally agree it would be inhumane to use more powerful weapons that could “carbonise” a living person.




Instead the document lays stress on the non-lethal applications of the technology.

For instance it says law enforcement could counter “illegal protests” by setting fire to banners from a long distance.

It also says protest leaders could be targeted by setting fire to their clothing or hair which, the document says, would mean they lose “the rhythms of their speech and powers of persuasion”.

But one Beijing police officer said he would prefer to stick to more traditional crowd-control methods such as tear gas, rubber bullets or electrical stun guns, such as tasers.

“The laser burn will leave a permanent scar,” he said. He said it would be a “horrid sight” that risked causing panic or transforming a peaceful protest into a riot.



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On 7/2/2018 at 4:26 PM, dufus said:

The ZKZM-500 laser assault rifle is classified as being “non-lethal” but produces an energy beam that cannot be seen by the naked eye but can pass through windows and cause the “instant carbonisation” of human skin and tissues.

Ten years ago its capabilities would have been the preserve of sci-fi films, but one laser weapons scientist said the new device is able to “burn through clothes in a split second … If the fabric is flammable, the whole person will be set on fire”.


I know my 2nd Amendment Rights!  LOL

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