Weapons designed to fire "electric bullets" into crowds are being developed
for police and border protection agencies in the US.
The Homeland Security Advanced Research Projects Agency, the domestic equivalent
of the defence agency DARPA, has launched an "innovative less-lethal devices
for law enforcement" programme to radically expand the capabilities of
electric shock weapons.
Existing stun weapons, such as the Taser, typically fire a pair of darts trailing
current-carrying wires to shock the target, with a maximum range of about 7
metres. The HSARPA programme aims to develop wireless weapons that can be used
over greater distances in spaces such as "an auditorium, a city street
or a sports stadium".
Lynntech of College Station, Texas, is developing a projectile that can be
fired from a shotgun or 40-millimetre grenade launcher. Grenade launchers are
already used by riot police to fire tear gas and baton rounds. On impact, the
device sticks to the target and delivers an 80,000-volt shock for 7 seconds,
using a pulsed delivery similar to that used by Tasers. Further shocks can be
triggered via remote control.
Brian Hennings, system integration group leader at Lynntech, would not reveal
how the projectile sticks to the person, although other weapons designed to
adhere often use hooks or barbs. "The biggest problem was making the device
non-lethal at minimum range, yet effective at maximum range," he says.
Hennings claims Lynntech has solved this by ensuring that its round's kinetic
energy is low enough to meet the safety requirement at close range. As the projectile
does not rely on impact with the body to incapacitate the person, it does not
need to be fired at very high velocity. The weapon's maximum range is measured
in tens of metres, the company says.
Meanwhile, Midé Technology Corporation of Medford, Massachusetts, is
proposing the Piezer. Rather than conventional stun-gun circuitry, with batteries
linked to transformers and a capacitor, the Piezer contains piezoelectric crystals,
which produce a voltage when they are compressed. The Piezer would be fired
from a 12-gauge shotgun, stunning the target with an electric shock on impact.
Shotguns are already used to fire less-lethal "beanbag" rounds to
subdue suspects, but these have short range. Midé claims the Piezer could
be effective at 40 to 50 metres.
Using a different principle again is the Inertial Capacitive Incapacitator
(ICI) being developed by the Physical Optics Corporation of Torrance, California.
It uses a thin-film charge storage device that is charged during manufacture
and only discharges when it strikes the target. It can be incorporated into
a ring-shaped aerofoil that can be fired from a standard grenade launcher at
low velocity, while still maintaining a flat trajectory for maximum accuracy.
The company claims this should reduce the impact force.
The first prototypes are expected to be delivered to HSARPA by the end of the
year. But Tobias Feakin of the Non-lethal Weapons Research Project at the University
of Bradford in the UK warns that manufacturers' claims should not be taken at
face value. "Without thorough independent testing we cannot ascertain their
usefulness, effectiveness or safety," he says.