by David Hambling
16 June 04
Weapons that can incapacitate crowds of people by sweeping a
lightning-like beam of electricity across them are being readied for
sale to military and police forces in the US and Europe.
At present, commercial stun guns target one person at a time, and
work only at close quarters. The new breed of non-lethal weapons can
be used on many people at once and operate over far greater distances.
But human rights groups are appalled by the fact that no independent
safety tests have been carried out, and by their potential for
The weapons are designed to address the perceived shortcomings of the
Taser, the electric-shock gun already used by 4000 police departments
in the US and undergoing trials with some police forces in the UK.
It hits the victim with two darts that trail current-carrying wires,
which limit its range to a maximum of seven metres (see graphic). As
a single shot, short-range weapon, the Taser is of little use in
crowd control. And Tasers have no effect on vehicles.
These limitations are beginning to be overcome. Engineers working for
the US Department of Defense\'s research division, DARPA, and defence
companies in Europe have been working out how to create an
electrically conductive path between a gun and a target without using
A weapon under development by Rheinmetall, based in Dorf, Germany,
creates a conducting channel by using a small explosive charge to
squirt a stream of tiny conductive fibres through the air at the
victim (New Scientist print edition, 24 May 2003).
Meanwhile, Xtreme Alternative Defense Systems (XADS), based in
Anderson, Indiana, will be one of the first companies to market
another type of wireless weapon. Instead of using fibres, the $9000
Close Quarters Shock Rifle projects an ionised gas, or plasma,
towards the target, producing a conducting channel. It will also
interfere with electronic ignition systems and stop vehicles.
\"We will be able to fire a stream of electricity like water out of a
hose at one or many targets in a single sweep,\" claims XADS president
The gun has been designed for the US Marine Corps to use for crowd
control and security purposes and is due out in 2005. It is based on
early, unwieldy technology and has a range of only three metres, but
an operator can debilitate multiple targets by sweeping it across
them for \"as long as there is an input power source,\" says Bitar.
XADS is also planning a more advanced weapon which it hopes will have
a range of 100 metres or more. Instead of firing ionised gas, it will
probably use a powerful laser to ionise the air itself. The idea has
been around for decades, says LaVerne Schlie, a laser expert at the
US Air Force Research Lab in Kirtland, New Mexico. It has only become
practical with advances in high-power solid-state lasers.
\"Before, it took a laser about the size of two trucks,\" says
Schlie. \"Now we can do it with something that fits on a tabletop.\"
The laser pulse must be very intense, but can be brief. So the makers
of the weapons plan to use a UV laser to fire a 5-joule pulse lasting
just 0.4 picoseconds - equating to a momentary power of more than 10
This intense pulse - which is said not to harm the eyes - ionises the
air, producing long, thread-like filaments of glowing plasma that can
be sustained by repeating the pulse every few milliseconds. This
plasma channel is then used to deliver a shock to the victims similar
to a Taser\'s 50,000-volt, 26-watt shock.
Instrument of torture
HSV Technologies of San Diego, California is also working on stun and
vehicle-stopping shock weapons with ranges of over 100 metres. And
another company, Ionatron of Tuscon, Arizona, is due to supply a
prototype wireless vehicle-mounted weapon to the US Department of
Defense by the end of 2004.
But the advent of wireless stun weapons has horrified human rights
groups. Robin Coupland of the Red Cross says they risk becoming a new
instrument of torture. And Brian Wood of Amnesty International says
the long-range stun guns could \"inflict pain and other suffering on
And there are safety concerns. Of the 30,000 times US police officers
have fired Tasers, in 40 instances people stunned by them later died.
The deaths have been attributed to factors such as overdoses of drugs
and alcohol, or fighting with officers, rather than the electric
In a statement, Taser International chief Rick Smith said: \"In every
single case the medical examiner has attributed the direct cause of
death to causes other than the Taser.\" Amnesty is not convinced,
however, and wants an independent study of the effects of all
existing and emerging electric-shock weapons.