In the depths of the US Patent and Trademark Office, a patent filed by aerospace and engineering company Boeing in 2012 and accepted last week exists that outlines a system that could be called a “force field” or “deflector shield.” Many outlets have already reported that this is basically Star Wars or Star Trek. But what is the patent actually for and how does it work?
According to the patent:
“Presented is a system and method for attenuating a shockwave propagating in a first medium by detecting a shockwave-producing event, determining a direction of the shockwave relative to a protected asset, and interposing a second, transient medium, different from the first medium, between the shockwave and the protected asset such that a shockwave produced by the event contacts the second medium and is attenuated in energy thereby prior to reaching the protected asset. The second medium may be formed by rapidly heating a region of the first medium so that the second medium differs from the first medium in at least one of temperature, density and composition.”
That’s a bunch of legalease for a system that uses a laser, microwaves, or an electric arc to rapidly heat a section of air in front of an incoming shockwave to deform it. Here’s the first picture attached to the patent:
This proposed system isn’t quite from the Empire or Federation. Instead of having a static, physical field that deflects or absorbs incoming projectiles, the patent specifies a system that deals exclusively with the shockwaves produced by nearby explosions.
Shockwaves ignore armor. Tanks and Humvees have armor that can handle a range of projectiles and explosions, but shockwaves rattle through them to injure or kill anyone inside. That’s because shockwaves are pressure waves — areas of rapidly moving, compressed air (or another fluid). An explosion creates a pressure wave by rapidly moving air out of the way of the blast. This sends a ripple of compressed air outwards in a sphere around the boom, and can make its way around and/or through armor to people.
Above, the patent suggests that it can attenuate or reduce the intensity of a shockwave by putting another shockwave in its way. Rapidly heating up the air in front of the “protected region” (20), the system creates a “transient medium” (30) to destructively interfere with the incoming blast wave. It’s like canceling out a ripple heading from the center of a pond to shore by throwing a pebble at your feet — the two waves will both attenuate each other when they meet.
In effect, this is a laser or arc generator or microwave emitter that will put you in the shadow of a shockwave by creating one of its own.
Canceling out the incoming blast wave is just one way the system might work. By giving a blast wave a different density and composition of air to go through, the wave could spread or deform enough after passing through it to become less harmful or even harmless on the other side. It’s similar to shielding your eyes from a bright light by holding a distorting lens up to your face.
What will this proposed system protect? Pretty much anything it could be attached to:
“…The depicted vehicle [figure above] also may represent other types of land vehicles, such as automobiles, armored vehicles such as tanks and armored personnel carriers; fixed structures such as encampments, bunkers, revetments, buildings or portions of buildings such as balconies; marine vessels such as surface ships, submarines, a hovercraft or air-cushion vehicles, offshore platforms, and other structures that operate in, under or adjacent a body of water; aircraft including fixed wing aircraft, vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) craft and helicopters; and people and animals.”
But will it work? Again, this isn’t Star Wars or Star Trek. Any projectile would fly right by this system and into a vehicle it was attached to. However, imagine a scenario where a projectile isn’t the biggest danger. A military Humvee may be able to repel small arms fire and shrapnel from an IED, but the shockwave from an IED explosion could still be deadly. If this system could rapidly identify and attenuate the blast wave coming from a roadside bomb in any way, that would be an additional layer of protection.
If the system works as intended, an incoming blast wave (24) would be distorted enough by the heated fluid in front of it (30) that the waves (B/C) will lose their energy by the time they reach anyone (18).
This is still just a patent. We don’t know if Boeing is actually making this system or testing it. However, maybe pop culture can give us some idea of its efficacy. For example, we’ve seen a number of ways shockwaves can be deformed and how people or objects can be protected from them on MythBusters. Pressure gauges put on human stand-ins can read dead or alive by slightly changing the shape or direction of a shockwave.
If Boeing can do that, we really would be one step closer to being able to say “Shields up!”
Kyle Hill is the Chief Officer of the Nerdist enterprise. Follow on Twitter @Sci_Phile.