U.S. soldiers run for cover after an Improvised Explosive Device goes off in southeastern Afghanistan. A new Boeing patent gives hope that the battlefield impact of these IEDs can one day be mitigated. (Rafiq Maqbool/AP)

America’s military-industrial complex keeps coming up with innovative ideas for how to win asymmetric wars in far-flung locations around the world. As if insect-like drones and Terminator bots were not enough, Boeing recently filed a patent that describes how to create a “force field” capable of shielding soldiers and military vehicles – including tanks and armored personnel carriers – from the shockwaves of IEDs.

While Boeing doesn’t actually call it a “force field patent,” that’s essentially what it is. You can see how Boeing’s “method and system for shockwave attenuation via electromagnetic arc” works in the figure below. Here, a sensor (10A) mounted on the top of a military humvee would detect an explosion and its resulting shockwave (24) in the immediate area. The sensor system would then almost instantaneously send a signal to a power source (38) to superheat the surrounding ambient atmosphere (26) around the vehicle, producing a heated, plasma-like medium (30) between the target and the explosion that would act as a buffer and shield from any shockwave.

Boeing's new patent offers a schematic view of a system configured to utilize converging laser or microwave beams to attenuate the effect of a shockwave from an IED. (credit: USPTO)
Boeing’s new patent offers a schematic view of a system configured to utilize converging laser or microwave beams to attenuate the effect of a shockwave from an IED. (USPTO)

Although some have referred to this innovation as a Star Wars or Star Trek-like shield for repelling enemy attacks, that’s not exactly the purpose of the patent. As Boeing points out in patent no. 8981261, such a system would act to “attenuate” any shockwave by a combination of means that might include “reflection, refraction, dispersion, absorption and momentum transfer.” The goal, then, is not to knock down an incoming projectile or missile, but to deploy an intermediate medium that would reduce the collateral damage from such an attack.

Unlike previous attempts at creating a similar type of shield, this Boeing patent — if it ever gets commercialized — would be a dynamic system, rather than a stationary system, relying on sensors to activate a shield in real-time. This would differentiate it from previous patents, which focused more on how a specific substance – such as an aqueous foam, gas emulsion or gel – could somehow absorb the blow of an incoming object when placed inside a barrier. In other words, the force field would be highly mobile and be capable of activating at a moment’s notice, rather than being erected in front of a structure hours, days, or months ahead of time.

Boeing’s patent describes how a protective medium (30) could be used to divert, absorb or reflect away the most harmful effects of an IED shockwave (24) on a civilian or soldier (18). (USPTO)

Given the nature of modern asymmetric warfare, such a dynamic “force field” is greatly needed. Over the past decade, the “roadside bomb” has fundamentally changed the way the military operates as well as how it innovates. Consider the number of IED attacks in a war zone such as Iraq or Afghanistan, where over 3,100 deaths and 33,000 injuries have been sustained over the past decade. Clearly, the U.S. military needs some way to counter the ability of a terrorist or insurgent group to inflict maximum damage on unsuspecting U.S. soldiers with minimal risk.

As researchers are now finding out, even the shockwave from a detonated IED can cause internal injuries that may not be detected for years afterwards. Unlike the Hollywood movies, where heroes walk away from impressive-looking detonations and blasts as if they were nothing, researchers now say that IED shockwaves are tantamount to being hit multiple times by a ferocious NFL middle linebacker, resulting in potential head concussions each time.

There’s a huge potential market for this type of technology and that means it’s not just the U.S. military that could become buyers of such a battlefield innovation. The British Army is also working on the creation of supercharged electromagnetic fields to deflect anything up to the size of a small missile. And the Israeli Army is also working on a system to knock down incoming projectiles.

The only question is: Does all this stuff actually work? You can find YouTube videos that purport to show defensive shields in action (including videos showing DARPA’s Iron Curtain at work), but the consensus seems to be that anything powerful enough to stop something like an RPG would only be able to be activated for a fraction of a second at best. You would need hugely precise sensors to activate the shield in a specific location as well as a renewable power source that could be activated over and over again. Some have conjectured that such a shield would require so much energy that it might not be technically feasible.

The Boeing patent is rather vague on this topic, only suggesting that a number of different “embodiments” of the idea might include one or all of the following: lasers, electromagnetic arcs, microwaves or magnetic induction. In other words, it’s a cool idea, but give Boeing some more time to figure out how it would actually work in practice.

Boeing cites this 1916 patent — showing a system for defending a battleship against torpedo attack — as an inspiration for the “force field” patent. (USPTO)

Interestingly, the idea of creating a “force field” to protect against enemy attacks goes back almost exactly one century. According to Boeing’s list of prior art that inspired its patent, back in 1916 Swedish inventor Karl Oskar Leon won patent approval for the first-ever battle ship “force field” that would operate by firing a series of charges from tubes mounted on a ship, all of which would detonate in front of a torpedo attack. Fast forward 100 years and you have the idea for the modern-day “chaff” used to misdirect heat-seeking missiles.

Maybe 100 years from now, we’ll look back on the current Boeing patent in a similarly nostalgic way — as the forerunner of a defensive system exponentially more powerful than anything available today. Throughout history, there has always been a public fascination with protecting one’s soldiers from danger — whether it be armor or shields or bubbles or force fields. It’s a safe bet, then, that the generation of innovators that grew up with Captain Kirk and starship shields will also be the generation that comes up with a real-world analogue to the very sci-fi idea of a “force field.”