Environment & Science

Boeing's 'force field' is only the latest idea in IED defense; here are 6 others

A diagram from a Boeing patent application approved in March 2015 shows a kind of
A diagram from a Boeing patent application approved in March 2015 shows a kind of "force field" that would absorb and distribute the blast from a roadside bomb or rocket-propelled grenade.
Courtesy U.S. Patent Office

Boeing got the attention of a lot of tech blogs Monday when it was discovered the aerospace company had patented what looks to be a science fiction-inspired force field.

You read that right — a force field. That may remind you of this scene from "Star Wars:"

Or this one from "Fantastic Four:"

Video

Or any number of fictional force fields that have excited sci-fi fans via page and screen over the years.

Boeing's "force field" is not these, to be sure. But while it may not envelop spaceships, deflect laser beams or even block bullets, it is conceived as a way to protect vehicles against rocket blasts, roadside bombs and other explosive threats, and it has, in fact, been approved by the U.S. Patent Office.

The technology, which Boeing refers to in its patent application as a "shockwave attenuation system," looks to fill a gap in current vehicle protection. Humvees and other military personnel carriers use armor to minimize the damage from shrapnel, the physical material released in an explosion. But, as the patent claims, shockwaves also cause a lot of damage and are harder to defend against.

So what is a shockwave, and how does this "force field" work? A shockwave is a change in the temperature, pressure, density or other physical qualities of the air that actually ripples over a distance. It is the force of the blast, rather than the visible fire or smoke you see when a missile or bomb explodes.

One version of Boeing's device would rapidly superheat a pocket of air between the targeted vehicle and a roadside explosion by generating an electromagnetic arc — by, say, zapping the air with a couple of lasers. Since a shockwave is just a blast of air of differing temperature and pressure, the device is effectively using its own shockwave to absorb and offset the other.

Here's an explanation from YouTube user Patent Yogi:

Video

The device would work for submarines and other seafaring vessels, too.

It's unclear when or if Boeing's device will ever make it to the field. But before you discount all this as fruitless exercise, consider that Boeing is not the only company looking at ways to minimize the damage from explosive devices, and it's also not the only one thinking about seemingly fantastical solutions to these real-world threats.

Rusty Ward, who hosts a YouTube series called "Science Friction," points out that the United Kingdom looked into a kind of force field to enhance the existing armor on its tanks in 2002.

Ward has rounded up several other examples of out-there ideas to create real-world force fields:

Video

One of the ideas Ward mentions was conceived by a group of students at the University of Leicester in England. This was a kind of thought experiment to provide the scientific grounding for an all-purpose force field like the one used by starships in the "Star Trek" films and television shows.

Video

Real-world defense

So what's all this fuss about force fields? Thought experiments aside, a lot of major companies are looking into ways to mitigate the effects of today's threats, whether they be RPGs, IEDs, land mines or any other explosive device.

"After 9/11, there was no argument or misunderstanding in academia, in industry, certainly in the military and other government agencies that we had to get after this problem. That brought like-minded people with relevant capabilities together to come up with solutions." Lt. Gen. John Johnson, head of Joint IED Defeat Organization, or JIEDDO, told DefenseNews last week.

According to Military.com, $19 billion has been spent to defeat IEDs alone, and yet they remain the leading cause of casualties for U.S. and coalition troops in Iraq and Afghanistan:

From 2009-11, the U.S. military suffered a total of 14,627 casualties, according to the Pentagon’s Defense Casualty Analysis System and the icasualties.org website.

Of that total, 8,680, or 59 percent, were from IED explosions, based on JIEDDO data. The proportion of all U.S. casualties caused by IEDs continued to increase from 56 percent in 2009 to 63 percent in 2011.

Boeing's patent application specifically mentions IEDs and other explosive devices in explaining its goal of reducing damage and casualties. And it's not the only company coming up with solutions to this problem.

With that in mind, here's a roundup of six other methods for defending against rocket and roadside blasts that have been proposed in recent years — all of which have been patented. 

1. The air bag defense

A number of outfits have patented sophisticated air bag deployment systems to protect against blasts, such as this one from Southwest Research Institute. The diagrams included in the patent application show potential use cases including protection for a building and for a speaker at a podium, with an air bag deployed to block an assassin's bullet.

2. Deflection by electromagnetic radiation

Bae Systems Information and Electronic Systems Integration Inc. proposed a system for deflecting an incoming projectile, such as an air-to-air missile, by heating the air around it.

3. The water blaster

This design from Raytheon proposes shooting water or another fluid to reduce an incoming blast wave.

4. Gas shield

BBN Technologies Corp. patented a way to create a temporary lens or shield made of heated argon or helium gas to protect against a shockwave. The technology could be deployed from the outside of a vehicle or even a soldier's body armor, BBN says.

5. Fight fire with fire?

Boeing proposed another shockwave protection just last fall. In this case, the system would sense an incoming threat and trigger and shape an explosion in the direction of an incoming threat, and it would be powerful enough to destroy a missile, RPG, air-to-ground bomb or other explosive device.

6. The net effect

Foster-Miller, Inc. has this concept using a deployable mesh net that would catch and disarm a projectile such as an incoming RPG.