The Force-Field That's Not Really A Force-Field But Still Kinda Cool...If It Works
Boeing has received a patent for the design of a device many describe as a science-fiction-like force field that could protect people from explosion shockwaves. Is this finally the real deal?
Here we go again. Science news writers just can’t help themselves comparing any new potential advance to popular science fiction tropes like beaming matter, robot takeovers, or in this case, protective force fields
Here’s a couple titles I came across that couldn’t resist mentioning Star Wars. I’m sure they have a metric for the number of clicks they could get with each mention of those two words together:
Boeing Patents ‘Star Wars’-Style Force Field Technology (ABC News)
Boeing awarded Star Wars Tech patent for energy force fields (Geek.com)
I have no problem making a title compelling…just don’t cross that line into the click-bait neighborhood. The best balance I’ve come across is this title from CNN:
May the force-field be with you: Boeing granted patent for ‘shock wave attenuation’
See? You have the clickable and geeky coolness of the words “force-field” but then you bring it home with a description of what it really is. There’s even a nice play on words as well.
So why is Star Wars not an apt description in this case? Primarily because the device described in Boeing’s patent has only the most tenuous of connections to the modern conception of a sci-fi Force Field.
Tell me if you disagree.
Force fields in fiction have been around for many decades. There are various types performing various functions created in various ways but in the vast majority of cases, they either protect something or prevent something from escaping. For example, jail cells in sci-fi settings frequently employ a seamless energy barrier that prevents humans or nasty aliens from escaping. Usually, it hurts a bit to touch it as well. This is not however the iconic image of a force field. Ask most people (geek and non-geek alike) what it is and they will conjure an image of a mostly transparent, nigh impregnable, field of force that surrounds something. That something is likely to be either a person, a city perhaps, or the crowd favorite…a spaceship.
Seriously, almost every spaceship has one of these right? And why not. They allow spaceships to trade shots for dramatically extended periods of time without a ship prematurely blowing up when it’s hit by just one exa-watt class particle beam. Plus who doesn’t like seeing an imminent-death ray speeding towards our hero’s ship only to have it absorbed harmlessly but loudly in a techni-color array of visual effects.
Sorry, I’m still binge-watching Stargate SG1.
So what force-field did Boeing patent?
Ultimately, their design encompasses two major components.
- A sensor system that can detect an explosion and the threat it’s shockwave would impose on the people or “assets” it’s protecting.
- A method of quickly creating an intensely heated pocket of air interposed between the approaching shockwave and the protected asset such that the shockwave force would be significantly reduced.
Read number 2 again. That’s the Star Wars-like force field everyone’s crowing about….I’m not kidding.
As you can see, this new design has some serious deficiencies compared to real force fields (of our imagination). Here’s a few
- It is “on” for only the briefest of intervals
- It only protects one side of an “asset”
- It minimizes the impact of a shockwave, offering essentially no protection from actual solid objects hurtling towards the “assets”.
What should this be called then? Let’s call it a F.A.D. (Force Attenuation Device). Boeing’s FAD is actually fairly interesting and could prove helpful if you consider that many thousands of vets have come home seemingly whole yet with many neurological problems due to shockwave-induced brain damage. Even a 20 or 30% force attenuation could have made a difference in their lives.
To accomplish this, the patent describes many methods for creating a heated chunk of air to act as a shield. One method creates an electrically conductive pathway using either lasers, conductors, magnetic induction, etc. An arc generator would then use this pathway to send an electric arc down the path to heat the air. They also describe that the arc itself could be electric-based, laser-induced, or microwave-induced.
At first, I was confused why they just didn’t pick a pony and run with it. Why are so many different technologies described in the patent. It seems that the various methods for heating the air can have a different impact on the shockwave. One method could turn it into mechanical energy, another could convert into electrical energy. They also say that their goal is a shield that “reflects, refracts, absorbs and deflects at least a portion of the shockwave”.
So will this work? Well, the design doesn’t break any laws of physics but will it work as intended?
My biggest problem with this is related to the reaction time of the system. The patent mentions using this to deal with IED (improvised explosive devices) but by their nature they go off when the target is right on top of or very close to the IED. This leaves little to no time to sense the problem and deploy the “shield”.
High Energy (HE) explosives are horrifically powerful things. It’s not clear that even if the air is heated in time that it would have any significant effect. Some people have mentioned that the “shield” would have to be a downright vacuum to properly attenuate the shockwave. I’m sure that would introduce its own problems.
Still others are concerned that the power requirements to make such a device work will make it impractical for the foreseeable future.
That being said, a device like Boeing’s Shockwave Attenuation System does attempt to fill a protective gap that needs filling. A mobile shield for shockwaves that doesn’t need time to setup could go a long way in improving the quality of life for combatants and non-combatants alike. I think this deserves some more exploration.
Just please don’t call it a force-field.