This illustration from Boeing's patent suggests that they think the force field generator could be mounted on something as small as a H umvee.

This illustration from Boeing’s patent suggests that they think the force field generator could be mounted on something as small as a Humvee.

“Angle the deflector shields while I charge up the main guns!” Phrases like this quote from Star Wars may soon have practical meaning if aerospace manufacturer Boeing has its way. The world’s largest maker of commercial and military aircraft has patented a design for a “Method and system for shockwave attenuation via electromagnetic arc”. In other words, they’ve filed the first known patent for a working force field.

This isn’t quite like the ones in Star Wars or Star Trek, where a continuous standing field absorbs the destructive force from a beam or explosive weapon in the vacuum of space. The design requires atmosphere to work, and it uses a combination of electricity, lasers and microwaves to create a temporary plasma field between the shockwave and the target. It exists only as long as it needs to, and dissipates immediately. The energy required to sustain a shield like that would be phenomenal, assuming it could be done at all, and probably wouldn’t be very stable. On the up side, from one of the drawings included in the patent, it looks like they think it’ll be small enough to mount on something as small as a Jeep or Humvee.

This small plasma field would differ from the surrounding environment in temperature, density and/or composition. It would provide a buffer between the target and the explosion that would, if not stop the shockwaves from reaching and damaging the target altogether, at least diminish the effect. This could make the difference between having a crippled target and one that’s still operational, making it a lot harder to get a confirmed kill on a target protected by the field.

The reaction time needed would be measured in thousandths, or perhaps ten thousandths, of a second. A significant amount of power would have to be expended to create the plasma field, so whatever carries one will need a power plant or big battery of some kind to drive it.

It’s still all theoretical at this point, so don’t expect to be hearing about dramatic new advances in the field any time soon. The method for doing it looks a bit like handwaving, as it includes the possibility of sacrificial conductor particles, lasers, electrical fields, projectiles trailing conductive wires, and even magnetic fields. That’s an awful lot of guessing on what might or might not be effective, so we think this is more of a blanket patent than anything real.

An invention doesn’t actually have to work to be patented. Still, you have to admit, it does make the heart of the geek beat just a teensy bit faster knowing that people are actually working on this, and that we science fiction geeks had it first.

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