Once again, science fiction has become science fact with news that Boeing has submitted a patent that reportedly uses high energy force-fields to protect infrastructure from the shock waves propagated by explosions. Boeing, in their own words, calls the hypothetical gizmo a "method and system for shockwave attenuation via electromagnetic arc.”
According to reports, the device—which was developed using Improvised Explosive Device (IED) research—probably won't live up to all our sci-fi expectations: it works only to attenuate shockwaves. Shrapnel will go through it like butter. Shockwaves, on the other hand, are known to wreak havoc following IED explosions, sometimes even moreso than the explosions themselves.
It's common for IED attacks to cause traumatic brain injuries, but this danger is often overshadowed by more obvious and gruesome injuries—like burns and the loss of extremities. However, as our knowledge of the long-term effects of shockwave exposure grows, it's becoming more clear that brain and organ damage that is not immediately apparent might continue to cause significant problems for wounded troops. Therefore, as it stands to reason, we should focus some of our resources on finding a solution.
Enter Boeing's Device:
Their system consists of a sensor suite capable of detecting explosions; an arc generator that rapidly transforms air or water into plasma; and a mechanism that determines the direction the explosion emanates from.
The system is not omnidirectional. In addition to detecting the direction of the explosion, it will calculate the magnitude to determine an effective counter-defense, and then put enough electrical energy between the explosion and the protected area to generate a plasma arc that can reflect, refract, absorb, or deflect at least some of the energy of the incoming shockwave. The field would not be invisible, and it would only exist momentarily to prevent vision from being obscured for long.
The patent lists a number of potential methods for putting energy from the arc generator at precisely the right place for the force field, which may be the trickiest part of the proposition. Among the concepts are a pellet gun that forges an electrically conductive ion trail; permanently affixed sacrificial conductors; and finally, a magnetic induction system, which could shoot out thin electrical wires. But the most sci-fi approach involves using high-intensity laser pulses to create a conductive path for the plasma to follow.
Before you get too excited, we should mention that the patent application was filed back in 2012. There’s no proof that even a basic prototype has been constructed, and with combat operations winding down in the Middle East, there may be no rush.
Since it’s Boeing behind the patent, however, it’s possible that there are more immediate applications in mind for aviation. Fixed-base military installations and ships could also benefit.
See a more detailed write-up on PopSci.