Darth Vader take note: The Homeland Security Department is aiming to arm federal agents with a light-saber weapon emitting a dazzling strobe that would subdue criminals, terrorists and even unruly airline passengers.
It’s the latest government effort to develop a nonlethal weapon – in this case, a powerful beam of light that temporarily blinds anyone who looks into it.
“The light could be used to make a bad guy turn away or shut his eyes, giving authorities enough time to tackle the suspect and apply the cuffs, all while sparing the lives of passers-by, hostages or airline passengers,” according to a description of the device from the department’s science and technology division.
Program manager Gerald Kirwin said Homeland Security has invested $1 million for testing the LED (light-emitting diode) Incapacitator. It is being developed by a Torrance, Calif., company, Intelligent Optical Systems, and it will be tested on volunteers at Pennsylvania State University’s Institute of Non-Lethal Defense Technologies this fall.
If all goes well, the Homeland Security Department says it “could be in the hands of thousands of policemen, border agents, and National Guardsmen” by 2010. It also would be used by air marshals and customs officers, Kirwin said.
The device works by temporarily blinding and disorienting a person, said Bob Lieberman, president of Intelligent Optical. Once aimed at someone’s eyes, a series of light pulses and colors can be triggered, and the subject’s eyes can’t adjust quickly enough to see.
“It’s like someone shooting off a flashbulb in your face every few seconds,” Lieberman said. “Because of the wavelengths and frequencies we use, there are psychophysical effects – a real disorientation. The reaction can range through vertigo to nausea.”
That’s why The Register, an irreverent online publication that covers the information technology industry, has dubbed it the “puke-ray.”
What the flashlight-sized device doesn’t do, however, is use lasers or permanently blind people, Lieberman said. In 1995, the United States signed on to a United Nations agreement that banned blinding weapons. “We’re taking great care to make sure the intensities we’re using fall within eye-safe limits,” he said. “We’re doing medically supervised tests.”