As a part of a military initiative called the Joint Non-Lethal Weapons Directorate (JNLWP), the project aims to create laser weapons that can transmit clear snippets of human speech across long distances. To accomplish this task, the weapon uses a principle called the Laser Induced Plasma Effect, which involves firing an incredibly powerful laser to create a ball of plasma, then shooting a second laser to oscillate the plasma, creating sound waves. With enough laser bursts fired at the right frequencies, the plasma vibrations can actually mimic human speech.
It sounds like science fiction — but, according to the news site MilitaryTimes.com, a military-ready version of the weapon may be available in as few as five years. In a video shared by The Times, an early version of the weapon beams the phrase "stop or we’ll be forced to fire upon you" onto a wall several feet away, using only flashing light. This technology will enable military personnel to target specific people with messages or warnings while putting themselves at minimal risk. [Flying Saucers to Mind Control: 22 Declassified Military and CIA Secrets]
Pentagon scientists told The Times that they eventually hope to implement a version of the laser that can beam clear messages hundreds of miles away. Such a laser could shoot orders down from an aircraft, command a distant crowd, or disperse or warn trespassers away from military installations (like, say, the soon-to-be-stormed Area 51).
The talking laser would be primarily a communication tool, the researchers said — however, slight variations could make the weapon useful for more aggressive crowd control. For example, JNLWP scientists are also testing plasma lasers that can burn through clothing to irritate human skin, and lasers that can pulse at frequencies similar to flashbang grenades (a non-lethal grenade that produces a burst of blinding light and an intensely loud sound). According to The Times, a plasma laser ball that generates sound waves at 155 decibels (85 decibels is the threshold for hearing damage) could serve as a dazzlingly loud, infinitely reusable flashbang.
Sounds cool — and painful. While the military continues improving these plasma laser grenades, researchers at MIT are working on a more civilian-focused version of the talking laser. That prototypical laser, described in the journal Optics Letters in January, uses a laser beam to wiggle water molecules in the air near the listener's ear, causing calculated molecular collisions that produce sound waves. According to researchers, their lasers could ultimately be used to communicate with specific people across a crowded room, or warn individuals of a dangerous situation. Like, say, someone shining a laser directly at your face.
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Originally published on Live Science.
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Brandon is the space/physics editor at Live Science. His writing has appeared in The Washington Post, Reader's Digest, CBS.com, the Richard Dawkins Foundation website and other outlets. He holds a bachelor's degree in creative writing from the University of Arizona, with minors in journalism and media arts. He enjoys writing most about space, geoscience and the mysteries of the universe.