Posted by: kaleidophonic | March 12, 2012

Suffocating Sound Shields, Batman!

Suffocating sound shields, Batman! The militarization of noise continues…

I’ve written in this blog before about this issue, specifically the use of Long Range Accoustical Devices (LRADs), otherwise known as sound-cannons. These sonic weapons are designed to emit a specific frequency, that is at once tremendously loud and annoying (also damaging to human hearing), for the purpose of dispersing crowds and incapacitating protestors. This kind of weapon, in my opinion, treads dangerously close to a denial of the fundamental democratic right to freedom of speech and freedom of assembly, but this is a topic I won’t go into detail about today (if you like you can read a bit more about this here).

LRAD’s were used against G-20 protestors in Pittsburgh, and Toronto hastily pushed through legislation making these weapons available to police in advance of the 2010 G-20 debacle there. More recently there were reports that the NYPD had deployed a sound cannon against Occupy Wallstreeters during the ‘clean-up’ there last fall.

As if this militarized use of noise wasn’t scary enough, newer sound-weaponry goes even further than loud and obnoxious — breaking into territory that seems much closer to the science fiction of a Darth Vader death grip than to the present reality of sonic science. The New Scientist recently reported that Raytheon, a defense firm in Massachusetts, recently patented a new crowd-control technology that works similarly to the LRAD, but with much more intense effects:

The new shield described by Raytheon produces a low-frequency sound which resonates with the respiratory tract, making it hard to breathe. According to the patent, the intensity could be increased from causing discomfort to the point where targets become “temporarily incapacitated”.

Acoustic devices haven’t seen wide adoption because their range is limited to a few tens of metres. The patent gets around this by introducing a “cohort mode” in which many shields are wirelessly networked so their output covers a wide area, like Roman legionaries locking their shields together. One shield acts as a master which controls the others, so that the acoustic beams combine effectively.

Raytheon declined to comment on the work.

“We do not have sufficient technical detail yet to determine if there are any hidden medical implications,” says Steve Wright of Leeds Metropolitan University in the UK. “These are always a concern because of the risk to sensitive bodily functions such as hearing, or even inducing panic attacks in asthmatics.”

The biggest danger, he warns, is that the technology would be used for political control. “If authorities in Egypt or Syria had this, would they use it for dispersal or to shove crowds into potentially lethal harm’s way?”

Isn’t it interesting how they deflect concerns about using this device for political control? Yes, such technologies might be useful to autocratic regimes such as the one in Syria. But what about right here in North America? Surely this kind of weapon is ideal for crowd control in our Western context, where images of bleeding protestors probably wouldn’t go over too well on the evening news. Much better to have a weapon that acts without the dangers of violent confrontation. I mean, the technology is being patented by an American defense firm, for crying out loud – I’m not so sure that concern for those on the receiving end of these sonic weapons was a high priority here.

The patent points out that the sound waves being generated are actually not that powerful, so while protestors might collapse from a lack of oxygen reaching their brains, their eardrums won’t be damaged in the process. Phew!

Hmm, potential brain damage from lack of oxygen? Panic attacks or asthma attacks? Hell, if some space-age riot-gear-gadget was pointed at me, and I suddenly found myself unable to breathe, I’d probably have a heart attack too.

Which of course would play right into the police state’s hands.



  1. […] of power, voice, and silencing that operate in our society. I’ve also blogged about the LRAD and militarization of sound here,  and dealt with other noise-emitting devices designed to silence as […]

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