Tag Archives: weapons

‘Party popper’ mines could save lives

War is never nice, but mines can carry on killing or maiming people long after a war is over.

Suppose instead of using powerful explosives and shrapnel that a tiny explosion ejected lots of strong streamers, like a big party popper. If the streamers are long and strong, made from silk or graphene for example, then they could entangle anyone caught in the blast and restrain or impede them for several minutes while they untangle themselves. If that is on a battlefield, it would give plenty of time to deal with the attacking soldiers, achieving a large part of the military purpose, but if the party popper mine is left after a conflict is over, the worst it would do is to waste a few minutes of someone’s life, rather than to destroy the rest of it or end it. It should be possible to make effective poppers that would not cause any major injury, even at very close range maybe bruising or a small wound at worst, while still ensnaring anyone withing several metres of the blast.

Such mines could also reduce the numbers of soldiers killed on a battlefield, making it possible to capture instead of killing.

It would be naive to believe we can avoid violent conflicts completely, but if we can head towards international treaties that replace conventional mines with party popper mines, that would surely be a valuable step, saving civilian and military lives. If killing and maiming enemies can be substituted more by capture and detainment, that would be better still.

Some attempts at this have been made. https://www.wired.com/2009/02/foam-based-vehi/ describes one such attempt – thanks to my friend Nick Colosimo for the link. Maybe time to have another go, especially as new materials like graphene silk threads should be appearing soon.


Spiders in Space

A while back I read an interesting article about how small spiders get into the air to disperse, even when there is no wind:

Spiders go ballooning on electric fields: https://phys.org/news/2018-07-spiders-ballooning-electric-fields.html

If you don’t want to read it, the key point is that they use the electric fields in the air to provide enough force to drag them into the air. It gave me an idea. Why not use that same technique to get into space?

There is electric air potential right up to the very top of the atmosphere, but electric fields permeate space too. It only provides a weak force, enough to lift a 25mg spider using the electrostatic force on a few threads from its spinnerets.

25mg isn’t very heavy, but then the threads are only designed to lift the spider. Longer threads could generate higher forces, and lots of longer threads working together could generate significant forces. I’m not thinking of using this to launch space ships though. All I want for this purpose is to lift a few grams and that sounds feasible.

If we can arrange for a synthetic ‘cyber-spider’ to eject long graphene threads in the right directions, and to wind them back in when appropriate, our cyber-spider could harness these electric forces to crawl slowly into space, and then maintain altitude. It won’t need to stay in exactly the same place, but could simply use the changing fields and forces to stay within a reasonably small region. It won’t have used any fuel or rockets to get there or stay there, but now it is in space, even if it isn’t very high, it could be quite useful, even though it is only a few grams in weight.

Suppose our invisibly small cyber-spider sits near the orbit of a particular piece of space junk. The space junk moves fast, and may well be much larger than our spider in terms of mass, but if a few threads of graphene silk were to be in its path, our spider could effectively ensnare it, cause an immediate drop of speed due to Newtonian sharing of momentum (the spider has to be accelerated to the same speed as the junk, from stationary so even though it is much lighter, that would still cause a significant drop in junk speed)) and then use its threads as a mechanism for electromagnetic drag, causing it to slowly lose more speed and fall out of orbit. That might compete well as a cheap mechanism for cleaning up space junk.

Some organic spiders can kill a man with a single bite, and space spiders could do much the same, albeit via a somewhat different process. Instead of junk, our spider could meander into collision course with an astronaut doing a space walk. A few grams isn’t much, but a stationary cyber-spider placed in the way of a rapidly moving human would have much the same effect as a very high speed rifle shot.

The astronaut could easily be a satellite. Its location could be picked to impact on a particular part of the satellite to do most damage, or to cause many fragments, and if enough fragments are created – well, we’ve all watched Gravity and know what high speed fragments of destroyed satellites can do.

The spider doesn’t even need to get itself into a precise position. If it has many threads going off in various directions, it can quickly withdraw some of them to create a Newtonian reaction to move its center of mass fast into a path. It might sit many meters away from the desired impact position, waiting until the last second to jump in front of the astronaut/satellite/space junk.

What concerns me with this is that the weapon potential lends itself to low budget garden shed outfits such as lone terrorists. It wouldn’t need rockets, or massively expensive equipment. It doesn’t need rapid deployment, since being invisible, could migrate to its required location over days, weeks or months. A large number of them could be invisibly deployed from a back garden ready for use at any time, waiting for the command before simultaneously wiping out hundreds of satellites. It only needs a very small amount of IT attached to some sort of filament spinneret. A few years ago I worked out how to spin graphene filaments at 100m/s:

Spiderman-style silk thrower

If I can do it, others can too, and there are probably many ways to do this other than mine.

If you aren’t SpiderMan, and can accept lower specs, you could make a basic graphene silk thrower and associated IT that fits in the few grams weight budget.

There are many ways to cause havoc in space. Spiders have been sci-fi horror material for decades. Soon space spiders could be quite real.



How to make a Star Wars light saber

A couple of years ago I explained how to make a free-floating combat drone: http://carbonweapons.com/2013/06/27/free-floating-combat-drones/ , like the ones in Halo or Mass Effect. They could realistically be made in the next couple of decades and are very likely to feature heavily in far future warfare, or indeed terrorism. I was chatting to a journalist this morning about light sabers, another sci-fi classic. They could also be made in the next few decades, using derivatives of the same principles. A prototype is feasible this side of 2050.

I’ll ignore the sci-fi wikis that explain how they are meant to work, which mostly approximate to fancy words for using magic or The Force and various fictional crystals. On the other hand, we still want something that will look and sound and behave like the light saber.

The handle bit is pretty obvious. It has to look good and contain a power source and either a powerful laser or plasma generator. The traditional problem with using a laser-based saber is that the saber is only meant to be a metre long but laser beams don’t generally stop until they hit something. Plasma on the other hand is difficult to contain and needs a lot of energy even when it isn’t being used to strike your opponent. A laser can be switched on and off and is therefore better. But we can have some nice glowy plasma too, just for fun.

The idea is pretty simple then. The blade would be made of graphene flakes coated with carbon nanotube electron pipes, suspended using the same technique I outlined in the blog above. These could easily be made to form a long cylinder and when you want the traditional Star Wars look, they would move about a bit, giving the nice shimmery blurry edge we all like so that the tube looks just right with blurry glowy edges. Anyway, with the electron pipe surface facing inwards, these flakes would generate the internal plasma and its nice glow. They would self-organize their cylinder continuously to follow the path of the saber. Easy-peasy. If they strike something, they would just re-organize themselves into the cylinder again once they are free.

For later models, a Katana shaped blade will obviously be preferred. As we know, all ultimate weapons end up looking like a Katana, so we might as well go straight to it, and have the traditional cylindrical light saber blade as an optional cosmetic envelope for show fights. The Katana is a universal physics result in all possible universes.

The hum could be generated by a speaker in the handle if you have absolutely no sense of style, but for everyone else, you could simply activate pulsed magnetic fields between the flakes so that they resonate at the required band to give your particular tone. Graphene flakes can be magnetized so again this is perfectly consistent with physics. You could download and customize hums from the cloud.

Now the fun bit. When the blade gets close to an object, such as your opponent’s arm, or your loaf of bread in need of being sliced, the capacitance of the outer flakes would change, and anyway, they could easily transmit infrared light in every direction and pick up reflections. It doesn’t really matter which method you pick to detect the right moment to activate the laser, the point is that this bit would be easy engineering and with lots of techniques to pick from, there could be a range of light sabers on offer. Importantly, at least a few techniques could work that don’t violate any physics. Next, some of those self-organizing graphene flakes would have reflective surface backings (metals bond well with graphene so this is also a doddle allowed by physics), and would therefore form a nice reflecting surface to deflect the laser beam at the object about to be struck. If a few flakes are vaporized, others would be right behind them to reflect the beam.

So just as the blade strikes the surface of the target, the powerful laser switches on and the beam is bounced off the reflecting flakes onto the target, vaporizing it and cauterizing the ends of the severed blood vessels to avoid unnecessary mess that might cause a risk of slipping. The shape of the beam depends on the locations and angles of the reflecting surface flakes, and they could be in pretty much any shape to create any shape of beam needed, which could be anything from a sharp knife to a single point, severing an arm or drilling a nice neat hole through the heart. Obviously, style dictates that the point of the saber is used for a narrow beam and the edge is used as a knife, also useful for cutting bread or making toast (the latter uses transverse laser deflection at lower aggregate power density to char rather than vaporize the bread particles, and toast is an option selectable by a dial on the handle).

What about fights? When two of these blades hit each other there would be a variety of possible effects. Again, it would come down to personal style. There is no need to have any feel at all, the beams could simple go through each other, but where’s the fun in that? Far better that the flakes also carry high electric currents so they could create a nice flurry of sparks and the magnetic interactions between the sabers could also be very powerful. Again, self organisation would allow circuits to form to carry the currents at the right locations to deflect or disrupt the opponent’s saber. A galactic treaty would be needed to ensure that everyone fights by the rules and doesn’t cheat by having an ethereal saber that just goes right through the other one without any nice show. War without glory is nothing, and there can be no glory without a strong emotional investment and physical struggle mediated by magnetic interactions in the sabers.

This saber would have a very nice glow in any color you like, but not have a solid blade, so would look and feel very like the Star Wars saber (when you just want to touch it, the lasers would not activate to slice your fingers off, provided you have read the safety instructions and have the safety lock engaged). The blade could also grow elegantly from the hilt when it is activated, over a second or so, it would not just suddenly appear at full length. We need an on/off button for that bit, but that could simply be emotion or thought recognition so it turns on when you concentrate on The Force, or just feel it.

The power supply could be a battery or graphene capacitor bank of a couple of containers of nice chemicals if you want to build it before we can harness The Force and magic crystals.

A light saber that looks, feels and behaves just like the ones on Star Wars is therefore entirely feasible, consistent with physics, and could be built before 2050. It might use different techniques than I have described, but if no better techniques are invented, we could still do it the way I describe above. One way or another, we will have light sabers.


Drones – it isn’t the Reapers and Predators you should worry about

We’re well used now to drones being used to attack terrorist targets in the Middle East. Call of Duty players will also be familiar with using drones to take out enemies. But drones so far are basically unmanned planes with missiles attached.

Elsewhere, quadcopter drones are also becoming very familiar for a variety of tasks, but so far at least, we’re not seeing them being used on the battlefield, or if they are being used, it is being kept out of the news. It can only be a matter of time though. They can already be made in a wide range of sizes from tiny insect-sized reconnaissance drones that carry cameras, microphones or other small sensors, right up to helicopter-sized drones for missile and gun mounting.

At each size, there are advantages and disadvantages. Collectively, drones will change warfare and terrorism dramatically over the next decades.

Although the big Predator drones with Hellfire missiles look very impressive and pack a mean punch, and are well proven in warfare, they soon won’t be as important as tiny drones. Imagine you have a big gun and a choice of being attacked by two enemies – a hungry grizzly bear, or a swarm of killer bees, and suppose these bees can penetrate your clothing. The bear is huge and has big sharp claws and teeth, but there is only one, and you’re a good shot and it will go down easily with your gun if you stay cool. The bees are small and you may swat a few but many will sting you. In practice, the sting could be a high voltage electric shock, a drop of nerve gas, a laser into your eye, or lethal germs, all of which are banned, but terrorists don’t care. Sharp carbon needles can penetrate a lot of armor. It is even possible to make tiny shaped-charge explosive stings.

Soon, they won’t even need to be as big as bees. Against many backgrounds, it can be almost impossible to see a midge, let alone kill it and a midge sized device can get through even a small gap. Soldiers don’t like having to fight in Noddy suits (NBC).

Further in the future, various types of nanotech devices might be added to attack your nervous system, take over your brain, paralyze you, switch your consciousness off.

Nature loves self-organisation, and biomimetics has adopted the idea well already. It is easy to use simple flocking algorithms to keep a swarm loosely together and pretty immune to high attrition. The algorithms only need simple sensors and processors, so can be very cheap. A few seekers can find and identify targets and the right areas of a target to attack. The rest can carry assorted payloads and coordinate their attacks, adding electric charges to make lethal shocks or arranging to ‘sting’ simultaneously or in timed sequences at certain points.

We heard this week about 3D printers allowing planes to make offshoots during flight. Well, insect-sized drones could too. Some could carry material, some could have the print heads and some provide the relative positioning systems for others to assemble whatever you want. Weapons could just seemingly appear from nowhere, assembled very close to the target.

So much for the short-term and mid-term future. What then?

a Mass Effect combat droneMass Effect combat drone, picture credit: masseffect.wikia.com

In futuristic computer games such as Halo and Mass Effect, combat orbs float around doing various military and assistant tasks. We will soon be able to make those too. We don’t have to use quadcopters or dragonfly drones. I had to design one for my sci-fi novel but I kept as close as possible to real feasible technology. Mine just floats around using electromagnetic/plasma effects. I discussed this in:

http://carbonweapons.com/2013/06/27/free-floating-combat-drones/ (the context there was for my sci-fi book, but the idea is still feasible)

I explained how such drones could self-organize, could be ultra-smart, and could reassemble if hit, becoming extremely resilient. They could carry significant weaponry too. A squadron of combat drones like these would be one hell of an enemy. You could shoot one for ages with laser or bullets and it would keep coming. Disruption of its fields by electrical weapons would make it collapse temporarily, but it would just get up and reassemble as soon as you stop firing. With its intelligence potentially local cloud based, you could make a small battalion of these that could only be properly killed by totally frazzling them all. They would be potentially lethal individually but almost irresistible as a team. Super-capacitors could be recharged frequently using companion drones to relay power from the rear line. A mist of spare components could make ready replacements for any that are destroyed. Self-orientation and use of free-space optics for comms make wiring and circuit boards redundant, and sub-millimetre chips 100m away would be quite hard to hit.

My generation grew up with the nuclear arms race. Millennials will grow up with the drone arms race. And that if anything is a lot scarier. The battle drones in computer games are fairly easy to kill. Real ones soon won’t be.


Well I’m scared. If you’re not, I didn’t explain it properly.

Weapons on planes are everyday normality. We can’t ban them all.

I noted earlier that you can make a pretty dangerous Gauss rifle using a few easily available and legal components, and you could make a 3D-printed jig to arrange them for maximum effect. So I suggested that maybe magnets should be banned too.

(Incidentally, the toy ones you see on YouTube etc. typically just use a few magnets and some regular steel balls. Using large Nd magnets throughout with the positions and polarities optimally set would make it much more powerful). 

Now I learn that a US senator (Leland Yee of San Francisco), HT Dave Evans for the link http://t.co/REt2o9nF4t, wants 3D printers to be regulated somehow, in case they are used to make guns. That won’t reduce violence if you can easily acquire or make lethal weapons that are perfectly legal without one. On the ground, even highly lethal kitchen knives and many sharp tools aren’t licensed. Even narrowing it down to planes, there is quite a long list of potentially dangerous things you are still very welcome to take on board and are totally legal, some of which would be very hard to ban, so perhaps we should concentrate more on defence and catching those who wish us harm.

Here are some perfectly legal weapons that people carry frequently with many perfectly benign uses:

Your fingers. Fingernails particularly can inflict pain and give a deep scratch, but some people can blind or even kill others with their bare hands;

Sharp pencils or pencils and a sharpener; pens are harder still and can be pretty sharp too;

Hard plastic drink stirrers, 15cm long, that can be sharpened using a pencil sharpener; they often give you these on the flight so you don’t even have to bring them; hard plastics can be almost as dangerous as metals, so it is hard to see why nail files are banned and drinks stirrers and plastic knives aren’t;

CDs or DVDs, which can be easily broken to make sharp blades; I met a Swedish ex-captain once who said he always took one on board in his jacket pocket, just in case he needed to tackle a terrorist.

Your glasses. You can even take extra pairs if the ones you’re wearing are needed for you to see properly. Nobody checks the lenses to make sure the glass isn’t etched for custom breaking patterns, or whether the lenses can be popped out, with razor-sharp edges. They also don’t check that the ends of the arms don’t slide off. I’m sure Q could do a lot with a pair of glasses.

Rubber bands, can be used to make catapults or power other projectile weapons, and many can be combined to scale up the force;

Paperclips, some of which are pretty large and thick wire;

Nylon cord, which can be used dangerously in many ways. Nylon paracord can support half a ton but be woven into nice little bracelets, or shoelaces for that matter. Thin nylon cord is an excellent cutting tool.

Plastic zip ties (cable ties), the longer ones especially can be lethally used.

Plastic bags too can be used lethally.

All of these are perfectly legal but can be dangerous in the wrong hands. I am sure you can think of many others.

Amusingly, given the Senator’s proposed legislation, you could currently probably take on board a compact 3d printer to print any sharps you want, or a Liberator if you have one of the templates, and I rather expect many terrorist groups have a copy – and sometimes business class seats helpfully have an electrical power supply. I expect you might draw attention if you used one though.

There are lots of ways of storing energy to be released suddenly, a key requirement in many weapons. Springs are pretty good at that job. Many devices we use everyday like staple guns rely on springs that are compressed and then suddenly release all their force and energy when the mechanism passes a trigger point. Springs are allowed on board. It is very easy to design weapons based on accumulating potential energy across many springs that can then all simultaneously release them. If I can dream some up easily, so can a criminal. It’s also easy to invent mechanisms for self assembly of projectiles during flight, so parts of a projectile can be separately accelerated.

Banned devices that you could smuggle through detectors are also numerous.  High pressure gas reservoirs could easily be made using plastics or resins and could be used for a wide variety of pneumatic projectile weapons and contact or impact based stun weapons. Again, precision release mechanism could be designed for 3D printing at home, but a 3D printer isn’t essential, there are lots of ways of solving the engineering problems.

I don’t see how regulating printers would make us safer. After hundreds of thousands of years, we ought to know by now that if someone is intent on harming someone else, there is a huge variety of  ways of doing so, using objects or tools that are essential in everyday life and some that don’t need any tools at all, just trained hands.

Technology comes and goes, but nutters, criminals, terrorists and fanatics are here to stay. Only the innocent suffer the inconvenience of following the rules. It’s surely better to make less vulnerable systems.

3D printable guns are here to stay, but we need to ban magnets from flights too.

It’s interesting watching new technologies emerge. Someone has a bright idea, it gets hyped a bit, then someone counter-hypes a nightmare scenario and everyone panics. Then experts queue up to say why it can’t be done, then someone does it, then more panic, then knee-jerk legislation, then eventually the technology becomes part of everyday life.

I was once dismissed by our best radio experts when I suggested making cellphone masts like the ones you see on every high building today. I recall being taught that you couldn’t possibly ever get more than 19.2kbits/s down a phone line. I got heavily marked down in an appraisal for my obvious stupidity suggesting that mobile phones could include video cameras. I am well used to being told something is impossible, but if I can see how to make it work, I don’t care, I believe it anyway. My personal mantra is ‘just occasionally, everyone else IS wrong’. I am an engineer. Some engineers might not know how to do something, but others sometimes can.

When the printable gun was suggested (not by me this time!) I accepted it as an inevitable part of the future immediately. I then listened as experts argued that it could never survive the forces. But guess what? A gun doesn’t have to survive. It just needs to work once, then you use a fresh one. The first prototypes only worked for a few bullets before breaking. The Liberator was made to work just once. Missiles are like that. They fire once, only once. So you bring a few to the battle.

The recently uploaded blueprint for the Liberator printable gun has been taken offline after 100,000 copies were downloaded, so it will be about as hard to find as embarrassing pictures of any celebrity. There will be innovations, refinements, improvements, then we will see them in use by hobbyists and criminals alike.

But there are loads of ways to skin a cat, allegedly. A gun’s job is to quickly accelerate a small mass up to a high speed in a short distance. Using explosives in a bullet held in a printable lump of plastic clearly does the job on a one-shot basis, but you still need a bullet and they don’t sell them in Tesco’s. So why do it that way?

A Gauss Rifle is a science toy that can fire a ball-bearing across your living room. You can make one in 5 minutes using nothing more than sticky tape, a ruler and some neodymium magnets. Here’s a nice example of the toy version using simple steel balls:


The concept is very well known, though a bit harder to Google now because so many computer games have used the same name for imaginary weapons. In an easily adapted version, where the steel balls are replaced by neodymium magnets held in place in alternately attracting and repelling polarities, when the first magnet is released, it is pulled by strong magnetic force to the second one, hitting it quite fast, and conveying all that energy to the next stage magnet, which is then pushed away from the one repelling it towards the one attracting it, so accumulating lots of energy. The energy accumulates over several stages, optimally harnessing the full repulsive and attractive forces available from the strong magnets. Too many stages result in the magnets shattering, but with care, four stages with simple steel balls can be used reasonably safely as a toy.

Some sites explain that if you position the magnets accurately with the poles oriented right, you can get it to make a small hole in a wall. I imagine you could design and print a gauss rifle jig with very high precision, far better than you could do with tape and your fingers, that would hold the magnets in the right locations and polarity orientations.  Then just put your magnets in and it is ready. Neodymium magnets are easily available in various sizes at low cost and the energy of the final ball is several times as high as the first one. With the larger magnets, the magnetic forces are extremely high so the energy accumulated would also be high. A sharp plastic dart housing the last ball would make quite a dangerous device. A Gauss rifle might lack the force of a conventional gun, but it could still be quite powerful. If I was in charge of airport security, I’d already be banning magnets from flights.

I really don’t see how you could stop someone making this sort of thing, or plastic crossbows or fancy plastic jigs with stored energy in springs that can be primed in an aircraft toilet that fire things in imaginative ways. There are zillions of ways to accelerate something, some of which can be done in cascades that only generate tolerable forces at any particular point so could easily work with printable materials. The current focus on firearms misses the point. You don’t have to transfer all the energy to a projectile in one short high pressure burst, you can accumulate it in stages. Focusing security controls on explosives-based systems will leave us vulnerable.

3D printable weapons are here to stay, but for criminals and terrorists, bullets with explosives in might soon be obsolete.