A new patent granted to aircraft, defense and security company Boeing is taking its cues from science fiction. Just like the glowing energy shields seen protecting troops, machines and even spacecraft in Star Wars and Star Trek, the design -- named "Method and system for shockwave attenuation via electromagnetic arc" -- uses energy to deflect potential damage.
As it is described, the system is not designed to prevent direct impact from shells or shrapnel; rather, it is designed to protect a target -- such as a vehicle or building -- from the damaging effects of shockwaves from a nearby impact.
The patent is for a shockwave attenuation system, which consists of a sensor capable of detecting a shockwave-generating explosion and an arc generator that receives the signal from the sensor to ionise a small region, producing a plasma field between the target and the explosion using lasers, electricity and microwaves.
This small plasma field would differ from the surrounding environment in temperature, density and/or composition. This would provide a buffer between the target and the explosion that would hinder the shockwaves from reaching and damaging the target.
"Such embodiments as described above may reduce the energy density of the shockwave by creating a second medium in the path of the advancing shockwave that reflects, refracts, absorbs and deflects at least a portion of the shockwave," the patent reads.
Because this system heats and ionises the air, it is eminently unsuitable for enveloping a target and being held in place for any length of time. That kind of force field is technically feasible -- physics students last year determined that an electromagnetic field could by used to hold a plasma shield in place -- but it would likely also deflect light, leaving anyone inside blind as a bat.
You can read the full specs included in Boeing's patent on the USPTO website.