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DIY 'e-bombs' a threat to airliners

Terrorists could build electromagnetic pulse weapons with cut-rate equipment available online.

Box cutters, high flying geese and now this: a DIY electromagnetic pulse (EMP) weapon that can bring down a plane with a single microwave radio pulse blasted from the ground or even from the next seat over, according to experts.

The world's major military powers have tinkered with EMP warheads that broadcast radio-frequency shockwaves of hundreds of thousands of volts per meter. But now, any crackpot can build one of these "e-bombs" with low-cost equipment purchased online.

In analyzing electromagnetic weapons currently in development, the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism in Herzliya, Israel, discovered that there is plenty of information and affordable equipment available on the Net that could be used by terrorists to build a weapon strong enough to fry nearby electrical systems, including the ones keeping civil airliners aloft. Popular Mechanics estimated the cost of building just such a weapon at $400.

"These will become more of a threat as the electromagnetic weapons technology matures," Yael Shahar, the Institute's director warned in an interview with New Scientist. "Once it is known that aircraft are vulnerable to particular types of disruption, it isn't too much of a leap to build a device that can produce that sort of disruption. And much of this could be built from off-the-shelf components or dual-use technologies."

Compounding the problem is the increased use of carbon-fiber reinforced composite in aircraft fuselages, according to aviation officials. Composites, compared with metal, provide little defense against electromagnetic radiation.

"What's needed is extensive shielding of electronic components and the vast amount of cables running down the length of the aircraft," Shahar told delegates at the annual Directed Energy Weapons conference in London last month.

Government agencies are little more laid back. While the government is well aware of this security risk to civilian aircraft, it's considering the overall "balanced picture", said a spokesperson for the UK Department of Transport.