From pain beams to stun guns to laser jets, real-life ray guns seemed to blasting their way from the world of sci-fi into the realm of reality in 2004. There were setbacks, to be sure -- missed deadlines, bloated budgets, and a sense that supposedly "non-lethal" energy weapons might not be so safe, after all. But, by the end of the year, the dream of a blaster in hand seemed a whole lot nearer than it did in 2003.abl_small.JPGLASER JET: GOOD NEWSAfter decades of bloated promises, busted budgets, and missed deadlines, the troubled Airborne Laser project finally got a bit of good news yesterday.The program's goal is to mount a high-energy, chemical laser onto a 747 jet, so it can shoot down incoming missiles. But whether such a laser would ever work remained very much an open question. On Thursday, some answers emerged, when Northrop engineers successfully tested the laser.ANTI-LASER CONTACT LENSESI think we all winced when we read, back in September, about the Delta pilot who was hit in the eye by a laser while flying a 737. Or about the 20 year-old Los Alamos intern who was zapped during a July experiment.Air Force researchers must not have liked what they read, either. That's presumably why they're looking to develop a contact lens that can protect against laser blasts.LASERS 1, MORTARS 0Lasers have been getting pretty good at knocking down rockets, as we've seen in tests over the last few years. Now, the ray guns are starting to prove that they can zap one of the most common battlefield threats mortars as well.ARMY FOCUSING ON "EASY" LASER WEAPONSIn the world of laser guns and death rays, there's hard to pull off. And then's really, really hard to do. The Army has decided to concentrate on developing some of the easier "directed energy" weapons. The idea is to prove to a skeptical military community that lasers can, in fact, be used to blow stuff up -- and not just on Babylon 5.RAY GUN RESEARCH POWERS UPThe most powerful lasers today probably wouldn't work that well as weapons. They have the energy needed to zap oncoming missiles. But, powered by enormous vats of chemicals, they're really too cumbersome to work in the battlefield.Solid state lasers don't have those logistical problems. Until recently, though, the energy they've generated has been pretty puny just 10 kilowatts or so, instead of the 100 kilowatts that most think are needed to make a workable weapon. Now, Aviation Week reports, the Defense Department is on track to demonstrate three, solid state laser designs that can hit the 25 kw mark.taser_side_mirror_small.JPGDEATHS DOG STUN GUN MAKERFor executives as Taser International, this should be the best day, ever. The company just signed a $1.8 million deal with the Pentagon the largest in Taser's history. But the stun-gun maker can't shake allegations that their supposedly "non-lethal" weapons have killed more than a few of their targets.CORONER: TASERS DIDN'T KILLThey're still not sure why 31 year-old Frederick Jerome Williams died in police custody. But it wasn't the five shocks to the chest from a Taser stun gun, the Gwinnett, Georgia County medical examiner's office has concluded.TASERS IN THE SKIESFiring bullets in an enclosed space is rarely a good idea. So I guess it was only a matter of time before someone decided to arm airline security guards with tasers instead.NEXT-GEN STUN GUNS TARGET CROWDSThe problem with today's stun guns is that you can unload a can of electrical whoop-ass only on one person at a time. But that may be starting to change.SONIC WEAPON IN IRAQU.S. soldiers in Iraq have new gear for dispersing hostile crowds and warding off potential enemy combatants. It blasts earsplitting noise in a directed beam. ""E-BOMB," FOR REAL?On the eve of the Iraq invasion, it was being hailed as America's next "wonder weapon." The "e-bomb" -- a munition using high-powered microwaves to fry circuits and computers -- was about to be dropped on Baghdad, we were told. Now, Aviation Week reports, there are a pair of efforts underway at the Pentagon to use high-powered microwaves -- the core of the e-bomb -- for real.v-ads.jpgBRING THE PAINWhen U.S. soldiers are faced with a hostile crowd, they only have, broadly speaking, two options for breaking it up: the bullhorn or the machine gun. Words or bullets. Deadly force, or no force at all. What's need instead is a weapon that falls somewhere in between. That shoots to hurt, not to kill. That drives away looters, without driving up casualty counts. A microwave-like pain ray, let's say.SOUPED-UP ARMORED CARS PREPPED FOR IRAQSoldiers in Iraq might soon get armored vehicles equipped with pain rays, sonic weapons, or guns that automically return fire if a Pentagon project works out as planned.PAIN RAY GOING AIRBORNEIt was only a matter of time, I guess. First, the Air Force builds a real-life, microwave-like pain ray. Then, it gets a company to strap that real-life, microwave-like pain ray to the back of a jet.NO SCI-FI TECH FOR "FUTURE COMBAT"Back in 1999, when the Army launched Future Combat Systems, its $117 billion modernization program, "discussions were dominated by visions of an all-electric, laser-firing fleet of fast-moving tank-like vehicles unburdened by the weight of conventional armor," notes National Defense. "Five years later, reality has set in."

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