This article first appeared in Defense Technology International.
A few years ago, when Inferno, an acoustic device developed in Sweden, was being presented in Johannesburg, the potential customer asked if the company had any documented proof that it worked as a "sound barrier." The answer from the makers of Inferno was no, they didn't have any studies, but they offered to demonstrate it to the customer's satisfaction.
Maurice Goldman, North American managing director for Inferno, says the potential customer offered two employees a month's salary if they would stay in the room while the device went off.
One employee stayed 20 sec., the other lasted 30 sec.
That anecdotal evidence is critical to Inferno, which offers a range of products under the company name. It advertises the devices, which let out an ear-piercing noise, as sonic barriers that deter aggressors.
Even without formal studies documenting this effect, Inferno has found customers with the military, yachters and even the U.S. State Dept. Nor is it alone in the market. From local law enforcement to the high seas, acoustic devices are proving increasingly popular. Though the best known of these, the Long Range Acoustic Device (LRAD), has been deployed on ships and by local law enforcement, there are new devices on the market, such as Inferno, that tout unique capabilities.
More than just a siren, Inferno utilizes four frequencies spread over 2-5 KHz. and 125-127 dB. to create a unique sound that is not just loud, but disorienting and potentially nauseating.
Using sound as a non-lethal device has attracted significant interest from the Defense Dept., but it comes with potential complications. Inferno's Goldman says he was contacted by one office in the Defense Dept. that was interested in a device that mounts on top of a Stryker or a Humvee and emits 140 dB. at 40 meters (130 ft.). "That much sound would give every man, woman and child permanent hearing damage," Goldman says. "That's going beyond what less lethal is about."
But used properly, Goldman sees potential applications for Inferno as a non-lethal deterrent, for example, to prevent piracy. "The use of less-lethal devices in marine applications employing acoustic technologies, such as the patented Inferno Intenso, provides an efficient tool for perimeter denial, delay and deterrence," says Goldman. "For both the pleasure boater and commercial ventures, acoustic energy is a strong addition to any security system."
Acoustic devices are, in fact, increasingly used as deterrents. In 2005, LRAD, developed by American Technology Corp., was famously used to thwart a pirate attack on a cruise ship off the coast of Africa. But the incident, hailed as a great success for acoustic devices, also underscored the ambiguity of whether such devices are, in fact, non-lethal weapons. More controversial has been the use of such acoustic devices to quell civil unrest. In 2007, the government of Georgia used an acoustic device to break up political demonstrations, and in September, LRAD was used against protesters at the G-20 summit in Pittsburgh.
If such devices are non-lethal weapons, there's another challenge -- most evidence attesting to their effectiveness is largely anecdotal, and scientists who study the issue remain dubious about the applications. For some companies, like Inferno, anecdotal evidence has proved persuasive to customers.
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