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Sonic and ultrasonic weapons (USW) are weapons of various types that use sound to injure, incapacitate, or kill an opponent. Some sonic weapons are currently in limited use or in research and development by military and police forces. Others exist only in the realm of science fiction. Some of these weapons have been described as sonic bullets, sonic grenades, sonic mines, or sonic cannons. Some make a focused beam of sound or ultrasound; some make an area field of sound. Although many real sonic and ultrasonic weapons are described as "non-lethal", they can still kill under certain conditions.

Designed to emit sound as an irritant

Extremely high-power sound waves can break the eardrums of a target and cause severe pain or disorientation. This is usually sufficient to incapacitate a person. At higher energy levels, a subsonic shock wave is theoretically powerful enough to do damage (see Earthquake). The EMF Dosimetry Hand Book will provide further results of the bio-effects and expectations of these weapons. [4] Less powerful sound waves can cause humans to experience nausea or discomfort. The use of these frequencies to incapacitate persons has occurred both in counter-terrorist and crowd control settings.

The possibility of a device that produces frequency that causes vibration of the eyeballs — and therefore distortion of vision — was apparently confirmed by the work of engineer Vic Tandy[1][2] while attempting to demystify a “haunting” in his laboratory in Coventry. This “spook” was characterised by a feeling of unease and vague glimpses of a grey apparition. Some detective work implicated a newly installed extractor fan that, Tandy found, was generating infrasound of 18.9 Hz, 0.3 Hz, and 9 Hz.

In 2005 CNN reported that the crew of the cruise ship Seabourn Spirit used a long range acoustic device (LRAD) to deter pirates who chased and attacked the ship[5]. Its actual efficacy, however, has not been established. A similar system is called a "magnetic acoustic device".[3]

The BBC reported in Oct 2006 on a 'mobile' sonic device which is being used in Grimsby, Hull and Lancashire and is designed to deter troublesome teenagers from lingering around shops in target areas. The device works by emitting an ultra-high frequency blast (around 19-20 kHz) that teenagers or people under approximately 20 are susceptible to and find uncomfortable. Age-related hearing loss apparently prevents the ultra-high pitch sound from causing a nuisance to those in their late twenties and above, though this is wholly dependent on a young person's exposure to high sound pressure levels.

During the 2009 G20 summit in Pittsburgh, police used sound cannons against protestors.[4]

Demonstrated infrasonic weapon

The U.S. DOD has demonstrated phased arrays of infrasonic emitters. The weapon usually consists of a device that generates sound at about 7 Hz. The output from the device is routed (by pipes) to an array of open emitters. At this frequency, armor and concrete walls and other common building materials allow sound waves to pass through, providing little defense.[5]

Lethal sonic weapons, in air

These are hypothetical or conceptual weapons possibly in development:

  • The Vortex ring gun, a weapon that fires an acoustic air vortex that knocks people down.
  • Sonic bullets are being planned to be used in anti-hijack packs in planes.[6]
  • A tight beam of focused sound used as a weapon like the focused light in laser guns.
  • A powerful ultrasound beam which can liquefy living tissue.
  • A powerful low frequency sound designed to get buildings or structures to resonate and cause them to collapse.

Lethal sonic weapons, underwater

The use of sonic weapons underwater has been widely speculated about.

  • Ultrasound disintegration of solids in liquids is well known in industry, and could be adapted into a weapon.
  • It has long been known that ultrasound in water will kill small water animals.
  • There have been unconfirmed reports of scuba diver deaths and mass deaths of fish from being caught in powerful undersea ultrasound beams used by navies for communicating with submarines. Also see anti-frogman techniques.
  • It is suspected that massive whale beachings are caused by submarine sonar disorienting or deafening underwater mammals.
  • Tiger pistol shrimps use acoustic cavitation to focus a wave of sound to stun or kill their prey
  • Mako sharks can form a similar cavitation bubble with a sharp flick of the tail to stun or kill prey without contact.
  • It is suspected that sperm whales and dolphins use powerful ultrasound to stun prey.
  • There have been unconfirmed speculations about development of lethal underwater ultrasound anti-frogman weapons.
  • The UPSS/IAS diver-detector sonar system includes an underwater shockwave emitter.


Some common bio-effects of electromagnetic or other non-lethal weapons include effects to the human central nervous system resulting in physical pain, difficulty breathing, vertigo, nausea, disorientation, or other systemic discomfort. Interference with breathing poses the most significant, potentially lethal results. Light and repetitive visual signals can induce epileptic seizures (see Bucha effect). Vection and motion sickness can also occur. Cavitation, which affects gas nuclei in human tissue, and heating can result from exposure to ultrasound and can cause damage to tissue and organs.

Studies have found that exposure to high intensity ultrasound at frequencies from 700 kHz to 3.6 MHz can cause lung and intestinal damage in mice. Heart rate patterns following vibroacoustic stimulation has resulted in serious negative consequences such as arterial flutter and bradycardia. [7] [8]

Researchers have concluded that generating pain through the auditory system using high intensity sound resulted in a high risk of permanent hearing damage. Organizations in a research program which included the Naval Submarine Medical Research Laboratory (Groton, Connecticut), Navy Experimental Diving Unit (Panama City, Florida), SCC San Diego, Navy Medical Research and Development Command (Bethesda, Maryland), Underwater Sound Reference Detachment of Naval Undersea Warfare Center (Orlando, Florida), Applied Research Laboratories: University of Texas at Austin, Applied Physics Laboratory: University of Washington, Institute for Sensory Research: Syracuse University, Georgia Institute of Technology, Emory University, Boston University, University of Vermont, Applied Physics Laboratory, Johns Hopkins University, Jet Propulsion Laboratory, University of Rochester, University of Minnesota, University of Illinois, Loyola University, and the State University of New York at Buffalo, involved high intensity audible sound experiments on human subjects.

The extra-aural (unrelated to hearing) bioeffects on various internal organs and the central nervous system included auditory shifts, vibrotactile sensitivity change, muscle contraction, cardiovascular function change, central nervous system effects, vestibular (inner ear) effects, and chest wall/lung tissue effects. Researchers found that low frequency sonar exposure could result in significant cavitations, hypothermia, and tissue shearing. No follow on experiments were recommended. Tests performed on mice show the threshold for both lung and liver damage occurs at about 184 dB. Damage increases rapidly as intensity is increased.

Noise-induced neurologic disturbances in humans exposed to continuous low frequency tones for durations longer than 15 minutes has involved in some cases the development of immediate and long term problems affecting brain tissue. The symptoms resembled those of individuals who had suffered minor head injuries. One theory for a causal mechanism is that the prolonged sound exposure resulted in enough mechanical strain to brain tissue to induce an encephalopathy.[9] “Project Pandora” conducted by the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research, WRAIR, included externally induced auditory input from pulsed microwave audiograms of words or oral sounds which create the effect of hearing voices that are not a part of the recipients own thought processes.

See also


  1. ^ infrasound
  2. ^ "The ghost in the machine". Journal of the Society for Psychical Research (62): 360–364. 1998.  
  3. ^
  4. ^
  5. ^ Low Frequency Noise Report 2003
  6. ^ Sonic bullets for use against hijackers
  7. ^ Exploiting Technical Opportunities to Capture Advanced Capabilities for Our Soldiers; Army AL&T; 2007 Oct-Dec; Dr. Reed Skaggs [1]
  8. ^ Air University Research Template: "NON-LETHAL WEAPONS: SETTING OUR PHASERS ON STUN? Potential Strategic Blessings and Curses of Non-Lethal Weapons on the Battlefield"; Erik L. Nutley, Lieutenant Colonel, USAF; August 2003; Occasional Paper No. 34; Center for Strategy and Technology; Air War College; Air University; Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama; PG12 [2]
  9. ^ “Non-Lethal Swimmer Neutralization Study”; Applied Research Laboratories; The University of Texas at Austin; G2 Software Systems, Inc., San Diego; TECHNICAL DOCUMENT 3138; May 2002 [3]

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