boeing’s shockwave patent stripped of gee-whiz

Gee-whiz can obscure the true meaning and impact of a technology. Boeing's shockwave attenuation system provides a case in point.

Chatter around United States patent 8,981,261 i.e. “Method and System for Shockwave Attenuation via Electromagnetic Arc” erupted last week.  It is more likely that you know it as Boeing’s “Force Field” patent because that is how it has been described in the media (here for example). If I made two comments about the coverage I have read, it would be that there is an over reliance on gee-whiz and there is too much technical detail. This latter point might seem odd from someone focused on technology, but there is always a “right” amount of detail. Is there another way to tell the story? I think there is.

Let’s strip away the “force fields” and general gee-whiz terminology and see what we know. I guess the place to start is the Background. One part of any and all explosions is a shockwave. They are described as “traveling discontinuities” that can travel through a medium such as air, see column 1, lines 23-28. A shockwave may also be described as pressure wave. The crest of this wave can “contain” considerable energy. It is indicated that a shockwave can be a very destructive aspect of the explosion. It can cause the damage. There are no projectiles,; just a pressure differential. Dissipating or otherwise disrupting this energy is an objective of the described technology.

Sticking with the Background for a minute, it is indicated that traditional panel-based shockwave attenuation systems are structural and likely fixed in place (see col. 1, ln. 54 to col. 2, ln. 13). Such systems may take the form of energy absorbing panels on or within a vehicle or building. It is also indicated that such systems are not dynamic in that they cannot react to the specifics of a given shockwave. Finally, it is indicated that panel-type systems cannot be used for windows. Okay, so those are some limitations of known approaches so what does the ’261 patent disclose?

The ’261 patent discloses a system to disrupt or attenuate a pressure wave or shockwave, before it encounters the asset which is being protected or defended. Such a system is shown in Figure 1, which is presented below. Of particular interest is the sensor 12 and the arc generator 16. The sensor 12 is designed to detect the location and time of the explosion. The arc generator 16 creates an electromagnetic arc to rapidly heat the medium (through which the shockwave is traveling) changing the medium’s composition or temperature to attenuate the shockwave’s energy when it hits this region (see col.6, ln. 53-67). As one might anticipate there is detail around and alternate approaches for the various components in Figure 1.


In the end, one might have questions around the timing of the various steps between detecting and attenuating a shockwave in any dynamic system. The shockwave is not going to wait until you are ready for it. Otherwise one might question how effective the various methods of altering the medium are. Can an arc generator sufficiently alter a medium such that the shockwave is attenuated? The final question, or area of discussion is, what is patented? The answer to this question lies in the Claims. That is another discussion.