Quirks & Quarks

Could this Pentagon-developed 'ray gun' have stopped the Toronto van attack?

The technology uses non-lethal microwave beams to stall engines.
The Radio Frequency Vehicle Stopper sends pulses of microwave radiation to disable vehicles. (JNLWD)
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The Toronto van attack 

It's been about two weeks since the tragic van attack in Toronto killed 10 people and put many others in the hospital. As families and friends of the victims and the community continue to grieve, many are wondering how to prevent such an attack in the future.

Some are looking to technology as a possible solution. The U.S. Department of Defence has been developing a new device called the Radio Frequency Vehicle Stopper for use in war zones against car and motorcycle suicide bombers. Could it work in an attack like the one in Toronto?

Police are seen near a damaged van in Toronto after a van mounted a sidewalk crashing into a number of pedestrians, killing ten people, on Monday, April 23, 2018. (Aaron Vincent Elkaim/Canadian Press)

Department of Defence's solution

David B. Law is in charge of developing this vehicle-stopping weapon. He is the chief scientist for the U.S. Department of Defence's Joint Non Lethal Weapons Program in Quantico, Virginia.

The device looks like a small satellite broadcasting dish and fits inside the back of a pickup truck, according to Law. To stop a vehicle, the beam would be directed towards it, and Law claims the vehicle will be shut down in less than a second, whether it's 10 metres away from you, or hundreds of metres.

"It's a directed energy weapon, so you can make the beam really tight," he added. This allows targeting of individual vehicles with no effect on those outside the beam.  

The technology uses high-powered microwaves, similar to a laser, but operates at different frequencies.

"RF vehicle stopper produces an intense focused beam of microwave energy to stop the vehicle," he explained.

The beam disrupts the electrical and electronic components of the vehicle, which shuts it down so it will come to a stop.

Could the Toronto attack have been prevented?

Currently, the device is designed to be used in a military setting to protect a specific location.

You can conceivably think about putting these things at intersections, but the issue really is: could a city afford a number of these things to get them on every intersection? - David Law

"As the vehicle is approaching a military checkpoint, we would warn that driver to turn around. If they keep approaching, adding speed, we would bring RF vehicle stopper online, hit their vehicle with this beam (it doesn't do anything to the humans, it's completely safe) so it will stall that engine to allow the security team to approach the potentially threatening vehicle in a much safer manner for both the occupants and us."

It would be much harder to implement the system in a situation like the Toronto case, where a van was driven up a sidewalk to run people down.

"You can conceivably think about putting these things at intersections," said Law, "But the issue really is: could a city afford a number of these things to get them on every intersection?"

He doesn't think it's practical, but says the DoD is working on improving the cost of the device among other things like size and weight.

"We would like to get it low enough cost so that local law enforcement could use it as well."