China has developed a laser gun that can inflict pain on people and set fire to targets up to 1 km away. The powerful laser is hidden inside a handy weapon the size of an AK-47 and weighs 3 kg. The Chinese police force intends to use the weapon against terrorists and to break up illegal demonstrations, according to a report in the South China Morning Post newspaper.
The laser gun, which has not yet entered mass production, already has a name: the ZKZM-500. The invisible laser beam releases all its power when it hits an opaque material. The weapon is powered by a rechargeable lithium-ion battery, which can release about a thousand 'shots' when fully charged. The weapon was developed at the Xian Institute of Optics and Precision Mechanics.
According to the makers, the weapon is not deadly, but can set substances on fire. The laser gun can also inflict pain on people – according to the South China Morning Post, the weapon is powerful enough to rapidly carbonise skin. 'The pain will be unbearable,' one of the scientists who worked on the weapon told the newspaper.
The laser beam can even pass unaffected through a glass window, making the weapon suitable for situations in which police officers want to surprise a hostage-taker in a building.
The effect of powerful lasers is already well known – after all, they are also used for cutting metal. The range of the new weapon is particularly impressive. It can set fire to clothing or damage skin at a distance of 800 m. The laser beam is even powerful enough to pierce a fuel tank and detonate it.
The South China Morning Post has seen a document that describes one use anticipated by the Chinese police force: setting fire not only to banners but even to the hair of demonstrators to disperse illegal protests. One police officer in Beijing opposed this use. 'The laser will leave a permanent scar. Damaging hair or skin will result in major disfigurement, and there is a risk that a peaceful demonstration will degenerate into a riot.'
The technology may be ready for use, but this new laser weapon also raises a number of ethical issues. How far can the police go in breaking up demonstrations? Does the fact that the laser is invisible make the weapon even less acceptable? A target will have absolutely no idea what has happened if their hair suddenly catches fire, or a burning spot appears on their skin out of the blue. For the Chinese army, that is actually a selling point. It is reminiscent of the unlawful drone attacks by the US in the Middle East, where rockets are fired at alleged terrorists without warning.
Chasing pirates away
Lasers have long been used for policing and military purposes. For example, in 2011 Dutch companies investigated ways of chasing pirates off the coast of Somalia. The method did not set anybody on fire, but drove pirates off by shining very bright light at their eyes. A demonstration by the US Navy, also in 2011, used a different approach in which a boat was set on fire by a powerful laser 1.6 km away. Hobby technicians are also fascinated by super strong lasers – see our report ‘Happy lasing!’ (Dutch) from late last year, describing how balloons and cardboard boxes are used for target practice.
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