Category Archives: drones

Stormrouter – making WMDs from hurricanes or thunderstorms

I just had another idea for a new weapon of mass destruction for a future sci-fi novel, or for real life if we need it. This could work in real life, it’s just a little limited if it only works in storms.

I wrote a long time ago about harvesting energy from hurricanes using my collector. Carbon Girl and her other half Carbon Man use the idea in Space Anchor.

The original idea is summarised here:

Well, every superhero has enemies, and they have to be suitably matched or it is no contest, so let’s pretend in this case that our super-villain is called Stormrouter. No connection to Storm from the Fantastic Four though.

You can extract a few gigawatts from a hurricane with an extractor for quite a while, and I suppose you could use that energy to kill people, but that’s no good is it? The enemy probably won’t allow you to use an extractor on their turf. So that idea is only a peacetime thing really. However, there’s more than one way to skin a cat.

Very often in a storm, there is lightning. Charge builds up due to the movement of the air, and when it reaches a critical point, a big spark happens, either between clouds or from the ground. Suppose we can make little particles that charge up by being thrown around in the wind, and suppose we can link them into chains at will, so that they can discharge via some unfortunate enemy. OK, so we can only use it when it is stormy, and yes the enemy could stay indoors then. But storms can last ages. Putting an enemy indoors for several hours, or even a few days, while you have your own people wandering around safely doing as they want would be quite an advantage. If they come outside, you zap them. Your own people don’t get zapped, just enemy people.

I damn near killed myself in a dare in my school physics lab once, or at least it felt like it. We were messing with a Wimshurst machine, great fun when the Physics teacher is late. A fraction of a turn charged up the rods to give you a hefty zap. At full charge they can throw a spark 2.5 inches (6cm). So my mates dared me to do several turns and then try. So I did. I wound it and wound it, and then put my finger towards the rod. I got nowhere near it before a hugely powerful spark hit me. I was a jibbering wreck for an hour afterwards. I guess if a kid did that today, they’d probably sue the school, but I had the old-fashioned view that if I was behaving like an idiot, then it was my fault. If you want to do that to yourself, you can buy them easily on ebay, but it hurts. The point is that the contra-rotating plates can build up thousands of volts and store the energy in the leyden jars until the voltage is high enough to make the spark, or in my case, to zap the schoolboy.

In a cloud, rising water droplets allegedly collide with falling ice particles and lead to charge separation. In our weapon system, we will use billions of tiny particles instead of nature’s water droplets and ice crystals. Our little particles have sails, and they can tack in different directions within the storm. They know which direction they are going because we have a local positioning system for them. As they pass, they collide with others coming the opposite way, and each builds up a positive or negative charge. Obviously we can make coatings on their sides to optimise that. The wind within the storm provides the energy. The particles hold the charge on their capacitor plates. When they have built up lots of charge, it can be released in any particular direction on demand along with charge from their colleagues, all aligned in a line to the enemy. They don’t have to touch, just get close enough for the sparks to work, and a huge spark from all the charge from lots of particles can be released into any particular enemy combatant, or piece of sensitive electrical equipment if you prefer. So we need some low altitude particles or drones with imaging equipment to identify combatants, and some sort of ID system to make sure they don’t attack our guys. There are rather a lot of particles so we can arrange to attack lots of them at once, limited only by the energy available in our storm.

This energy harvesting could also be used to power or combat drones too, which can carry other equipment such as lasers, tasers, plasma rifles or whatever. I describe my free-floating combat drone army in:

It would be hard to disable the small particles, so they would make for quite a resilient weapon, albeit one that can only be used in a storm. Together with combat drones that can self repair and are virtually indestructible, this would make a pretty powerful weapon system. Perfect for a super-villain in a sci-fi story, but feasible enough to be used in real life in a few decades from now.





Free floating combat drones

First things first.

Free floating combat drones are familiar in some futuristic computer games – Halo and Mass Effect for example. but have the added value of being feasible.

I have spent many hours playing various editions of Mass Effect, from EA Games. It is one of my favorites and has clearly benefited from some highly creative minds. They had to invent a wide range of fictional technology along with technical explanations in the detail for how they are meant to work. Some is just artistic redesign of very common sci-fi ideas, but they have added a huge amount of their own too. Sci-fi and real engineering have always had a strong mutual cross-fertilization. I have lectured sometimes on science fact v sci-fi, to show that what we eventually achieve is sometimes far better than the sci-fi version (Exhibit A – the rubbish voice synthesizers and storage devices use on Star Trek, TOS).


Liara talking to her assistant Glyph.Picture Credit:

In Mass Effect, lots of floating holographic style orbs float around all over the place for various military or assistant purposes. They aren’t confined to a fixed holographic projection system. Disruptor and battle drones are common, and  a few home/lab/office assistants such as Glyph, who is Liara’s friendly PA, not a battle drone. These aren’t just dumb holograms, they can carry small devices and do stuff. The idea of a floating sphere may have been inspired by Halo’s, but the Mass Effect ones look more holographic and generally nicer. (Think Apple v Microsoft). Battle drones are highly topical now, but current technology uses wings and helicopters. The drones in sci-fi like Mass Effect and Halo are just free-floating ethereal orbs. That’s what I am talking about now. They aren’t in the distant future. They will be here quite soon.

I recently updated my post on how to make force field and floating cars or hover-boards.

Briefly, they work by creating a thick cushion of magnetically confined plasma under the vehicle that can be used to keep it well off the ground, a bit like a hovercraft without a skirt or fans. Using layers of confined plasma could also be used to make relatively weak force fields. A key claim of the idea is that you can coat a firm surface with a packed array of steerable electron pipes to make the plasma, and a potentially re-configurable and self organizing circuit to produce the confinement field. No moving parts, and the coating would simply produce a lifting or propulsion force according to its area.

This is all very easy to imagine for objects with a relatively flat base like cars and hover-boards, but I later realized that the force field bit could be used to suspend additional components, and if they also have a power source, they can add locally to that field. The ability to sense their exact relative positions and instantaneously adjust the local fields to maintain or achieve their desired position so dynamic self-organisation would allow just about any shape  and dynamics to be achieved and maintained. So basically, if you break the levitation bit up, each piece could still work fine. I love self organisation, and biomimetics generally. I wrote my first paper on hormonal self-organisation over 20 years ago to show how networks or telephone exchanges could self organise, and have used it in many designs since. With a few pieces generating external air flow, the objects could wander around. Cunning design using multiple components could therefore be used to make orbs that float and wander around too, even with the inspired moving plates that Mass Effect uses for its drones. It could also be very lightweight and translucent, just like Glyph. Regular readers will not be surprised if I recommend some of these components should be made of graphene, because it can be used to make wonderful things. It is light, strong, an excellent electrical and thermal conductor, a perfect platform for electronics, can be used to make super-capacitors and so on. Glyph could use a combination of moving physical plates, and use some to add some holographic projection – to make it look pretty. So, part physical and part hologram then.

Plates used in the structure can dynamically attract or repel each other and use tethers, or use confined plasma cushions. They can create air jets in any direction. They would have a small load-bearing capability. Since graphene foam is potentially lighter than helium

it could be added into structures to reduce forces needed. So, we’re not looking at orbs that can carry heavy equipment here, but carrying processing, sensing, storage and comms would be easy. Obviously they could therefore include whatever state of the art artificial intelligence has reached, either on-board, distributed, or via the cloud. Beyond that, it is hard to imagine a small orb carrying more than a few hundred grammes. Nevertheless, it could carry enough equipment to make it very useful indeed for very many purposes. These drones could work pretty much anywhere. Space would be tricky but not that tricky, the drones would just have to carry a little fuel.

But let’s get right to the point. The primary market for this isn’t the home or lab or office, it is the battlefield. Battle drones are being regulated as I type, but that doesn’t mean they won’t be developed. My generation grew up with the nuclear arms race. Millennials will grow up with the drone arms race. And that if anything is a lot scarier. The battle drones on Mass Effect are fairly easy to kill. Real ones won’t.

a Mass Effect combat droneMass Effect combat drone, picture credit:

If these cute little floating drone things are taken out of the office and converted to military uses they could do pretty much all the stuff they do in sci-fi. They could have lots of local energy storage using super-caps, so they could easily carry self-organizing lightweight  lasers or electrical shock weaponry too, or carry steerable mirrors to direct beams from remote lasers, and high-definition 3D cameras and other sensing for reconnaissance. The interesting thing here is that self organisation of potentially redundant components would allow a free roaming battle drone that would be highly resistant to attack. You could shoot it for ages with laser or bullets and it would keep coming. Disruption of its fields by electrical weapons would make it collapse temporarily, but it would just get up and reassemble as soon as you stop firing. With its intelligence potentially local cloud based, you could make a small battalion of these that could only be properly killed by totally frazzling them all. They would be potentially lethal individually but almost irresistible as a team. Super-capacitors could be recharged frequently using companion drones to relay power from the rear line. A mist of spare components could make ready replacements for any that are destroyed. Self-orientation and use of free-space optics for comms make wiring and circuit boards redundant, and sub-millimeter chips 100m away would be quite hard to hit.

Well I’m scared. If you’re not, I didn’t explain it properly.