Life is imitating art like never before, as engineers at Boeing have hit upon a novel solution to the problem of laser weapons making no noise when in use: having them artificially make the same sounds as lasers in the Star Wars films.
Boeing’s High Energy Laser Mobile Demonstrator (HEL MD) is designed to shoot down aerial targets, such as enemy rockets and drones. While lasers in fiction are pretty noisy and colorful, in real life things aren’t so simple. The HEL MD’s laser is both silent and invisible to the human eye. When it hits a target, it typically is simply burned rather than exploding spectacularly. Not only that, since the device can be set to act autonomously, it doesn’t even require a human to pull the trigger.
That presents a problem to the HEL MD’s human operators, who have no simple means to tell whether the laser is firing or not. And so, Boeing’s nerdy engineers have turned to science fiction for a fix.
“The engagements happen quickly, and unless you’re staring at a screen 24–7 you’ll never see them,” engineer Stephanie Blount told Nature. “So we’ve built sound in for whenever we fire the laser. We plan on taking advantage of lots of Star Trek and Star Wars sound bites.”
The famous “pew pew” of Star Wars blasters was created by sound designer Ben Burtt, who obtained it by smacking the guy-wire of an antenna tower with a hammer. The phasers of the original Star Trek, on the other hand, had their sounds made by playing electric guitars backwards and then adding harp.
Creating artificial sound has actually become a recurring feature in modern technology, which has become far quieter than the noisy machines of old. Some modern cars now emit artificial engine sound, both to sound right to drivers and to alert pedestrians.
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