Devices that could emit an electromagnetic pulse capable of disabling the avionics on an airplane are fairly simple to build with off-the-shelf components and information from the Internet, according to an article in this week’s New Scientist. Such a device, at least theoretically, could be smuggled aboard a commercial airliner or aimed from the ground at an aircraft landing or taking off, the magazine says. Speculation persists that such weapons have already been used in the Persian Gulf and in Afghanistan, though no reports have been confirmed, according to the New Scientist.
Concern about the impact of EMPs on aircraft is nothing new, as the pulses are a known side effect of nuclear weapons. GE has been working on a $12 million military contract since 2006 with the goal to find a way to make aircraft immune from electromagnetic threats. Results from the project are due in 2011. Meanwhile, the increasing use of composite materials in aircraft is making them more vulnerable, Yael Shahar, director of a counter-terrorism institute in Israel, told the New Scientist. Composites provide poor shielding against electromagnetic radiation compared with metal. “What is needed is extensive shielding of electronic components and the vast amount of cables running down the length of the aircraft,” Shahar said. One solution may be to protect cables with a metal mesh that can absorb interference.