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Police in the US and Europe could soon be testing a stun gun capable of delivering 50,000 volts to its target without using wires.

The gun, developed by XADS for the US Marine Corps as a crowd control device, has concerned human rights groups because of its potential for indiscriminate use. Furthermore, according to a report in the forthcoming edition of New Scientist, no independent safety testing has been carried out.

Conventional stun guns - the best known of which is the Taser - work by firing darts into the target. The darts trail wires connected to the gun by which the electric shock is delivered. However, its use is limited to single targets at very close range. It is also highly controversial: 40 people have died following shocks from a Taser, although in every case the death has been attributable to other factors, including alcohol or drug use.

The new device works very differently: it fires a stream of plasma, or ionised gas, at its target. This provides a conductive channel for the electricity. Early versions have a limited range - just 3 metres - but because of the way it works, it will be possible to sweep the beam across multiple targets.

"We will be able to fire a stream of electricity like water out of a hose at one or many targets in a single sweep," said XADS president Peter Bitar.

The method by which the charge is delivered may be different to existing stun guns, but the same safety concerns remain. Amnesty International is worried that the stun guns could "inflict pain and other suffering on innocent bystanders". Robin Coupland of the Red Cross told New Scientist that the stun guns could easily become instruments of torture. Given humanity's astonishing ingenuity in that field, that seems almost inevitable.

XADS has plans for a more advanced version that will have a range of around 100m. This will use high powered lasers to ionise the air itself, creating the conduit for the current flow. To do this, the company says, the laser pulse can be very brief but must be very intense. They plan to use a UV laser to fire a 5-joule pulse lasting less than half a picosecond. The plasma conduits this creates can be sustained, researchers say, if the laser is fired repeatedly, every few milliseconds.

In an interview with a local Indiana publication, Inside Indiana Business, Bitar added that the device would give the military, police forces, or private security companies "enormous flexibility".

The US Marine Corps Systems Command acknowledged the device was probably first seen on Star Trek, adding that this was the "closest thing there is to bringing that fiction to reality". ®

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