QUANTICO, UNITED STATES // Police deployment of sonic blasters at Occupy Wall Street and G20 protest rallies are fuelling both sales and criticism of the devices, which emit beams of sound with laser-like intensity.
More US police and emergency-response agencies are using the so-called Long-Range Acoustic Devices instead of megaphones or conventional loudspeakers for crowd control, according to news reports and leading manufacturer LRAD Corp of San Diego.
But the products, which the makers developed as non-lethal options for military use, are prompting outcries from people on the receiving end, who call them "sound cannons". The city of Pittsburgh is fighting an American Civil Liberties Union lawsuit claiming the piercing tone from a police blaster during the 2009 G20 summit permanently damaged a woman's hearing.
At least one Occupy Wall Street protester says New York City police also used the punishing alert tone, although police say they have used the device only to broadcast messages.
LRAD says its products offer police something louder than a megaphone and more benign than rubber bullets and teargas for managing crowds, defusing hostage situations and serving warrants on dangerous suspects.
"All of these events have helped bring interest to LRAD as new way to take care of these type of situations where they haven't had them before," Robert Putnam, the company spokesman, said.
He said LRAD is not a weapon but a long-range communication system for clearly broadcasting information, instructions and warnings.
The publicly traded company had record sales of US$26 million (Dh95.4m) in the 2011 fiscal year ending September 30, up 57 per cent from a year earlier. Foreign and domestic military customers accounted for at least 58 per cent of sales.
The company said last week in its year-end report that it sees increased commercial applications for LRADs in areas including law enforcement.
The company developed the devices for the US navy after the 2000 attack on the USS Cole off the Yemen coast to give sailors a way of ordering small boats to stop approaching US warships. Until 2009, they were known mainly for seagoing applications, including deterring pirates from attacking cruise ships. LRAD said the Louisiana National Guard used its products to communicate with victims of Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
The products range from a 6.8kg, battery-operated, hand-held unit to a 145kg device with an advertised range of about three kilometres. Even the smallest unit, the LRAD 100X, emits as much as 137 decibels at one metre. That's louder than a jet take-off at 100m but lower than the pain threshold of 140 decibels, according to the US Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
Karen Piper, a University of Missouri English professor, visited Pittsburgh during the September 2009 G20 summit to research whether protesters have any effect on the International Monetary Fund and World Bank. She claims in a federal lawsuit she was about 30m from an LRAD mounted on a moving vehicle when it emitted a "piercing, continuous, high-pitched sound" for a number of minutes, causing permanent hearing loss.
Raymond DeMichiei, deputy director of the Pittsburgh Office of Emergency Management and Homeland Security, said his agency supplied the LRADs to Pittsburgh police for the G20 summit. He said he's never seen a better device for communicating with an unruly crowd.
"What would you rather have us do, the old 1964 routine with fire hoses and billy clubs? I think it's a lot more humane to make people uncomfortable because their ears hurt, and they leave," he said.