The following takes place in a major American city shortly before Halloween 2007.
It's been a largely peaceful demonstration. But now the bad guys have decided to stir things up. Wearing black bandanas over their faces, they start throwing bottles and rocks at the police who have been watching over the event.
One or two officers shoulder 12-gauge pump shotguns with orange stocks.
The agitators and anarchists take note of the cops bringing out their "rubber bullets" and bean bags. One of the agitators defiantly throws a rock at an officer who is aiming one of the shotguns. He then braces for the impact of a baton round or bean bag.
But he's about to get a surprise. Instead of a bean bag, what comes out of the cop's shotgun looks like a cross between a vacuum tube and a badminton birdie. It smacks into the agitator's leg and sticks. He instinctively reaches for the pain in his leg; his hand is pierced by a needle-sharp probe; then he screams; his muscles contract, and he falls to the ground helpless as officers converge to arrest him.
The agitator has just been introduced to the first 21st-century law enforcement non-lethal munition, TASER International's new eXtended Range Electronic Projectile or XREP.
In 1993 when he first met with Jack Cover, the inventor of the TASER, Rick Smith presented an idea for a wireless projectile that would carry a TASER charge. Cover quickly convinced Smith that he would be better off focusing on improving the handheld TASER, which fires electrified probes attached to the gun by wires. Smith backburnered his plans for a wireless TASER.
Then in 2002, those plans were resurrected as part of what Smith, who is now CEO of TASER International, sees as the evolution of the company's product line. "When we first got into the law enforcement market, our goal was to make a TASER that was effective," Smith says. "We did that with the M26. Then the officers wanted a smaller version, so we developed the X26. The next thing we heard from our customers is that they wanted us to extend the range of the TASER. The XREP accomplishes that goal."
Creating the XREP wasn't easy. It required an arduous process of trial and error and many trips back to the drawing board for re-engineering and redesign before TASER could overcome all of the obstacles necessary to build a 12-gauge munition that carries the charge of an X26.
The first obstacle was miniaturization. And it was such a hurdle that some of Smith's advisors strongly suggested that he make the first XREP a 40mm projectile instead of a 12-gauge shell. Smith rejected that advice for two reasons: He wanted to "bite off" the toughest engineering challenge first, and he wanted the weapon to deploy from the ubiquitous police pump shotgun, making it accessible to more officers.
TASER's engineers and designers rose to the challenge. They produced foldable circuit boards that contain all of the wiring necessary to produce the TASER effect. They found powerful lithium ion batteries, slightly larger than watch batteries, that can produce two minutes of full TASER charge. They harnessed the power of a microprocessor (the XREP engine) to control the electric flow of the munition. And they packed all of this and much more into a 12-gauge shell that fires a projectile weighing 14 grams (approximately half of an ounce).
Even Smith was staggered by the ingenuity of the XREP development team. "Our original design specs called for a projectile weighing two ounces. These guys really shaved a lot of mass off of the system."
The second major challenge that the XREP development team faced was making the thing fly straight. It's all well and good to shrink a TASER into a 12-gauge shell, but for it to be effective it has to be accurate.
At first, TASER's engineers chose to build the XREP with a drag stabilizer. The results were unsatisfactory. So they fit the projectile with spring-loaded fins that engage immediately after it is fired. The result is a very stable spin that helps put the TASER effect of the XREP on target.
"The fins actually flap a little in flight," Smith says. "We thought that would cause some problems, but it actually makes the projectile more accurate."
Packing a Punch
Because of its light weight, the XREP is really not much of an impact round, but it doesn't have to be. The real value of this round is its TASER neuro-muscular incapacitation effect. And achieving that effect in a projectile was one of the greatest challenges faced by the XREP development team.
It's important to remember in this discussion that TASER devices have their greatest effect when their electric charge is spread between two electrodes at least six to eight inches apart. So the challenge that faced TASER's engineers was how to achieve that spread with a 12-gauge projectile.
Their solution was to create a series of ingenious "booby traps." At impact, four electrically charged probes pierce the target. Think of that as the first probe in the spread.
Then nanoseconds after impact, the XREP seemingly falls apart, dangling a set of wires and additional needle sharp probes onto the target. The probes may make contact just from the force of the shot, but if they don't they stand a good chance of making secondary contact just because of the subject's reaction to being shot.
The pain from the impact and the charge from the first probe will likely make the subject try to brush off the probe. That's a big mistake because the wires are carrying a TASER charge. If the subject hits the wires, they will shock him and they will hold him. If he misses the wires, then he's going to get a taste of what TASER calls the Cholla (pronounced CHOY-YA) electrodes.
Anyone who has hiked the Arizona deserts will recognize the reason that TASER named the series of "booby trap" probes on the XREP for the infamous "jumping cactus." Cholla cactus needles break off in strips from the stem of the cactus and inflict painful injury on anyone who brushes against them. They are also sharp on both ends, so trying to brush them away is a really bad idea. The same is true of the XREP's cholla probes. Put your hand on one of these suckers when the system is active, and you will wish you were somewhere else.
The flow of electricity to all of the XREP's probes and wires is controlled by an onboard microprocessor that determines which probe has the best contact and the best spread. Once it finds the best contact, it starts pumping out 20 cycles per second of TASER neuromuscular incapacitation. And it will do so for 20 seconds, giving you time to control and arrest the subject.
According to Steve Ward, TASER's director of marketing and a former Seattle SWAT officer, the XREP is intended as a substitute for impact munitions in certain applications. He says he envisions the XREP being used in so-called "suicide-by-cop" situations, to prevent suicides, and against violent individuals during riots and protests.
"All of the other impact munitions work on pain compliance," Ward says. "With them, you are trying to cause enough pain so that a person will voluntarily stop doing something. The XREP causes pain compliance and involuntary compliance through neuromuscular incapacitation."
Ward says that the duration of that involuntary compliance will also make the XREP particularly well suited to riot control. "With current impact munitions, what often happens is that you stop a violent agitator's behavior, but he runs away and you can't arrest him. With the XREP, officers will be able to arrest him and hold him for prosecution."
Of course, all of this technology does not come cheap. Each XREP round is expected to sell for around $100, about four times as much as most non-lethal munitions. But Ward says that he believes agencies will find the XREP cost effective when they look at the big picture. "A lot of the people that you shoot with impact munitions have to be shot multiple times before they comply. With the XREP, all you need is one shot."
Ward adds that the real cost-savings that come with the XREP will be fewer officer-involved shootings and greater officer safety. "I shot several people during the WTO [riots] who were literally unfazed by the impact munition that I hit them with. And let me tell you, that's a really odd situation to be in when you shoot someone with a munition that is just one step below deadly force, and they don't even flinch." TASER's stated goal with the development and production of the XREP is to provide officers with a weapon that will prevent them from ever having to face that situation.
The XREP goes into a six- to 12-month pilot program beginning in the fall. TASER expects to roll it out to the police market shortly after that.
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