Long Range Acoustic Device (LRAD Corporation)
From the curators: Acoustic Hailing Devices (AHDs) are specialized loudspeakers that emit high-power sound waves enabling clear communication at long distances. AHDs are used throughout the world by the military, commercial and maritime security firms, and wildlife protection and control agencies due to their ability to intelligibly project voice messages and alarm tones at a range of up to two miles. While various models exist on the market, LRAD Corporation’s (formerly American Technology Corporation) Long Range Acoustic Device (LRAD) has been the source of much attention, particularly after being used to manage protesters at the Pittsburgh G20 Summit in September 2009. Since then, the term LRAD has sometimes been applied broadly to designate many different types of AHD, not just those produced by the LRAD Corporation. According to company statements, the device was developed to resolve uncertain situations peacefully, and to fill the gap between the use of bull horns and more drastic actions.
The first striking aspect about news items on the Long Range Acoustic Device (LRAD) is that more or less the same photographic image has been circulated and recycled. We see a military or police officer, often a man, wearing heavy-duty headphones and uniform, positioned behind a large, black dish-like device. The LRAD is shown fixed to a shipping vessel or police vehicle, pointing toward an unseen recipient presumed to be below or ahead. This motif already implies unequal power relations, with its “long range” frequencies expected to not only alert but also blast and potentially damage the ears and bodies of those within its range. The physical components of the LRAD are configured like a rounded black loudspeaker. But unlike mass-produced loudspeakers or other mobile media, this “sound cannon” is a niche device specifically developed for the U.S. military and law enforcement agencies.
Sonic warfare is not new. Historical examples reveal a range of efforts to intimidate enemies with loud sounds in battle, with the development of loudspeakers leading to expanded forms of psychological warfare on military and civilian populations, as suggested by the iconic scenes of Vietnam War attacks in Apocalypse Now (1971). We can also note examples, during World War II and the Cold War, of experiments with ultrasonic and infrasonic weaponry in the context of military research and development.
Since 9/11, techniques of intimidation, violence, and irritation by means of sound have been further augmented. Sound bombs and musical songs have been used in extreme interrogation and torture in the Gaza Strip, Iraq, and Guantanamo Bay. The LRAD plays into such developments—even the briefest online research references the impact of the device on insurgents (often implicitly referring to the Middle East conflict), who put their fingers in their ears rather their using their weapons.
More broadly, we might also view the LRAD through the frame of urban design and public safety. Sound media used as “nonaggressive music deterrents”—such as Muzak or the “Mosquito alarm”—designate public space as the preserve of (upper) middle-class consumers. Seemingly neutral devices like noise cancellation headphones also have an underlying politics of design. By allowing their ideal consumer—the white, male business-class traveler—to shut out the sounds of unwanted others, noise cancellation can be implicitly understood as facilitating labor movement and work efficiency, thus allowing the smooth flow of global capital.
The LRAD, too, fulfills a similar function of allowing the free movement of certain goods and people, as evidenced by the large number of commercial tankers, luxury cruisers, and yachts that are now equipped with “pirate proof” LRADs in order to flow more easily through the Saudi Gulf. In the case of urban centers, the perceived disruption of social protest to the public order—and, by extension, commercial activity—is supported by the reported deployment of LRADs as a means of crowd dispersal. Reports extend from the clearance of Occupy camps in U.S. urban centers to anti-government protests in Georgia and Spain to labor disputes in Thailand.
The maximum volume of the LRAD has been reported as reaching up to 162 dB (at one meter), with its ear piercing alarm cited with the potential to produce effects such as headaches, nausea, disorientation, or long-term hearing loss. Well exceeding all measures for noise pollution and workplace safety, the risk of media criticism (if not litigation) has made U.S. cities increasingly reluctant to deploy the device.
In an effort to deflect criticism, the LRAD Corporation has suggested that the device defaults to “PA announcement” or recorded sound, with the loud alarm signal as a last resort. Official company statements emphasize the LRAD as a humane device that serves the interests of the “public good” and “saves lives on both sides,” reducing casualties and the exertion of force (in military conflict), and offering a “peaceful” alternative to pepper spray, tear gas, tasers, rubber bullets, batons, and shields (in the case of civil protest). In a gesture toward transparency, the company website lists its customer sales to 70 of the 190-odd countries in the world, while its media section now includes both positive and negative coverage of the LRAD. A number of “feel good” news updates indicate that the company is shifting from its specific focus on military and law enforcement to emergency relief and environmental management. In the era of “disaster capitalism,” the specific function of the LRAD has been generalized in its use as a warning device, whether for weather emergencies (in the event of a Tsunami or earthquake in Asia) or for wildlife to steer clear of runways, wind turbines, or toxic waste (in the case of Canadian oil soils).
However, the LRAD—like other controversial military devices such as sound bombs and drones—remains a disputed technology. It involves too little regard for those exposed to its sounds, with even its operator—supposedly at a safe range—needing heavy-duty headphones during use. Meanwhile, the effectiveness of the device has been questioned in lively debates among activists and technicians about possible counter-measures. Turning the tables, environmental groups such as Sea Shepherd reportedly have used their own LRAD devices to intercept Japanese commercial whaling ships. Imitating cinematic versions of the Vietnam War (à la Apocalypse Now), the activists broadcast Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries” at the whaling vessels, appropriating LRAD in a paradoxical, if not reactionary, way. For once, the LRAD device was used to interrupt the flow of capital.
The LRAD (Long Range Acoustic Device) in use in Pittsburgh during the G20 summit. September 24–25, 2009. Video courtesy of Vlad Tiechberg