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Boeing's new missile takes down electronics without touching them

CHAMP in action
An artist's impression of the CHAMP missile flying over buildings, disabling them as it goes.Boeing / Air Force Research Laboratory

A new weapon being developed by Boeing hopes to defeat targets without actually destroying them. Instead, it uses a powerful microwave burst to disable electronic devices as it flies overhead.

The idea of the "electro-magnetic pulse," or EMP, is a popular one in science fiction: for decades, guns and missiles have disabled starships and facilities by shutting down their electronics — but the real thing has proven a bit more difficult to create.

Researchers at Boeing's Phantom Works succeeded last week when tests of their new weapon proved it to be even more potent than expected. They call it the Counter-electronics High-powered Advanced Missile Project, or CHAMP.

The tests in Utah had the missile buzzing test structures full of electronics and cameras. The idea is that targeting these buildings with an intense burst of microwave radiation would knock out any electronically-controlled systems within.

Computers in the target buildings were shut down by the CHAMP effectBoeing / Air Force Research Laboratory

And that's what happened — in spades. The CHAMP worked so well that even the cameras set up to record the effects inside the buildings were shut down. Such a weapon would be invaluable against enemy infrastructure like radar and missile launch sites.

How long the electronics are disrupted for would vary widely depending on how the electronics work and how hard they were hit. The monitors shown in the video at Boeing's announcement of the tests only shut down for a few seconds, but something more complex, like an interdependent network of computers and power sources, could be taken offline for much longer or even disabled completely.

Either way, the CHAMP was demonstrated successfully, and it will be a very useful tool when ordinary munitions are too risky to employ. The research was conducted in partnership with the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory and Raytheon Ktech.

Devin Coldewey is a contributing writer for NBC News Digital. His personal website is coldewey.cc.