Stealthy drones with missiles and bombs are a good way to take out enemy air defenses, but all too often pesky humans end up in the way. Now the Air Force wants to equip drones with microwave beam weapons that can fry hardware without killing anyone in the process.
High-powered microwave weapons are sexy because there's no collateral damage: they disable electronics and make popcorn, but they don't blow up buildings or people. So far, nobody has had much luck developing a useful microwave death-ray (computer death, that is), but that hasn't stopped the Air Force from throwing more money at the technology. Most recently, Lockheed Martin has gotten a quarter million dollars to develop a microwave beam weapon and integrate it into an aerial platform.
Stuffing a weapons-level microwave emitter into a stealthy drone isn't as hard as it sounds, since a microwave antenna array can be small enough to integrate directly into the skin of an aircraft. Even at low power levels, directed microwaves can 'confuse' computers, and a pulse with enough power will disable them completely. Eventually, drones will have wings that are wallpapered with microwave antennas that can function as sensors, communications systems, and weapons all at the same time.
This technology scales up pretty easily, and giant shipboard microwave beam weapons able to disable other ships at range are a real possibility. The limiting factor at this point is efficient power generation; shooting down a missile requires about 100 gigawatts of energy in a nanosecond pulse, and current systems can only deliver about a tenth of that. In the next few years, though, we should be seeing power outputs increasing by a factor of 100 or more, which is great news for those of us who feel that three minutes is just too long to wait for microwave popcorn.