A few months from now, Peter Anthony Schlesinger hopes to zap a laser beam at a couple of chickens or other animals in a cage a few dozen yards away.
If all goes as planned, the chickens will be frozen in midcluck, their leg and wing muscles paralyzed by an electrical charge created by the beam, even as their heart and lungs continue to function normally.
Among those most interested in the demonstration’s outcome will be officials at the Pentagon, who helped fund Schlesinger’s work and are looking at this type of device to do a lot more than just zap a chicken.
Devices like these, known as directed-energy weapons, could play a huge role in wars in coming years.
‘‘When you can do things at the speed of light, all sorts of new capabilities are there,’’ said Delores Etter, a former undersecretary of defense for science and technology and a major advocate of directedenergy weapons.
Directed energy could bring numerous advantages to the battlefield in places like Iraq and Afghanistan, where U.S. troops have had to deal with hostile but unarmed crowds as well as dangerous insurgents.
Developers say directedenergy weapons could fry the electronics of missiles and roadside bombs. A weapon called the Active Denial System repels adversaries by heating the water molecules in their skin with microwave energy. ‘‘It just feels like your skin is on fire,’’ said Rich Garcia, a spokesman for the laboratory.
A Humvee-mounted Active Denial weapon is expected to be given to all services by the end of this year for evaluation.
But the idea of using directed energy against humans is already creating controversy, fueled by deaths allegedly caused by Tasers.
Some experts believe the use of directed energy will be hamstrung by international law and treaties.
Military officials believe the intended uses of the Active Denial System do not violate any international laws or treaties.
‘‘You can rest assured that with this system, when it finally is deployed, we will be very, very clear about what the intended uses are,’’ said Marine Corps Capt. Daniel McSweeney, spokesman for the Joint Non-Lethal Weapons Directorate.
Human testing of the Active Denial System began after researchers concluded it could be used without permanent harm.
The weapons’ developers pitch them for their lifesaving potential. The pinpoint accuracy of a laser could eliminate collateral damage caused by missile explosions, the argument goes.
Many weapons are in the prototype stage.
Production models, if approved by the military, would not be ready for a few years.