This Badass Woman Is Using Microwaves to Fight Cyber Attacks

Mary Lou Robinson
Photo: Eric Draper

Badass Women spotlights women who not only have a voice but defy the irrelevant preconceptions of gender.

As the Air Force Research Laboratory's high-power-electromagnetics division chief, Mary Lou Robinson develops technology that can disarm U.S. enemies—without a single loss of life. Here's how she does it.

You oversee a team of about 80 engineers and scientists who focus on high-power microwave [HPM]-directed energy. What do HPM systems do? They aim microwave pulses at electronic targets to disable, disrupt, or damage them in half the time it takes to blink your eye. They’re nonlethal. They do not cook you like the microwave in your kitchen because it’s not a thermal effect. The HPM signal affects the target’s circuit. We only emit the signal for very short time spans because that’s all it takes. So if you happen to be near a targeted computer, you’re not going to be harmed. You just might not be able to do your job. And if your job is to hurt me, or the United States, then I can stop you.

What are some misconceptions people have about micro-wave technology? Even my mom got rid of her microwave 10 years ago because of the hype that they were “radiating your food” and it was bad for you to eat. That’s an urban legend. There is no ionizing radiation, which causes damage to cells, associated with microwave signals. That’s what makes them safe for human exposure, which makes them pretty awesome.

Do you ever feel like James Bond when you’re working on this stuff? It sounds pretty revolutionary. Maybe closer to Q [Bond’s gadget developer]. At the research lab we continue to work on the size, weight, and power aspects of the actual technology, while the greater Air Force is looking at things like the training required and the policies that go along with how we would use HPM systems. It’s not the research lab’s decision as to what they might be used on. But, in general, these signals primarily target electronics, which can be anything from a single computer to a whole operation center in a building.

You did a demonstration of a CHAMP [Counter-Electronics High-Power Microwave Advanced Missile Project] missile in 2012, and it disabled targeted electronics exactly the way you’d predicted. Why aren’t we using this technology in the field right now? Yes, lasers and microwaves have been categorized as game changers by the Air Force. But it’s hard to adopt new technology when, for hundreds of thousands of years, we’ve used kinetic weapons to cause visible harm. We find them reassuring because we can see the damage we’ve done. At the research lab we’re working on giving our soldiers confidence that if they choose to use a high-power microwave system, it will be effective. We’re confident in what we’re producing. And eventually someone’s going to say, “I can’t go to war without that.”

When do you anticipate the technology being used in combat? Our director has challenged my high-power-electromagnetics division and the laser-research division of the lab to get a directed-energy system in the field by 2021. So right now we’re looking at defending our air bases with HPMs. If we have an adversary’s drone above our base looking at something it shouldn’t be or getting ready to drop a payload, we are trying to develop systems to negate those kinds of threats before they cause damage.

What keeps you motivated? My oldest son is in the Coast Guard, and my youngest son is a senior at the Air Force Academy. They helped me see that if we don’t keep on with the work we’re doing now, using nonlethal directed-energy systems will never be an option for my children. And that, to me, is unacceptable. I still remember nights when I got into my car and I was an emotional hot mess because I just didn’t feel like I could do it. But you go to sleep, you get up the next day, you do it again, and it gets easier. I love knowing that we make progress every day towards providing our military with options other than dropping a bomb or shooting a bullet.

For more stories like this, pick up the March issue of InStyle, available on newsstands and for digital download Feb. 9.

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