- Soldiers can now see around corners and through walls, even at night
- The SHARK submarine drone tracks and stops enemy submarines autonomously
- Ordinary soldiers can climb like geckos with the Z-Man program
- The Warrior Web suits reduces fatigue on the battlefield
- 3D printed grenade launcher called R.A.M.B.O.
- Bullets that change direction and biodegradable bullets that don’t kill
Did you know that a lot of consumer tech gadgets and trends are often the result of military research and development projects? Breakthrough technologies such as GPS and the underlying architecture of the Internet, for instance, were both developed by DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, to assist the military, and they eventually found their way into to the civilian world. DARPA and their military labs, in collaboration with the commercial sector, are involved in many fascinating projects that can enhance current military capabilities or lead to completely new ones. The military is also increasingly looking to tech such as video gaming and virtual and augmented reality for inspiration to develop new ways to simplify controlling complicated military systems.
Let’s take a look at some of the new tech being developed for the military.
Soldiers can now see around corners and through walls, even at night
Soon, we too will be able to see in the dark in high definition, view what’s around a corner and detect heat with our eyes. DARPA is on a roll when it comes to new tech developments that can give us super-human capabilities. Their latest high definition night vision technology enables military commanders - via live camera feeds - to see exactly what their soldiers see on the ground. Then there’s their new thermal imaging program, which will give soldiers high-definition body-heat sensing capabilities and unprecedented views of the battlefield. Another one of DARPA’s projects is the VirtualEye system, consisting of two cameras, developed in collaboration with Nvidia. This sophisticated tech enables troops to digitally map a building or a room and virtually walk around the space to explore it and see exactly what they could encounter, before they physically enter it. VirtualEye even allows the user to look under furniture or inside a cupboard. Now imagine being able to use this technology in your everyday life.
The SHARK submarine drone tracks and stops enemy submarines autonomously
Autonomous systems in all shapes and sizes are increasingly becoming part of our lives – and this is true for the military as well. The US Navy will soon get a few autonomous vessels of their own. One of them is called ‘Submarine Hold At RisK’ or SHARK – a drone submarine based on a Bluefin Robotics autonomous vehicle and developed by a team led by Applied Physical Sciences. The SHARK sits on the ocean floor and uses sonar to track and stop enemy submarines. The drone submarine moves around and can figure out how to search an area fully autonomously. It can lie on the deep ocean floor for years, until needed for non-lethal assistance. Then it will be remotely activated and called to the surface. The SHARK will be deployed to detect enemy submarines and alert and protect other ships in the area.
The Z-Man program enables ordinary soldiers to climb like geckos
Soldiers operate in all types of environments. They often need to scale and climb structures, and especially in tight urban terrain where the high ground is on top of buildings, being able to climb is very important. Taking heavy climbing equipment such as ladders, ropes and other climbing tools into difficult to access locations is, however, not always possible – or it costs valuable time. With the objective to make soldiers as effective as possible in manoeuvring and responding to circumstances, and to enhance their ability to overcome obstacles, DARPA developed their Z-Man program, for which they studied how creatures such as spiders and geckos climb walls. The program consists of products such as Geckskin, a synthetically fabricated material with incredibly strong grip that can stick to walls and is capable of holding 300-kg loads. The material even holds on glass and metal surfaces and can basically turn ordinary soldiers into geckos. Soldiers wearing Geckskin suits would no longer need to carry extra climbing equipment to be able to scale buildings. Now imagine what this technology could do for the construction industry or for search and rescue operations.
Warrior Web suits reduces fatigue on the battlefield
Fatigue on the battlefield is a serious concern. Depleted energy can result in serious incidents such as injuries and even death. To eliminate or at least alleviate these challenges, DARPA has come up with the Warrior Web, an incredible piece of technology that significantly reduces fatigue. Designed for soldiers hiking with 35 to 45 kg packs, the Warrior Web is a lightweight suit that looks a little like the wetsuits divers wear. It boosts the soldiers’ walking movements to reduce the energy they need to expend, making them less tired. As the wearer plants his foot, the motor in the suit pulls a cable along the hamstring, augmenting what the hip does as he walks. The Warrior Web suit is still in its early stages of development. The feedback has been only positive so far, with soldiers saying that it does a great job of adapting to individual timing. It’s not hard to see the benefits of this technology in the civilian world, with search and rescue operations immediately springing to mind again.
3D printed grenade launcher called R.A.M.B.O.
3D printing technology is also starting to make waves in the military. The US Army has recently revealed a grenade launcher made from fifty individually 3D-printed parts. Even the grenades it launches are 3D-printed. The launcher is called ‘Rapid Additively Manufactured Ballistics Ordnance’, or R.A.M.B.O. It took researchers at the US Army Armament Research, Development and Engineering Centre about 70 hours to print the weapon’s receiver and barrel, after which the parts underwent 5 hours of post-production finishing. The next step in the process was to tumble the barrel in an abrasive rock bath and provide a rugged finish by anodizing it. To make the intricate parts of the rocket launcher using conventional production methods costs tens of thousands of dollars and takes many months. Manufacturing the rifling on the barrel also requires someone with extensive machining experience. The possibility of 3D printing weapons has important implications for defense manufacturing. With this technology, it would, for instance, no longer be necessary to create expensive tooling for prototyping and testing, and instead of years, it would only take six months to develop a weapon suitable for testing. The 3D-printing process can even be performed autonomously, with the only human intervention being an operator switching on the printer and keeping an eye on the process until it is complete. In the future, we may see all weapons produced with 3D printing technology. We may even witness soldiers print their weapons or replacement parts on the spot.
Bullets that change direction and biodegradable bullets that don’t kill
This may seem like something from a Sci-fi movie or some high tech video game, but bullets that can change direction mid-flight already exist in the real world. The smart bullet in question is called Extreme Accuracy Tasked Ordnance or EXACTO. To get back on course or hit a target, the bullet is able to adjust itself after it has been fired. DARPA calls it ‘fire-and-forget’ technology. The EXACTO even has tiny fins that can navigate the bullet towards a laser and it also has optical tips that make it possible to pinpoint a laser on a target. The EXACTO program has completed various rounds of live-fire tests in which both experienced and inexperienced shooters managed to track and hit moving targets several times. Last year, Russia revealed that it is developing a similar ‘smart bullet’, designed to track and hit a target up to 10 kilometres away.
As if self-steering bullets aren’t other-worldly enough, we introduce to you the biodegradable bullet. At army training facilities around the world, the grounds are littered with hundreds of thousands of used, rusty shells containing metal and other chemicals, contaminating the soil and groundwater. The Department of Defense is currently soliciting proposals for casings that are biodegradable, perhaps even some designs that are loaded with seeds that sprout environmentally beneficial plants. Suitable materials for these casings could be the biodegradable material that plastic bottles are made from these days. One of the proposals comes from the US Army Corps of Engineers' Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory. They have already bioengineered and tested seeds that can be embedded into biodegradable shells. The seeds will only sprout after having been in the soil for a number of months and are engineered to produce plants that can extract pollutants from the soil and feed local wildlife without any harmful effects.
Future civilian implications
DARPA receives immense funding to develop the technological future of the military. They have been responsible for the Internet and GPS, technologies that have become integral parts of our everyday lives. In this article, we showed you some of the projects on which they - and other parts of the military, defense contractors and private companies - are currently working, some of which may also have dramatic civilian implications. As technology continues to advance, who knows what else they will bring us in the future?