The technological revolution in modern warfare isn’t just a matter of super-lightweight uniforms, night goggles, and ultra-computerized weaponry. Consider the unmanned aerial vehicles better known as drones. Barely a blip on military blueprints a decade ago, drones now make up half of the U.S. Air Force fleet. And with the next generation of drones will come an eye-popping array of weapons and equipment designed to support and protect troops on the battlefield and on secret missions. Here are nine military technologies being developed through the Defense Advance Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and other parts of the military, working with defense contractors and other private companies. They all have the potential to change the face of war.
From Massachusetts-based Boston Dynamics, which works closely with DARPA, an amazingly agile “pack mule” robot will one day be commonplace on military missions in the field. The robot will carry gear, such as heavy backpacks that can slow down ground forces. The four-legged “mule” easily negotiates rocks and divots in the road and field. It is intended to follow a military unit of soldiers autonomously, catching up with the unit on field forays with supplies, including food and ammunition. Refinements have made the robot surprisingly quiet, an important characteristic on a secret mission. Future versions of the pack mule will be able to interpret verbal and visual commands.
One of the tiniest robots in development — about the size of a fingertip — the Meshworm moves and acts like a small earthworm. It propels itself inch by inch, using artificial muscles that mimic the way an earthworm moves, by stretching one part of itself forward, then pulling the rest of its body along behind it. The Meshworm can move silently into the tiniest places to report back data, such as temperatures inside a confined space. It can also record audio and maybe even video in future versions. Made entirely of synthetic fibrous material, it’s nearly indestructible. You can step on it or hit it with a hammer and it will keep going because the fibers are not damaged by impact. Working alongside DARPA on the Meshworm are the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Harvard University and South Korea’s Seoul National University.
Microwave Ray Gun
This weapon is designed to inject blasts of sound directly into a person’s head from a couple of hundred yards away. Microwaves enter the head directly through the skull, not the ear, so protective earplugs are useless. The inner ear will sense the microwave and recognize it as sound. And the microwave blast can be adjusted to create different kinds of sounds. Versions being developed include bulk microwave-emitting systems for the Army and small, rifle-style versions for the Marines and special operations forces. Some early versions have been field-tested in Iraq and Afghanistan. It’s also envisioned that police could use versions of the gun for crowd control — “sound bullets” instead of nonlethal rubber pellets. Sierra Nevada Corp., headquartered in Sparks, Nev., is working on a version of the microwave ray gun under a U.S. Navy research contract.
In the near future, soldiers will receive their live-fire training and marksman training with the aid of special, robotically controlled Segway personal transport devices. Specially armored Segways, adapted by Marathon Targets of Sydney, Australia, are called “smart targets.” They can move in a lifelike manner with unpredictable turns, stops and sprints, as would a real live target. Lifelike hardened plastic dummies on the Segways can be made up to look like enemies in uniform, terrorists or assassins. Such smart targets resemble live-fire combat much more than the old wooden pop-up targets that have been used for a century. Marathon is currently conducting tests with the U.S. Marines and other parts of the military as well as with Segway. Robotic live-fire training is sure to become routine in a few years.
Though international agreements bar the militarization of space, researchers are nevertheless working on weapons that could be used in space – just in case. Existing agreements could someday expire and a space laser deployment would be seen as necessary if any other country moves toward deploying its own. As envisioned by scientists, a space-based laser could send a powerful destructive beam at, say, an enemy’s ballistic missile site a few thousand miles away. Another possible application would be to use a space laser to provide protection against attacks made on U.S. satellites in orbit. Working on the space laser are the Sandia National Laboratory, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a number of defense contractors, including Northrop Grumman and Lockheed Martin.
Rock ‘Em, Sock ‘Em Robots
PAL Robotics in Barcelona, Spain, is developing advanced bipedal robots that can recognize people, enter buildings, avoid obstacles and pick up objects in their “hands.” They also have voice recognition systems that can take verbal commands. The military envisions using these robots to enter buildings in danger zones or to bring emergency medical supplies across battle zones to help wounded soldiers. Consumer versions of the REEM line of robots are also coming. For peace time, they’ll include robots that can serve drinks and snacks at public receptions, trade shows, parties, etc. Some will even be able to carry on limited conversations.
Robots that Mimic Human Movement
This robot, surprisingly agile and eerily anthropomorphic, is able to simulate the stress that soldiers put on their protective clothing, helping biohazard and other battle-wear makers refine their designs. Petman, also designed by Boston Dynamics, can walk, crawl and do calisthenics while wearing test suits and being exposed to chemical warfare agents in secure lab settings. The latest version of the robot, which will be phased into use in 2015, can even climb stairs, a huge engineering advance, considering the complexity and weight distribution required for that act.Weapons
With the look and size of a lightning bug, this tiny robotic fly will be sent on reconnaissance missions in areas too dangerous for soldiers, including places contaminated by chemical or biological weapons. It weighs less than a pin and can be remotely controlled in flight. Developed at Harvard with support from DARPA, the Flybot engineers say it could also be used to find hidden chemical bombs. Later incarnations of the Flybot may also be able to rely on tiny solar power cells for propulsion.
The current generation of drones has already revolutionized warfare. Now imagine an unmanned ultra-high speed aerial surveillance drone that can reach speeds of 4,000 miles-per-hour and fly at altitudes of up to 100,000 feet with intercontinental range. Such a plane is currently in development at Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman under a classified contract from the Pentagon. The drone, alternately known as Aurora and SR 72, is expected to debut sometime after 2020.