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Military firing up lasers, robotic animals and iPad-controlled combat boats
Tech & War
Technology will keep transforming war, because it’s always been doing that. In many cases, these “advances” will make war even worse. In other cases, it will save lives. Here’s an update on war-related technologies in the works in 2014, thanks to the ever-flowing spigot of Department of Defense (DoD) spending and the ubergeeks at outfits like the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).
The DoD has been working with civilian clinics for a decade to advance face transplant surgery. The goal is to help service members with devastating combat injuries. The entire face of a deceased donor is removed and then used to restore a patient's disfigured face. Boston's Brigham and Women's Hospital is a leader in this work, funded by a DoD grant. The program is now accepting new volunteers.
Robotic animals, now with heads like hands
BigDog is a rough-terrain robot, about the size of big dog or small mule. It's designed to walk, run, climb and carry heavy loads. It was designed by BostonDynamics, since acquired by Google's Robotics Division, funded by the DoD. Recently, the company posted a video of BigDog with something like a long neck that ends in a powerful robotic "hand," shown here lifting a 35-pound cinderblock just before it tosses it nearly 17 feet.
Lasers on the high seas
This summer, the U.S. Navy will deploy the first prototype Laser Weapon System or LaWS -- on the USS Ponce, formerly an amphibious transport dock – for testing. The weapon is designed to be used against unmanned drones or small-boat attacks. The solid-state infrared beam can be tuned from low output to cripple the target’s sensors to high output for destruction. A YouTube video, from which this photo was taken, shows first an animation of the system, then actual video of an earlier test against a real drone. Six years in development, LaWS has rung up a price tag of $40 million.
This actually, and surprisingly, is not a DoD project. A Dutch artist, Jalila Essaïdi, who uses biology as an artistic medium, was intrigued by a commercial attempt to have a genetically modified goat produce milk containing an extra protein that could be extracted and spun into spider silk thread. Spider silk thread is, according to Phsy.org, “stronger than steel on a per weight basis” with a ratio of strength to density exceeding that of steel. Essaïdi wondered if the human body could produce the thread, could it lead to “bullet-proof skin”?
Earlier this year, a group of Army M915 tactical trucks and Palletized Loading System vehicles barreled over roads, coped with intersections, oncoming traffic, passing vehicles, pedestrians, and the winding turns of a simulated urban neighborhood…all without drivers, and all without any problems. The driving system is part of the Army and Marine Corps’ Autonomous Mobility Appliqué System program, or AMAS, with Lockheed Martin. Eventually, drone trucks could resupply troops in forward areas. Here’s a video of the Fort Hood test.
More fun with lasers
This weird looking contraption, with its steampunk aesthetic, isn’t a weapon. Yet. It’s a DARPA project called Excalibur and it’s intended to make really powerful lasers that are a lot smaller and lighter than today’s chemical lasers. It does so by using coherent optical phase arrays, with each element (the blue-tinted lenses) driven by fiber laser amplifiers. In a test earlier this year, Excalibur precisely hit a target over four miles away. The business end is three clusters of seven fiber lasers; each cluster is barely 4-inches across. Fittingly, the military acronym for high-energy lasers is HEL.
Prototype Iron Man suit due in June
Three unpowered prototypes of what’s being informally called the Iron Man suit, after the one worn by Marvel Comics superhero and ubergeek Tony Stark, are now being assembled for delivery in June 2014 to U.S. Special Operations Command. Formally known as the Tactical Assault Light Operator Suit (TALOS), the idea is to build an assault suit with “enhanced mobility and protection technologies,” with embedded antennas, computers, sensors to “increase the wearer’s situational awareness by providing user-friendly and real-time battlefield information.” It’s all just bits and pieces, but SOC has successfully completed this animated video of TALOS, from which this screen grab is taken. It’s just nowhere as slick as what the private sector has already delivered.
Prototype combat underwear
A suit without underwear is a like a day without sunshine. DARPA launched the Warrior Web project in September 2011, to create basically long underwear to “protect injury-prone areas by stabilizing and reducing stresses on joints and promoting efficient and safe movement over a wide range of activities” along with technologies “to augment the work of wearers’ own muscles.” And all using at most 100 watts of power. In 2014, the project’s goals include focusing on technologies for “core injury mitigation technologies; comprehensive analytical representations; regenerative actuation; adaptive sensing and control; and suit human-to-wearer interface.” It seems to be drawing on the DARPA-funded “Harvard Suit” project at Harvard University’s Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering, and this photo is from that project.
iPad-controlled robot combat boats
In February, a 35-prototype robot combat boat, dubbed Anaconda, conducted its first trials in Louisiana where the AN-2 project is being run by Swiftships Shipbuilders and the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. A researcher remotely controlled the boat using an iPad, but the idea is to use lasers, cameras, ultra-sound, and other sensors feeding information to an “almost sentient computer system that would steer and accelerate the AN-2 like a human pilot would.” Alas, we know how that turns out.