10 Breakthrough Futuristic Military Technologies to Watch

We're taking a look at 10 of the coolest technologies currently being developed by the US military today.
  • AI Submarines

    We have drones in the sky, and maybe someday we'll have self-driving cars on the roads, so why shouldn't we have unmanned vehicles in the water as well? The Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) Continuous Trail Unmanned Vessel (ACTUV) — pronounced “active” — was originally conceived as a project to create an unmanned underwater drone that could track enemy submarines. But the project has grown in scope since its conception. DARPA has already finished construction of a submarine called the Sea Hunter that is a “ continuous trail unmanned vessel for anti-submarine warfare” according to the agency. The ship is driven by artificial intelligence and requires no crew whatsoever.

    While other unmanned water vessels have been limited by their need to be deployed from a larger ship and remotely-controlled, the 120-foot Sea Hunter is autonomous and designed to be able to launch from a pier and function on its own for up to months at a time and travel for thousands of miles. The ship, which was built by defense contractor Leidos, is currently undergoing trials as part of a joint project with the U.S. Office of Naval Research.

    (Image source: DARPA)

  • Electronic Drug Prescriptions

    What if instead of pills or injections doctors could prescribe electronics? DARPA's Electrical Prescriptions (ElectRx) program is a blanket program for a diverse range of research being conducted in using electrical stimulation of the peripheral nerves to treat conditions such as chronic pain, inflammation, and PTSD. The idea itself isn't entirely new – pacemakers have been around for a while and neurostimulators are already providing treatment for neurological conditions like Parkinson's. However, DARPA's goals go beyond treatment and into prevention. “We envision technology that can detect the onset of disease and react automatically to restore health by stimulating peripheral nerves to modulate functions in the brain, spinal cord and internal organs,” program manager Doug Weber said in a press statement. Among the teams working with DARPA on the ElectRx project is a team at the University of Texas, Dallas, led by Robert Rennaker and Michael Kilgard, that is examining the potential of nerve stimulation to treat PTSD. The researchers believe that nerve stimulation could be used to regulate neurochemical responses and reduce fear and anxiety in PTSD patients.

    (Image source: DARPA)

  • Instant Language Translation

    Imagine a handheld device that can translate any language in real time, like having a translator at your disposal at all times. DARPA's Broad Operational Language Translation (BOLT) program is aiming to do just that. The technology can be deployed on an Android device. An English-speaker can say a phrase and the device can repeat it back in another language, and vice versa. The system currently only works with Iraqi Arabic, but DARPA says it can easily be expanded to others in the future.

    (Image source: DARPA)

  • Matrix-Like Virtual Reality Training

    Soldiers have been using video games, simulations, and even virtual reality (VR) for combat training for over a decade now. However, the U.S. Army Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center (NSRDEC) wants to take it a step further and immerse soldiers in fully virtual environments. Called the Virtual Dome, NSRDEC's project is a concave, wall-sized VR system that projects a 180-degree horizontal, high resolution virtual field in front of a soldier. The environments can be modeled after real locations and soldiers can use handheld devices to aim a weapon as well as move and look around. It's almost like being immersed in The Matrix, but without the deadly robot overlords.

    The goal is to provide clinicians and researchers a safe, but more realistic way of studying how soldiers behave on the field.In a statement released by NSRDEC, Dr. Caroline Mahoney, team leader for NSRDEC's Cognitive Science and Applications Team, said, "The new VR laboratory will provide the Cognitive Science and Applications Team the ability to conduct research using more operationally relevant scenarios while still maintaining experimental control in our studies … This capability brings our tightly controlled laboratory work one step closer to the field/operationally relevant environment."

    Future versions of the Virtual Dome will include more input modalities as well as systems to provide multisensory feedback, according to the researchers.

    (Image source: NSRDEC)

  • Next-Level Prosthetics

    Even if you're not an amputee patient, part of you has to be wondering when we'll finally get prosthetics that are as advanced as the ones we see in science fiction. DARPA's Revolutionizing Prosthetics program has been working on the problem since 2006 and has announced some promising developments over the years.

    DARPA invested a$7 million investment in the DEKA Arm (shown above). Also known as the Luke Arm (after Luke Skywalker) the prosthetic, created by Segway inventor Dean Kamen, is dexterous enough to handle objects as delicate as a grape.

    Meanwhile, researchers at Johns Hopkins University's Applied Physics Lab have developed a bionic hand that can actually provide its wearer with a sense of touch via electrodes that connect to the patient's sensory and motor cortexes. The neural connection also allows patients to control the arm using only their thoughts. The ultimate goal is to someday provide injured soldiers with prostheses advanced enough to allow them to return to the battlefield if desired.

    (Image source: DEKA)

  • Robots That Repair Satellites

    There are hundreds of satellites being used by the government, military, and various consumer industries hovering up in geosynchronous orbit. But someone's got to go up there and repair them from time to time.

    Or maybe not. DARPA's Robotic Servicing of Geosynchronous Satellites (RSGS) program is working to develop robotic servicing vehicles (RSVs) that can be shot into space to repair and maintain satellites remotely. The plan is for DARPA to supply the electronics and work with a commercial partner (Space X perhaps?) on the deployment technology. “It could enable entirely new spacecraft designs and operations, including on-orbit assembly and maintenance, which could dramatically lower construction and deployment costs while extending satellite utility, resilience and reliability,” said RSGS program manager Gordon Roesler said in a press statement.

    DARPA isn't the only organization working on this concept. NASA has initiated its Restore-L (shown above) with the aim of crating a low-orbit robotic spacecraft capable of refueling and relocating satellites. Restore-L is currently set for a test mission some time in 2019.

    (Image source: NASA)

  • The Virtual Eye

    Breaching a sealed or barricaded room is one of a soldier's most dangerous tasks. But a system called Virtual Eye could give them a heads up on the enemy. An offshoot of DARPA's Power Efficiency Revolution For Embedded Computing Technologies (PERFECT) program to create more powerful computer processes, Virtual Eye uses small cameras to create a 3D rendering of a space before a soldier ever goes inside of it.

    Let's say a group of soldiers is about to enter a room. Instead of sending in a human, they can throw a few small cameras into the room first. The cameras will then pick up a 360-degree view of the room and create a rendering that a soldier can “walk through” using a tablet or laptop. The rendering will not only reveal the layout of the room, but also locations of enemies and traps. The researchers behind the project told Business Insider that the system won't require proprietary cameras or equipment.

    (Image source: DARPA / Nvidia)

  • Warrior Web Exoskeletons

    Video games like the Call of Duty series are already showing the potential for futuristic exoskeletons, not only for protecting soldiers but for giving them augmented strength. While we shouldn't expect soldiers to be leaping around the battlefield with superhuman strength and agility any time soon, DARPA is already at work on lightweight exoskeleton technology that can augment their strength and ease the burden of carrying heavy loads over miles. The Warrior Web program, being done in conjunction with the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University, is developing a “soft exosuit” that is as unobtrusive as a pair of pants, but capable of monitoring the wearer as well as providing support to prevent injury and assisting the soldier with bearing weight – allowing him to carry more weight over longer distances than a human alone would. The researchers are also working to develop a medical version of the suit that would help improve gait and provide walking assistance for stroke patients or others in need of rehab.

    (Image source: Wyss Institute)

  • The X-Plane

    What happens if you marry all of the advantages of an aircraft with all of the advantages of an airplane? The answer could be DARPA's vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) experimental plane, aka the X-plane. As DARPA explains (see what we did there?) the project the aim is to create an aircraft that combines a helicopter's VTOL ability, omnidirectional maneuverability, hovering, land ability to land on most flat surfaces, with the speed, power, and durability of a plane. The ultimate goal is to create a military aircraft that can: peed: achieve a top sustained flight speed of 300-400 kt, hover at 75% energy efficiency, have a cruise lift-to-drag ration of at least 10, and carry loads of at least 40 percent of the vehicle's project gross weight (10,000-12,000 lbs).

  • Z-Man – Wall Climbing Technology

    Feel free to hum the Spider-Man theme song while you think of this one. Inspired by the way geckos' feet are able to stick to surfaces for climbing, researchers at the University of Massachusetts have developed a new adhesive they've dubbed Geckskin. Geckskin combines soft elastomers, polyurethane or polydimethylsiloxane (PDMS), with stiff fabrics, like carbon fiber and Kevlar, to create a pad that can adhere to various surfaces, including glass, and still be easily released and leave no residue. Geckskin is now the foundation of DARPA's Z-Man project, which is looking to create gloves and other fabrics that would allow soldiers to climb surfaces without any additional climbing gear. Think of the scene of Tom Cruise climbing the glass skyscraper in Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol and you get the idea. Early testing of the Z-man system showed that a 16-square-inch sheet of Geckskin could support a static load of 660 pounds while adhered to a vertical glass wall.

Over the decades a great deal of technology developed for the military has found its way into the commercial market. From duct tape, to GPS, and even a little thing called the Internet, military tech has a way of influencing not just the lives soldiers but eventually society at large (because duct tape fixes everything!)

So what's next? What's being worked on today that will be the hottest technologies on the future? In honor of Memorial Day, we're talking a look at 10 of the coolest technologies currently being developed by the US military today. Most are connected to the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the US government's big R &D agency, but in addition to saving lives on the battlefield, don't be surprised if you see some of these technologies in your daily life some time in the near future.

Click the image above to start the slideshow.

Chris Wiltz is a Senior Editor at   Design News  covering emerging technologies including AI, VR/AR, blockchain, and robotics.


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