INVENTING THE SOLDIER OF THE FUTURE
Sci-fi-worthy tools to fend off almost any kind of threat (and shape up civilian life)
Military technologies that have practical uses for improving civilian life.
TO GET THE UPPER HAND IN ANY SCENARIO, the world’s militaries have often relied on the most outlandish innovations the mind can conjure. Stealth technology, bionic limbs and a little thing called the internet all started as military research projects. Reader’s Digest reviews the next wave of innovations, looking for those destined to spread.
1 POWER WALKERS
Spend time speaking with foot soldiers, and you’ll eventually hear about lugging an overstuffed backpack for kilometres in terrible weather through rough terrain. But the age‑old problem of overburdened troops is deadly serious: an army on the move can be dangerously slowed and weakened by strain injuries or just by soldiers struggling under their loads.
So the US DARPA (Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency), a 60-year-old source of new technology in soldiering, threw down this gauntlet to the scientific community: build some kind of wearable contraption that would help combatants transport their burdens. It needed to be thin and supple enough to fit under battle uniforms and equipment.
To come up with a solution, Professor Ignacio Galiana and his researchers at Harvard’s Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering immersed themselves in studying a simple act we take for granted: walking. They scrutinised the leg muscles’ perfectly timed bursts of energy to understand how a walker might get a little assistance. “What we learnt,” says Galiana, “is that small changes in timing – just a few milliseconds – could make the difference between assisting and hindering someone.”
So Galiana and his team developed a suit that is essentially a wearable robot: the Warrior Web exoskeleton. Tiny sensors embedded in the fabric take readings every millisecond or so on how the wearer is moving. The data are fed to a computer housed in a fancy waist pack. Retractable spooling cables extend from the waist pack to the ankles. “When the system senses fatigue, the cable applies pressure to joints and mimics muscle movement, so you spend less energy moving your legs,” says Galiana. “The system is learning how you’re walking and adapting the timing and parameters to make sure the assistance is maximising the benefit you get.” The programme is in its final stages and prototypes are being tested.
And someday these suits might help civilians, too. The Wyss Institute has licensed the technology to a private medical-device company to help stroke victims walk again. The invention could also give a weak or elderly person enough of a boost to power his or her way from the supermarket to the car with a load of groceries.
2 PLANTS THAT SPY
Imagine an innocuous-looking field of poppies on the outskirts of a hostile foreign capital. Suddenly a surveillance drone zooming in on the field finds that all the flowers are leaning in the same direction. The poppies have been genetically engineered to bend towards the presence of sarin gas, so analysts monitoring the drone strongly suspect that the
country is developing a poisonous gas programme.
Without question, the ability to detect chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear and explosive threats is paramount to a country’s national security. But … with plants? Who comes up with these ideas? Meet Blake Bextine, a professor of biology at the University of Texas, who heads up the Advanced Plant Technologies (APT) programme at DARPA.
“The idea for APT came from conversations I had with the military. One of the needs they talked a lot about was surveillance. Existing sensors had two problems: they were made from costly metals and plastics, and they relied on batteries,” explains Bextine. “Plants get their energy from the sun, of course, and they’re infinitely scalable.”
Bextine is used to the outlandish. In 2014, he starred in a reality TV show called Tethered. The concept: two polar opposites are forced to survive in the wilderness while bound together by a two-metre rope. “I was put with a practising shaman,” says Bextine. For 11 days, the pair climbed up and down hills, hiked over mountains and into valleys, jumped off cliffs, ran into waterfalls and, for the most part, got along. “My way of approaching things was scientific thought; his way was to pray for things.”
Learning to work with others to overcome obstacles was good practise for his time at DARPA. “We don’t fix small problems,” he says. “We’re supposed to be doing the big ideas, future-possibility ideas, so we think a little differently than most people.”
As ‘different’ as plant technology is, its foundation is solid: plants are highly sensitive to what’s going on around them, making them excellent sentinels. The trick, of course, is to use genetic engineering to create varieties that will exhibit some predictable, detectable change when exposed to a threat. “Plant-modification platforms have really taken off in the last five to ten years,” says Bextine. “Science is at the right time to do this.”
APT is just getting under way, but if it’s successful, Bextine says we may see thistles that bloom two months early because there are land mines in their field. Closer to home, plants could serve as warning systems for virulent strains of flu, while riverside weeds might alert authorities to the presence of toxins in the water.
3 WALL- CLIMBING COMMANDOS
It’s midnight and a commando unit needs to place a sniper on the roof of a glass-walled office building. But the enemy has all the entrances secured, and the element of surprise is crucial. Not to worry: from his pack, the sniper pulls out a lightweight kit, straps some paddles to his hands, and begins scaling the smooth, flat exterior like an exotic lizard. But not just any lizard.
“A couple of years ago, my son requested a gecko for his birthday, and I have to say, I am awed by this thing,” programme manager Professor David Carter told scoutcambridge.com. “It puts any engineering we can do to shame. It can leap and catch itself with one foot. It’s quite remarkable.”
Today, Carter and his team of engineers at Draper Laboratory in Massachusetts are using state- ofthe-art nanotechnology methods to mimic his son’s pet. They studied the tiny hairs on the gecko’s feet that allow it to grip very smooth surfaces – such as plate glass windows – and came up with a material called MicroHold. Then they added it to paddles with suction cups to reduce slippage.
Earlier this year, British explorer Andy Torbet scaled a ten-storey glass building using the lizard-like rig. “We were fairly confident we’d do well, but it was a little nerve-racking,” Carter says. “There was a lot of grit and grime on the windows.”
Speaking of grimy windows, MicroHold could well be the solution to safely cleaning those, too. It might also help you hang pictures without marring your wall, or mount speakers on the window of your sunroom.
“This is about the most fun thing an engineer can get paid to do,” says Carter. “We’ve gone from the fundamental physics of how the gecko adheres, to the engineering challenge of scaling it up to larger and larger sizes.”
4 BUILDINGS THAT GROW THEMSELVES
Dr Justin Gallivan is fascinated by sequoia tree seeds. Specifically how incredible a tiny seed holds all the genetic material required to shape a 100-metre-high forest giant. So when the DARPA programme manager
heard that a company called Ecovative had discovered that some mushroom cells would feed off farm waste, bind to it, and ultimately ‘grow’ into moulded packing materials and furniture parts, he had an idea. What if, instead of using the lowly mushroom, cells from the mighty sequoia tree could be induced to do something like that? Would it mean that, instead of trucking in wood to a building site, you could make a structure from living materials that you grew right there?
Gallivan is not a biologist. Still, as a former professor of chemistry, he could imagine the defence applications. The military often builds structures in remote and inhospitable parts of the world. Getting the building materials there is costly and time-consuming, and once the structures have been built, they’re subject to storm damage and wear and tear.
The non-military possibilities of the programme, known as Engineered Living Materials (ELM), are just as exciting. A cyclone will destroy thousands of homes in some corner of the globe. With ELM, humanitarian workers may well show up not with truckloads of wood but with a set of lightweight cardboard moulds and some seeds. They’ll add water and within three days have bricks, blocks and tiles that are alive and ready to be assembled into buildings. “Could you take a seed and grow a living two-by-four [wood plank] reliably every single time?” Gallivan wonders. An even more out-there possibility: creating buildings whose ‘skins’ heal themselves when cut by, say, a cyclone.
Gallivan hopes to have proof that ELM is viable by 2020.
Scientists are engineering thistles that bloom early if a land mine is nearby
Explorer Andy Torbet tests a gecko-like climbing rig
One day, we might own homes where damaged exteriors heal themselves, roofs breathe to control airflow and driveways eat spilled oil