Sci-fi-wor­thy tools to fend off al­most any kind of threat (and shape up civil­ian life)

Reader's Digest Asia Pacific - - Contents - DEREK BUR­NETT

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.


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.


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.


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 scout­cam­ “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.”


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

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