Robotics

Technology & the Military

Finding clues to the future of our tech

The worldwide military is well known for its investment in tech. US forces in particular are surprisingly open about their use of innovative systems, recently testing out Augmented Reality and a fleet of drones for the world to see. Many of the new systems in place within military units aren’t actually applied to combat, and focus on administration and organisation.

From a business perspective, the application of technology within defence is often an indication of what’s coming next. As powerful countries have both the money and resources available to pioneer innovation, it’s worth taking note of what the armed forces are up to. So, which technologies have caught the eyes of the military, and how are they being used?

1. Drone fleets
Drones aren’t particularly cutting edge – many people now have their own, mainly for aerial photography. However, when you accumulate an entire fleet of the flying machines, they become far more capable. Last year, 67 Chinese surveillance drones were debuted at the China International Aerospace and Aviation Exhibition. Unsurprisingly, the Americans are developing this technology too. In 2015, the US Navy announced their aptly named LOCUST (Low Cost UAV Swarming Technology) project. At the beginning of this year, a video was released which showed the US military testing a fleet of 104 drones in California. As well as surveillance, drone fleets could be used for search and rescue missions.

2. Augmented Reality
The very first functional Augmented Reality system was created at the US Air Force Research Laboratory in 1992, and has been a key military technology ever since. This April, AR was demonstrated at the S2ME2 naval exercise, and is already used in complicated maintenance and repair work. Engineers stick on a headset which guides them through the maintenance work, making sure it is carried out correctly. Keeping machinery in good working order is vital as, for a start, they carry human pilots and potentially destructive cargo. They are also very expensive to replace. AR could be used in mission planning, too, helping teams to better understand an environment through advanced visualisation.

3. Advanced robotics
Although Boston Dynamics’ humanoid Atlas is pretty terrifying, the US military is adamant that the towering, autonomous machine is only used in search and rescue missions. Big Dog, another intimidating robot from Boston Dynamics, is supposedly only used to carry heavy loads over difficult terrain. An entirely new breed of bots called ‘soft robots’ have potential in this area, too. University teams are working on silicone legged machines that can travel effortlessly over sand, rocks and up inclines, which is something that heavy, metal bots find challenging. Robots are yet to be pitted against soldiers (human or humanoid), although the creation of the Iron Man robot in Russia could signal the beginning of truly mechanised forces. Right now, robots are used as scouts, scoping out an area before humans are sent in.

4. 3D printing
The Navy has previously tested ballistic missiles with 3D printed components, but the applications of stereolithography go far beyond manufacturing equipment. 3D printers could be used to print replacement limbs, and to provide rations in the field. Now that printers can handle an array of different materials, they could create stronger armour and tools. In future, 4D printing has the potential to create smarter objects that can respond to changes in the environment, which could prove especially useful for units in remote, harsh environments.

5. Big Data
Data makes the world go round, and this has not gone unnoticed by military forces. As early as 2014, the US Military Academy began to test big data software called ORCA (Organisational, Relationship and Contact Analyser). The military is also working with external big data companies like Modus Operandi to develop software to deal with giant datasets. Collecting data on a mass scale is useful for locating teams, equipment, recognising actions and improving situational awareness. Information is invaluable when making important strategic decisions, especially when they involve the lives of others.

If you want to keep up to date on the latest technological advancements, you only have to look at military developments. A huge amount of money is invested in defence, enabling the armed forces to push ahead with innovation. These developments are geared towards improving the various processes associated with different divisions, with generally positive results. Drones are improving central control’s knowledge of certain environments, AR and 3D printing are disrupting manufacturing, and big data and autonomous robots are informing human task forces. This is the same for all other industries – and, just like civilian workers, soldiers could eventually be replaced by cyber systems. It makes you wonder, really. . . if they’re willing to make all of this public, what are they working on that we don’t know about?