Army Scientists in Pursuit of the Extraordinary
By Sandra I. Erwin and Sara Peck
Combat uniforms made of light fabrics that are tougher than steel … Batteries that last for days and fit in tiny pockets … Bug-sized lasers that prevent fratricide and also function as voice radios …
Short of calling Wayne Enterprises, it is unclear how and when the Army will turn these high-tech dreams into reality.
But it may not be as hard as most people might think, according to Army scientists. With a nearly $2 billion a year budget for scientific research, the Army’s laboratories are actively partnering with universities and the private sector in hopes that soldiers one day can go to war with equipment that now only exists in superhero movies.
“We create the future for our soldiers, and we do that through strategic planning and investment in areas that we believe will provide our soldiers with extraordinary capabilities,” says John A. Parmentola, the Army’s director for research and laboratory management.
Many of the latest projects are directly influenced by the lessons of war, Parmentola says. “We’ve learned, I think, quite a bit from this recent engagement in Iraq.”
Science has much to offer toward soldier protection, for example. “We’re trying to develop new fabrics” that could make combat uniforms tough as steel, Parmentola says. The answer is in nanotechnology.
At the Institute for Soldier Nanotechnologies, scientists are trying to grow single carbon nanotubes to about a foot in length. “Once we start getting them in length, the hope is that we’ll be able to spin them into fabric,” he says.
Carbon nanotubes — molecular-scale tubes of graphitic carbon — can be about 200 times the strength of steel at one-tenth of the mass, says Parmentola. They also have extraordinary conductive and thermal properties.
The potential is huge, although so far, the technology has developed at a slow pace because of the high costs.
“We’ve done some work which is promising,” says Parmentola. The Army Research Laboratory, in collaboration with the University of Delaware, created stab-resistant materials. “We take a substance called a sheer thickening liquid, which is a thick syrup, and what we do is we put nano-particles of silicon in it,” he explains. “We come up with what we call liquid armor … You can take an ice pick and try to go through it and you can’t.”
Law enforcement agencies have taken an interest in this technology, says Parmentola. “It’s not going to solve the immediate problem that soldiers have with large, high-velocity fragments, but it can provide stab resistance and mitigate injuries.”
The extraordinary properties of these fibers also would make it possible to make “smart” combat uniforms. If fibers can send heat when a soldier is wounded, the fiber would detect the location of the injury and relay the information to a medical unit, Parmentola says.
If the fiber can send light, it could be used for combat ID. A soldier would carry a laser with a specific modulated signal — an infrared signal that cannot be seen by the naked eye — that would reflect off the soldier’s uniform. The uniform would recognize the signal and a portion of the uniform would light up. The soldier pointing the laser would know that guy is a friendly troop, Parmentola says.
Soldiers wearing smart uniforms also could talk via line-of-sight laser communications, he adds.
A soldier would speak into a microphone, the signal would be modulated as an electrical impulse which would drive the laser. The modulation in the laser would reflect the speech. When the laser is acquired through the fibers by another soldier at another location, it gets transferred to a transducer that reproduces it as sound in the soldier’s helmet. “You can have communications that you can build into the uniform,” Parmentola says.
Long-lasting, high-performance batteries are another holy grail for Army scientists. Soldiers currently must lug large loads of batteries to power dozens of devices they take to war. A better performance battery is hard to achieve because the higher-energy materials are explosive and dangerous for combat use, Parmentola says. Advances in biotechnology may permit the development of new materials that would be modeled after coral reefs.
“They build incredibly complex structures with interesting geometry,” he says. “We’ve been able to imitate some of these processes in the development of new materials for anodes for batteries.” When these materials are heated up, they go from conductor to insulator. “We’re exploring the application to see if we can produce higher energy density batteries,” says Parmentola.
The Army is working with battery manufacturer, Quallion, to further develop the technology. The problem with current high-density batteries is that the anode and cathode create a short circuit and cause the battery to heat up and explode. The new materials would make anodes that automatically shut off if they reach a certain temperature. “This opens the prospect of making safer batteries with higher energy materials with much higher performance,” says Parmentola.
In addition to technologies that are aimed at improving soldier equipment, Army laboratories are being asked to figure out better ways to train troops.
“One of the most important ones for our future is neuroscience — understanding how the brain works and how we can improve our ability to train our soldiers,” says Parmentola.
The goal is to help the Army tailor training programs to best take advantage of individual learning abilities. Some people, for instance, learn better through visualization and others comprehend more through hearing.
This project is only in the early stages and most of the details have yet to be worked out, Parmentola says. Traditionally the Army has opted for a one-size-fits-all approach to training, “but that doesn’t maximize the individual performance because each one learns differently,” he says. “There is a tremendous amount to be gained by having soldiers with the requisite skills.”
One option is to design “immersive training environments” with “intelligent tutors” embedded that describe the skill level of the ideal soldier. These technologies already exist in the videogame industry. “As the soldier trains, the system measures the rate at which he learns. The system [then] adjusts to the skill level of the soldier,” says Parmentola.
The intelligent tutors are being developed by neurologists at the University of California at Santa Barbara.
Virtual simulations that are based on neuroscience also could be used to treat soldiers who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. As many as 15 percent of all soldiers return from war with symptoms of PTSD. “It’s a neurological problem that we fundamentally don’t understand,” he says. “We are finding that methods — such as immersive environments — that have been used traditionally to cure people of phobias help decrease the symptoms of PTSD.”