We live in a world where technology is advancing at an unprecedented rate. But who is driving it? The military or the commercial world?
The world owes the existence of some of the most exciting technological developments in history to the military.
Necessity was certainly the mother of invention during the 20th century. War demanded the best, focused the mind, pushed the frontiers of what was possible and inspired people to think faster and smarter than the enemy.
Computers, thermal imaging, radar, GPS, jet engines, carbon fibre and drones were all developed for the military long before they found a place in everyday civilian life.
But the dynamic has changed somewhat.
“In the past defence and aerospace were the big drivers of innovation,” said Neil Stansfield, Head of Knowledge, Innovation and Futures Enterprise at the UK Government’s Defence Science and Technology Laboratory. “However today, innovation comes from many more sectors and has commercial drivers.”
That said, the military’s need for innovation should never be underestimated as access to new technology provides competitive advantage that can quite literally be the difference between life
“In some niche areas, the military will always drive innovation and be an early adopter,” said Neil.
Only two months ago the US Government’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency unveiled its latest invention – hand-held, gecko-inspired paddles that let humans scale vertical glass walls like Spiderman.
Using the new technology, a man weighing 218lb – and carrying a 50lb load – climbed a 25ft vertical glass wall without ropes or hooks.
Dubbed the Z-Man project, scientists said they had looked to nature – the gecko – for inspiration to help soldiers gain the high ground in built-up warzones without the need for ropes and ladders.
“The gecko is one of the champion climbers in the animal kingdom, so it was natural for us to look to it for inspiration in overcoming some of the manoeuvre challenges that US forces face in urban environments,” said Dr Matt Goodman, the DARPA programme manager for Z-Man.
Not only that, but the man-made, reversible adhesives that DARPA created using nanotechnology could one day find their way into everyday life.
Whatever part the military finally does play in the future should never detract from the importance of its role in the past.
The global positioning system, commonly known as GPS, was invented by the US Air Force in the mid-seventies to guide missiles. Today most of us, including aircraft pilots, sailors and fishermen, use the space-age technology to avoid getting lost. Many mobile phones and modern cars are also equipped with satellite navigation systems which let people know exactly where they are in the world at any time.
“All smartphones now come with maps and location services as standard,” said Ben Taylor, Senior Corporate Communications Manager at Vodafone UK. “And Ofcom believes that more than half of all adults in the UK now own a smartphone.”
The very first thermal imaging camera was developed for the military in Sweden in 1958 by AGA. The camera’s ability to produce a crisp image in total darkness and through smoke meant it became a valuable tool in combat zones.
Today thermal imaging cameras help police to track down suspects in the dark, sailors to navigate at night, fire crews to search smoke-filled buildings for survivors, and rescue teams to locate earthquake victims trapped under tons of rubble.
FLIR Systems, the world leader for thermal imaging cameras, said they were also often used to detect gas leaks and scan buildings for signs of poor insulation and damp.
The world’s first electronic digital computer was designed by engineers for the US military during the Second World War to help them calculate artillery firing ranges. When ENIAC, as it was known, was finally shown to the public on February 15, 1946, in Philadelphia at Penn’s Moore Building, the press hailed it as a ‘giant brain’.
It had cost almost $500,000 but this revolutionary device – as we all now know – changed the
“Without ENIAC, we would not have Google, we would not have Microsoft or many of the things that are driving today’s economy,” said Bill Green, a former Democratic Councilman-at-Large on the City Council of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Another technology that originated in the military is radar, which was developed by several nations before and during the Second World War, and was heavily deployed across the UK as part of an early warning system to detect incoming enemy aircraft.
Today radar is used to forecast the weather, help aircraft fly and land safely and enable the police to catch speeding drivers.
The British engineer, Sir Robert Watson-Watt, who contributed significantly to the development of radar, was reportedly pulled over for speeding in Canada in the 1950s by a policeman armed with a radar gun. As the officer spoke to him, he is believed to have replied: ‘Had I known what you were going to do with it, I would never have invented it.’
Radar technology also led to the first microwave oven. During an experiment with magnetrons in his Raytheon lab in Massachusetts, American scientist Percy Spencer discovered that the radar transmitters had melted a chocolate bar in his pocket. Amazed, he sent his assistant for a bag of popcorn, spread the corn over the table near the magnetrons and then waited. Less than a minute later, the kernels began exploding.
Today drones, first developed as target practice for the military in the 1930s and now heavily used for surveillance and bombing missions, are gaining ground in the commercial world. Civilian air space is expected to be opened up to all kinds of drones in the US by 2015 and in Europe by 2016. And The Federal Aviation Administration in the US estimates that 30,000 civil and commercial unmanned aircraft could be in the skies by 2030.
“I certainly saw how the military technology could be used in a commercial environment when I was in the RAF,” said Mark Sickling, who flew drones over Afghanistan and Iraq on both reconnaissance and armed missions from a control base in Las Vegas.
He is now chief pilot at Cyberhawk, which uses remotely-operated aerial vehicles to inspect everything from live flare tips at INEOS and Petroineos sites, to wind turbines and off-shore oil and gas installations.
Mark said a lot of commercial technology was now being leveraged by the military because of shrinking military budgets.
One commercial enterprise, which is carrying out its own extensive research into the use of unmanned drones, is Amazon, the world’s largest online retailer.
Last year it announced that it was testing ‘Octocopters’ to deliver packages weighing up to 2.3kg to customers within 30 minutes of them placing the order.
“I know this looks like science fiction, but it’s not,” said chief executive Jeff Bezos. “I don’t want people to think this is just around the corner. It is years of additional work. But it will work. It will happen. And it’s going to be a lot of fun.”
Craig Roberts, CEO at Cyberhawk, isn’t quite as optimistic as Jeff at Amazon.
“It is a lovely idea,” he said.
“But it is science fiction at the moment because it could not be done safely within the current CAA restrictions on flying.”
In the UK, for example, unmanned aircraft cannot fly higher than 150 metres or within 50 metres of a built-up area or road and pilots must be able to see the aircraft at all times.
“Amazon’s idea is a long, long way off,” said Craig.