It's no secret that the U.S. military researches and uses some of the world's most forward-looking technologies. It integrates high-tech, digital components into everything from fighter jets to aircraft carriers. But individual soldiers benefit from the move towards digital innovations, too.
Many soldiers working on the front lines now carry an array of high-tech gadgets designed to increase operational efficiency and safety, and in some cases, lethality. Their digital tools help them navigate unfamiliar areas, interact with locals who speak different languages and track enemies during a firefight. And that's just for starters.
Military authorities envision future warfare in which every soldier and vehicle is linked to a real-time network. Such a network will let officers track and monitor each person's activities and availability, with the overall goal of reducing the so-called fog of war that every wartime decision-maker fears.
The Department of Defense funnels hundreds of millions of dollars into various tech-related projects. As you'll see, sometimes those projects result in breakthroughs that benefit soldiers and consumers alike. Other times, grand visions of high-tech military gadgetry flame out as massive blunders.
For now, though, some of the most effective technology is the stuff that soldiers carry with them before they even hit boot camp. Keep reading to see the kinds of gadgets they use to accomplish their objectives -- some of these devices will probably surprise you.
Land Warrior was one of the U.S. Army's landmark programs, designed to outfit infantry soldiers with a collection of high-tech equipment. The goal was to increase fighting ability in urban warfare and other situations where large, armored vehicles and long-distance weaponry aren't practical.
Land Warrior equipped soldiers with computers, GPS receivers, radios, video cameras and other gear, all designed to increase the battlefield awareness and combat value of individuals. More than 15 years of research and $500 million went towards Land Warrior's development, but the program was cut in 2007 due to glitches that caused more problems than they solved [source: Shactman]. In particular, commanders feared the 16 pounds (7.3 kilograms) of equipment would only make soldiers less mobile and more vulnerable.
However, in spite of those opinions, a battalion of soldiers took Land Warrior equipment to Iraq, and a funny thing happened. Individual soldiers immediately began stripping down the system to the basics, dropping its overall weight and using only features that were truly useful during the stress and rigors of combat [source: Shactman].
Land Warrior's most popular feature is its digital chemical marking system, which lets soldiers mark areas cleared of enemies so that other units don't repeat their efforts. Other useful elements are text messaging (good for when radios are hard to hear) and digital maps that display comrades' positions.
Despite its shortcomings, the program produced some practical equipment. In current war zones, an updated version of Land Warrior that weighs around only 9 pounds (4.1 kilograms) is in use, but only by team leaders and special forces [source: Cox].
So in spite of its flaws, the spirit of Land Warrior lives on. Although the program is officially dead, its successful components will be used in the Army's next (very similar) project, the Ground Soldier System.
Sometimes the figurative phrase "fog of war" takes on literal meaning for soldiers on the ground. Smoke, darkness, shrubs, walls and dust storms obscure the troops' view on the battlefield, creating a huge range of potentially deadly scenarios. Enemies, especially those hiding in urban jungles, might be hiding around any corner.
But what if a solider could detect enemies running through a smoke screen or behind a concrete wall? That's the idea behind the helmet-mounted radar systems currently under development.
The Helmet Mounted Radar Program hopes to provide soldiers with 360-degree coverage via Moving Target Indicator sensors that "see" movement up to 25 meters (82 feet) away [source: Dillow]. The entire system should weigh less than 2.5 pounds (1.1 kilograms), with less than half of that load affixed to the helmet [source: Fallon]. Thus equipped, soldiers will be able to detect motion that could tip them off to potential ambushes.
Because the product is still being researched as of this writing, it's hard to say how it will use visual, audible or other warning cues. Perhaps it will work in tandem with other gadgets soldiers currently carry.
There are other concerns to address as well, such as radiation exposure to the wearer and false alarms tripped by fellow soldiers or a pack of stray dogs, for example. But there's little doubt that a properly calibrated system would benefit soldiers struggling to find enemies who are willing to take cover just about anywhere.
Carrying a lot of high-tech equipment has its downsides. One device may come with several accessories, and all of them have accompanying chargers, too. That's why the Army hopes to condense several gadgets into one wrist computer.
With the help of HP Labs, the Army Research Laboratory is working on just such a computer, which should weigh only about half a pound (227 grams). The foundation of the device is its flexible 2 by 3-inch (5 by 7.6-centimeter) screen [source: Cooper]. The device employs a very thin layer of transistors that work with an electronic screen, which changes data signals into grayscale images.
HP uses its technology to stamp the electronics and screen components directly into bendable plastic. Minus a traditional (and very breakable) glass backing, the device will withstand abuse and still work flawlessly. The displays will also use less power than normal, thus reducing the need for constant recharging sessions.
Affixed to a soldier's wrist, the display will become a hub for sending and receiving vital information via data and radio transmissions, among other tasks. And, like so many devices dreamed up for the military, this one will definitely have plenty of commercial uses, too -- everything from floppy e-books, to stretchy cell phones, to TV screens that you can roll up and carry in your gym bag.
Current versions of the display are monochrome. However, a color version is in the works.
High-tech tools require power, and lots of it. In combat zones where power supplies might be destroyed or inaccessible, that's a problem. When their gadgets' batteries run dry, soldiers must return to base to recharge critical equipment, such as night vision goggles, environmentally-controlled clothing, radios, handheld computers, mine detectors, range finders, infrared sights and other tools.
To find new solutions to this challenge, the Department of Defense sponsored the Wearable Power Prize Competition. 169 teams registered, with the winning prize going to DuPont and a German firm called SFC Smart Fuel Cell AG, for their M-25 fuel cell.
The M-25 is a wearable power source that combines direct methanol technology with fuel cell systems. The result? A device that's 80 percent lighter than conventional batteries, but provides constant power for at least 72 hours [source: Military & Aerospace Electronics]. The M-25 can continually provide a minimum of 20 watts, with short spurts of 200 watts [source: Matthews]. That's a big jump in performance -- more than three times the power supply that soldiers now carry in the field. And that's enough power to keep navigation and communications systems working in harsh, multi-day missions where recharging stations are few and far between.
Aside from a rifle, an iPod Touch or iPhone might eventually be one of the most important tools a U.S. soldier carries. If you doubt that a consumer product could really be that vital in war zones, keep in mind that iPods aren't just music players -- they're miniature computers with an established history of adaptability and durability.
Military uses for iPods are virtually endless. iPods have a large range of potential functions, and authorities and software developers can team up to develop new applications (or apps, in Apple-speak) for just about any sort of task. Plus, because most soldiers have already used an iPod Touch, training sessions and their associated costs are minimal.
In fact, the Army has been using iPods for years. One program, called Vcommunicator Mobile, displays phrases and words appropriate for a variety of situations a soldier might encounter. It displays text on an iPod's screen and pumps audio through a portable speaker to help the soldier communicate in languages such as Kurdish and Arabic. The app even displays animations of gestures appropriate for certain phrases [source: Lowe].
Snipers like a ballistics calculator called BulletFlight. They simply enter range and atmospheric details, and the software generates vital details for an accurate shot. An upgraded version even shows impact energy, flight time and other valuable information [source: Sutherland].
Other apps will enable teleconferencing, or may even turn an iPod into a remote control for bomb disposal robots. Further developments will let soldiers take a photo of a landmark and subsequently receive intelligence about their surroundings, including everything from local power availability to images of suspected insurgents.
That's really just boot camp for the iPod's military career. With more research and better software, these humble music players will help soldiers complete dozens of other tasks and, in the process, save lives on the battlefield, too.
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