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July 7, 2005
Dafydd: Future Shock & Awe

Extree, extree, getcha red-hot future combat today!

As has been the case for, oh, a few thousand years, the violent tendencies of human beings are leading the way to tomorrow's technology. War is not only good for business, it's good for science. Here are just a few of the goodies that await us in future battlefields.

Warning! This is a very long post, nearly all of which is tucked into the extended-entry section. Forwarned is forlorned!

Future Shock & Awe, continued.

Exoskeletons for Human Performance Augmentation

The weak link in the combat chain is often the human body. We run slower than horses; we carry less cargo than a camel; our skin is more fragile than a rhinoceros; we can't even jump like a gazelle.

But all that is going to change, if DARPA has any say in it. Joe Pappalardo of National Defense Magazine writes that the Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, has been hard at work for several years now on the Exoskeletons for Human Performance Augmentation (EHPA) program. The idea is to create a tough and powerful exoskeleton that would surround the soldier's body and augment his own native abilities.

At the moment, political correctness rules. Ever since the public-relations fiasco of the Terrorism Information Awareness futures market, DARPA has been almost paranoid about bad publicity... which can lead to investigations, budget cuts, and in a pinch, mass firings. So all they will admit at this point is the utility of exoskeletons for loading and unloading cargo:

This is a fairly boring transportation program, [DARPA project manager John] Main said, with a small grin. Were not jumping over buildings. Were getting into rough terrain that is denied to Humvees.

But the combat implications are obvious: a man who can carry 200 lbs of fuel or MREs can also carry 200 lbs of body armor or a 200 lb weapon (or a mix: a hundred devoted to armor, and the other hundred to weaponry). Although they're not really willing to speculate, it's hard to see, once you have the basic idea of exoskeletal augmentation, how you can fail to think of putting jets in the boots, heavy weapons that can be fired by merely pointing the hand, or all the other accoutrements of Robert Heinlein's 1959 novel Starship Troopers.

Stepping way, way out on a limb, the head of the UC Berkeley robotics engineering lab, which is working on a DARPA grant, Homi Kazerooni, reluctantly admitted the possibility:

Kazerooni conceded that robotic enhancements worthy of combat were feasible, given a system design that could keep up with soldiers reflexes. Can the machine shadow our reflexes? These are not voluntary, and sometimes 200 microseconds is not fast enough.

The first key is acceleration: no matter how well a soldier is armored, a fall from 100 feet is a fall from 100 feet, with the same sudden stop at the end. But if DARPA can control the acceleration -- for example, by using boot-mounted, gyro-controlled attitude jets -- the soldier can "leap" high into the air, then "land" safely.

The second key is psychological: will the American people accept Starship Troopers style "Mobile Infantry?" Or will the princes of the Senate strangle the technology in its cradle? As the song says, only time will tell.

Brain Machine Interface

But perhaps we don't need anybody in those suits at all -- if the human can stay safe several miles away, controlling the empty suit by a direct brain-machine interface.

Thoughts are not ghostly apparitions made out of ectoplasm, it turns out; they are electrocolloidal impulses that travel from neuron to neuron across the synaptic gap. And that slight spark is readable... if you have the code.

That, not coincidentally, is exactly what another DARPA project aims to do: crack that neural code, so that machines -- or weapons -- can be controlled by thought alone.

Some research projects funded by DARPA have already achieved significant success, according to a 2003 article in the National Journal, written by Bruce Falconer. Duke University neurobiologist Miguel Nicolelis headed a team that planted "100 hair-like sensors" in a South American owl monkey (coincidentally, the same owl monkey that has been directing the recent reactionary political reaponses by the Democratic Party). As the monkey used a joystick, the scientists could monitor its neural activity and program the impulses into a computer-readable code.

The monkey repeated the motion - only this time, two robotic arms (one in an adjacent room and another 600 miles away in a Boston laboratory) also moved in response to the wireless signals sent straight from the monkey's brain.

In a similar, more recent experiment, the same scientists taught a macaque to direct a cursor to illuminated targets on a computer monitor. When scientists disabled the joystick, the monkey gradually stopped moving its arm altogether and learned to do the experiment just by thinking.

The article in the National Journal notes some of the uses. Right now, the biggest limitation on military aviation is the inability of the human body to take stresses much greater than about nine Gs, nine times the force of gravity. A typical 185-lb pilot in a 9-G turn feels as if he tops the scales at a cool 1,665 lbs. At that force, it's so difficult even to raise his hand that modern jets use fly-by-wire systems that require only slight finger movements for the pilot to guide the craft. Grayouts and blackouts are commonplace -- and can lead to death.

But if a pilot could sit on the ground and control the plane by his thoughts, then the rest of the airplane could withstand far greater stresses; this means an aircraft that could outmaneuver any plane in the sky that carried human cargo, such as a pilot and flight officer.

The same is true with a tank. Rather than relying upon a true "ogre" tank, which is completely artificially intelligent (a daunting computational task, considering that we cannot even design an AI car), a gigantic, solid tank can be controlled by a full crew... who sit safely back behind the lines in a simulator, their thoughts controlling the tank via a satellite uplink. With the absence of the most vulnerable part of the weapon, the human crew, the tank itself would be virtually unstoppable, short of dropping a tactical nuclear weapon on top of it.

There are civilian uses too, of course, notably in the area of prostheses for amputees and paraplegics. But the subject of civilian spinoffs from military research is big enough to warrant its own post. Or article. Or multi-floor library.

Smart Bullets

We have smart missiles that find their targets by several methods. Some are literally connected to a wire that trails out behind them, allowing the missileer to guide the bomb to its target. Others home in on a laser dot "painted" on the target by a forward spotter. Cruise missiles actually have topographic maps programmed into their brains, so they can swoop and swerve through gullies and across mountains to find a target by its GPS coordinates.

So why can't we do the same with rifle and pistol ammunition? Imagine bullets that can literally chase the target, racing around corners and over obstacles to hit the poor terrorist in his own trench, as in the 1984 Tom Selleck movie Runaway.

Well, it turns out that United States Air Force (and likely other branches of the service -- and I wouldn't rule out DARPA) has not only been imagining such a thing, it has been actively trying to develop them for more than eight years, according to the 1997 article "You Can Run, But You Can't Hide...", by Justin Mullins, published in New Scientist (reproduced here by

The Air Force calls the program Barrel Launched Adaptive Munitions, or BLAM, in an unusual display of wit. The researchers agree that the guidance technology is the easy part; it's already available for missile systems and only needs to be made smaller. The difficult part is designing a bullet that can turn in mid air and can become aerodynamic to prevent falling towards the ground as it moves towards the target, in accordance with our ancient enemy, gravity.

Some programs have experimented with tiny attitude jets on the bullet to steer it. But BLAM uses a more exotic, science-fictiony method: the front of the bullet actually flexes to create lift in various directions. Lift on the bottom keeps the bullet flying at the same altitude it was fired, without dropping; lift on the right steers the bullet left, and so forth.

The mechanism is simple. The nose is connected to the body by a ball-and-socket joint, and held in place by a number of piezoceramic rods, or tendons, which change length when a voltage is applied to them. Increasing the length of a rod on one side of the bullet while shortening its opposite number changes the angle of the nose (see Diagram). The nose can move by up to 0.1 in any direction.

Snipers are the ideal persons to use smart bullets; slithering into enemy territory on their bellies, becoming invisible via ghillie suits, then drawing a bead on the target enemy personnel are pretty much the same skills needed to paint a target with a laser dot (which can be invisible to the naked eye, preventing premature target panic). The invisible dot would guide a smart bullet for a targetted assassination from an astonishing distance -- several kilometers, for example. Unless every bad guy spends all day, every day, in a room with no windows (or wears American power armor), he will be vulnerable to just such a "bolt from the blue."

In another arena, the New Scientist article notes that airplanes fitted with smart bullets can bring down bogies with just one or two well-directed shots, rather than the hundreds typically used to destroy a target. This can lead to cost savings, even though smart bullets would not be cheap:

Aircraft bullets cost more than $30 each. [Ron] Barrett [who tested the BLAM system] says the piezoceramic materials would add $10 to this while the microelectronics would cost another $100. But he argues that the increased strike rate would lead to cost savings. "You'd only fire one when otherwise you'd fire hundreds."

Smart bullets would also lead to less collateral damage, because there would be less lead (or depleted Uranium) flying around.

But I'm still holding out for small, man-portable and firable rail guns!

Heat Rays

Finally, bringing us up to today's technology, we have a "phaser" -- American style, not that touchy-feelie stuff you see on Star Trek, where the target just falls over unconscious. This version is actually more of a heat ray, manufacturing fake feelings of searing agony, like "touching a hot frying pan or the intense radiant heat from a fire," except it does no actual damage. The pain is all in the target's neurons.

In "US aims Star Trek ray guns at nuclear sites" on, Robert Jaques writes that the Department of Energy has teamed with the Department of Defense to create a milimeter-wave directed-energy weapon system with the catchy title of Active Denial Technology (ADT). The first use will be to protect critical sites, such as nuclear power plants, from terrorist (or protester) intrusion.

ADT emits a 95GHz non-ionizing electromagnetic beam of energy that penetrates approximately 1/64 of an inch into human skin tissue, where nerve receptors are concentrated.

Within seconds, the beam will heat the exposed skin tissue to a level where intolerable pain is experienced and natural defence mechanisms take over....

The sensation caused by the system has been described by test subjects as feeling like touching a hot frying pan or the intense radiant heat from a fire. Burn injury is prevented by limiting the beam's intensity and duration.

Sandia labs have already tested a prototype, and they believe a smaller model will be ready to deploy by 2008. Perhaps it can be used in the White House briefing room whenever an MSM feeding frenzy erupts during the next presidential campaign.

So there you have it -- the three of you who managed to make it all the way to the end of this excruciating post: four windows into the brave new world of continued American military dominance over the rest of the world. And if you think that is a bad thing, well I suspect you're reading the wrong blog!

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Posted by Dafydd at July 7, 2005 3:05 AM

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» Future Shock & Awe from Big Lizards
This piece was originally posted at Captain's Quarters on July 7th, 2005; I subsequently reposted it here on Big Lizards -- the future is in the past! I'm posting it a third time because it fits the theme of the... [Read More]

Tracked on July 31, 2006 5:45 PM

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