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Nanotechnology, Drones, and 3D Printing: The Future of Soldier Efficiencies in 2025
Carole N. House and John M. House
The Soldier has always been and will always remain the basic element of the U.S. Army. Soldiers define the Army and carry out every mission the Army conducts. Therefore, enhancing Soldier efficiency should be a cornerstone of capabilities development in the Army today and into the future. The importance of Soldier efficiency will only grow as a smaller segment of American society serves in uniform. Without capitalizing on technological advancements to improve efficiency, the Army runs the risk of having missions exceed capabilities because the number of Soldiers available will always be a finite number. Austere environments at a port of entry into a hostile environment will emphasize this need even more.
The need for Soldier efficiencies to improve power, speed, and understanding is clear. Several developments in the near future should enhance the efficiency of the future Soldier over that of today’s men and women in uniform. Soldier cognition, logistics sustainability, performance enhancement, and nanotechnology provide opportunities for improved efficiency over today.
Battlefield awareness or situational understanding has been improving since humanity developed a telescope. The ability of Soldiers to see farther and process information quickly will continue to improve thanks to unmanned aerial systems and information technology enhancements. Handheld or arm-mounted personal data systems will provide Soldiers greater access to information than ever before. While the original Land Warrior system never reached its potential, miniaturization of electronics and improvements in power will enhance the ability of a Soldier to remain connected to the mission command and intelligence networks that will overlay the battlefield. The Nett Warrior project, successor to Land Warrior, continues to integrate the promise of digital communications and tracking into increased operational effectiveness. Although Nett Warrior currently faces issues such as battery power and communications, increased battery performance and signal capabilities through the use of repeaters will only contribute to this system’s effectiveness and its future mass fielding by 2025.1
A recent media report indicated that DARPA plans to implant a computer hard drive in a person’s brain to enhance memory or to help injured Soldiers regain memory function.2 However, if successful, it does not take a great leap of mind to consider the possibility of improved network efficiency of Soldiers with the ability to connect with mission command or intelligence systems without the aid of an input device such as the eye. If instead of looking at a plan or map and having to derive its meaning a Soldier can simply have the information available on a hard drive, efficiency of operations order transmission and understanding should improve. Conceivably orders could instantly be in a Soldier’s memory without the risk of information loss or misunderstanding. The knowledge will simply be immediately available.3
A Soldier’s ability to assimilate directly into the Joint Battle Command-Platform (JBC-P) through Nett Warrior holds major implications for operational communications when augmented by the ability to integrate a human brain into mission command devices. Digital colloids, effectively shapeshifting nanoparticle clusters that could store up to 1 terabyte of data within a tablespoon of liquid, will gradually pave the way toward “wet computing.”4 The Defense Advanced Research Project’s (DARPA) neurosignaling technological advancements are already facilitating mind control of technology in 2015.5 Manipulation permitted by neurosignals compounded by the massive information capacity of digital colloids portends an incredible future interoperability between human brains and digital systems. In effect, by 2025, Nett Warrior-geared Soldiers will be experimenting with the ability to control such digital systems as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and communications through thought. Continued investigation into neurosignaling and bio-hard drive integration technology will most likely be in a developmental stage in 2025, preparing for future fielding into the general force structure.
UAVs are present today. Battlefield surveillance and precision strike missions are well known. Improved power capabilities will allow smaller unmanned systems to carry more sensors or weapons over greater distances and for longer periods than in the past. Solar and thermal energy harvesting and battery power enhancements (e.g. the use of carbon nanotubes and sulfur in lithium-ion batteries to increase energy storage and transfer speed) will lead to increased sustainability and redundancy of power sources, mitigating current time and range limitations of UAV sorties.6 Improved network capability will enable the individual Soldier to interact with unmanned aerial systems to a greater degree than today. When the individual Soldier can look around or over an obstacle such as a building or natural obstacle, then detect, and finally attack an enemy, efficiency will improve, as such Soldiers will be able to defeat an enemy while remaining in relative safety during reconnaissance and even exploitation by indirect fire. However, unmanned aerial systems will also play a major role in enhancing logistics support.
Unmanned systems in the air or the ground should be able to transport supplies in the not too distant future. Amazon.com and several other commercial industries worldwide are researching the possibility of using small, unmanned systems to deliver orders.7 If Amazon.com can do this, the U.S. Army should also be able to package supplies for delivery on the battlefield without having to risk a Soldier in a truck exposed to enemy fire and improvised explosive devices (IEDs).8 Delivery to exact locations with Global Positioning System (GPS) guidance will reduce the problems of large stockpiles of supplies and reduce the possibility of delivery to the wrong location. A robotics system using a GPS for navigation will negate the need for a Soldier trying to read a map while driving down a road at night and trying to avoid an IED or other type of ambush.
Larger unmanned aerial systems should be able to carry larger quantities of supplies and even potentially conduct aerial medical evacuation (medevac) without risking a manned helicopter. Issues remain with medical care while in transit, of course. Nonetheless, it may be more efficient to use a robotic system for a short-range medevac to remove a Soldier from a dangerous environment to a location near him or her where quick transfer to a manned system is possible with a reduced risk for the evacuation crew.
Another major logistics effect of UAVs will be the projection of voice, data, video, and digital communications in remote locations. Facebook’s Internet.org Initiative is currently working to provide Internet access to isolated areas through Wi-Fi-beaming drones.9 Over the next 10 years, drones will increasingly provide telecommunications access by providing internet capability in austere environments. The Army will be able to use this capability for mounted aerial repeaters to facilitate long-distance radio communications for initial entry, highly mobile patrols, forward elements, and even for isolated personnel.
An even greater impact on logistics support will come from 3D printing. 3D printing offers the advantages of speedy, customized production on demand in remote locations and with minimal waste products.10 As 3D printing technologies continue to improve so that a printer can produce a multitude of repair parts from a few generic materials, this will reduce the need to carry thousands of lines of small repair parts and even basic tools.
As long as the materials on hand used for the printing have the required strength and characteristics for the required equipment task, an operator could produce a needed part or tool on demand without having to wait for resupply. Inherent in this logistical transformation is a great amount of research and development by the Army over the next 10 years to assess and prepare every piece of equipment in the Army supply inventory for assimilation into a 3D printing-based supply system. This includes building a catalog of the digital design files for every reproducible item as well as testing the durability of each piece in its 3D-printed form. Such a capability would dramatically reduce time of delivery and greatly increase unit readiness and self-sufficiency. This sufficiency will also diminish the vulnerability of units to enemy attacks on their lines of communication. Combining such replication capability with small, unmanned aerial systems for delivery and repair parts will improve maintenance and operational efficiency dramatically.
Human Performance Enhancement
Besides increasing the efficiency of his mission command and logistical tasks, emerging mechanical and nanotechnology will continue to heighten the individual Soldier’s physical capabilities. Exoskeleton system development by 2025 will likely be in its early stages of enhancing human performance. Two current Department of Defense initiatives will drive the creation of this technology: DARPA’s Warrior Web program and the Tactical Assault Light Operator Suit (TALOS) for Special Operations Command.11 The Warrior Web program focuses on creating a flexible, low-powered suit that responds to physical stress and the user’s movements to mitigate chronic injuries and reduce the physical burden of the load upon the operator.12 The TALOS suit is more comparable to a human tank than the more subtle Warrior Web suit. TALOS is specifically engineered for a solution to protect the lead member of a squad who enters a room and is most vulnerable to small arms fire and explosives in close quarters.13
The ability to carry more weight provided by these exosuits will greatly increase performance efficiency in traveling long distances over rugged terrains with minimized physical hardship. Increased power to physical tasks combined with less need for recovery due to less physical stress and fewer injuries will help make each individual Soldier a kind of “superman.” Additionally, the suits will enable cognitive improvement by helping Soldiers to carry the electronic and power systems for mission command and situational awareness needed over longer distances than today and in terrain that is more difficult. Though situational awareness and battery power are major obstacles currently standing in the way to a working prototype, enhancements over the next 10 years in heads-up display graphical depiction, like that in Google Glass, and battery power will fix much of these challenges.14 Nanotechnology also offers some promising advancements in human performance in healing and combating disease.
The Army’s Institute for Soldier Nanotechnology (ISN) at the Massachusetts Institute for Technology (MIT) provides the opportunity for the Army to be at the forefront of nanotechnology development. Current initiatives include enhanced fibers and materials, medical care, physical ballistic protection, chemical and biological detection and protection, and integration of nanotechnology systems.
Capabilities in these areas will improve Soldier efficiency. Materials that provide enhanced physical comfort will help ensure Soldiers focus on their missions and not their personal needs. However, the most critical developments will be in survivability measures. Enhanced medical care will keep Soldiers on the battlefield when otherwise they could succumb to wounds or other injuries. Nanotechnology is providing scientists insight into functionality of human immune systems at an incredible level of detail to monitor the effects of chosen treatments. Additionally, the ISN is developing breakthrough Rapid Reconstitution Packages (RRPs) of lyophilized (i.e. freeze-drying) medicine and vaccinations that can then be stored for years in a compact, powder form.15
Nanotechnology has also led to incredible developments in wound treatment and healing. Carbon nanotube patches mimic organic tissue when placed on damaged human organs and encourage speedy and strong growth of new tissue.16 Nanofibers in gels used to fill wounds will help to maintain a good level of hemostasis and facilitate less traumatic healing processes, especially if the ISN is successful in using the nanofibers as sensors during healing to trigger release of helpful drugs directly into the body. Nanofibers will also be able to act as sensors as part of a Soldier’s uniform, providing basic vital signs and injury data into the established reporting infrastructure, perhaps the Nett Warrior system.17 RRPs and nanotechnology-facilitated treatment and monitoring of injuries will greatly increase first medical responder capabilities and greatly increase survivability against injury and disease during operations in remote locations.
Improved protection from blast and ballistic projectiles will reduce injuries and enable a smaller force to remain in action longer. Nanotechnology will enable construction of personal protective equipment and vehicle armor that control ballistic energy dissipation to a much greater extent than seen today. Bio-inspired protective joints will also provide effective defense against daily wear on burdened joints and blunt trauma in harsh conditions. Chemical and biological protection through nano-enhanced hazard material detection will again reduce injuries and enable Soldiers to continue to operate when others would have to evacuate an area.18
The integration of nanotechnologies will support the capabilities noted here but also should enhance the capabilities associated with Soldier cognition and logistics support. These same enhancements affecting materials should reduce the weight of systems that support improved cognition. Improvements in materials and protection will enable logistics systems to operate in hostile environments over greater distances. Augmented by formations of healthy Soldiers, the Army of 2025 looks to be one of strong individuals able to work efficiently in all daily Warrior Tasks and largely self-sufficiently for extended periods of time.
Technological enhancements in the near future if combined with innovative operational concepts provide the opportunity to improve Soldier efficiency dramatically. Whether in Soldier cognition, logistics support, or nanotechnology, the opportunities are close at hand. Integrating digital systems functionality, unmanned aerial systems, 3D printing, exoskeletons, and nanotechnologies into the individual Soldier’s mission requirements and capabilities will provide the desired efficiencies.
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13. Magnuson, 2015
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18. ISN, n.d.