Within three years, soldiers could begin testing futuristic devices that make them each "an army of one" by granting them unprecedented capabilities, such as the ability to see through walls thanks to advanced radar scopes and super-protection and super-strength conferred by high-tech armor.
Although some of the technologies could take years to reach actual battlefields, novel devices developed by the U.S. Army's Future Force Warrior initiative such as advanced sound equipment and smarter lasers should be available to active soldiers as soon as 2010, promising to make them more lethal than ever.
They'll also be better protected. For example, current armor can keep bullets and shrapnel from wounding soldiers directly, but they can carry shock waves to the body that can break ribs and cause other injuries. Improvements will provide a more protective 2-inch gap between soldiers and their armor.
Also, by 2010, body-worn sensors that monitor respiration, heart rate, and shock waves from bullets, will let medics know right away when soldiers get injured.
"They will also tell a soldier's distance and direction, so a medic knows where to go," said Jean-Louis "Dutch" DeGay, an equipment specialist at the U.S. Army Soldier Systems Center in Natick, Mass.
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The Borg effect
Soldiers will also get lasers to mount on their weapons to relay the location of enemies to everyone with whom and to which they are networked, ranging from other soldiers to Apache helicopters to Abrams tanks, DeGay explained.
"We call it the Borg effect," DeGay told SPACE.com, referring to the Star Trek cyborgs linked together to form a nearly unstoppable force.
Next-generation helmets for 2010 will also integrate electronics that pick up vibrations from the skull and transmit sound directly into the head instead of using traditional microphones and earpieces. They will improve soldiers' ability to discern varying sounds. "It doesn't matter if you're whispering or yelling, it can still hear you," DeGay said.
In the near term, other advances include enhancements to equipment that already seems futuristic, such as the Pathfinder Raven, a roughly 4-pound robot plane with a wingspan of roughly 54 inches-smaller than an average seagull's.Soldiers launch it by hand. It essentially lands via controlled crashes, designed to fall apart into pieces that are easily put back together.
The current version of this robot plane, called Raven A and loaded with a visible-light and infrared camera to deliver imagery to soldiers on the ground in real-time, has already found use in Afghanistan and Iraq. The next version, Raven B, will add digital zoom, allowing soldiers to spy on enemies from afar.
For the longer term, the government's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is helping to develop head-to-toe body armor that also enhances the strength, endurance and speed of soldiers using combustion engine-driven hydraulics that behave as artificial muscles. The idea behind these "exoskeletons" is to help a lone armored soldier carry a weapon that would normally take a crew to operate, such as a machine gun. DARPA will deliver prototype exoskeletons to the U.S. Army for tests in 2008.
DARPA is also helping to develop a radar scope the size of a large walkie-talkie that helps soldiers see through walls to locate targets.
The researchers are also working to develop a way for untrained soldiers to use sound waves to stop internal bleeding in combat zones. Internal bleeding requires professional treatment, and the time delay it takes to evacuate someone to a surgical facility can readily lead to death or amputation. The idea is to create a blanket or cuff that, once placed over the injured area, uses ultrasound to spot the internal wound. Afterward, high-powered ultrasound focused on the wound can cauterize it.
Smaller than the eye can see
Further out, soldiers might benefit from nanotechnology, which can yield gear with features just nanometers or billionths of a meter wide. At these scales, materials can take on unusual properties not seen in their larger counterparts.
The Institute for Soldier Nanotechnologies (ISN) at MIT is developing sensors integrated into battlesuits to detect chemical and biological weapons, as well as countermeasures against those threats when encountered. They are also working to integrate automated medical care into battlesuits, including splinting bones and CPR, and exploring the possibility of delivering medications such as vasopressin that will help minimize the risk of blood loss and hemorrhagic shock in injured soldiers.
ISN research may also lead to improved armor, perhaps made of a network of microscopic trusses, miniature versions of the triangular scaffolds used to support bridges and skyscrapers. Armor made from several layers of these micro-trusses should absorb energy from bullets, shrapnel or blast waves by deforming in a way similar to crumple zones in cars.
As electronics increasingly find their way onto the battlefield-in the form of night vision goggles, radios and GPS units, for instance-batteries grow increasingly critical and potentially burdensome. A special operations soldier can normally carry 70 pounds of replacement batteries for electronics, DeGay said.
As an alternative, the U.S. Army is helping to develop flexible, lightweight amorphous, silicon solar power cells laminated onto fabrics for use in making tents and other foldable surfaces that can recharge batteries. "Those are being evaluated right now for use. It's quite rugged, withstanding military use by military personnel," said Steven Tucker, a senior engineer at the U.S. Army Soldier Systems Center.
Other technologies soldiers will carry should improve them in less flashy but no less important ways.
For instance, the Military Free Fall Advanced Navigation System will help special forces and other soldiers parachuting from high altitudes find their destinations even when they cannot see them.
Soldiers often parachute from planes at high altitudes of roughly 25,000 feet so transport planes can avoid surface-to-air missiles. Popping their chutes at low heights-so called high-altitude, low-opening, or HALO jumps-can be risky, since they may not have enough time for the parachute to safely brake their fall. On the other hand, a problem with high-altitude, high-opening, or HAHO, jumps is that navigating one's descent to the intended landing site in the dark or bad weather is hard, and if the winds work against soldiers, they can land 40 or 50 miles off target.
The Free Fall Advanced Navigation System is disposable technology that fits onto a helmet and over the eyes like a pair of goggles. An attached GPS unit displays the correct coordinates in the parachutist's view. Currently researchers are developing prototypes.
"Hopefully by the end of fiscal year 2007, we can start procurement of these for the U.S. Marine Corps," said senior mechanical engineer Dan Shedd at the U.S. Army Soldier Systems Center.
Another lifesaving technology soldiers might see in the field simply helps sanitize surgical instruments so they do not contaminate patients. Doing so can often prove difficult in combat zones.
Instead of relying on bulky, heavy pressure cookers to clean instruments, research chemist Chris Doona at the U.S. Army Soldier Systems Center has developed a system that can disinfect a tray of surgical instruments in 30 minutes using chlorine dioxide, a chemical used to sterilize objects after the 2001 anthrax attacks. It uses no electricity, meaning it would be useful in rapidly mobile units, and generates little heat, such that it could be carried in a lightweight plastic briefcase and weigh in at under20 pounds.
"This system might also eventually find use in emergency response teams, community hospitals and humanitarian aid in Third World countries," Doona said.