With the United States stepping down from its war-footing of the last decade, one might think that our military’s R&D is scaling back as well. Not exactly.
DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, along with various military contractors are rolling out some of the latest toys for the big boys. And regardless of what your stance is on whether or not we should be funding these projects, you have to admit they are pretty damn cool.
Now from the same people that brought you GPS and the Internet, here are the five coolest gadgets that DARPA, the US Military and its private contractors are working on.
A few years back, China reported that it had developed “Carrier-Killer” ballistic missiles that could target American aircraft carriers in the Pacific. The US Navy developed a series of methods to protect against such an attack including the development of a surface-to-air laser weapon. This weapon has been tested both over land and at sea to bring down drones.
A laser weapon is much cheaper than a missile launched to intercept an enemy plane or missile, because the only cost to fire a laser weapon is associated with the energy used to form the laser. This development is concurrent with the US Air Force’s development of an Airborne Laser System which uses a series of different lasers to intercept and destroy ballistic missiles as they are launched. Other current laser development programs focus on the potential use of lasers in space to defend attacks on satellites or also take out ballistic missile sites on the ground.
- Microwave “Sound Gun”
This weapon relies on the use of microwaves to “inject” sound directly into an individual’s head up to 100 yards away. Since the microwaves would enter through the skull, ear-plugs would be useless to defend against it. Once inside the targets head, the microwaves would trick the inner ear into thinking that they are sound waves, thereby delivering a large burst of very loud noise into the target. Furthermore, the sound that is heard can be modified by changing the frequency of the microwaves. A large version of the device to be mounted on vehicles could be used as non-lethal crowd-control, while smaller, rifle-mounted variants could allow soldiers and Special Forces to fire “sound bullets” to incapacitate targets. Early versions of this weapon have been field tested in Iraq and Afghanistan.
- The Railgun
BAE systems, a British weapons manufacturer, is working with the US Navy to develop a railgun for new navy ships. A railgun, unlike traditional weapons which use explosives to accelerate a projectile, uses magnetic acceleration to bring a projectile up to velocity. What this means is that the rounds used for a railgun are just solid metal blocks. This eliminates much of the risk associated with storing traditional ordinance as, unlike traditional ordinances, these railgun rounds cannot explode even if hit. This also makes the rounds much cheaper to manufacture and brings the overall cost of each projectile down.
In a recent test by BAE systems, the projectile, traveling at Mach 10, penetrated a solid steel plate and then traveled 7km.
They Navy plans on mounting the prototype railgun on the USNS Millinocket, a Spearhead-class joint high speed vessel (JHSV).
Ultimately, the Navy would like the railgun to be able to fire 5 rounds a minute, at targets up to 100 miles away with an accuracy of 50 feet. We aren’t quite there yet, but the technology does exist and is getting better.
- Thermal Camouflage
Another innovation from BAE systems is a thermal camouflage system for tanks they call ADAPTIV. Considering that thermal imaging is currently used in a wide variety of weapons systems to identify targets, thermal camouflage can have a wide variety of applications. The system boils down to a series of hexagonal ceramic tiles whose temperature can be closely controlled.
By heating or cooling different parts of the tiles, the thermal signature of the vehicle can be changed to match that of the surroundings, rendering it invisible to thermal cameras. Or the thermal signature changed be changed to match one of the numerous pre-programed signatures including a rock, a tree, a cow, or another vehicle. Bottom line: they can make a column of tanks look like a mini cooper rally to a thermal optic. Check it out.
- Invisibility Cloaks
So just in case disguising a 70 ton piece of military hardware wasn’t enough, recent technological advances in metamaterials have allowed us to create invisibility cloaks.
These cloaks work by bending light around an object rendering it invisible to the naked eye. When we normally see an object we are merely seeing the light rays that have bounced off that object. If you can bend light around an object entirely, you can render it invisible. This is much better than previous attempts at an invisibility cloak which relied on a rear-facing camera to project the background onto the front of the object to make it seem invisible. Interestingly enough, this technology not only makes the object invisible to visible light, but also to infrared light while eliminating the object’s shadow.