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The Military’s Effect on Technology

Posted on May 29, 2006

This memorial day I found my thoughts drifting to war and how it has shaped the world in which we live. America, the land of opportunity, was born out of a war. Americans then went forward and fought wars to end tyranny across the globe and to liberate other people from oppression. My grandfather was one of those Americans. He served in the Air Force during WWII and I am forever grateful for his sacrifice. It, along with the sacrifices of others, has allowed us to live our lives as free people and pursue what we love. War also yields advances in technology. These advances in technology have affected our daily lives in ways we may not even know. Let’s explore some of the ways military technology affects our daily lives and what military technology may shape our future.

Most of us don’t think about jet engines much today. However, they power a lot of what we do. They make the world smaller and that has certainly helped move the global economy further along. It is not uncommon now for businesses to start working internationally right from the get go and jet aircraft certainly make the essential face to face meetings possible. Jet engines took off, so to speak, in the 11th century. The technology was pioneered by the Chinese who initially used rockets to propel fireworks but quickly moved to using the technology to propel weapons. Moving forward in time to WWII, the Germans and Japanese began using jet engines on airplanes to overcome propeller efficiency issues – propeller efficiency began to level off as the blades moved closer to the speed of sound – and the planes they developed, while crude, were seen as the future of aviation. After the war, engineers began to devote more time to the jet engine concept and, while producing some fantastic aircraft for the military, began to produce more and more civilian jet aircraft which have definitely changed our lives (this was a brief history of jet engine development – please see wikipedia for more detailed information).

Another piece of military technology that has significantly altered the way we live is, you guessed it, the internet. The internet started out as a project put together by the newly formed Defense Advanced Research Products Agency, or DARPA. DARPA was formed as a way for the Unites States to regain the technical lead over the USSR who had recently launched Sputnik. The fruits of DARPA’s hard work, ARPANET, launched on October 29, 1969 and we have never looked back since. In the early 1990s the growing (mostly academic) network gained a public face called the World Wide Web which was ushered along through Tim Berners-Lee’s developments of HTML and HTTP. Shortly after the emergence of the World Wide Web researchers at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign created the first mosaic web browser, what would eventually be called Netscape, which gave the public an easy way to navigate the WWW and ushered in the information age.

Those are just two of the many technologies spawned by the military the ended up affecting our daily lives in significant ways. The military is still developing new technologies to help our troops and defend our freedom. Some of these technologies are also likely to change the way in which our daily lives unfold. The two technologies that I will explore are mesh networks and nanotechnology enabled photovoltaic cells.

Mesh networking is a fascinating concept. Essentially, mesh networks will allow you to group sensors together in an efficient way to gather data about the physical world in ways never thought possible. Mesh networks also have the ability to configure themselves and heal broken connections. The main company in this space right now is Dust Networks, a venture backed company that counts the governments VC fund, In-Q-Tel, as one of its investors.

The military is behind the idea of mesh networks because it will allow for easy to set-up distributed systems that can reliably inform soldiers of perimeter breaches by the enemy and give them essential battlefield data on widespread areas without putting soldiers in harms way. The data they can retrieve will allow the soldiers to make crucial decisions that will save lives. Mesh networking also has many uses in our everyday lives.

The main application today allows mesh networks to be set up at various points in an assembly line and in complex machinery. The network is then able to inform workers quickly and efficiently of anything that is going wrong or not performing. Mesh networks can also be helpful in building automation. Temperature controls, lighting controls, environmental modeling, and security systems can all be controlled more efficiently through mesh networks. The mesh networks that Dust Networks is creating will allow both soldiers and civilians more control over their environments which will lead to lives saved and energy costs reduced.

Energy reduction through mesh networks is important as our energy consumption is far too high. Scientists are constantly looking for ways to reduce energy cosumption and to create “green” ways to generate energy. One green energy generator is the sun. We can harness the energy of the sun through photovoltaic cells, more commonly referred to as solar panels. Solar panels have been around for a long time but they are hard to implement. You need a very large area of cells to generate a meaningful amount of energy and the solar cells are not easy to transport. Enter Konarka.

Konarka is a Lowell, Massachusetts based company that is using nanotechnology to create what they call “power plastics.” Essentially they have figured out how to make efficient solar cells that are also flexible and easy to transport. Their cells can also be colored or patterned to suit customer needs and the colors and patterns do not affect the efficiency or flexibility of the cells.

Konarka’s solar technology is of great interest to the military who has already started working with Konarka to develop portable solar cells for their soldiers as well as portable camouflage electricity producing buildings ($1.6mm contract). The solar cells will help soldiers power battlefield laptops and communications systems while the portable solar barracks will allow the military to have more range as they will no longer need to be near a power source. These portable solar cells will also help civilians manage their essential electronic devices. Forgot to charge your cell phone, blackberry, iPod, and laptop? Not to worry! You can just pull out your ultra thin Konarka solar panel, unfold it, plug it in to your device and, assuming you are in the sun, it will begin charging up. I know I would love to get one of these cells as I tend to forget to charge my cell phone at times. Konarka’s overall goal is to eventually be able to take anything that exists today and allow it to create energy. Who knows, someday the walls of your house may be generating your energy.

Well, I hope you have enjoyed this (very brief) look into military technology and how it has and will change our lives going forward. It has been fun to look back on and into the future of technology as well as to reflect on the great sacrifice our soldiers make everyday to keep us free and able to create fun technology and new companies. If you know a soldier or see one on the street go ahead and thank them for everything they do and, while you’re at it, why not ask them about any cool technologies they have been using. You never know, it may end up in your hands in the not to distant future.

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3 Comments so far
  1. ankit shukla July 28, 2006 5:42 am

    being an automation & electronics analyst, i totally agree to eric’s point..d demand for state-of-the-art technology in military applications has augmented developments in technologies related to our is sad what war brings wid itself n only d dead see the end of a war..however, technology n in a lot of regards we have benefited from tis mayhem !!

  2. Sergeant S.W. Foster March 20, 2007 3:57 pm

    Great article! I have often thought that very same thing but have never read something on it.

    Sergeant S.W. Foster
    US Army
    Cedar Rapids, Iowa

  3. Eric Olson March 20, 2007 4:22 pm

    Thank you for the kudos on the post Sergeant Foster and thank you so much for serving our country. You along with all service men and women do such a service for this country.