Nanotech battle suits


In his 1959 novel Starship Troopers (the movie of the same name has almost nothing in common with the book–ignore it!), Robert Heinlein invented the idea of powered battle armor, which gave an infantryman more fighting power than a modern tank, protected him from battlefield hazards, allowed central command to locate him and monitor his vital signs, and even dispensed medical treatment.

The idea has become a cliché of computer games, but it’s always remained science fiction. Last week, though, the U.S. Army announced it is giving the Massachusetts Institute of Technology $50 million to establish the Institute for Soldier Nanotechnologies, whose primary goal is to develop a new battle suit for special forces that would “heal them, shield them, and protect them against chemical and biological warfare,” in the words of Edwin L. Thomas, director of the new institute.

MIT will collaborate with the Army, DuPont, Raytheon, and Massachusetts General and Brigham and Women’s Hospitals, to develop the necessary new materials using nanotechnology–the manipulation of matter at the molecular level.

The Institute will focus on six main projects: Energy Absorbing Materials; Mechanically Active Materials, Devices and Exoskeletons; Signature and Detection Management; Biomaterials and Nanodevices for Soldier Medical Technology; Processing and Characterization of Nanomaterials; and Modeling.

To which your response may well be, “Huh?” So in more practical terms, here are some of the ideas being floated around, and how they might work:

Fabric that can change from soft to hard. This could be used to create armor, or to turn trousers into a splint for a broken leg. If you knew a blast of some kind was coming–perhaps an artillery barrage–you could stiffen the fabric and crouch down inside a portable bunker. This could be done by creating a fabric with microscopic fibers filled with a liquid containing magnetic particles. When an electric field was flipped on, the magnetic particles would form long, rigid strings, turning the liquid to a solid.

Poison sensors. Linda Griffith, a scientist at MIT, has already developed a computer chip that uses living liver cells to detect toxins. Once the suit sensed that its wearer had been exposed to a particular poison, it could dispense the necessary antidote.

Materials that can change color. This could be in response to an electric field, so it could happen on command, or the suit could include sensors that would measure the light from the soldier’s surroundings and mimic it. Like a chameleon, the solider would then blend into the background.

Water recycling. The suit could save water from a soldier’s body and recycle it, so that the soldier wouldn’t have to carry as much.

Sweat sensors. By analyzing a soldiers’ sweat, the suit could get a good idea of a wounded soldier’s general condition and transmit the results to a medic before the soldier was extracted from the battlefield.

In other words, defensively, at least, the suit could do just about everything Heinlein’s fictional battle armor did, except for giving its wearer the ability to leap the length of a city block. (Currently, scientists are only envisioning special boots that would let soldiers jump a couple of meters straight up.)

The other difference between the nanotech battle suit and Heinlein’s battle armor is that the battle suit is focused strictly on keeping soldier alive, not providing them with more offensive power. However, as Thomas points out, “Imagine the psychological impact upon a foe when encountering squads of seemingly invincible warriors protected by armor and endowed with superhuman capabilities.”

None of the research will be classified, which means any materials developed will also be available for civilian uses–protecting police and firefighters, for instance, or possibly mountain climbers and other extreme sports enthusiasts.

Obviously such a suit will be very, very expensive, which is why its use, at least initially, would be reserved for special forces. Nor will it be in service any time soon. It could be 20 years before all the capabilities being discussed are developed, but some benefits are expected within five years.

The fact is, no one really knows what capabilities may be developed or discovered as the research proceeds. “There are some huge possibilities for some significant revolutionary advances,” is the way MIT’s dean of engineering, Prof. Thomas Magnanti, puts it.

“To build things from the levels of atoms and molecules up, that’s what nanotechnology is all about,” he says. “I’m convinced we’ll do great engineering and great science.”

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