Today is Memorial Day, and lots of people are are having to celebrate the holiday in dangerous places far away from home. Luckily, modern technology is doing its level best to keep soldiers as safe as possible, and future technology promises to do an even better job.
Here are eight up-and-coming battlefield systems that will, we hope, start keeping our troops even safer in the not too distant future.
1. Smarter Weapons
It would be wonderful if guns weren't necessary, but if someone's shooting at you with one, you want to be able to respond with something more effective than what they've got. The US Army is currently field testing the XM25 "Punisher" programmable airburst grenade launcher, which is capable of detonating rounds at pinpoint distances. This means that if someone's hiding behind something, you can fire over their heads (or through a wall) and set the 25mm grenade to go off above or behind them, negating the cover.
Five XM25 prototypes have been tested out in Afghanistan, and the only problem so far has been trying to get them back from the units who have them. Expect every deployed squad to have one of these by late 2013.
2. Super Vision
Seeing the bad guys before they see you is always an advantage, and soldiers can start looking forward to some futuristic new equipment that will allow them to see 360 degrees all around them at once, complete with overlaid augmented reality data providing mission-critical information and targeting assistance. Thanks to these new gadgets, not even walls provide concealment anymore.
3. Cloaking Devices
You don't need to see the bad guys first if the bad guys can't see you at all. While the Treaty of Algeron obviously prevents us from developing a true cloaking device, there are a bunch of systems in the works designed to make vehicles and people less visible.
The British are trying to use e-ink to camouflage their tanks, while a research group in China is developing an "illusion cloak" that hides things while simultaneously making them look like they're somewhere else. And if that's not crazy enough, for you, there's always that cloaking device that can remove you from spacetime completely.
4. Body Armor
No matter how fancy your technology is, if you're engaged in combat, there's a chance that you're going to get hit by something. Body armor has saved countless lives, but it comes with plenty of downsides, namely that it's bulky, heavy, and uncomfortable. We've recently seen new armor tech that tackles some of these cons, with flexible fabrics and liquid armor, both of which instantly turn solid when struck by a bullet or shrapnel. Still in the research stage is armor made out of Alzheimer's proteins, which promises to be twice as strong as Kevlar and completely transparent.
5. Medical Tech
DARPA is hard at work on new ways to keep soldiers alive and well on the battlefield. Genetically engineered blood can be produced in large quantities on-site using a compact, self contained system. Also in development are machines that can suck out your blood, scrub it clean, and then pump it back in. And eventually medics will be carrying around dermal regenerators that use inkjet printing technology to instantly heal minor wounds by covering them with artificial skin.
6. Active Protection Systems
While vehicle armor is getting better and better through the use of ceramics and composites and reactive plating, it's still usually pretty bad news if an incoming projectile scores a hit. One way to prevent this from happening in the first place is to use an active protection system, which detects the incoming projectile and then destroys it by hitting it with a counter-projectile.
We've had working prototypes of this kind of thing for a couple years now, including DARPA's Iron Curtain system that fires a projectile downward to defeat incoming RPGs before they can hit the side of a vehicle, and Raytheon's absolutely incredible miniature interceptor missile system called Quick Kill that should begin on-vehicle testing this year.
7. Electric Shielding
The British military is working on an ultra-futuristic electric force field that can physically repel projectiles, but they've also been working on a slightly-less futuristic (but perhaps more realistic) type of electric armor that can vaporize the molten copper jets unleashed by RPGs, rendering them defeatable by standard armor. The electric armor consists of two oppositely charged layers, and if anything gets through the first layer and touches the second layer, a huge jolt of electricity will instantly zap it into oblivion.
Why are robots the technology that can potentially do the most effective job at keeping soldiers safe? Simple: if you send a robot to do a dangerous job instead of a human, that human can go chill out somewhere else and not worry about getting blown up or shot at. Bomb disposal robots have proved their worth many times over, but the role of robots in active combat is expanding rapidly, from robot scouts to armed drones to ground robots wielding machine guns.
It's easy to joke about Skynet or whatever, but the point here is simple: when robots get destroyed in combat, they're saving the lives of humans.