Military Tech’s Trickle-Down Effect

August 19, 2015 by Jennifer A. Diffley

While focus in electronics is normally on the consumer and businesses, the military has impressive buying power and often uses its financial incentives to spur new inventions.

The next wave of technology may come from an unexpected source: the military.

iRobot recently announced the military had placed a $4 million order for the company's model 110 FirstLook robots, five pound compact yet expandable robots that "provide immediate situational awareness, performs persistent observation, and investigates and manipulates dangerous and hazardous materials while keeping the operator out of harm's way."

And that's great, but that $4 million is laughable compared to the $610 billion that the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute estimes the US spent on defense in 2014. That figure surpasses many times over any revenue from any tech company in the world, even Apple. However, the two aren't far removed--in fact, the defense budget, aside from standard fare like guns and ammunition, relies increasingly heavily on tech and is also willing to invest in niche inventions that may not be applicable to the general public but could be useful in military applications.

Consider, for instance, the military's AlphaDog and BigDog. Creepy load-bearing robots don't have much application in businesses or in homes, but they're certainly useful when lugging hundreds of pounds of equipment across hostile terrain. The robots rely heavily on sophisticated sensors and a hydraulic actuation system, but they're nowhere near perfect, which means designers and builders have a fully-funded arena in which to experiment and produce.

But it's not just robots. The military is heavily interested in everything from shape-shifting clothing to augmented reality. It's funding quantum computing experiments and big data solutions and IoT integration. Our military wants IED-proof tanks and tiny, powerful sensors and thin-film transistor displays and obscure technology that hasn't been thought of yet. And that's exactly why designers and builders should broaden their focus to include aerospace and military applications, not just producing fun wearables that live briefly on Kickstarter and then quickly vanish. 

There's another reason EEs should be looking at military applications, and it's a philosophical one: saving lives. If, for instance, technology were developed that could easily and safely de-mine entire acres in minutes, we'd have a solution for an insidious weapon that has been ruining countries for decades. There's already an anti-chemical weapon paint, so why couldn't that expand to technology that protects cities and innocents from chemicals, ammunition, and explosives? 

The military has billions of dollars waiting to be dumped into tech: it's a golden opportunity that could catalyze a safer, more advanced future.

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