Friday, January 12, 2007

Military Nanotechnologies

In November 2003, I interviewed Professor Ned Thomas, Director of the Institute for Soldier Nanotechnologies (ISN).

The importance of what he said then bears review again, today.

Here is an excerpt:

RR: What are the greatest challenges facing the creation of the products necessary for the "soldier system of the future?"

NT: Basic research is the forte of universities, and I think MIT is a pretty good one to do basic science and engineering, and to come up with breakthrough discoveries. But that isn't something a soldier can use - that's a discovery, it's a proof-of-concept. So we have industrial partners, and the way that ISN is structured is that we have a number of industry partners that were chosen because of their portfolio of technical abilities and manufacturing capabilities which complement our basic research capabilities.

The customer is the Army - really the individual soldier. So how do you get this guy something that he can wear and break, and come back and tell you "I like it, but make it do this, and make it less that." So you need to be able to make some prototypes and so forth. Universities don't build prototypes and we don't manufacture anything - that's industry stuff. So we have a number of industrial partners - Raytheon and DuPont are two of the big ones who know how to make stuff. Raytheon, for example, is a systems-integrator, so if you think about the soldier as a system, that's the right way to do it, not to think of them as a Christmas tree, where each thing you give them is a separate system. When you hand them this radio and it weighs 20 pounds, nobody thinks much about "How does that affect the rest of what he takes?"

If you're working on an airplane, and you come up with a new design for a landing gear, and you change the weight of the plane by 20 pounds, everybody cares. The avionics guys, the hydraulics guys, the power guys, the fuel guys, all of those guys say "Whoa, whoa, whoa! A 20 pound change in the weight of the plane - why are you doing that? It's affecting me!" So they see it as an integrated system, where any change, anywhere, affects everything. So of course that happens to the soldier too - the guy is affected by whatever you do to him, but nobody much thought about it that way. They would say "Here's a cool thing, carry this," and actually the guy has to carry either this, or he drops something else - he has to make choices. So integrating it, and trying to make all these different capabilities work together, can (help them to) take advantage of one another - they're synergistic rather than antagonistic. This is kind of the over-arching big view of how you pull this all together, and that's a huge challenge, because people like to go off and do their thing, and come up with a great new tool, like a medical monitor. And medical monitoring would be wonderful if you think of the civilian-side uses. When Grandma gets old, she doesn't have to go into the nursing home, she can stay at home, and her bodily functions and physiological conditions are monitored and wirelessly communicated back to some monitoring station that says "Glucose levels too low - Grandma needs to take her medication." So you send her an email to remind her. Or maybe if she's incapacitated you send a nurse to her home and to take care of her. So having an ability to monitor physiological status would be terrific.

Imagine all those guys that went into the World Trade Center, and knew where every one of them was all the time and what condition they were in. Then you know which guys you can rescue, which guys are still alive, etc. That's unbelievably valuable for fire and police and first-responders. Now, at the same time that you are doing this, supposing that all this wireless cool stuff is giving away their position - if you're a soldier, you don't want to be broadcasting "I'm over here!" - it's not just about physiological monitoring, its all these other things that have to be optimized at the same time." So it's back to the airplane-metaphor - yeah it's a great new landing gear, but how does that help us with our fuel and other issues relating to flying the plane?

Read the entire interview here

MIT's Institute for Soldier Nanotechnologies (ISN)

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