Defense Needs Drive Tech Innovation

From time immemorial, wartime technology has spurred peacetime uses. Take a look at what the Defense Department is cooking up now.

By Richard Sammon, Senior Associate Editor, The Kiplinger Letter

The Pentagon’s anticipated need for topflight advanced technology spells business for defense contractors, for sure. But many developments originally designed for military use wind up with big commercial markets as well. Check out some new technologies spurred by Defense Department demand.

  • Small, portable power systems. The Defense Department wants hydrogen fuel cells, about the size of a loaf of bread, to power very small hand-launched surveillance drones. They’re under development by Protonex, a fuel cell maker in Southborough, Mass.
  • Virtual piloting. Proxy Aviation Systems in Germantown, Md., is working on software to allow a single computer operator to simultaneously navigate, coordinate flight paths and communicate target and fire orders to multiple weaponized drones. Drones, in general, are an area of large government procurement growth, and Northrop Grumman, Boeing and General Atomics are banking on them.
  • Tiny video lenses. The military thinks a variety of tiny, ultralightweight lenses about as slim and flat as a business card would have multiple uses, including attaching them to the underside of wings on unmanned surveillance aircraft or to soldiers’ helmets. Southern Methodist University’s engineering department is working on versions that use hundreds of tiny lenses working in concert. Images from the lenses are merged to provide single high quality video.
  • Durable blimps. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is moving ahead with plans for a solar powered surveillance dirigible -- the size of a football field -- designed to stay in orbit 12 miles above Earth for up to a year. The goal: A fleet of such blimps, each capable of keeping an eye on several hundred miles of land, in operation in 2013. The military anticipates future generations of blimps later that decade. They would be able to stay aloft continuously for several years -- perhaps as long as a decade -- and would be used as radar detection stations.
  • Satellites using infrared spectrometry. United Technologies and General Dynamics are working with the Air Force on the use of such imaging to detect vehicles hidden under foliage, enemy troops in camouflage and even roadside bombs.
  • Data mining. Ever more sophisticated software to collect, analyze and prioritize streams of electronic data from drones, cell phones, satellites, radar, Internet postings, radar and more is in the works. Melbourne, Fla.-based Modus Operandi is taking the lead.