Before long, U.S. soldiers may be wearing what amounts to a "second skin" when in combat.
A team at the Lawrence Livermore National Lab in California is working on new a military uniform that repels chemical or biological agents. Team members say the material will change quickly and automatically, when it detects dangers, from a breathable state that lets heat out, to a protective surface that keeps harmful agents from getting in.
"The uniform will be like a smart second skin that responds to the environment," said team leader Francesco Fornasiero, adding it could be fielded in about a decade. He says the uniform of the future works "without the need of an external control system" so soldiers don't waste precious time turning on the barrier.
The suit is made of a unique fabric derived from carbon nanotubes (CNT). It took years to refine the process and make CNTs practical. Today, the nanotubes are used to reinforce carbon fiber products in everything from bicycles to parts of lightweight ships.
This shows you how fast things are moving in the Era of Radical Change. Scientists didn't even know carbon nanotubes existed until 1991, when a Japanese physicist discovered them in some soot.
In the near future, we may all be able to wear such cutting-edge clothes to protect us from a wide range of hazards.
And wait "til you see what else we just figured out.
This Boeing "Bomb" Knocks Out Computers
(and Leaves Everything Else Unharmed)
The battle of the future just might be fought with… microwaves. That's right. These silent, invisible pulses of energy could soon help the U.S. win wars without firing a single shot.
What we're talking about here is an electromagnetic pulse (EMP).
The problem with EMPs in the past was, they often meant using a nuclear weapon. Once the nuke blows up, it sends an EMP out that kills all electronics in the area – cell phones, computers, radios, and more. That's a cool side effect, but, of course, you don't want to go around detonating A-bombs.
Now, however the Pentagon has shown it can launch an EMP without the nuke. It simply dispels a burst of high-power microwaves. Known as the Counter-Electronics High Power Microwave Advanced Missile Project, or CHAMP, the missile scored a kill in a Utah desert test when it knocked out all the electronics in a targeted room without any collateral damage.
Even the video camera recording the test died.
"This technology marks a new era in modern-day warfare," said Keith Coleman, CHAMP program manager for Boeing Phantom Works, which did the test. "In the near future, this technology may be used to render an enemy's electronic and data systems useless even before the first troops or aircraft arrive."
Think of the implications for our soldiers.
You'll Want These Snakes on Your Plane
British jet-engine maker Rolls-Royce wants to cut the costs and downtime caused by mechanical problems.
That's why they just invested in a new generation of robotic snakes.
See, jet engines are powerful and complex. They contain more than 100 sensors that measure things like vibration and temperature. When the devices detect problems, they transmit that data via special software. But we need humans to make those repairs, pulling the plane out of service in the process. It's a time-consuming method that can cost millions.
That's why Rolls-Royce wants to use algorithms that would find the troubles and tell the robot snakes where to slither in and how to make the fixes.
It's all part of a European research project dubbed Miror that includes other industrial firms that also need robots that can slide into tight spaces. Project leaders hope to have a prototype completed by the middle of 2014.
Here's Comes the "Biological Internet"
Researchers are developing genetically coded messages they can send from cell-to-cell inside the body.
A team at Stanford University devised a way to create what they call the "biological Internet" out of the simple M13 bacterial virus. See, M13 bundles genetic messages the team can now control and can use to send DNA messages to specific sells.
Team members say the system allows them to send more complex and larger amounts of data. The "Bi-Fi could lead to biosynthetic factories in which huge masses of microbes join forces to make more complex fuels, nextgen drugs and other useful compounds.
They're calling it the "Bi-Fi," a play on the term Wi-Fi for wireless Web access.
In the future, they say, the new platform might lead to complex 3D programming of cellular systems that could include regeneration of tissue or organs.
"The biological Internet is in its very earliest stages," noted Harvard expert Radhika Nagpal, who was not a part of the study. "When the information Internet was first introduced in the 1970s, it would have been hard to imagine the myriad uses it sees today. So there's no telling all the places this new work might lead."
U.S. Unveils a New Robotic Walking Suit
NASA has developed a new robotic "exoskeleton" for use in outer space – and here on Earth, too.
As the name of the device implies, the space agency designed the 57-pound robot "suit" to be worn over the user's body. Called the X1, the device sports six passive joints and four with motors.
It has two basic modes. One restricts movement as an exercise aid in outer space, and the other provides a boost to help the wearer explore planets. In the latter "assist" mode, paraplegics or other disabled people could wear it for help in walking here on Earth.
The X1 also can stream real-time data to astronauts and NASA's ground crews. Studies by The Florida Institute for Human and Machine Cognition, a NASA partner on the project, shows the X1 fits better and is easier to adjust than other exoskeletons.
That may prove true but a startup in Berkeley Calif. has a head start on NASA. It's Ekso Biosciences, and its bionic suits are now in use at 20 rehab clinics in the U.S. I first wrote about this firm back in May, and you can read that column by clicking here.
More from the Realm of 3D Printing
I recently told you about a number of breakthroughs in the field of 3D printing. This tech lets you turn blueprints into real objects by "printing" them, using special polymers and some metals.
Already, people are doing amazing things with them.
A man in San Francisco named Scott Summit just created the world's first 3D-printed acoustic guitar. He says the guitar sounds great but freely admits it isn't cheap. He had to use about $3,000 worth of plastic to make it – not to mention the sterling silver used on the headstock.
At this point it's more about this design expert strutting his stuff. Summit is now at work oncustom body partsand stylish prostheticsto be built using 3D printers.
Meantime, two University of Virginia students built a small unmanned airplane of great interest to the U.S. Army, which funded the feat.
The duo made a plan that has a wingspan of just 6.5 feet and goes 45 miles per hour. This comes as the U.S. is making greater use of drones. Five years ago, building a plane like this would have taken two years and cost $250,000. Using 3D printing tech, the students did it in about four months for just $2,000.
And finally, a firm from the Netherlands has opened what it hails as the "factory of the future" in the New York borough of Queens. Shapeways plans to install 50 advanced 3D printers to make custom-designed products.
The firm plans to open next January and hire a staff of 50. Shapeways will allow clients to print products using a wide range of materials from nylon to glass. Even New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg has joined the 3D printing revolution.
"This is the future of our city," Bloomberg said as he cut a ribbon to mark the center's opening. (He proved his point by using a pair of 3D-printed nylon scissors to do so!)
I hope you enjoyed October's Fascinations of the Month. And remember to share what's fascinating you by leaving a comment below or writing to me at email@example.com.
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About the Author
Michael A. Robinson is one of the top financial analysts working today. His book "Overdrawn: The Bailout of American Savings" was a prescient look at the anatomy of the nation's S&L crisis, long before the word "bailout" became part of our daily lexicon. He's a Pulitzer Prize-nominated writer and reporter, lauded by the Columbia Journalism Review for his aggressive style. His 30-year track record as a leading tech analyst has garnered him rave reviews, too. Today he is the editor of the monthly tech investing newsletter Nova-X Report as well as Radical Technology Profits, where he covers truly radical technologies – ones that have the power to sweep across the globe and change the very fabric of our lives – and profit opportunities they give rise to. He also explores "what's next" in the tech investing world at Strategic Tech Investor.