Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Is robotics revolution the first glimpse of a fundamental change in human evolution?

Posted by John Keller

THE MIL & AERO BLOG, 24 Sept. 2013. Robots of one kind or another seem like they're everywhere these days. I note with interest, for example, that DARPA is asking Boston Dynamics to build an enhanced version of the company's experimental Legged Squad Support System (LS3) robot that eventually could provide soldiers and Marines with a mechanical mule that not only would help warfighters carry heavy loads, but also charge their batteries.

Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are becoming so commonplace that the FAA is hard-pressed to come up with regulations to enable these flying robots to operate side-by-side with commercial passenger jets in congested airspace.

There was a time when people would recoil in horror at the thought of flying robots sharing the same airspace as the jetliners carrying their families. Today, though, no one's really batting an eye.

Unmanned marine vehicles, meanwhile, are becoming a hot technology topic, as military researchers push a program forward to develop a long-endurance unmanned underwater submarine that would function as a mothership for other unmanned underwater vehicles (UUVs), as well as launch and recover UAVs.

On a separate front, medical experts are developing high-tech prosthetics with robotic capabilities for wounded warfighters. These robotic replacement limbs often are more useful and capable than the natural arms and legs that were lost in battle.

Historically, warfighters mangled in battle would beg doctors not to remove the damaged limbs out of fear of being a lifelong cripple, and of being forced to depend on the charity of others.

Today, however, it's different. I'm hearing more and more stories of wounded warfighters given the choice of keeping a damaged-but-patched-up limb or getting a new high-tech prosthetic device. In an increasing number of cases they're choosing the prosthetics out of the promise that they'll be better than ever before.

Human beings are more accepting of robotic technology than they've ever been. Wheeled and legged robots are becoming essential pieces of the warfighter's gear. Swimming robots help chart the depths of the world's oceans and gather data in powerful hurricanes. Ever-more-accessible UAVs are becoming a tool for spying on the neighbor's wedding reception.

Now, as humans start to accept the notion of robotic limbs to replace those lost in accidents, might this be the first glimmer of a fundamental transformation in human evolution? More to the point, will the typical human of the future be a combination of biological, mechanical, and electronic subsystems?

We've all seen the movies, but what used to be science fantasy quickly is becoming science fact.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Obsolescent parts: are we enhancing military readiness or creating a hollow force?

Posted by John Keller

THE MIL & AERO BLOG, 17 Sept. 2013. I've been noticing what seems to be a large number of military orders lately for old, obsolescent electronic components for potentially mission-critical warfighting equipment.

I don't know if this is out of the ordinary -- actually, I suspect it's business as usual -- but it's got me thinking about today's tight Pentagon budgets and how might influence long-term military readiness.

Over the past week or so I've seen Navy orders for 160 obsolescent PCI mezzanine card (PMC) Ethernet controllers that the Navy purchased originally a decade ago, as well as for 180 6U VME single-board computers, which first were introduced nine years ago and are no longer recommended by the manufacturer.

I don't fault the Navy for this -- quite the contrary. Navy officials have to keep the equipment they have functioning at the best possible levels of performance. Much of the military's equipment has been fielded for years, yet still performs the job adequately.

Oftentimes systems upgrades that can accommodate the latest generations of electronic components require costly systems redesigns, and there's precious little money in the Pentagon's budget these days for things like that.

Buying old parts to keep military systems in working order is nothing new. It's simply reality in a world where military systems must perform in the field for decades or longer, and where many electronic components are replaced with new generations every 18 months or so.

Moreover, the military's electronics suppliers keep parts available for their defense customers far longer than they do for their commercial customers. Keeping military parts in inventory for a long time simply is part of doing business with the Pentagon.

Still, here's what's got me concerned: as the military increasingly opts for buying old parts to keep systems working, rather than for systems redesigns, upgrades, and technology insertion, do we risk going into battle predominantly with decades-old technology that ages more as each day goes by?

Think about how quickly electronics technology advances. More to the point, think about the desktop computer and cell phone you were using 10 years ago, and how those devices compare and contrast with what you have today?

Is this really what we want for our fighting forces? I ask this because this is how it's looking to me. I know military budgets are tight, but are we risking creating a hollow force like we saw back in the 1970s before the Reagan buildup?

As our nation's leadership ponders the ramifications of tight military budgets, these kinds of prospects should be part of their decision making.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

For the high-tech warfighter, the future of electronics-laden uniforms is here

THE MIL & AERO BLOG, 10 Sept. 2013. The soldier's uniform isn't what it used to be. Not much later this decade, elite warfighters such as U.S. Special Forces could be wearing high-tech battle suits that offer flexible armor to protect against bullets and shrapnel, exoskeleton technology that offers super-human strength, heating and air conditioning to withstand the elements, wearable computers and displays, and conformal radio equipment and antennas for situational awareness.

U.S. Special Operations Command at MacDill Air Force Base, Fla., have approached industry for technologies that could be applied to such futuristic warfighter apparel as part of the technologies for a tactical assault light operator suit (TALOS).

For now, this integrated battle suit would be strictly for special operations warfighters who must operate silently and unseen behind enemy lines, but if successful and affordable, this kind of electronics-embedded battle suit could see wider use.

SOCOM officials envision a future warfighter's battle suit that not only makes broad use of embedded electronics, but also that generates much of its own power. the TALOS solicitation specifically calls out the need for power scavenging, renewable energy, and power distribution.

These technologies might include conventional renewable energy sources like conformal solar panels on clothing and helmets, but also newer approaches that can harvest electrical power from the action of a person walking, running, and jumping.

A future warfighter of this caliber might look like something out of Star Wars -- half man and half machine that takes advantage of electrical, mechanical, and biological entities.

Companies interested in participating in this program have until September 2014 to make their expertise known.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

New generation of embedded computing thermal management in development at GE

Posted by John Keller

THE MIL & AERO BLOG, 3 Sept. 2013. High-performance embedded computing (HPEC) designers may get a new tool over the next couple of years to in their quest to control the internal temperatures of increasingly sophisticated embedded computing systems.

Thermal management experts at the General Electric (GE) Global Research Center in Schenectady, N.Y., are working on a convection-cooling approach that reduces the size of traditional fans while improving cooling capability.

Designed originally with high-performance laptop computers in mind, the GE Dual Piezoelectric Cooling Jets (DCJ) technology may offer embedded computing designers not only advanced convection cooling, but also lower power consumption and higher reliability than traditional cooling fans.

The DCJ technology can be packaged into a cooling fan that measures 1.5 by 3 inches, and half an inch thick, while consuming 350 to 400 milliwatts, says senior GE researcher William Gerstler.

The advanced electronics thermal cooler moves one cubic foot of air per minute in a laminar flow. "It has a multiplier effect on the air it moves," explained Gerstler at last month's Association of Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI) conference and trade show in Washington.

The DCJ technology, which has been likened to the expansion-and-contraction action of the human lung, "creates a low-pressure area that entrains the air," Gerstler says.

The technology works with two piezo-electric elements, and so should last longer and be less susceptible to shock and vibration in deployed embedded computing systems than traditional fans.

This technology also could enable designers of rugged embedded systems to blend convection and conduction cooling in the same chassis to improve the performance of sophisticated digital signal processing without resorting to exotic thermal-management approaches like liquid cooling.

Companies interested in this technology may not have long to wait. Gerstler says GE officials are looking at product introductions that involve DCJ technology as early as 2015.