War tech benefits civilians

Christian Science Monitor:

Although Hugh Herr was a respected professor at Harvard Medical School, he says finding someone to bankroll a new prosthetic knee project was tough before the Iraq war. He could get funding from the prosthetic industry, but government sources showed little interest.

But a year and a half after the invasion of Iraq, the tides turned. The United States Department of Veterans Affairs provided the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and several other institutions with $7.2 million to study artificial arms and legs for amputees. The money, along with key technological innovations, has helped Dr. Herr, now an associate professor at the MIT Media Lab, create a powered ankle and knee, the next generation of prosthetics.

“If you plot prosthetic limb technology versus time, you see a major spike in innovation after every war – except Vietnam … and this current conflict is similar in that regard,” says Herr. And since his latest research has implications for other fields, such as robotics, he hopes interest and funding will continue after the Iraq war ends.

Throughout history, war has presented unique challenges that have spurred and inspired the development of new technologies – inventions that may have taken years, or even decades, to evolve in the civilian market. After more than five years, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have begun to leave their footprint on science history, generating everything from thermal imaging devices to video-game-like training platforms that are already trickling into daily life.

The military has driven technology as far back as the Roman Empire. The Roman road system, for example, was originally built for troop transport, but civilians were the ultimate beneficiaries. The same could be said about Eisenhower’s interstate highway system, designed during the cold war.

“As war became so technologically dependent, a whole range of technologies became important and many of them had civilian applications,” says Alex Roland, a history professor who focuses on the military and technology at Duke University in Durham, N.C. “Each particular conflict, if it goes on long enough, spurs its own special kinds of development.”

In America’s current conflicts, concerns about overstretching the military have allowed for significant investment in devices that allow fewer troops to do more.In years past, soldiers on guard duty watched their base’s perimeter through a pair of binoculars. Today, many rely on thermal imaging. A system created by FLIR, an imaging company in Wilsonville, Ore., can generate a clear picture of an area 20 kilometers away in total darkness and through smoke or fog. FLIR has worked with the military to provide these systems since the 1980s, seeing a boom in business during each conflict. But nothing has generated business like the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Since 2000, the value of the company’s stock has increased by at least a hundredfold.

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Since 2006 the company has sold its thermal imaging technology to the public, making systems for boats and cars. Today, motorists can purchase select BMW models with one of FLIR’s imaging systems for an additional $2,200. Five years ago, the least expensive imaging device from FLIR cost $50,000.Prices have dropped in large part because of the volume of military orders. By introducing products to massive automobile and boat markets, FLIR hopes to keep prices low long after US troop withdrawals.

Back in Iraq, thermal imaging has been given an even longer range by attaching it to Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), another technology growing roots. Though autonomous drones have existed for at least a decade, battlefield commanders did not expect them as part of their standard toolkit until the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

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There is much more.

Wars have always generated innovation. They tend to concentrate the mind on solving specific problems while at the same time freeing up resources to solve the problems. The spin offs are similar to those from the space program which has provided numerous consumer benefits from Tang to Velcro.

One area where wars have produced the most innovation is aircraft. Each generation of aircraft have produced huge leaps over the previous. In this war it is the UAV. It is a craft still in its infancy. Attaching Hellfire missiles to Predators is equivalent to World War I pilots attaching machine guns to the front of their planes and throwing grenades out the cockpit. I think we will see much more robust attack UAV's as well as fighters.

We are already seeing civilian applications of the UAVs in law enforcement along the border and in cities. Expect more.

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