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The future of modern warfare may look like something out of a science fiction movie.

As enemy threats become more complex, scientists and engineers must come up with new, cutting-edge technologies that will give soldiers an advantage on the battlefield.

Government agencies—including the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA)— have fostered a thriving ecosystem of innovation. Researchers are working on everything from hardware that is resistant to hacking capabilities and reusable unmanned aerial systems that can be retrieved in mid-air, to new solutions that can prevent the next viral outbreak from spinning out of control.

Here’s a list of experimental prototypes that could someday assist soldiers in enemy terrain.

Chemical Compound Sensing

One unique advancement emerging is potential networks that can detect the presence of dangerous chemicals.

The Naval Research Laboratory recently demonstrated that atomically thin semi-conductors, known as 2D Transition Metal Dichalcogenides, could undergo a shift from semiconductor-to-metallic phase when receiving exposure to airborne chemical vapors.

The team exposed these films to strong electron donor chemical vapor analytes, similar to the materials found in nerve agents and explosives, and then monitored them for their conductive capabilities and optical response.

Results indicated the conductive response of the devices was halted after moderate exposure, but the overall magnitude of the conductance abruptly increased significantly that moment, signaling a phase change.

Ultimately, the data relating to the optical and electronic evidence of the phase transition could help engineer a new class of instruments that are potentially more sensitive than current models. This would help soldiers identify nerve agents and explosive compounds present in the battlefield.

DARPA is also working on an experimental system that could yield heightened detection capabilities for radioactive materials that enter highly trafficked areas.

The program, called SIGMA, completed a test in Washington D.C. in March 2017, where emergency vehicles equipped with specialized sensors drove around the capital in search of potential radiological risks. A total of 73 large detectors were installed in these vehicles, which logged over 100,000 hours of detector operation throughout 150,000 miles.

The sensors were not only able to identify in real-time thousands of radiation sources, but also distinguish between innocuous items like natural granite at construction sites and find lingering radiation after people had undergone certain medical procedures.

DARPA will keep testing and refining the sensors wide-area monitoring capability and help transition the operational system to local, state, and federal entities in 2017 and 2018.

Body Armor Breakthroughs

Providing soldiers an extra level of protection during combat is another area where scientists are coming up with promising new technologies.

Ann Arbor, Michigan-based Kraig Biocraft Laboratories is developing synthetic spider silk to create the next generation of protective textiles.

This silk is derived from genetically altered silkworms, as these insects were more docile than their arachnid counterparts. Using the altered silkworms, researchers were able to create material that was easier to manufacture, but maintained the same resiliency as the material spiders could produce.

Other notable attributes of this material, labeled ‘Dragon Silk’, is that it has elasticity of 30 to 40 percent while Kevlar’s elasticity is only 3 percent. However, one drawback is that Dragon Silk’s high flexibility means that Kevlar is more durable.

Last year, the Army granted the laboratory a contract worth an estimated $1 million to test a series of ballistic “shoot packs” to validate the silk’s potential combat capabilities. Additional funding was recently given to the company to continue development of its technology.

While this enhanced silk is one option for bolstering body armor, an Air Force Cadet made another novel type of body armor capable of stopping bullets of a variety of capacities.  

Air Force Academy Cadet 1st Class Hayley Weir was given epoxy, Kevlar, and carbon fiber as part of chemistry class assignment where she was tasked with concocting a new material that could stop a bullet, according to Business Insider.

Weir combined the materials she was assigned from class  using a KitchenAid mixer and utensils, and then placed the resulting mixture in vacuum-sealed bags, flattening them into quarter-inch-layers, and then inserting the result into a swatch of Kevlar.

Weir and her professor Rick Burke performed a series of experiments to keep refining the material.

Redoing the layering pattern made the material withstand a bullet from a 9 mm round, a .40 Smith & Wesson round, and a .44 Magnum round, reported Business Insider.

Stopping the .44 magnum round means this material could be certified as type 3 body armor, which could work for Air Force Security Personnel.

Building New Types of Bullets

Conflicts in different regions of the world can leave behind traces of debris and contaminants that can harm the environment years after the fight has been resolved. A similar effect can occur on firing ranges at military facilities as well.

The U.S. Army issued a challenge in November 2016 seeking an unconventional solution that could bypass this environmental risk— biodegradable bullets.

The goal of this Department of Defense brief was to find innovative ways to, “develop biodegradable training ammunition loaded with specialized seeds to grow environmentally beneficial plants that eliminate ammunition debris and contaminants.”

Technology from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory are at the center of this project. The organization has already demonstrated bioengineered seeds that can be incorporated into composites and will not germinate until they have been in the ground for several months.

However, a contract is needed to refine this experimental equipment.

The race to receive this contract is split into three phases. First, the selected contractor needs design a process to produce the biodegradable composites with “remediation seeds” so it can be used to manufacture 40mm – 120 mm training rounds.

Next, in the second phase the contractor will need to refine the fabrication process and manufacture prototypes that show the process is ready for industrial use.

Finally, in the third phase the contractor will need to coordinate with ammunition contractors to set a transition path for the technology to become widely adopted.

The call for proposals ended on February 8th, 2017. At this time, it is unknown which contracts were selected for this competition.   

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