The 20th century was littered with examples of military technologies that successfully made the journey onto civvy street. Jet engines, electronic computing, GPS and most famously, the internet itself, all were all developed in the name of defence, and later became parts of everyday modern life.
The forces behind that process were simple. The military was rich and willing to gamble on new ideas to gain a small technical advantage. Once proven, technologies get cheaper and shrink, making them viable as consumer tools.
At DSEi, the arms industry’s annual showcase in London, however, it is clear that well-worn route is becoming more of a two-way street. Military technologists now find themselves borrowing more ideas from the civilian world, and competing with more agile consumer companies at a time when defence budgets are being cut.
Autonomous vehicles are among the most active areas of military research at the moment. The United States has relied heavily on drones in its campaign against Islamic militancy, and views the programme as a major success. Generals and spies everywhere are demanding more robots, with greater autonomy, both in the air and on the ground.
The defence technology giants are pouring cash into research in response, but they’re up against a giant of the consumer web. Google is developing its own fleet of self-driving cars, and the work is advanced enough that it has prompted the state government of Nevada to change pass a new law to allow them on its roads.
BAE Systems, the Ministry of Defence’s main contractor, is also working on autonomous vehicles, ostensibly for the military, allowing them to act as unmanned mules or scouts for ground troops. The firm’s most recent innovation is LARK, a kit it claims can “adapt and convert almost any land vehicle to operate autonomously”.
Many of the technical challenges are the same as those Google faces, and BAE Systems’ scientists are well aware of the competition in Silicon Valley.
“I’d be interested to know what intellectual property Google have, because we’ve now got quite a lot in the area of autonomous vehicles,” says James Baker, the head of BAE Systems’ Advanced Technology Centre. “The commercial world is moving a lot faster.”
But strong competition from consumer technology firms isn’t necessarily a bad thing for military technology firms used to being at the bleeding edge and doing things from scratch.
“We want to use work by the Google’s of the world because they’ll make sensors and other systems cheaper,” Mr Baker explains.“I can get currently get a Mercedes sensor off the shelf for less than $1,000 (€724) that would cost us $200,000 to make ourselves. We’ll develop it and hopefully that technology goes back into the commercial sector.”
In a similar spirit of “open innovation”, BAE Systems recently gave one of its experimental Wildcat autonomous off-road vehicles to academics at Oxford University in the hope of boosting their research. Like Google’s, it aims to do away the main cause of accidents and traffic jams on the roads: human drivers.
General Dynamics, a US defence contractor, is also at DSEi showing ideas it has adopted from consumer technology. Its GeoSuite software is designed to be used by ground troops to log firefights and IEDs via a web-based interface. In anticipation the US military’s interest in smartphones for soldiers, the firm is demonstrating it as an iPhone and iPad app.
None of this is to say that the Next Big Thing will not be another military invention. Global defence spending remains more than $1.5tn and among the tanks and machine guns, DSEi is full of exotic technology that may find consumer applications.
Head-up displays, currently available in high end cars to show speed and other basic data, are now very advanced in pilot helmets, offering full video. Wearable, lightweight technology for infantry, including clothes that act as antennae and lighter, self-repairing batteries could give rise an array of innovations in mobile computing.
But lesson from the victory of the internet, which began as a small research project to create a resilient military communications network, is that the most revolutionary technologies can mount a surprise attack.