With the current avalanche of superhero movies hitting the big screens, it’s sometimes easy to forget that real battles are still being fought by highly-trained humans with regular human senses, speed and reaction times. But technology is coming to close the gap between fact and fiction, and it’s coming more quickly than you might expect.
As Finmeccanica – Selex ES’s Chief Technology Officer, I am interested in how defence equipment providers are exploring three human senses – sight, hearing and touch - with the eventual goal of granting super-human abilities to future soldiers.
- Sight - way beyond Google Glass. When you think of advances in soldier visual technology, you tend to picture Google Glass-style heads-up-displays. The problem is that these aren’t suitable for soldiers. In fact every solution today in some way limits, or hinders the soldier’s awareness of what is actually going on around him. Instead, what defence researchers are aiming for is more likely to look like a contact lens; providing the same visual fidelity as a human eye and weighing almost nothing. Notably, we’re already getting there - today’s screens in many smart phones and tablets, like the iPhone’s retina display, have a higher resolution than the eye can resolve. Once the technology arrives, soldiers will be able to overlay information like mapping analysis and friend/foe identification and even the camera pictures from remotely piloted air vehicles, directly onto their eyes.
- Hearing - multi-tasking for your ear. Already at a very advanced stage, enhanced hearing technology is obviously not about making things louder. In fact sometimes it’s about making things quieter, automatically compensating for gunshots and explosions to protect soldiers’ hearing from dangerous levels of spontaneous noise. But critically, ‘In The Ear’ wearable technologies such as the kind designed by Finmeccanica – Selex ES are about helping a soldier balance the range of audio information they receive, helping the ear to multi-task so that the soldier doesn’t have to choose between listening to his radio or hearing what’s going on right in front of him. To achieve all this, in the ear equipment will have multiple microphones per-ear and sophisticated 3D sound processing on-board. As the soldiers will be wearing them for long missions, they have to be designed for comfort too.
- Touch: an armoury of good vibrations. The sense of sight may seem an obvious ability to enhance - if you’re looking to improve a soldier’s combat ability - but touch might seem like an odd choice for the battlefield. However, there is one big benefit that the touch sense (also called ‘haptic’ sense) has over sight and sound; it’s processed in a different part of the brain. Practically, this means that soldiers can receive quite complex messages via vibrations without overloading the data processing part of the brain, which may already be dealing with a huge amount of visual and audio stimuli. This could be used during silent stealth operations, with soldiers communicating via codes sent between haptic-enabled tactical gloves and haptic belts could indicate the direction of threats or targets. There are even very early studies going on into making armour out of micro 3D-printed machines that could sense when they’re hit by a bullet and vibrate hard to counteract the bullet’s force.
These are the super-senses of the future that could save lives.
Find out more about MOD's Integrated sensing programme: The integrated sensing programme provides UK armed forces with an enhanced, timely and robust situational awareness capability across land, sea and air. This capability supports military effects through the integration of a broad range of sensor technologies.