Army Exploring Nanotechnology
And Robotics
By Kelly Hearn
UPI Technology Writer

WASHINGTON (UPI) - The Army's first foray into nanotechnology is to develop an interactive and protective uniform for soldiers, according to Dr. Michael Andrews, deputy assistant secretary of the Army for Research and Technology. He spoke to United Press International on the Army's plans to use nanotechnology and robotics in the future.
Q. How much is the Army going to use nanotechnology, say, over the next decade?
A. The university laboratories have been making pretty good progress in nanoscience. And technology follows science. Until you understand the science you can't move into technology efforts. You have to have equipment to allow for the fabrication of materials and devices on the nanoscale. So we have to have a good characterization before we are ready to move into the fabrication and application state. We'll see progress in the field of materials, new materials and our new Institute For Soldier Nanotechnology will focus on soldiers' uniforms.
Our first step is to develop a uniform, using nanoscale materials to integrate electronics, computer devices and power supply. And for ballistic protection. For example, today if you want to stop a .45 caliber bullet you need about 10 to 20 pounds per square foot. Where we are headed with nanoscience and technology is the ability to stop a bullet with as much as two or three orders of magnitude less in pounds, something as thin and light as a piece of paper stopping a .45 caliber bullet. That's the potential. If we could drop this under one pound per square foot we've made dramatic progress. So, our mark on the wall is more than a factor of 10 drop in that ballistic protection. Also, we hope to get technologies into the marketplace so volumes will grow and prices will drop.
Q. And nanotechnology will be big in the area of medicine?
A. I believe so. At the nanoscale, materials might capture antibiotics you need and control them in a released form. You could conceivably inject into humans materials that release drugs or prevent infectious diseases. They could potentially move throughout the body to find problems and communicate back. Now you're dealing here with a timeframe of about 20 years, but nanotechnology has the potential to benefit everything in life from the field of medicine to the military.
Q. Regarding the field of robotics, what is your emphasis there?
A. We just kicked off last week five new programs, one on robotics, the others covering power and energy, decision aids for soldiers, displays and wireless communications. The robotics section has 15 industry and university research groups working in conjunction with the Army Research Lab, including General Dynamics Robotic Systems and Carnegie Mellon University, a leading pioneer in the field.
We are looking forward to full autonomy in robotics systems to do more of the dangerous work for us. We've proven that a robotic system can begin to adapt to terrain and make changes and to take alternative routes. We are also developing what I call a mule, which is a robotic vehicle that will trail our people and vehicles by following what I call virtual breadcrumbs or GPS waypoints. We hope to demonstrate such a vehicle in the next three to four years. It will follow other vehicles at a distance to carry supplies, missiles in a box or other kinds of fire systems you might want.
Q. What are some of the challenges of nanoscale science?
A. Today if you think about what's out there in the semiconductor industry, Intel chips for example, they make them using a technology known as lithography. That functions on the sub-micron level, or one-millionth of an inch scale. What's different is that nanoscience deals with one-billionth of an inch, about three orders of magnitude smaller. You are down into a few atoms so you are talking about building in a different fashion. The features are so much different. That's the catch. By assembling things on a small scale, you bring out unique properties.
Q. What other national military complexes are working on nanotech?
A. I know the Israelis have a nano center and France has centers they've already established, and there are probably other places we don't know about. We need to establish a leading edge to capture all science that's out there in universities and begin to apply it.
Q. And China? According to some news reports, China is investing in the area. Have you had any briefings on that or know anything about it?
A. I have not had briefings.
Q. Some have argued that nuclear, biological and chemical weapons were developed under the protective control of governments but nanotechnology, robotics and genomics, potentially more profound technologies, are being developed in the private sector where there's less control and arguably more opportunity for negative applications. Do you agree?
A. That's an interesting question but that's all it is. You don't control the private sector. The moment we attempt to do that is when we lose our ability to be on the leading edge. Technology progresses rapidly today mostly because research is pretty open but things get tighter as applications come about, especially in area of the military. We'll protect the applications as they start to be a problem. But you don't stop working in technology for fear of the future. Our intent is to develop technology to solve the nation's problems in the military environment.
-- Copyright 2001 by United Press International. All rights reserved.


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