Military research and development has a long history of helping both soldier and civilian alike. It’s sometimes obvious on the outset how weapons of war might repurpose into instruments of peace. Global positioning is a good example, though few could have predicted how remarkable the civilian applications would be. When the primary use of GPS satellites shifted from guiding ICBMs to mapping family vacations, the human condition was improved. Sometimes military tech is repurposed and applied in such a way that nobody could have predicted. Here are a few unexpected applications of military research and development.
Actually, you’d be hard pressed to name anything in your iPhone 5 that didn’t have roots in defense research. For example: The Unix operating system provides the foundation for iOS, the software that drives the iPhone. Unix is an offshoot of Multics, the key software system for the GE-645 mainframe. The GE-600 series was built by the team who designed the computers for MISTRAM, which is an abbreviation for “missile trajectory management.” That project was underwritten by the U.S. Air Force. (So yes, the iPhone and the nuclear annihilation of the Soviet Union are inseparable. But if it helps you sleep at night, MISTRAM also helped put a man on the moon.)
The name “Siri” gives away the game, really. She was built by SRI International. How close are SRI (formerly Stanford Research Institute) and Defense Department researchers? Of the first ten organizations to register something called a dot-com, SRI.com came in at number 8. (Northrop was number 6.) Just under a decade ago, the Defense Advance Research Projects Agency invested in an initiative called Perceptive Assistant that Learns, or PAL. The idea wasn’t far off from what Siri would become, and there were interesting potential defense applications. As John Pike of GlobalSecurity.org told Wired at the time, the military has to adhere to rigid guidelines. “But you look at all those field manuals they got, and, jeez Louise, there’s no way anyone could memorize all that… This could be the little man whispering in your ear, telling you what to do next.”
SRI took PAL and DARPA dollars and created a Cognitive Agent that Learns and Organizes, or CALO. The abbreviation is two-fold; it’s also short for calonis, which is Latin for “soldier’s servant.” Obviously, that never happened. But SRI recognized the potential for more peaceful applications, and Siri, Inc. was formed and an app was released for the iPhone. Apple didn’t waste much time in buying the company. The downside, of course, was that commercial featuring Samuel L. Jackson saying the word “hotspacho.”
2. Kevin Durant’s salary
While at Elbit Systems, Miky Tamir led the Electro-Optics division and helped develop missile-tracking technology for the Israeli military. Dr. Tamir went on to found the analytics firm SportVU, and applied that same missile tracking technology to the World Cup, and later, the National Basketball Association. The system works like this: Six small cameras are mounted above NBA courts, and record every movement twenty-five times per second. Nothing escapes the eyes and analytics of the machine. As Fast Company noted, “SportVU can tell you not just Kevin Durant’s shooting average, but his shooting average after dribbling one vs. two times, or his shooting average with a defender three feet away vs. five feet away. SportVU can actually consider both factors at once, plus take into account who passed him the ball, how many minutes he’d been on the court, and how many miles he’d run that game already.”
The result is the most accurate dataset in the history of sports. Forget watching a give-and-go in frame-by-frame in hopes of figuring out how it was done and how to prevent it. SportVU already knows. It knows, in fact, everything on everyone in every game, and can provide that information to the coaching staff almost instantaneously. In the years ahead, such information will almost certainly change everything from coaching strategies to player salaries.
3. Better football helmets
The good work done by military contractors and researchers in the field of prosthetics is shadowed by the sad reason why such advances have been necessary. But the landmark achievements of such men as David Beachler of the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center are transforming the lives of civilians. One fine example is the “crawling prosthesis,” which has helped infants born with disabilities that result in amputation not only lead normal lives, but experience normal human development, from crawling to walking and running.
Scientists, researchers, and inventors have learned a lot from this war. Traumatic brain injury is a major problem, and the U.S. Army has invested heavily in such technology as the Headborne Energy Analysis and Diagnostic System (HEADS), which monitors the concussive effects of blasts and impacts. HEADS, designed by BAE Systems, uses sensors placed beneath helmet pad suspension riggings to capture angles, acceleration, temperature, and force. Scientists can then analyze the data to design more effective helmets.
Traumatic brain injury is a growing concern to the National Football League as well. Following the suicides of Junior Seau of the San Diego Chargers and Dave Duerson of the Chicago Bears—deaths thought linked to TBI—the NFL has reached out to the army. The two organizations now share technology, research, and findings, with the goal of benefitting players on the gridiron and soldiers on the battlefield.
4. The Origins of the Universe
These aren’t great days for NASA. Budget cuts and mission creep have put a rover on Mars, but the shuttle fleet in museums. The Hubble Space Telescope is set to shut down in 2014, and crash into the ocean sometime thereafter. The James Webb Space Telescope might go up in 2018, but brave is the man who takes that bet.
Enter the National Reconnaissance Office. Last year a NASA administrator received a call from someone at the NRO asking if he’d be interested in taking on some old hardware. As NASA would soon discover, the space spies weren’t offering a crate of disused dot matrix printers. Rather, they were hoping to unload the equivalent of two Hubble telescopes—unused, with steerable secondary mirrors (for shaper images) and without Hubble’s primary mirror flaw. The gift has been described as game changing, and will save NASA hundreds of millions of dollars. Astrophysicists have already drawn up plans for this pair of “perfect” telescopes with “astounding” optics. They will be used to study dark energy, which will help unlock the origin and destiny of the universe—which is a lot more promising than studying silos in Pervomaysk.