U.S. warfighters soon may power their battlefield electronics with a lightweight water-based fuel cell system. Consisting of thin metal alloy plates soaking in salt water, the technology allows soldiers to replace heavy disposable batteries with lightweight rechargeable ones. Because the devices have no moving parts and are made of readily available materials, they may provide troops with a simple and robust reserve or primary power supply.
science and technology
One year after surviving the year 2000 problem, computer users may be blessed with huge leaps in processing speeds and capabilities. Researchers at semiconductor manufacturers are developing new generations of chips that, in just three years, will offer 15 times as many transistors and compute several times as fast as today's models.
An experimental radio technology may provide a more efficient means of alleviating bandwidth congestion in wireless communications. Operating at lower power than most radio devices, time-modulated ultrawideband technology fuses communications, radar and tracking capabilities into one piece of hardware that can deliver improved performance while remaining compatible with most legacy and commercial off-the-shelf systems.
Semiconductor designers are increasing their dependence on computer-aided design and testing to advance microcircuitry beyond the current state of the art. Demand for more and more complex chips has necessitated taking design out of the hands of engineers and into the realm of cyberspace.
Researchers are demonstrating that good things, in the form of useful amounts of power, can come in small packages. At the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, researchers have been able to produce power with a generator approximately the size of a dime. The device, called a microgenerator, is one aspect of a project to create a microengine that weighs less and lasts longer than batteries used by soldiers in the field today.
Improved complementary metal-oxide semiconductor imaging technology allows entire video cameras to be integrated on a single chip, promising decreases in the price, complexity and size of cameras. Until recently, the image quality produced by these types of cameras has been less than ideal; however, the advent of active-pixel chips indicates that advancements in this arena not only are on the way, but also have arrived and are increasing practical applications of the technology.
Extreme ultraviolet lithography, a technology being developed by a consortium of U.S. national laboratories and the semiconductor industry, is a strong contender to produce new generations of computer chips with features perhaps as small as 30 nanometers.
A radical approach to semiconductor fabrication may soon lead to supercomputers the size of wristwatches. Scientists are developing logic gates based on molecular oxidation that could allow these building blocks of computers to be constructed of only a few molecules.
New production methods allow constructing semiconductors capable of operating at a fraction of the power of existing devices while delivering comparable or superior performance. These new technologies could lead to extremely efficient electronic devices, from handheld computers to tactical radios and missile warheads. The potential also exists for increased processor speeds in both military and civilian communications and computing applications.
Microprocessors capable of operating at extremely low power levels will soon fly in a variety of spacecraft. Radiation hardened in a novel process that allows them to be produced in existing facilities, the chips will play a role in future near-earth and deep-space missions. Moreover, the technology presents potential applications beyond aerospace circles, especially in battery-powered communications devices, sensors and portable electronics.
A research pipeline between biologists and engineers has led to a new class of microrobotics, spawning a paperclip-sized mechanical flying insect that will weigh one-tenth of a gram and will measure 1 inch from wing tip to wing tip. The result will be applied in search and rescue missions, mine detection and even planetary exploration.
The military may be moving toward the massive Global Information Grid, but interest also is growing in networks that feature lilliputian qualities. Research that began in the mid-1990s is starting to bear fruit in the form of networking nodes that are scarcely the size of a postage stamp. Sometimes referred to as "smart dust" or "motes," these miniature networking nodes can be integrated with a variety of sensors to then pass on the information that is gathered to the people who need it.
Researchers are developing shape-shifting robots that can climb obstacles, drop down cliffs and fit into tunnels. Small, individual modules link to form a system that can take a multitude of shapes to travel over varied terrain. Two distinctly different designs could allow military and first responder personnel to reach past obstructions into previously inaccessible areas while remaining at a safe distance.
Researchers are taking optics to new levels by developing the architecture, components and prototype systems for all-optical packet routing that can send and receive up to 100 terabits of data every second. The research is based on the premise that photons can do more than just carry a signal from one point to another; they also can facilitate extremely high-speed switching.
It takes a lot of brains to develop new technologies, and one U.S. Navy project is capitalizing on another type of brainpower. Navy researchers are examining work conducted jointly by the New York University Medical School and Russia's Nizhny Novgorod State University and Institute for Applied Sciences that uses brain activity as the model for controlling movement in unmanned undersea vehicles. The advances culled from this research could support better designs for autonomous underwater vehicles that could hunt mines, deliver and retrieve sensors, track ship movement or gather plume samples.
Researchers at a national laboratory have discovered a way to construct microelectrical systems using magnetic fields to arrange internal structures. The technology already is opening the door to breakthroughs in sensor and magnetic identification systems, and yet-undiscovered capabilities such as realistic artificial limbs and more esoteric applications may lie on the horizon.
A research and development organization originally created to boost economic development in North Carolina is now providing cutting-edge technologies to the U.S. Defense Department. Areas of exploration range from information assurance to sensors to ultrahigh-speed communications. Many of the projects will facilitate intelligence gathering and directly support warfighters.
Advances in miniaturization, integration and energy management show that a complete wireless sensor/communication system can be merged into a package the size of a grain of sand and networked. Applications are far-reaching-from military sensor networks to industrial quality control.
What began accidentally could be the foundation for a revolutionary approach to optical data storage. By enhancing and controlling fluorescence exhibited by nanoparticles, scientists can rapidly switch the particle colors on and off, creating robust nanoscopic storage elements that can pack a large amount of data in a small amount of space.
An experimental hybrid technology that combines both laser and radio frequency communications into a single system may soon provide warfighters with robust, high-bandwidth data networks. Software protocols will allow nodes in these networks to switch automatically between the two transmission modes based on the type of message sent and on prevailing atmospheric conditions.