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.
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.
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 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.