If Army researchers have their way, future soldiers will move through battlefields wearing networked uniforms with built-in sensors, which will have wide implications for civilian products.
With an investment of $10m annually, the Army is looking to collaborate with a to-be-decided university to start an Institute for Soldier Nanotechnologies. This institute will incorporate cyberspace, as well as other smatterings of technology, into the clothes the men and women of the military will wear in the 21st century.
Nanotechnology entails the manipulation of matter on a molecular level, and holds the promise of the discovery of new materials with unique properties.
In addition to transforming uniforms, Army brass expect the institute to spawn technologies and products that will be embraced by civilians, said Dr. Michael Andrews, deputy assistant secretary of the Army for research and technology, and chief scientist.
"We want to provide a good level of capability for our soldiers that will translate itself into commercial use for police or doctors -- for those who may have to go into a chemical or biological environment," Andrews said.
Among other things, the Army envisions creating uniforms that will monitor soldiers' vital signs on a real-time basis and even send back images to commanders.
The Army believes that many technology-transfer fruits will be borne from the research into materials that will make the uniforms nearly impenetrable by ballistics, yet lightweight, and able to repel biological and chemical agents while absorbing oxygen. Even in the early stages of planning for the centre, Army officials are pointing toward the potential for networked computing benefits to society at large, such as the incorporation of biosensors in clothing that could constantly monitor people's health status, Andrews said.
Tom Kalil, former President Bill Clinton's chief technology adviser, praised the institute plan, and predicted that nanoscience investments by government will surely benefit society.
Such research, said Kalil, now an adjunct fellow at the New America Foundation, "could lead to technological breakthroughs as significant as the development of electricity, the transistor and the Internet".
"Clearly, there are military applications of nanotechnology," he said, "but there are also many more civilian benefits, and some that could have 'dual-use' benefits -- such as nano-engineered uniforms for police, or biosensors that could provide much earlier detection of diseases."
The investment in the institute will be one of largest the Army has made in a single university, said Dr Henry Everitt, a physicist and program manager at the Army Research Office.
The new institute will be "an important step for the nanotechnology research community", said Philip Kuekes, a computer architect in quantum science research who specialises in nanotechnology at HP Labs. "Right now, at the beginning of the century, the scientific community recognises a big opportunity in nanotechnology."
Kuekes said the blending of nanotechnology and clothing makes sense, given the computer's evolution from an "air-conditioned beast in a basement somewhere" to something people carry around with them. "I think it's an interesting area of research."
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