Robotic land mammals that are faster than the fastest man; human soldiers replaced by smarter, stronger robots; hummingbirds and flies as spies; the reality of the not-too-far-off future in top secret government technology is steadily becoming more and more terrifying. Here are 10 incarnations of military and technological imagination gone wild.
Secret Air Force Space Plane
Next month, the Air Force’s super-secretive X-37B space plane will take is third trip into orbit—and like its two predecessors, the government isn’t saying much about its purpose. Some speculate it’s a spy station. China says it’s an experimental weapons platform. Playing his cards close to the vest, Air Force Lt. Col. Tom McIntyre maintains, “The focus of the program–and of this upcoming mission—remains on testing vehicle capabilities and proving the utility and cost effectiveness of a reusable spacecraft.” Hmm...
Brazilian police plan to use face-scanning sunglasses fitted with state-of-the-art facial recognition technology to help authorities weed out potential troublemakers at the upcoming 2014 World Cup. The small cameras are capable of capturing up to 400 facial images per second and instantly transmitting them to a central database that can hold some 13 million faces. There the system instantly compares biometric data of some 46,000 points on an individual’s face and signals any matches to known criminals or people wanted by the police to the authorities.
Fake hummingbird spy drones
Last year the Pentagon unveiled a $4 million pocketsize spy drone disguised innocently enough as a hummingbird that the Army expects will provide intelligence on enemy positions in war zones without arousing detection. The tiny spy planes—which measure just 16 centimeters, weigh less than a AA battery, and can fly up to 11 miles an hour—were presented to Pentagon officials by California-based AeroVironment, already one of the world’s largest drone suppliers. Chris Fisher, project manager at AeroVironment explains: “It gives the guy on the ground the opportunity to see what’s on the other side of the hill. There’s only so much you can see with binoculars.”
Pentagon contractor Boston Dynamics is developing robotic pack mules that will give U.S. troops mobility through terrain too difficult for ordinary Army vehicles. The 800-pound four-legged robots (which still require another two years of testing before being put into action) are equipped with a smart camera system that provides the “eyes” to make decisions on the fly and “ears” to respond to simple commands. The Legged Support System (or LS3, as the project is known) can reach speeds of up to 28 mph and would be capable of carrying all the gear soldiers would require in combat.
DARPA’s and Boston Dynamic’s Cheetah
Also from Boston Dynamics comes another DARPA-funded project—the Cheetah, which recently set the fastest ever land-speed record at an implausible 28.3 mph, faster even than the human land-speed record of 27.9 set in 2009 by Olympian Usain Bolt. While the Cheetah is still confined to the testing treadmill, next year Boston Dynamics plans to release the WildCat, a faster version of the Cheetah capable of running free in the wild. Once completed, DARPA plans to use WildCats to deliver emergency response and humanitarian aid in areas too dangerous or remote for human intervention.
Microwave Ray Gun
Under a research contract from the U.S. Navy, microwave ray guns are being developed by Sierra Nevada Corp. that are designed to beam sounds directly into people’s heads at a distance of up to several hundred yards away. The device—dubbed MEDUSA (Mob Excess Deterrent Using Silent Audio)—exploits the microwave audio effect, in which short microwave pulses rapidly heat tissue causing a sound effect “loud” enough to cause discomfort or even incapacitation. While supposedly intended for non-lethal use in crowd control, future military uses for this type of technology are sure to arouse the imagination.
Pokémon inspires seizure gun
In recently declassified documents it was revealed that in the late ‘90s the U.S. military began exploring the development of a secret weapon plan that included a seizure-inducing ray gun, an idea first inspired by a 1997 episode of the cartoon Pokémon, which caused more than 700 viewers in Japan to experience epileptic symptoms because of the show’s rapidly flashing lights. The device was designed to blast the enemy with electromagnetic pulses strong enough to cause disruption of voluntary muscle control (a.k.a. a seizure). The Army’s interest in the technology has of yet not materialized (publicly, at least) but it’s probably a safe bet that neurological weaponry is sure to be on the horizon.
While international treaties currently in place prevent the militarization of space, researchers are nonetheless working on “defense” plans for when those existing agreements expire. Space-based lasers would be capable of attacking an enemy’s missile stockpile thousands of miles away or intercepting ballistic missile attacks on U.S. soil and/or orbiting satellites. Sandia National Laboratory, M.I.T., and a number of national defense contractors, including Northrop Grumman and Lockheed Martin, are among those developing the technology.
PETMAN by Boston Dynamics
The PETMAN, an acronym for Protection Ensemble Test Mannequin, was developed by Boston Dynamics supposedly as a robot intended to test out the clothing worn by U.S. military personnel. Though once you see these massive bipedal robots in action, perfectly mimicking human movement, it’s hard to not imagine that the robot apocalypse is imminent.
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Fly-bot developed by Harvard and DARPA
Not much larger than a lightning bug, this micro-miniature remote-controlled surveillance drone, developed by researchers at Harvard and DARPA, will be used to collect reconnaissance information in areas decimated by biological or chemical weapons. Other possibilities include espionage and the ability to sniff out chemical weapons. There’s no word on whether the military has already employed use of the Fly-bot as of yet, but the technology seems to be well ready.