Tomorrow’s Soldier Today

Robot soldiers! Bird-sized airplanes! The Phraselator! At DARPATech, the military shows off its coolest gadgets.

ANAHEIM, Calif.—The decision to locate this year’s DARPATech conference next to Disneyland seems like anything but an accident. Packs of middle-aged engineers and military officers prowl the exhibit hall, stopping every few steps to gawk in amazement, just like parents and children at Disney’s Tomorrowland. Here at the conference showcasing the military’s most radical new technology, you can touch microsatellites, see plans for the next generation of Navy missile, and even practice on a flight simulator designed to illustrate the challenges of hypersonic flight.

Officially, the main purpose of DARPATech is business. More than 2,300 procurement officials, academics, contractors, and military officers spend three days meeting with top officials from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. Agency officials outline their needs for the future—such as a system of hypersonic flight—and hope that some professor or contractor will have the breakthrough that will make it a reality.

Unofficially, everyone is here to see the exhibit hall, where some of the coolest projects funded by the Defense Department—at least the unclassified ones—are on display. (Although DARPA does a great deal of classified research on things like ground-penetrating satellite photography, the classified DARPA projects are not here, and they’re not even talked about in the briefings.)

Don’t speak Pashto? You do now!

Some of the displays show DARPA success stories—projects conceived by the research agency that have actually made it into production. One example is the Phraselator, a brick-sized one-way translation device designed for use by U.S. soldiers in countries where they don’t know the language and don’t have time to learn it. Each hand-held unit uses an SD card—the same one used by many digital cameras—that store up to 30,000 common phrases useful for law enforcement, first aid, or war-fighting. To make the device work, a soldier simply says a phrase (such as “Stop at this checkpoint”) into the device, and a few seconds later, the Phraselator repeats it in the chosen language—Urdu, Arabic, Pashto, and Korean are available, to name a few. So far, more than 600 of these devices have been shipped to American units in the field—including 15 programmed with Haitian dialects dispatched with U.S. troops to Haiti. (Listen to the Phraselator’s Arabic mode here.)

A similar program under development is the Rapid Tactical Language Training System, essentially a video game that allows soldiers to learn conversational Arabic in 80 hours of training. Players learn by negotiating various situations, like getting information from men at a cafe, and suffer negative repercussions in the game when they get a phrase or gesture wrong. So far, the system has been tested on college students at the University of Southern California, and future tests are planned on students at West Point and soldiers at Fort Bragg, N.C.

Another recent DARPA success story is the unmanned aerial vehicle (or UAV). This concept began with collaboration between the government and model-airplane builders and has since matured into the Predator and Global Hawk drones now flying over Iraq. According to Gary Graham, deputy director of DARPA’s Tactical Technology Office, the agency wants to create smaller, cheaper, smarter UAVs: “I’d like a UAV that can fly in through a window; I’d like a UAV that can hover like a hummingbird or perch on a telephone wire; I’d like a UAV that can fly among the trees.”

A high-tech eye in the sky

Two of the aircraft on display in the hall can do just that. AeroVironment’s MicroAir Vehicle looks like a flying laptop with a propeller and is about the same size but carries a digital camera and can fly for nearly two hours. A slightly larger model is the Organic Air Vehicle, which uses a strong fan to keep itself aloft and can hover in place. In DARPA’s vision of the future battlefield, unmanned aircraft like these will swarm the skies, providing ubiquitous surveillance for commanders.

This exoskeleton helps soldiers take a load off

In addition to building better machines, DARPA also wants to build better soldiers. American infantrymen since the Revolutionary War have griped about all the gear they have to carry—sometimes more than 100 pounds. Enter DARPA, with the idea of building an exoskeleton capable of supporting this weight and providing a powered system of robotic legs to help the soldier carry the load. Researchers from University of California at Berkeley are showing off their Lower Extremity Exoskeleton, which straps onto a soldier’s legs and lets him (or her) carry a load of 85 pounds without feeling it. The Berkeley team has tested it and plans to have a fully functional prototype by December 2005.

Cool aid

DARPA has asked scientists here to engineer mini-food packets (dubbed “nutra-ceuticals”) capable of sustaining a soldier for days or weeks—something like the food pills eaten by characters in the Jetsons cartoon. These food pills are still on the drawing board, but agency officials said they might be ready for consumption in less than 10 years. Another way to build stronger soldiers is to help them train more effectively. AVACore’s CoreControl system does this by cooling the human body down during exertion. The current system, already in use by many NFL and NCAA teams and on display here, fits around the hand and cools the blood vessels in the hand. The cold blood circulates back to the body’s core and cools it down. The next step for DARPA is to build combat boots with this body-temperature-control technology.

The exhibit floor includes scores of less practical projects, too, from robotic dogs capable of independent movement to a hypersonic airplane that could launch satellites from 200,000 feet. Many of these ideas will never be ready for prime time, but DARPA officials accept that as the price of doing futuristic research. Hitting a home run like the stealth bomber or the Internet (originally called ARPAnet for DARPA’s predecessor agency) requires taking many at-bats and striking out a lot.