Homing bullets, force fields and control over fear — and that's just the beginning. The soldier of the future will be a technological marvel.
This year, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency unveiled a grocery list of technologies they want to fund in the near future. A lot of them, like controlling anxiety, lowering blood pressure and terraforming Mars, would improve humanity at large. But since DARPA is a branch of the Department of Defense, the projects it funds often show great potential in the military world. In development right now are several technologies that would advance warfare and revolutionize physical combat. Here are just a few.
1. Their armor could resist extreme heat.
Researchers from Purdue University's School of Aeronautics and Astronautics recently published a paper investigating why some shrimp, like Pandalus platyceros, stick to shallow waters, and others, like Rimicaris exoculata, can live a mile beneath the ocean surface in volcanic hydrothermal vents, where the temperature gets up to 750 degrees Fahrenheit.
"We're already pretty effective at killing the shit out of people," a retired combat medic told Mic.
Through their research, the Purdue team discovered the molecular behavior at work in the deep sea shrimps' exoskeletons could be used to design synthetic armor "capable of withstanding environmental extremes."
There aren't a lot of occasions in which soldiers need to be hiding in a hydrothermal vent. But it could mean resisting extreme cold, building armor to handle sweltering temperatures or keeping soldiers from fatiguing after long hours on the ground.
2. They could resist illnesses that haven't been discovered yet.
When soldiers go overseas to join their new base of operations, they aren't expecting diseases and viruses to be what takes them out of action. That's why DARPA's Col. Matt Hepburn wants technology that can make soldiers "agnostic to the pathogen," as he calls it.
The program Technologies for Host Resilience (THoR) would discover ways to make hosts resistant to known illnesses, such as Ebola and malaria. But that technology could also expand to diseases that aren't documented anywhere. Using the same approach, it could arguably be a means of resisting biological warfare.
3. They'll be able to turn off their fear.
DARPA program manager Doug Weber presented a challenge in June: Use bioelectric medicine to turn on or turn off the body's nervous system reactions to certain effects. On the easy end, that could mean lowering blood pressure and cholesterol. On the more difficult, but still plausible end, it could mean turning down adrenal response, effectively limiting or even shutting down a soldier's fear in stressful circumstances.
"That would be especially useful for our war fighters who have to deal with very stressful environments," Weber told Mic in June. "PTSD has a sequelae of anxiety disorders that fall from it. So instead of having to take a medication, we could use the body's internal circuitry to regulate stress levels. It would be a game changer."
4. They'll shoot bullets that can chase down enemies.
In February, DARPA demonstrated a "self-steering" bullet that could increase the rate of hitting moving targets — even by novice shooters. The EXACTO rounds used a "real-time optical guidance system" to track a target, even as it changes locations. But instead of doing this the way a trained sniper might, shooting where the subject was going, the bullet makes these corrections automatically. That could mean more generalist soldiers, not needing to bring in specialists like snipers to handle difficult shots over long distances with a mobile adversary.
5. They'll carry enormous weight using exoskeleton suits.
A 2015 Center for New American Security report said current versions of exosuits, which allow wearers to handle heavy weight with electronic assistance, would be best utilized on Navy ships. But as the technology improves to utilize lighter batteries and motors, it could be used for ground units of soldiers who need to carry extremely heavy loads on foot. A soldier wearing an exosuit might even be able to carry a 100-pound machine gun like the Browning M2 on foot, instead of needing a vehicle to move it around.
But a better use for an exosuit is its potential for saving lives. "We're already pretty effective at killing the shit out of people," Reddit user DocMjolnir, a retired U.S. combat medic, told Mic. "It's always services and support that keep us winning fights. From my point of view, anything to help carry my equipment load would've been great. On top of that, patients are heavy."
6. They could protect themselves with actual force fields.
In March, Boeing earned a patent for the first-ever force field — just not like one you might imagine from Star Wars. (That's a plasma shield, which would take an immense amount of power to perpetually keep running.)
The patent is for a "method and system for shockwave attenuation via electromagnetic arc," which, in layman's terms, means the device would activate any time a sensor detected a nearby blast, emitting a force field to absorb the shockwave created by that blast. So instead of a roadside bomb flipping a traveling Hummer, the force field could keep the vehicle traveling forward. Right now, that patent is focused on vehicles. But it could be a step toward a personal shield that can resist nearby blasts.
But we can't ignore the boring things active service members need right now.
The U.S. military isn't all about high-tech gadgetry. Soldiers also need basic, everyday tools to make existing jobs more tolerable — like comfortable porta-potties. As DocMjolnir pointed out, medics on the ground would be much more effective with access to synthetic blood and a tool to visualize internal injuries — which would act sort of like the physical component to the rapid diagnosis technology DARPA project manager Hepburn proposed last month.
"One of the tragedies of what happened with Ebola is that, if you have a fever and chills, it's very hard for us to say whether you have Ebola or malaria," Hepburn told Mic in June. "We could take a sample and let you know tomorrow, but what happens today?"
In an era when our urban communication is so dominated by incredibly fast smartphones, war zones are still stuck in the past. At least, that's how it was for a U.S Marine Corps staff sergeant Jason Cooper, during his time serving in Fallujah, Iraq.
"Radios are big and heavy, the batteries were huge and were a big factor in deciding what you can bring on an extended patrol," Cooper told Mic. "Radio men are easily identified and can be targeted as well. ... Just Google image search for radio operator and you will understand."
The U.S. continues to be the spearhead of military technology, especially with research branches like DARPA. In 10 years, we could see a radically different soldier on the front lines. But in the meantime, focus needs to be put on keeping current and soon-to-be enlisted service members equipped with what they need. Even if that's air-conditioned, transportable toilets.