The military-aerospace (mil-aero) electronics business is always in constant flux as new methodologies, like AI and space, create the know-how for new PWB designs. In addition, as the number of threats in the world seems to be rising, the need for more unmanned solutions drives more and more electronics. In this column, I have tried to capture some of the most unusual old and new design ideas to support the notion that mil-aero revenue will continue to increase.
Older Military Technology That Changed Your World
To start, Noah Caldwell with Mic assembled a great overview article  that provides “a quick run-down of 11 of the DoD’s most famous and influential products.” Here, I share just the highlights. These products not only survived the transition from wartime to peace but also thrived in the consumer market.
- Walkie-talkies: It’s no wonder the nickname “handie-talkie” never caught on.
- Super glue: Kids and adults alike—beware.
- Duct tape: Was actually originally called “duck tape,” among a variety of other names.
- Silly putty: Similar to the invention of the adhesive now used with Post-It Notes, silly putty was originally supposed to be something else entirely.
- Early GPS technology: Think of satellites that transmitted locational data.
- Digital photography: “Steven Sasson of Eastman Kodak discovered a way to use a sensor (instead of film) to collect light and a means of storing the information numerically.”
- Virtual reality: Started as an experimental project where a car drove down every road in Aspen, Colorado.
- The EpiPen: A must-have item to treat severe allergic reactions.
- The early internet: Began with J. C. R. Licklider’s conceptual framework.
- The deep web: Also called the darknet or dark web, “the software that enabled such activity was created by the U.S. Navy and patented in 1998.”
- Nuclear energy: “May be the most unsurprising item on this list, but it’s certainly one of the most important.”
These four new mil-aero technologies provide a window into the future for any company that wants a piece of history.
1. Smart Bombs Moving to Thinking Bombs
According to Kyle Mizokami, a writer from Popular Mechanics : “Here’s how Golden Horde would work: A pair of jet fighters might target a set of concrete aircraft shelters at an enemy airbase. The first fighter targets four shelters with four CSDB-1s, destroying two. The second fighter, flying right behind the first, releases its CSDB-1s while the first jet’s weapons are already in the air. The second fighter’s bombs receive data that two of the shelters are destroyed. The second flight of bombs, consulting Golden Horde’s playbook, reassigns the bombs in flight to destroy the remaining shelters…In the past, weapons were called ‘smart weapons’ due to their use of onboard maps, lasers, or GPS data to find their targets. Golden Horde, however, takes things a step further by actually making decisions.”
2. Self-Steering Bullets (Image source: DARPA)
Richard Sammon, senior associate editor for Kiplinger , explains how self-steering bullets could work. “Packed with tiny sensors, a 0.50-caliber bullet under development can change course rapidly in midair, potentially giving even a mediocre shooter sniper-like accuracy, with the ability to hit moving targets with ease. Plus, while the cost of these advanced rounds is still unknown, they are sure to be cheaper than the rocket-propelled missiles whose role they could sometimes fill. DARPA, which is working on the EXACTO project with military contractor Teledyne Technologies and ammunition maker Orbital ATK, is keeping mum on exactly how the bullet changes its flight path. A competing effort from the Department of Energy’s Sandia Labs uses a laser to indicate the target while small fins on the bullet (also 0.50-caliber) steer it in flight.”
3. Laser Cannons
In the same article , Sammon details laser cannons: “The iconic science-fiction weapon is closer than ever to reality. The Navy’s testing of its laser weapon system aboard the USS Ponce in the Persian Gulf went swimmingly, and the Navy expects to deploy even larger laser weapons aboard ships to protect them from threats such as small attack boats and drones. Meanwhile, on land, Boeing and the Army are working on a truck-mounted laser that can zap incoming threats such as mortar shells or drones. This program has the catchy name HEL MD, for High-Energy Laser Mobile Demonstrator. Competitor Lockheed Martin is also looking for a piece of the Defense Department’s ray gun business with its ATHENA system. One of the many benefits of lasers is that they can repeatedly fire for minimal cost—just the diesel to power the truck-mounted generator that provides the bursts of energy the laser concentrates downrange.”
4. Wearable Coronavirus Symptom Detectors
Here is an invention the world could use. Matthew Cox, a defense reporter with Military.com , details how “U.S. Army medical officials want the defense industry to create wearable monitors to detect whether service members are displaying symptoms of the novel coronavirus.” “
Army Medical Research and Development Command recently invited defense firms to submit proposals for a $25 million effort to design prototypes of a wearable diagnostic capability for ‘pre-/very early symptomatic detection of COVID-19 infection,’ according to a recent request for project proposals issued through the Medical Technology Enterprise Consortium (MTEC). ‘There is a dire and urgent need for the development of rapid, accurate wearable diagnostics to identify and isolate pre-symptomatic COVID-19 cases and ... prevent the spread of the virus,’ the solicitation states.” Summary As we use some of these technologies in our everyday life, it’s easy to create emotional ties to the mil-aero revenue stream. PWB fabricators that want to be part of history have a revenue stream from products that might have contracts for a decade or more and, like challenging new technology, should consider certification to MIL-PRF-31032 (printed wiring board requirements for the DoD).
- N. Caldwell, “11 Incredible Products That Were Really Invented by the U.S. Military,” Mic, March 31, 2014.
- K. Mizokami, “The Air Force Is Moving From Smart Bombs to Thinking Bombs,” Popular Mechanics, July 15, 2020.
- R. Sammon, “8 Amazing New Military Technologies,” Kiplinger, December 29, 2016.
- M. Cox, “Army Wants Wearable Coronavirus Symptom Detector for Soldiers,” Military.com, May 11, 2020.
This column first appeared in the September 2020 issue of PCB007 Magazine.