Writers for the original Star Trek television series faced a serious challenge. They couldn’t stay ahead of modern technology. Every time they debuted a nifty new imaginary gadget, like the Communicator, they would hear from a tech company that a fledgling version of the sci-fi device – in this case, the wireless phone – was in development.
The folks at Marvel comics must be feeling the same way. The creators of Captain America, Ironman and other tech-enhanced characters, are watching as their fantasy world comes to life in military laboratories and test sites. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the Pentagon think tank that has a pretty good record of developing stunning technologies, including what we now call the internet, spearheads much of the research.
Here are seven Super Soldier technologies that could soon appear on the battlefield:
1. Synthetic blood. Red blood cells deliver oxygen to our tissue, including our muscles and organs. What if there was a way to radically boost that capacity? The results could be a limitless physical endurance and the ability to stay underwater (without scuba gear) for lengthy periods. Defense industry scientists are exploring whether artificial red blood cells called respirocytes might give warriors those added capabilities. Comic book touch: these super cells would be made from diamonds.
2. Underskeletons. Scientists are working on undergarments that would act as a second set of muscles. The fabric system would reduce fatigue and increase strength, with out the weight and complexity of bulkier exoskeletons.
3. Pain Elimination. Pentagon researchers are developing an injectable medication that would completely eliminate the inflammation that causes wounds to hurt. Without that debilitating pain, a soldier could treat his own injury and then, depending on its severity, either continue fighting or make his way to safety.
4. Sleep Reduction. Imagine the commercial possibilities of this one. The military hopes to figure out a way for humans to sleep with only half our brains – like whales and dolphins. Some genetically engineered mice already have this ability.
The Air Force already uses sophisticated pharmaceuticals to keep pilots awake and alert for 24 hours or more. But these drugs come with some problematic side effects, including possible impairments in judgment.
5. Carbon Body Armor. Nanotechnologists at MIT are developing ballistic protection gear made from something called graphene. This microscopic chainmail would offer better protection than heavy, bulky Kevlar vests and ballistic plates. A million layers of graphene is only about one millimeter thick. That means we could see soon see our soldiers wearing bulletproof t-shirts. The big challenge now is figuring out how to manufacture a steady supply of graphene fabrics. Comic book touch: The graphene material has been tested by firing tiny bullets made of gold into it.
6. Leaps and Bounds. Remember the debate over whether South African sprinter Oscar Pistorius should be allowed to compete in the Olympics using advanced leg prosthetics? The questions were legit. Researchers across the county are helping the military develop similar devices that would support a soldier’s ankles and Achilles tendons. When the tech is perfected, a warrior might be able to jump 25 feet, sprint at world record speeds and run for miles without tiring their legs.
7. Climbing gloves. Spiderman’s ability to climb skyscrapers is moving from fantasy to reality. Scientists and engineers have developed gloves and shoes with tiny fibers that can grip a surface at the molecular level. Current prototypes already allow a 200 lb. man to scale a wall. The final version probably won’t allow warriors to walk on the ceiling, but would be invaluable in assaulting enemy positions located atop cliffs.
While all these advances are remarkable, we need to remember that the most important weapon in our military is the amazing men and women who will use this gear. We have the most committed, educated well-trained military in the history of the world. Don’t’ forget to thank them for their service at every opportunity.