Say what you will about our government, but I can’t help imagine that some of our most incredible inventions and technologies wouldn’t have been made possible without the support from federal servants. I was reflecting about this recently in my newspaper column, and how when we think of innovation, we often think of new products or services that surface from the commercial sector. Yet innovation driven from government shouldn’t be ignored. It has unquestionably played quite an important role in our everyday lives.
The list of products that have been spun off indirectly from the efforts of the U.S. space program are long and numerous. For the last 30-plus years, in its journal Spinoff, NASA has chronicled more than 1,700 products and technologies that have been commercialized through the influence or direct result of their research and development efforts. They include better extreme weather garments, improved food preservation, more convenient food packaging, and safer tires to name a few.
With extremely limited space, power and weight considerations, the space program helped stimulate the drive toward smaller and more powerful electronics. And the technology for launching satellites into orbit led to a communications revolution and to the GPS navigation market itself.
Even if we don’t consider it day-to-day, who knows how different our lives would be without the developments from military research? From aerospace to weapons, the influence of military technology is unmistakable and immense. It has helped the United States win wars and survive, at least to this point in time, as a society and world power. Arguably the technology once unleashed, and seen as possible, could be turned against any country including ours, but its influence can’t be ignored or dismissed.
The arms race today isn’t about developing bigger and more powerful bombs; it’s about going smaller, more targeted and more localized. Better bombs and bullets are of course still being developed, but a whole new range of electromagnetic devices are being developed for use not only for battle, but also in the fight against terrorism. Precision, tactical and exotic devices are the focus.
Microwave radar devices using what are known as electronically scanned phased arrays are being developed that with the switch of a button, can almost instantly change their transmissions from wide angle search patterns to concentrating their energy into narrowly focused beams. The idea is to use these focused beams to cause a surge of electrical current in any wires or conductors in the path of the transmission and “fry” the electronics of the target, whether it is an aircraft, missile, tank, or even a powerboat that has suspected sinister intentions.
These devices might also have applications in law enforcement, for example to cut high-speed pursuit short by stalling the engines of evading vehicles.
Non-lethal, millimeter-wave “heat-ray” devices are being developed that cause hot stinging sensations upon the skin. As you might expect, the first reaction of volunteers in the testing of this painful device has been to flee. Although controversial, development continues with the goal of reducing confrontations with people without causing permanent bodily injury.