This story is about robotics, and their future in defense. I’ve explained these points in private conversations numerous times, over the years, and watched as a few robotics companies take steps in this direction. (No, not ‘tensegrity’ — that uses a very poor angle of force for motion, besides waiting for gravity to move it the rest of the way, and it relies too much on the integrity of the bars’ compression strength…) Unfortunately, not enough work is being done to make a coherent strategy available, and I worry that our own defense industry may ‘miss the boat’. Sorry, DAPRA, if you were just pursuing these ideas in secret…
Reconnaissance and Intelligence on the Battlefield:
Currently, the military relies upon aerial drones for a lot of things. DARPA recently held a competition between teams from the army, navy and air force, using swarms of drones. They’re doing it wrong.
Each drone in DARPA’s challenge needed humans to prep, launch, and coordinate tactics. Drones had a mixture of goals, from targeting and eliminating enemy drones, to making landings at specific sites.
Instead of plane-morphologies, swarms of drones need to be built with jellyfish and ray morphologies. (Yeah, you saw those Festo videos, right?) Each drone inflates, and is formed of many layers of ‘bubblewrap’, made of bulletproof fibers. Buoyant drones do not expend energy to remain aloft. This allows each drone to maintain presence for much longer than a flying drone. By temporarily constricting the inflated bladder, a bouyant drone can quickly free-fall, to evade detection and attack, or to make a landing. If the enemy cannot shoot your drones out of the sky, then your drones are much more likely to get the job done.
A buoyant drone, inflating when it reaches the target, can hold a much heavier payload per pound of drone, as well. That means better sensors, longer range communications, and the possibility of tech-disabling weapons, like microwaves. It also makes smaller-packaged and portable drones a viable platform for useful systems.
Launching these drones must be done ballistically — a shell carries a ‘drone-balloon’ payload, and unloads the drone high in the air, where it inflates and becomes operational. These balloon drones can be deployed miles from your site, rather than wasting battery power flying there. And, they get there at the speed of bullets, not a measly 20mph.
Buoyancy is also the best model for aquatic robots: by constricting and relaxing their inflated bladders, aquatic drones can rapidly alter their density. Just like dolphins, an aquatic drone with fins can use both it’s sinking and surfacing forces to drive forward motion.
Ballistic delivery of aquatic swarms is a significantly more credible threat than a large, aluminum trimaran. A rail gun could deliver clusters of Kevlar-dolphin-bots one hundred miles from its position. Littoral combat would end.
Tensile Strength is Key…
Tensile materials can withstand forces hundreds of times greater than materials built to take compression. Strong fibers make strong balloons and bladders. And, when a balloon is impacted by a projectile, it deforms and displaces, effectively spreading the force of impact over a longer duration, which softens the blow. A carbon bladder (ideal) could withstand projectiles, shrapnel, and concussive blasts that would shred solid materials that are many times its weight and (un-inflated) volume. Tensile strength’s advantage means that ‘bubble-wrap’ armors could be deployed cheaply, quickly (using ballistic delivery), across many vehicles — and, it means that damaged units could be replaced rapidly, with just a few hands. Ceramic armors don’t have that use-profile.
Tensile cables also provide durable and dynamic webbing — to enclose, entangle, or block areas, and to link adjacent areas over rough or muddy terrain. Expect future urban combat to involve an array of grappling guns which cordon streets, web-guns that seal doors and create bulletproof walls in hallways, and zip-line bots that patrol along grappling-guns’ wires. Can you snipe a carbon fiber zip-line down, if a spry robot zig-zags along it, waiting to fire a microwave back at you? Robots will beat you at pong, so…
In general, the capacity to project force which disables or delays enemy actions will be key in all future engagements. Your forces need to move-in immediately, and take actions which stop and scramble their force. This gives time for intelligence and diplomacy to make a difference, and avoids costly mistakes that could lead to escalation or deployment into danger. A ballistic relay, between sites across the country and in allies’ countries, would create a web of deployable bots designed to obtain intelligence, disable enemy forces, and hinder their movements. You don’t need to be parked along North Korea’s coastline, waiting for them to fire first. You don’t need to be stationed in Germany with a rifle. With a prepared relay of ballistic bots, time and resources are saved, and lives can be saved, too.