Exciting stories about military land, air and sea technologies
The biggest military news of the year revolved around the chaotic and dramatic US evacuation of Afghanistan when the Taliban took control of the country in August.
While this series of historic events have rightly made headlines, developments large and small in the military technology space have also made the news throughout 2021. Some of the most groundbreaking innovations and revolutionaries won the Best of What’s New awards Popular science in the Aerospace and Security categories, including a drone that can refuel naval fighter jets, an AI-powered system called Skyborg that can fly unmanned planes, and an anti-drone system known as THOR.
But many other planes, vehicles, robots, gadgets and military events have made the news over the past 12 months. These are some of the important, fascinating, remarkable or just plain interesting developments that are worth looking back at.
On the ground
Microsoft has signed a massive, multi-billion dollar contract to supply high-tech augmented reality glasses to the US military. The gadget is based on Microsoft’s HoloLens, although the military calls it the Integrated Visual Augmentation System, or IVAS. The devices are a heads-up display with night vision technology and more, and while they promise to be a futuristic way for soldiers to receive information and see the battlefield, they have been delayed due a problem related to the range of his field of vision. We will know more about the performance of these devices next year.
At Tyndall Air Force Base in Florida, mechanical dogs from Ghost Robotics joined the security team to patrol the base in March. The legged robots can reach a top speed of just 4.5 mph and function as a “moving sensor platform,” as one base official described them, meaning they can send information back to humans. .
In June, the US Marines experimented with a vehicle called EMAV, a robotic tank-like device that can double as a stretcher to transport an injured person or even perform tasks such as launching weapons. Each vehicle weighs 7,000 pounds, and that’s before anything is put on it. Marines can control it via a tablet and it can fit inside a V-22 Osprey aircraft for transport.
In the air
While the robots help on earth, in the sky, their winged cousins lead their own missions. In October, DARPA made an eye-catching demonstration: it used a C-130 cargo plane to grab a drone from the sky and pull it into the mothership. The idea behind the program, called Gremlins, is that hooking up drones and bringing them onto a mid-air cargo plane is a way to reclaim and reuse those aerial assets. In other DARPA news, the agency tested a hypersonic missile in September – the weapon concept it demonstrated went faster than Mach 5.
Drones and other unmanned vehicles, like hypersonic weapons, are certainly not the only military innovations to fly in the sky. In April, the Air Force unveiled its latest fighter jet and announced its official name, the F-15EX Eagle II. It is the most modern American version of an aircraft that dates from the 1960s and 1970s and was first created to be an air-to-air dominated machine. Read an in-depth dive on the new aircraft here.
Russia, meanwhile, has unveiled its own new fighter jet, called the Checkmate. Unlike the F-15EX, this new jet is stealthy, and is most often compared to the F-35 but promises to be cheaper. The Drive, a sister site to PopSci, has more information on the plane’s progress.
Helicopters are among the most dynamic and maneuverable flying machines on the market, and May of this year marked the 10th anniversary of the Navy SEAL raid on Osama bin Laden in Pakistan. Popular science took a look at what we know about the stealth helicopters that were part of Afghanistan’s secret mission to neighboring Pakistan in 2011.
And in other helicopter news, in May we took part in a training mission with the US Coast Guard in an MH-60T helicopter to see how they train for hoist rescues at sea. The dramatic process and dynamics involved a brave “duck” descending into the foamy waters under the helicopter off the coast of Cape Cod, Massachusetts.
In the aquatic regions of the world, the military ply the oceans, in their depths and on their surface. In September, we got a glimpse of an unmanned ship called the USV Ranger launching a missile. The program the ship is a part of is known as the Ghost Fleet Overlord.
And over the summer, the Navy invested in underwater gliders capable of sensing water conditions below the surface, noticing factors such as temperature or electrical connectivity; these unmanned robotic submersibles must be able to stay on the ground for up to 90 days at a depth of approximately 3,300 feet.
Returning to the surface, the Navy also tried out other robotic boats, deploying unmanned ships called Saildrone and MANTIS. After all, who needs humans when robots can do all the exploration for you?