Future Soldiers May Get Brain Boosters and Digital Buddies

Caption: The Future Soldier Initiative. (Image credit: U.S. Army Natick Soldier Research Design and Engineering Center in Massachusetts.)

The soldiers of the future might controversially boost their brains with drugs and prosthetics, augment their strength with mechanical exoskeletons, and have artificially intelligent "digital buddies" at their beck and call, according to the U.S. Army's Future Soldier Initiative.

The project is the latest attempt from the U.S. Army research lab in Natick, Mass., to brainstorm what soldiers might carry into the battlefield of tomorrow. A special emphasis of its concept is augmenting mental performance.

Boosting the mind

One contentious way science and technology might help provide the upper hand in warfare is through mind-enhancing drugs or prosthetics for a soldier's body or brain, the initiative suggested. These could yield dramatic improvements in soldier performance and provide a tremendous edge in combat, it noted, but would require the Army to grapple with very serious and difficult ethical issues.

Soldiers might have knowledge presented to them via augmented reality systems that superimpose data on their view of their surroundings and virtual reality systems that immerse them in computer simulated environments.

With the aid of head or wrist displays and data gloves, they could view remote areas of the battlefield through sensors, operate robots with spoken commands or gestures, and receive new training in critical skills whenever and wherever they want or need.

To handle the glut of data, each soldier might be paired with his or her own personal intelligent agent, sidekicks which the initiative nicknamed a "digital buddy."

These programs could sift through information to alert soldiers to vital details, provide reminders as memory joggers, monitor levels of ammunition and other supplies for automated calls for resupply, communicate with other "digital buddies" to better weave soldiers into teams, and even adapt to an individual soldier's personality, strengths and weaknesses.

Suits of the future

An exoskeleton fitted onto a soldier's lower body might grant him or her superhuman strength and endurance, customizable "wearable robots"  that would effortlessly carry gear such as heavy weapons, armor and shields, or tools to cut through obstacles for emergency search and rescue operations.

Two different teams are competing to build such exoskeletons, one backed by Raytheon, the other by Lockheed Martin.

Body armor might incorporate chain mail fabricated from carbon nanotubes or other materials engineered at the scale of nanometers or billionths of a meter. Such armor could be flexible and protect against blast effects such as shrapnel, amputation and burns, as well as against cuts and rifle rounds.

Future headgear might not only incorporate audio and video units and radio transceivers, but also sensors to keep track of brain activity. These, along with other devices on the body to monitor heart rate, hydration levels and other data, might help leaders track a soldier's mental and physical status to help determine how fit he or she is for duty and see if medical or psychological intervention is warranted.

Face recognition systems might also be added to headgear, useful at checkpoints or for acquiring targets, while automatic translator systems might not only help soldiers understand languages but also nonverbal cues. Transparent visors might also be embedded with carbon nanotube arrays to help absorb any blinding laser attacks. Headgear could also support laser rangefinders, infrared target illuminators, GPS and maps.

In much the same way, the uniforms of the future might also be antimicrobial, blast-protective, flame-resistant, bug-repellant, toxin-sensing and -fighting, to some extent self-cleaning, capable not only of sensing wounds but also perhaps also managing them, and laced with technologies such as piezoelectrics, textile-integrated batteries and electrically conductive fibers that help them generate, store and harvest power and serve as communication networks. If soldiers feel too hot or cold, they might even carry around their own lightweight, low-power climate control systems.

All this gear might get its power from a small generator that could quietly convert liquid fuel directly into electricity for days.

The uncertain future

There is unfortunately no sign from the center as to when, if ever, any of these ideas might actually see use in battle.

The concept was originally named the Future Soldier 2030 Initiative, suggesting this might be how soldiers looked two decades out. However, the project dropped the date from its title in December.

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Charles Q. Choi
Live Science Contributor
Charles Q. Choi is a contributing writer for Live Science and Space.com. He covers all things human origins and astronomy as well as physics, animals and general science topics. Charles has a Master of Arts degree from the University of Missouri-Columbia, School of Journalism and a Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of South Florida. Charles has visited every continent on Earth, drinking rancid yak butter tea in Lhasa, snorkeling with sea lions in the Galapagos and even climbing an iceberg in Antarctica.