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Futures Lab: Cutting edge technologies and research influencing Defence


Graedon Crouch, Futures Lab Command Lead for Air looks at the latest technology news that can help shape Defence thinking.

Portable nuclear power

Microsoft is investing in nuclear power, ostensibly to provide clean, reliable energy to power its data centres. It has already invested in nuclear fusion innovator Helion Energy; and has posted a job advert for principal program manager for nuclear technology, responsible for maturing and implementing a global Small Modular Reactor (SMR) and microreactor energy strategy.

Microsoft’s public push into nuclear power generation may interest those involved in expeditionary operations. With the high cost of transporting liquid fuel for generators - both monetary terms and potential risk, the benefits of micro nuclear generation in austere environments may outweigh the risks.

New battery technologies

Research continues for new battery technologies that offer increased energy density beyond lithium-ion and reduce reliance on metals such as cobalt (associated with questionable mining practices and human-rights issues). Sodium-based batteries don’t yet have the energy density of lithium, though some predict 150Wh/kg in a few years making sodium-ion batteries a competitor to lithium. Other sodium-based battery technologies, such as sodium-sulphur make them much more attractive in large, stationary, energy storage applications. Also, disordered rock salt (DRX) has a three-dimensional lattice arrangement that could replace cobalt-based cathodes, further increasing energy density.

Energy storage is crucial to Defence goals of sustainability, NetZero and the potential for battlefield electrification. While battery technology development is largely responsive to consumer and commercial drivers, Defence should be interested in being an early adopter and exploiting new battery technologies.

Training with generative AI

The Writer’s Guild of America has ended its 148-day strike over pay and the use of generative AI. Hollywood studios have conceded that generative AI (such as large language models like ChatGPT and image generators like Stable Diffusion) are not authors.

The potential for generative AI – especially tailored video content offered by companies such as Synthesia – may allow for new approaches to delivering training, including in foreign languages for deployed training missions. (In 2019, AI allowed David Beckham to speak 9 languages to raise awareness of Malaria.)

Space-based mobile coverage

Vodafone has announced its first space-based 5G voice call using a standard handset. Using AST SpaceMobile’s BlueWalker 3 test satellite, this follows on from a 4G call by AST SpaceMobile in June and Apple’s iPhone 14 ability to send emergency texts via satellite when out of cellular coverage.

Moving cellular base stations into low-earth orbit may fundamentally change the way in which commercial mobile services are offered. Ubiquitous coverage across remote environments and the oceans (with the associated 5G bandwidth) may eventually remove military reliance on bespoke communication systems.

Wearable exoskeleton

Man running whilst wearing the exoskeleton

University researchers in South Korea have developed a wearable exoskeleton that increases speed over short distances. The suit works by mimicking the contraction of the wearer’s muscles after understanding their gait and running style using sensors and an algorithm.

While the reported speed gains are marginal (about 1 second faster over 200m), the reduced form factor and ability to increase speed, not just strength, is worth tracking for potential increases to soldier performance.

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