Transforming Defence: Programmable Materials
Professor Sajad Haq - Head of Advanced Materials and Senior Fellow, QinetiQ
Programmable materials, although revolutionary, are not actually exactly new; work has taken place on them for the last 20 years. They are, however, advancing at pace, and they offer many possibilities in defence. For example, a material system could be adapted to changing operational requirements: its strength, size, impact properties, or overall shape could be modified as needed. The prospect of a true multi-mission platform that reshapes itself to fit its tasking without the need for a refit is - quite obviously - very appealing to defence.
Imagine an aerial vehicle (like a hypersonic or UAV) that could change its aerodynamic profile by tailoring its leading edge so that it travels faster at certain points. Or an antenna that uses metamaterials, which could modify its radiation pattern, change the band/frequencies in which it transmits, or direct the beam at a specific target. Shape changing materials could be used to change a platform’s physical signature. Colour changing materials could allow it to modify its colouration to fit its environment, like a chameleon. Earlier this year, BMW demonstrated a simple version of this, which we’ll cover later.
There’s also a sustainability angle to new material development. If you wanted to upgrade a military platform in the future, you could tailor that platform by changing its properties, instead of swapping out some (or all) of its components and materials. Such reusability promises to cut down on waste dramatically.
Let’s be realistic: the challenges
In many cases, programmable materials are well beyond the theoretical stages. There are demonstrators and early stage prototypes currently gaining lots of attention - BMW’s ‘colour changing car’ (…alluded to earlier in this article), debuted at CES 2022 to much fanfare. However, like many such demonstrators, there is a long way to go before this technology can be made affordable and scalable enough for the mass market. It will likely be years until the public can get its hands on colour changing cars.
Costs are (and will remain to be) a huge hindrance. Defence buyers may be willing to pay double (or more) for a platform that offers programmable capability as part of a multi-decade lifecycle - but uptake in other sectors may be stymied by such extra costs. But it’s not just financial challenges: for example, it’s difficult to make modifications to a material without affecting its core properties. Other challenges include making it robust enough for the kind of punishment that it is likely to endure in a conflict scenario.
And, although progress is being made, there must be some reality checks about its practical use. Though we can tune material properties, it's important to understand the impact on the rest of the structure caused by these changes. For example, a vehicle that can modify its colour will likely require additional electric and power infrastructure. A storm hitting such a vehicle could short out its electronic systems. Effort will be required to ensure that the wiring doesn’t interfere with the rest of the systems, and that the vehicle is temperature and moisture resistant, and robust to shock. Lots of work is being done in the field of metamaterials and a range of uses are being evaluated, including secure communications, IoT, and various classified applications too.