GN Focus | Idex

From military to market

Defence know-how often makes its way to the average consumer. As the region’s largest defence exhibition gets under way, we examine how the two sectors inspire each other's innovations

  • By Shalini Seth Specialist Writer
  • Published: 00:00 February 17, 2013
  • GN Focus

  • Image Credit: Corbis
  • Military technology usually winds up in the consumer market but the reverse is also true

The computer, the internet, the Boeing 747 and now mobile phone pouches made of silverised cloth are some of the ways in which technology for military use makes it to the civilian world. One can expect to see further developments in the consumer market, when the US Army seeks the next-generation joint light tactical vehicle — the successor to the Humvee-turned-Hummer or the high mobility multipurpose wheeled vehicle.

“Cars and trucks that drive themselves already exist in defence,” retired major-general John M. Urias, President, Oshkosh Defense, tells GN Focus. Oshkosh Defense is an exhibitor at the International Defence Exhibition and Conference (Idex), which begins in Abu Dhabi today and runs until Thursday. “Our TerraMax technology can be mounted on any wheeled ground vehicle, enabling it to navigate complex urban and off-road environments without human involvement,” he says.

Last August, Oshkosh Defense, along with AM General and Lockheed Martin, won contracts worth about $60 million (about Dh220 million) each to build a small fleet of demonstration models to be tested by the army. The winner will be awarded a $5-billion contract to build 25,000 vehicles for the US Army and the Marines. “In my mind, there’s almost no question this technology will soon permeate the civilian market, transforming the way freight is shipped and eventually driving us to work in the morning,” says Urias.

Silverised cloth

Another example of consumer-friendly military technology is a silver handkerchief, a reusable, washable wipe being retailed in the US. Jay Paul, partner at Magic Textiles, will showcase newer products made out of metallised cloth at the International Defence Exhibition and Conference. “The army uses metallised fabric in many situations,” Paul tells GN Focus, adding that it can be made to good civilian use as well.

“That silver is anti-bacterial has been known for thousands of years,” adds Paul. “The simplest form of it is a handkerchief that kills germs and bacteria, which come into contact with the cloth. There are no known silver-resistant bacteria among medically relevant strains. Military uses for it include creating enclosures or covering surfaces to protect information from being picked up. But we are also looking to create other products such as a laptop protector that protects people from radiation waves while keeping the device cool.” Pouches made of metallised cloth will protect mobile phones and act as a radiation shield to counter the effects of electromagnetic rays from your laptop, he adds.

The formidable budget afforded to the military is one of the reasons for its fast-paced technological advancement. A report by Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (Sipri) puts world military expenditure at $1.63 trillion in 2010 — a real-terms increase of 50 per cent since 2001.

However, such budgets are not the norm anymore. According to Sipri, “World military expenditure is estimated to have been $1.74 trillion in 2011… In real terms, the total is virtually unchanged since 2010… This breaks 12 years of continual increases in military spending from 1998-2010.”

According to the 2013 Global Aerospace and Defense Industry Outlook launched this January by professional services firm Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu Limited, the global defence industry’s revenue will likely continue to slide as a result of cuts in military spending, while the commercial aircraft industry will likely have record revenues in the coming year.

Turning the tables

In fact, experts say that the trend works in reverse too. There are several technology areas where the defence world has focused its considerable resources — secure communications, materials, mapping and optics, for instance — to allow such development of technologies that beat what is commercially available to the average consumer by far. “On the other hand, there are many technology advances coming out of tech hubs such as Silicon Valley, which far outstrip what exists in the military and defence,” says Michael Janke, CEO and Co-Founder, Silent Circle, a global encrypted communications service.

“In Special Operations, I could make an encrypted satellite call anytime, anywhere,” Janke, a former US Navy Seal Sniper, tells GN Focus. “On the other hand, in the commercial world I could buy a wristwatch that had a good GPS on it, while most of the military was still using a 12-ounce (about 340g) clump of metal for GPS.”

Much of Janke’s work focuses on bridging this gap. “When we started Silent Circle, it was with the idea of solving this problem — how to bring secure encrypted communications, privacy and secure business communications to the world, not just voice but mobile email, text, video and file transfer,” he says.

GN Focus