From conflict to civvy street

For a very long time advances in military technology have spilled over into civilian applications

In conflicts, throughout history all sides have tried to make the best possible use of inventions and technology to gain a decisive advantage over adversaries. At the same time developing systems to minimize one’s own losses has also been a priority. Military needs have often accelerated many technologies, through improvements to existing systems or the development of new ones. More and more of these technologies have been adopted for civilian use, the reverse process from civilian to military applications is also observed, to a lesser extent.

A350 XWB full-flight simulator
World's first A350 XWB full-flight simulator (Photo: CAE)

From mechanical to electrical and electronic systems

Mechanical-based systems, such as motor vehicles, ships and primarily aircraft were the main beneficiaries of military-driven technological advances during the First World War. Electrical and electronic systems were gradually introduced for defence applications in the 1930s.

Barely 10 years after the first motorised flight, aviation, described by some senior officers on both sides as irrelevant at the outset of the conflict, benefited hugely from the war.

The major belligerents on the Western front had very small numbers of fairly basic front-line aircraft in 1914, some 140 for France, 110 for Britain and 230 for Germany. At the end of the conflict these countries fielded, respectively, 4 500, 3 300 and 2 400 front-line combat aircraft, with much improved characteristics in terms of range, payload and speed. Soon after the war some military aircraft were converted for civilian use, for example mail and passenger services, with specific civilian models developed later.

With the risk of another major conflict looming in the mid to late 1930s fear of aerial attacks on cities led to research and the development of the radar, which used radio waves for the early detection of approaching enemy aircraft. Radar were later deployed onboard ships as well and have helped prevent accidents in the air and on the seas ever since.

Another early detection system, relying on sound propagation underwater was widely introduced in ships during the Second World War and is still extensively used to detect submarines. It relies on hydrophones and reversible transducers. Hydrophones are extensively used for underwater seismic and other deep-water-based surveys, and in systems used for tracking shoals of fish.

International Standards for hydrophones and reversible transducers are developed by IEC Technical Committee (TC) 87: Ultrasonics.

The 1970s, a glimpse into the future

Defence research agencies, such as the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), created in 1958, support “breakthrough technologies and capabilities for national security”, the Internet being the best-known example, which have positive overflow effects into the economy.

Other countries have introduced similar agencies, with more limited objectives and budgets.

The global positioning system (GPS), developed by the US Department of Defense (DoD) from the 1970s, which uses 24 satellites to provide military users with positioning, navigation and timing services, is another example of a system that has become omnipresent in countless non-military applications from mobile phones to land surveys, air traffic control or maritime navigation.

US President Ronald Reagan decided to make GPS available for civilian use after a Korean airliner was shot down by a Soviet air force aircraft after straying into restricted airspace in September 1983.

Flight simulators were also initially developed for the military. The need to rapidly train a large number of air force pilots led to their development. Flight simulators were based initially on rudimentary mechanical contraptions before the gradual introduction of electrical and electronic systems led to the development of the very advanced systems used to train military and civilian pilots today.

Flight simulators rely on mechanical systems for motion. IEC TC 2: Rotating machinery, develops International Standards for electric motors used for this.

Many other IEC TCs, such as IEC TC 20: Electric cables, IEC TC 23: Electrical accessories and its Subcommittees (SCs); IEC TC 47: Semiconductor devices, and its SCs, or IEC TC 48: Electrical connectors and mechanical structures for electrical and electronic equipment, prepare International Standards for components installed in simulators.

The DoD has cooperative research development agreements (CRADAs) with private companies and researchers, which allow them to use government facilities, research and resources to build things that are mutually beneficial to both parties. The information that companies/researchers discover is protected for up to five years. Under many CRADAs companies/researchers do not receive money from the government but have the right to commercialize what they produce. The government retains a use license. The Guardbot spherical robot, which can be used for broadcasting, surveillance, security and detection was developed under a CRADA.

The development of robots for military applications, specifically for bomb disposal tasks, started in earnest in the 1970s. The British Army had relied entirely on explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) operators to manually neutralize car bombs and other explosive devices planted by the IRA (Irish Republican Army) in Northern Ireland and mainland Britain until 1972.

After several EOD officers were killed or seriously injured a British Army officer developed a remotely-controlled (through ropes) piece of equipment from an electrically-powered wheelbarrow bought from a local garden centre, which he modified to help drag car bombs to a safe distance. The initial device was further improved and has been expanded to an entire family of fully remotely-controlled unmanned ground vehicles (UGVs). The Wheelbarrow Mark9 was unveiled in 2011.

The US armed forces have also supported the development of many types of robots or adapted them for use on land, mainly to deal with improvised explosive devices (IEDs), and also in the air and under water and for surveillance tasks.

Robots developed for use in the defence sector must be particularly robust and are often required to be capable of operating in contaminated chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear and explosive (CBRNE) environments. Their electronics must be radiation-resistant.

After the tsunami-provoked meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Japan, Tokyo asked Washington to provide robots that could operate in a radioactive environment, remove wreckage and measure radiation levels. Some military-type robots from the US iRobot Defense & Security Business Unit (now Endeavor Robotics) capable of entering the plant and measuring radiation levels were sent to Japan.

Underwater and aerial remote-controlled robots were also deployed in Fukushima and elsewhere to survey sites too remote or hazardous for human intervention.

Being essentially electromechanical systems, robots and automated machines that include electrotechnical parts depend on international standards to operate properly and safely. Many of these are prepared by various IEC TCs and their subcommittees (SCs), such as TC 47: Semiconductor devices, TC 44: Safety of machinery – Electrotechnical aspects, or SC 65 A: Industrial process measurement, control and automation – Systems aspects. International standards for rechargeable batteries, which are essential for many robots, are developed by IEC TC 21: Secondary cells and batteries. As robots are introduced in more fields, more IEC TCs and SCs will be involved in the preparation of International Standards for robotics in their respective domains.

From remotely-controlled to autonomous and semi-autonomous systems

An emerging trend in military technology, with spinoffs in other sectors, is a growing reliance on autonomous and semi-autonomous systems working along or even replacing remotely-controlled equipment.

Advances in these systems have been primarily driven by military technology used in remotely-controlled unmanned vehicles used in the air, on land and on water for surveillance or combat missions.

The use of these systems (deployed by the US and a few other militaries as early as the 1970s) has expanded to other fields such as law-enforcement, maritime surveillance, land surveys, agriculture and, increasingly, autonomous road and rail transport and shipping.

The expansion of these semi-autonomous and autonomous systems beyond the military was made possible with major improvements in - and falling unit cost of - a very wide range of sensors, which are being fitted into many systems in what has become known as the Internet of Things (IoT). The development of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and machine learning is reinforcing this trend.

AI is emerging as a solution for many complex systems and issues. The IEC and ISO have just created ISO/IEC JTC 1 / SC 42: Artificial intelligence, a special Subcommittee of JTC 1, their Joint Technical Committee on information technology. The scope of this SC is to “serve as the focus and proponent for JTC 1's standardization program on Artificial Intelligence” and to “provide guidance to JTC 1, IEC, and ISO committees developing Artificial Intelligence applications.”

Ethical and legal issues

The deployment of autonomous and semi-autonomous systems in the military and other domains, such as transport, raises a number of ethical and legal issues.

When humans are “in the loop”, ultimately controlling, for instance, combat drones, or road vehicles they can call off lethal action or decide to take over control of a vehicle in unforeseen circumstances. In case of unintentional civilian casualties from a military strike or death from a traffic accident it can be easier to determine responsibility. In the case of fully autonomous systems the burden of responsibility may be much more difficult to attribute, as hardware or software design fault, external or environmental factors such as lighting or temperature conditions may have caused the incident.

More technological developments are needed to make these autonomous and semi-autonomous systems more reliable. Totally excluding humans from the loop still poses a number of risks.