During the bi-annual Defence & Security Equipment International (DSEi) show, held September 13-16 at the Excel Centre in London, nearly 1300 suppliers of military hardware and software showed off their latest gizmos. Exhibits ranging from very sophisticated technology to high-tech beach toys particularly caught my eye.
First, some seriously clever heat masking technology can disguise tanks and hide them from infrared surveillance at night. Second, a new laser technology can sense and locate landmines.
Tanks Play Hide And Seek
If you’re in the mood for some fun at the beach, how about a full-size inflatable tank? It’s no joke. In fact, inflatable tanks served the military well in both world wars as they were deployed to fool aerial surveillance into thinking opposition forces were massing for attack (Fig. 1).
During the Kosovo War, the Yugoslav Army regularly placed dummy tanks in Kosovo. The NATO forces then thought they were destroying many more tanks than they actually did.
These tanks can look real, even when they’re observed in the infrared spectrum. While a real tank will set military procurement budgets back up to €200 million, dummy tanks cost a fraction of that. They also weigh around 15 kg and pack into an army kit bag.
But what about hiding your real tanks? Night vision infrared systems now can be fooled into thinking a tank is no more than a grazing cow. Developed by BAE Systems, Adaptiv Technology enables vehicles to mimic the temperature of their surroundings.
Currently development is in progress that will eventually make the technology work at wavelengths of light that will render objects invisible. In other words, a tank would be cloaked and hidden from view.
Hexagonal panels about 12 centimetres square made of a material that can rapidly change temperature are applied to the outer surfaces of the tank (Fig. 2). On-board computer control and thermal cameras image ambient temperatures and reflect those images onto the panels.
The panels are constructed from a thermoelectric material. The military representatives at the show would not discuss any further details about how the panels work or about the material science employed.
Military trials have indicated that the thermal invisibility cloak would work most efficiently at ranges of around 400 metres. Field trials of the thermal cloaking system showed that it made a tank resemble background scenery best from a distance of 300 to 400 metres.
The pixilated structure of the panels can be modified to suit different operational distances. In addition, different size panels could be manufactured to cloak larger military or naval targets in the future. Full implementation of the cloaking technology is expected in two years.
The Landmine Scourge
We all know the terrible casualties inflicted on military personnel and civilians by landmines. Yet scientists say they have developed laser technology capable of detecting hidden explosives.
A team from the University of St Andrew’s in Fife, the U.K., has produced a laser based on a plastic called polyfluorene. The researchers found the laser reacted with vapours from explosives such as TNT.
Graham Turnbull, a physicist at the University of St Andrew’s, said the researchers have created a mechanism that can sense the TNT-like molecules frequently used in explosives at extremely low concentrations—less than 10 parts per billion.
The lasers are based on a plastic product, creating new operational characteristics and making them easy and cheap to manufacture. Applications wouldn’t be limited to military deployment, either. The system could also be used in airports, buildings with high security requirements, and major public events that could potentially attract terrorist activity.