Like it or not, most of today's major business and consumer electronics products can trace their roots to military technology. Global-positioning-system (GPS) receivers may have the most apparent military-to-commercial link. Yet products ranging from microwave ovens to LCDs to the Internet have all benefited significantly from military-sponsored research. In fact, it's hard to think of any electronic product or device that hasn't received help from military research.
This fact really shouldn't surprise anyone. Each year, the government pours billions of dollars into tech R&D via the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the National Science Foundation (NSF), and various other channels. Businesses competing for government contracts also spend vast sums of money developing military-oriented technologies that eventually find their way into the business and consumer mainstream.
Fueled by War on Terrorism funding from various sources, including the Department of Defense and Homeland Security, developments are coming quickly in areas such as computing, telecommunications, and medicine. The Office of Naval Research, for example, is working on a low-cost, low-power optical communications system that uses infrared LEDs to provide point-to-point communications. A prototype device attaches to binoculars and allows digital voice transmission over a two- to five-nautical-mile range. The system, which operates outside the radio frequency spectrum, essentially has unlimited bandwidth.
Meanwhile, researchers at the U.S. Army Natick Soldier Center (NSC), tasked with exploration into new battery technologies, recently made an unexpected discovery: a potential anti-cancer treatment. While investigating natural materials to provide mobile power sources for future troops, researchers discovered a compound that appears to be successful in inhibiting the growth of cancerous cells in tissue culture experiments. Over the next year, NSC researchers will continue studying the material with their colleagues at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell.
War is a dirty, nasty business. But it undoubtedly generates an array of beneficial technologies.