In the USA, which can boast the most government financial support for nanotechnology research in the world, nanotechnology funding given by the federal government to the Department of Defense is second only to that given to the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI). The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) hosts the US Army Institute of Soldier Nanotechnologies (ISN), a research unit devoted to developing military applications for nanotechnology, its aim being to improve the “survival of the soldier of the future”.
Using Smart Materials to Improve Body Armour
The Institute’s ultimate goal is to “create a 21st century battlesuit”. To this end they are investigating smart materials able to be responsive to the conditions of their environment, sensors able to detect chemical or biological warfare agents, and lightweight bullet-proof materials. There are also attempts to incorporate wound detection and treatment systems within uniforms. For example, responsive systems, such as the material hardening to provide an instant splint for a broken bone, are in development. The five-year contract awarded in 2002 to MIT by the US Army implies the time-scale for the development of these projects is rather near term. Lighter and stronger weapons and equipment are being developed, although information on this area is scarce and it is assumed that much of this research is classified.
Using Nanotechnology to Improve the Human-Machine Interface
In addition there is a focus on improving the human-machine interface, perhaps including sensory enhancement such as direct retinal displays or communication to the ear. Should these products be developed, and be able to be manufactured, it is likely that they will be transferred to the space programme and eventually into wider usage.
Using Improved Materials in the Building of Spaceships
Improved materials, lighter but with tough, heat resistant properties, are being used in the design and construction of spacecraft and satellites, and this process will gain from nanotechnology. (Confusingly, the term nanosatellite is in use but refers to a small satellite, not one using nanotechnology.)
Improving Security Using Nano-Based Sensors, Nanoparticles and DNA Nanotechnology
There is also the possibility of nanotechnology facilitating improvements in civilian security equipment. The Institute of Nanotechnology suggests fingerprinting will become cheaper, quicker and more effective using DNA techniques involving nanotechnology, and there is also the possibility that nano-based sensors could be used as electronic detectors (‘sniffer dogs’) for improved airport security. Quantum dots, fluorescent nanoparticles which glow when exposed to ultraviolet light, may be used as tags and labels to prevent theft and counterfeiting, and to trace the course of drugs within the body.