Article updated 15th January 2020 by Reginald Davey
The advent of nanotechnology has a wide range of implications for many scientific and industrial sectors and has been a subject of focus by companies and research teams working in the aerospace and defense industries.
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Whereas once nanotechnology was the realm of academia and science fiction, in recent decades this relatively new field of research has found potential real-world applications, improving several existing technologies and opening up possibilities for ever-more complex and surprising applications.
The aerospace & defense industries include Conventional and non-conventional weaponry research, satellite, rocket, drone and guided missile development, and non-lethal systems such as communications and battlefield medical devices.
This article will discuss some of these technological applications and provide details of the current state of nanotechnology in the defense and aerospace industries.
One of the main applications of nanotechnology concerning the defense industry is the creation of a new class of weaponry: Nano-weaponry. DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Products Agency, has been working on several projects in this field to bring these weapons to the battlefield.
It has been envisioned that in the future, weapons could be produced which can fire small missiles, sensors, and machines that can find water in any environment. These weapons could all be linked via a mobile command-and-control interface. Autonomous nanomachines are also envisioned which could be injected into a target, much the same as current medical nanomachinery in development, albeit with a military application.
Aside from the more fanciful aspects of this potential field of weapons research, one major application of nanotechnology to conventional weaponry that is currently being researched is the inclusion of nanomaterials in their construction. These materials can bring advantages to weaponry including weight reduction and environmental protection. Nanotechnology-based sensors for conventional weaponry such as missiles are also an area of research, improving these weapon’s efficiency.
Space exploration faces several challenges: stringent fuel constraints for sending payloads into orbit, the longevity of missions further out than Earth orbit, and the need for new materials that can cope with the hostile environment of space. Nanomaterials and components can help reduce payload weight, size, and power consumption, constructing materials that protect against radiation and the cold of space. A current project in development for exploration beyond our solar system is Breakthrough Starshot, which aims to send probes utilizing nanotechnological advances into deep space.
Other Nanotechnological Military Applications.
Other advances that nanotechnology can provide for military and defense applications include:
- Improvements in biological, nuclear, and chemical sensing.
- Emergency response.
- Casualty care and medical applications.
- Military clothing – Including improvements to body armor, more effective, dynamic, chameleon-like camouflage, stronger and lighter materials, materials with enhanced sensory capabilities, better insulation and reflectivity, and materials with the ability to absorb or reject toxins and chemical agents.
- Training – Virtual reality systems which are based on nanostructured electronics can offer improvements in this area.
- Advanced automation and robotics – Offsetting reductions in military manpower, reducing risks to troops on the battlefield, and improving vehicle performance.
- Reducing life-cycle costs and providing diminished failure rates.
The Current State of The Aerospace and Defense Markets
Global military spending increased to $1.8 trillion in 2018. This represents a 2.6% increase, compared to 2017, with the five largest spenders being the US, China, Saudi Arabia, India, and France. Global spending increased for the second consecutive year, with the total amount of expenditure being the highest since 1988 when records began. US military spending increased for the first time since 2010.
In 2017 the U.S. government spent $83.9 billion on research and development in the aerospace & defense industry, and industry output totalled $865 billion. The aerospace & defense industry is a major international sector.
Major contractors in the aerospace & defense industry include Boeing, BAE Systems, Airbus and Northrop Grumman.
Nanotechnology and the Military – An Existential Question?
Many observers of the rise of nanotechnology are calling for regulation of this sector, especially its potential military uses. They see the increasing use of nanotechnology as an existential threat which must be kept a close eye on in case it should get out of control. There is currently no legal international framework to ensure that research by countries looking to develop nanotechnological military applications abide by the same kind of rules as nuclear, biological and chemical warfare research.
Edwards, E. et al. (2017) Overview of Nanotechnology in Military and Aerospace Applications, Nanotechnology Commercialization: Manufacturing Processes and Products Chapter 5.
Altmann, J, and Gubrud, M. (2004) Anticipating Military Nanotechnology, IEEE Technology and Society Magazine Vol. 23 Issue 4.
World military expenditure grows to $1.8 trillion in 2018, Stockholm International Peace Research Institute
2018 U.S. Aerospace and Defense Annual Report, Aerospace Industries Association