Floating Lab Brings Navy Gadgets to the Public

A boatload of military gadgets and cutting-edge experiments is cruising from port to port, showing off its high-tech toys.

Currently docked in New York City as part of Fleet Week’s activities, the Office of Naval Research Afloat Lab (search) travels the seas giving civilians an opportunity to check out its functioning exhibits, experiments and state-of-the-art technology.

(Find out where the Afloat Lab will be docking next here: www.onr.navy.mil/events/afloat/port_visit.asp)

“It’s more than a museum, it’s a floating lab that always has new experiments taking place on it,” said Gail Cleere, spokeswoman for the Office of Naval Research.

The Afloat Lab is a testing center for new technologies to be used by the Navy and Marines and some of the high-tech gadgets may one day be available for public use as well.

QuikClot (search), a blood clotting material that was used by troops during Operation Iraqi Freedom, is a model success story for the Office of Naval Research, said Bart Gullong, executive vice president for Z-Medica, which produces the product.

“In six months, QuikClot went from discovery to deployment to the commercial market.”

The FDA only took nine days to approve the product, which helped save lives during the war. Now places ranging from emergency rooms to sporting goods stores are asking about stocking it as well.

Another invention that is being tested to keep troops comfortable, as well as save their lives, is the Cooled Armor Vest (search), Bill Reason, an engineer with Naval Air Systems Command (search), explained.

The product, made particularly for helicopter pilots because their crafts do not have temperature controls, contains an Advanced Personal Air Conditioning System, which can cool or heat the body. This is particularly helpful in Iraq and other desert conditions that are extremely hot during the day but cold at night.

In addition to keeping troops comfortable, the vest can save their lives thanks to its bulletproof technology. The vest isn't in use yet, but will be flight-tested within a year, according to Reason.

The military is also developing a host of technologies that will give troops eyes in the back of their heads and then some — from the air, in a cave or even underwater.

Giving the military eyes from the skies, the Silver Fox unmanned aerial vehicle was originally developed to track whale migration, to ensure naval activities wouldn't clash with the ocean's gentle giants, and was then modified for scouting purposes during Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Silver Fox flies up to 1,000 feet high, relaying images from its camera to the ground. And expert piloting skills are not required to operate it — flight is autonomous thanks to its Global Position Satellite system.

While the Fox can fly and spy over water, other electronic critters crawl below.

The dangers of land mines are commonly known but sea mines can be just as deadly. There are some places divers just can’t check, but the Surf Zone Crawler plunges in without fear to detect hidden dangers.

“It can go places [where] you don’t need wide communication bandwidth, like tunnels, caves and underwater,” said Mitch Gavrilash, an engineer on the project. 

This rugged vehicle sends images back to a remote human operator, and was used to explore the caves of Afghanistan during Operation Enduring Freedom.

Another roving reconnaissance vehicle can help eliminate the element of surprise for troops by inspecting unknown zones before they venture forward. The seemingly indestructible Dragon Runner, which is about the size of a remote-controlled car, has a mobile sensor designed to “increase situational awareness” for Marines. It can land either side up and easily be toted around by troops.

“A Marine can throw this into a building through a window and get a view of what’s inside from a safe distance, watching the video from a handheld remote unit," said John Thomas, who handles Experiment Operations for the Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory. "Then he can determine if it’s safe to proceed."

At first glance, the Afloat Lab may seem to be a sailing toy shop, but closer inspection shows these high-tech devices are far more than child's play, able to withstand ocean surf, high altitudes and rough and tumble turf, all in an effort to help with strategy and safety during military operations.