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War Games: A look back at some of the most popular innovations of 2014

Tiny walking bio-bots are powered by muscle cells and controlled by an electric field.

Tiny walking bio-bots are powered by muscle cells and controlled by an electric field.  (Janet Sinn-Hanlon/Group VetMed)

What do cyborgs, thought-controlled planes, peacock shrimp armor, sharpshooting, and the “Interstellar” spacecraft all have in common? These were all your favorites that we covered in 2014. Here’s a look back at the most popular innovations.

Will U.S. cyborgs be the next to deploy?

In 2014, a new cyborg, which will be part machine and part biological muscle, took its first steps.

University of Illinois researchers created a tiny new creature that is the first robot that uses live muscle for power. With National Science Foundation funding, the research team has created a muscle-powered biological machine that can be controlled with an electric current.

It could lead to a new generation of biological robots, or “biobots.”

Researchers around the world have been hoping to use this type of technology for a range of applications, from building military robots to designing replacement organs.

Military robots have been on the U.S. military’s table for a while. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has been pioneering robot research for many years, and Gen. Robert Cone, commander of the Army Training and Doctrine Command, announced in January that he was tasked with considering the reduction of brigade combat teams from 4,000 to 3,000 soldiers, effectively replacing the human personnel with robots.

But humanoid robots, like humans, are very complicate. They also remain elusive for now. The advances needed to build ones that can go to war are vast — these robots require human dexterity and movement control, not to mention quantum computing that can achieve human levels of intelligence.

Some researchers believe the solution will be combining machines with living tissue to create “Terminator”-style cyborgs. It’s still the stuff of science fiction, but the tiny biobots could mark a key step forward.

Thought-controlled planes are in our future

Why pilot a plane with your hands and feet when you can do it with your brain? Thought-controlled flight could be arriving soon, according to the E.U.-funded BrainFlight project.

A team of scientists from the Institute for Flight System Dynamics and the Berlin Institute of Technology translated brain impulses to control commands, which enables pilots in a plane simulator to achieve a range of remarkably precise maneuvers without touching the controls or pedals.

Wearing a cap with lots of cables attached, pilots in the simulator were able to land a plane simply by looking at the screen and moving the control stick with their thoughts, correcting the plane’s position repeatedly until it landed.

To achieve the breakthrough, the researchers connected electroencephalography (EEG) electrodes to a cap to measure the pilot’s brain waves. An algorithm created by Berlin Institute of Technology scientists enabled a program to decipher the brain waves and convert them to commands, which were then fed into the plane’s control system.

Once it’s perfected, brain-controlled flight could reduce pilot workload and increase safety. Freeing up pilots’ hands would give them freedom of movement to manage other manual tasks in the cockpit.

Imagine what trained military pilots might be able to do with this technology.

Looking for a way to make tougher, more impact-resistant military airplanes and vehicles? Study shrimp.

The Air Force Office of Scientific Research and the National Science Foundation funded research that examined the peacock mantis shrimp, a 4- to 6-inch-long rainbow-colored shrimp that lives in tropical waters and looks like an armored caterpillar.

University of California Riverside collaborated with the University of Southern California and Purdue University to study the shrimp, hoping it will provide clues to transforming the materials used not only for aircraft frames, but for military body armor, vehicle frames, and more.

What’s special about this shrimp is its orange fist-like club, which – get this – can accelerate underwater faster than a .22-caliber bullet.

In striking its prey, the club actually shears through water and boils it, creating cavitation bubbles that implode and cause a secondary impact.

The shrimp uses its club to destroy mollusk shells and crab exoskeletons, both of which are studied for their own impact resistance.

The club creates an impact force that is more than 1,000 times its own weight. It’s also incredibly resilient. Research suggests the club can withstand 50,000 high-velocity strikes without breaking during its lifespan.

The researchers are investigating the composition of the club, which can withstand the equivalent of 50,000 bullet impacts. In addition to being highly impact-tolerant and shock-resistant, it is lightweight, stiff, and tough.

It has a complex structure with three specialized regions, all of which work together to make it tougher than many engineered ceramics.

The potential applications are broad from body armor to even pee wee football helmets. On airplanes, they could reduce weight, repairs, and fuel costs while improving impact resistance.

Sharpshooters raised $1.2M for military charities

War Games column readers definitely have charitable and patriotic hearts. Our story on patriotic Americans from around the country heading to Texas recently for the Remington Great American Shoot was one of your top five favorites.

The largest charity fundraising shoot ever held in America raised nearly $1.2 million for military charities. The inaugural event was held Sept. 20, 2014 at the Cypress Valley Shooting Preserve just north of Austin.

All of the funds raised went to the Special Forces Charitable Trust and other military-related charities. The charities that benefited from the event were the Special Operations Care Fund, Military Warriors, So That Others May Live, as well as Gold Star Teens Adventure.

This national shoot was sponsored by Remington Arms and pays homage to the men and women who are serving and who have served in the U.S. military’s special operations.

Sponsor Remington provided a number of prizes to the competitors, including a 2014 Jeep Rubicon, which went to the top individual fundraiser. The second and third-highest fundraisers, respectively, won an M2010 Sniper Weapon System and an R5 RGP combat rifle. 

More than 80 participants and over 1,000 donors were involved in the inaugural shoot.

Want to help? For more information on the Remington Great Americans Shoot and to donate, visit this website. Registration to shoot to support American war fighters in 2015 is now open.

NASA’s Orion spacecraft could make ‘Interstellar’ a reality

By the time Christopher Nolan’s epic movie “Interstellar” opened, NASA’s Orion spacecraft was well on its way to making this sort of space exploration beyond the moon a reality.

In real life, Orion is NASA’s first spacecraft designed to carry humans on long duration missions in deep space exploration. Orion will take humans to interplanetary destinations beyond low Earth orbit and return them safely back home.

This landmark spacecraft could make exploring asteroids, the moon’s hidden far side, Mars, and other destinations throughout the solar system a possibility for mankind.

Lockheed Martin leads the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle development. The team includes Aerojet Rocketdyne, United Technologies Aerospace Systems, and Honeywell. Companies from 45 states are also involved in the ambitious project.

The state-of-the-art Orion spacecraft will carry a crew of up to six astronauts.

Innovative measures to keep the crew safe will also be built into the spacecraft.

In terms of radiation protection, Orion’s cutting-edge heat shield will protect crew members from the likes of solar flares and cosmic rays. So far, the shield can provide protection to astronauts for missions of six to seven months.

Deep-space communication, groundbreaking propulsion, sufficient living space, and life support supplies for long duration missions will all be essential.

Orion will be able to withstand mega speeds greater than 20,000-miles per hour during re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere, which are much higher speeds than those clocked in by vehicles designed to only reach the International Space Station.

Asteroids as stepping stones to Mars

Traditionally, reaching asteroids was considered extremely challenging, more so even than getting to the moon and Mars. In spite of being many times farther than the moon, some of these new asteroids are accessible with spacecraft like Orion.

A mission to an asteroid could take astronauts several million miles from Earth, lasting about six months.

One Orion will not be large enough for an asteroid mission, but two will be.


Asteroid missions are important because they could act as crucial stepping stones to deeper space exploration, serving as intermediate steps between reaching the moon and Mars, for instance.

It is also important in terms of planetary defense. Investigating asteroids will help us understand which ones are threats and learn how to deflect an asteroid that is on a collision course with Earth.

On Dec. 5, 2014, NASA’s Orion successfully completed tests for a deep space mission and re-entry before Orion’s first human flight. In 2017, Orion will deploy on an exploration mission for the first time. This mission could involve a 6-day journey to almost 250,000 miles from Earth.

Allison Barrie is a defense specialist with experience in more than 70 countries who consults at the highest levels of defense and national security, a lawyer with four postgraduate degrees, and author of the definitive guide, Future Weapons: Access Granted, on sale in 30 countries.  Barrie hosts the new hit podcast “Tactical Talk”  where she gives listeners direct access to the most fascinating Special Operations warriors each week and to find out more about the FOX Firepower host and columnist you can click here or follow her on Twitter @allison_barrie and Instagram @allisonbarriehq.