Sightlines

Innovations: Why the Future of War Might Look Like Vegas

A naval laser light show, a cactus-inspired hydrogen car, and a new way to keep space clean.

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Naval arsenals have long revolved around missiles. These hulking systems, however, consume precious space, are expensive, and can run out of ammo when a ship is at sea. Chinese, Russian, and U.S. militaries reportedly have experimented with laser weapon systems that are lighter and smaller, and that keep working if they’re connected to powerful generators. In 2014, the crew of the USS Ponce shot down a drone and targeted small, unmanned boats with a prototype, marking the first time a deployed U.S. ship used laser weapons.

The invention of a new class of armaments, though, requires a corresponding class of defenses. So, with funding from the Office of Naval Research, American scientists have spent two years building Laser Identification Through Scattering and Beam Recognition (LITSABR).

Laser weapons work by focusing beams of light, often at infrared wavelengths invisible to humans, onto targets; the deposited energy causes the objects to melt or burn. Existing laser detectors must be positioned directly in a beam’s path, right beside whatever an enemy wants to destroy. Protecting something huge would be complicated and costly: Defending an aircraft carrier, say, would require several dozen detectors installed all along a ship.

LITSABR, by contrast, is designed to spot lasers from any angle, no matter where the system is located. While its name is a not-so-subtle reference to Star Wars, it takes cues from Las Vegas’s famous light shows.

On the Strip, theatrical fog is pumped before audiences so that, when colorful lasers hit suspended water particles, light scatters into a brilliant display. Laser weapons interact similarly with wisps of aerosol and dust in the atmosphere—the effect just can’t be seen. LITSABR detectors, operating like infrared cameras, could recognize this dispersion, sounding the alarm when even tiny amounts of scattered light hit them. One detector could scan a large area, boosting the Navy’s situational awareness.

What the detectors would look like and where in relation to a defended object they would be placed is, according to the Navy, yet to be determined since LITSABR research is still in the lab phase. So don’t expect an open-air show just yet.

The Gift of the Cacti

Two decades ago, car companies predicted that they’d have millions of hydrogen fuel-cell cars on the road by 2020. Today, that seems impossible, given that only three models are in commercial production and the estimated number of actual hydrogen cars on the road is still in the low thousands.

Blocking these cars from the fast lane is the finicky synthetic membrane found in the most common type of fuel cell. It has to be kept at just the right humidity to allow protons to pass through as electrons are channeled in another direction, producing electricity inside the cell. Car companies thus pack bulky humidifiers inside their hydrogen vehicles, adding weight and sucking up power.

A team of Australian and Korean scientists is taking a page from nature’s playbook to solve this problem. Cacti are famous for their hydration systems: tiny pores that open automatically in humid night air and close each morning to retain the water they’ve absorbed. To mimic that phenomenon, the researchers have created a membrane with “nanocracks” that widen when exposed to water and close when they start drying out. (Viewed on a molecular scale, it looks like a cracked mud flat.) Rather than relying on a humidifier, it’s self-regulating; the membrane absorbs a small amount of water produced during the fuel cell’s reactions, keeping its moisture levels steady.

If put into commercial production, it could allow automakers to dump ponderous old models for sleeker new ones, giving green drivers all the more incentive to buy hydrogen cars.

Just Act Natural

Passwords and verification systems aren’t fail-safe ways to keep online information secure. Even James Bond-like methods, such as fingerprint recognition and retina scans, can be spoofed with the right materials. What’s more, due to hackers, a legitimate login doesn’t guarantee that the user will control what happens a few minutes later.

The answer? Just be yourself.

This spring, Los Angeles-based TeleSign launched software that uses “behavioral biometrics.” It can track a user’s mouse and keystroke dynamics and page navigation patterns. For mobile devices, it notes details such as how someone holds a phone. “Behavior ID” relies on algorithms that separate signal from noise, sorting through data streams to determine which individual behaviors are most consistent and then incorporating them into a sophisticated user profile. Impersonators could be detected as soon as they handle a device.

Thanks to TeleSign, in other words, it could be OK to forget your password. Again.

I Can See My Smokestack From Here

It’ll be impossible for the United States to cut emissions by roughly a quarter below 2005 levels by 2025, as President Barack Obama promised last year, without keeping closer tabs on the country’s power plants. Monitoring systems are often expensive and outdated; many detect only smog-causing pollutants, not all greenhouse gases belched into the air.

Montreal-based GHGSat wants to zoom in on environmental offenders. The company has developed a small, low-Earth orbit satellite that can observe individual polluters and provide reliable measurements of their emissions. The machine can detect carbon dioxide and methane with instruments that identify “spectral signatures” created when the gases absorb sunlight. Set to launch this summer, it will orbit every 90 minutes and regularly deliver data to clients.

The first customers will be energy companies that GHGSat promises “will be able to monitor all of their facilities … in near-real time.” Environmental watchdogs, though, could be next in line.

21,700

That’s about how many pieces of junk, softball-sized and larger, orbiting the planet that the U.S. Space Surveillance Network is tracking. The garbage threatens to smash satellites and the International Space Station, so Singapore start-up Astroscale is building a janitor. Its satellite has a detachable unit, slathered with a special adhesive, that can grab debris and propel it downward to burn upon re-entry into the atmosphere.

Photograph: Courtesy of GHGSat

Eliza Strickland is a senior associate editor at IEEE Spectrum, a publication for tech and engineering insiders.

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