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Giving Britain's armed forces the technological edge

Entering BAE Systems’ Advanced Technology Centre wasn’t quite as exciting as I was expecting. Instead of having my retinas scanned and then being escorted underground to a steel vault by robot guards, I was ticked off a list and shown into a large brick garage.

Most of the gadgets didn’t look as sexy as I’d hoped either. When I heard ‘liquid armour’ I pictured something akin to the T-1000 in Terminator 2. At the words ‘vehicle cloaking’, I imagined I’d see, well, I imagined not being able to see anything at all.

Of course, the reality was much less like science fiction, and the day was as frustrating as it was fascinating, with BAE often unwilling to explain how the technology worked in detail. But the hours of work behind the devices were always apparent and the results impressive.

One of the most interesting technologies revealed was a device for acoustically sending data and power through several inches of solid steel.

A submarine typically has around 300 holes drilled in its hull in order to connect external sensors. Not only does this compromise the structure’s integrity but it can cost around £80m over the sub’s lifetime to create and maintain these holes.

Using very high modulating frequencies, BAE’s ‘through-hull data link’ is able to transmit power to the sensors and receive information back without the need for any holes. Of course attaching the sensor to the outside of the ship then becomes more difficult but at least it doesn’t create any possibilities of leaks.

The device could also be used for land vehicles or in nuclear reactors. It also transmits through aluminium and glass but not composite materials that scatter the acoustics.

BAE’s other big communications technology was a way for military convoys to send real-time video footage to each other without fear of it being intercepted. Vehicles in the desert often throw up so much dust that only the lead truck can see anything, so using a camera to film the path ahead and sending the footage to the other cars allows them to know what’s coming up.

By using a high frequency of 60Ghz, vehicles can transmit up to 4GB per second of HD video data that can only be received within 60m because such high frequency transmissions are easily absorbed by the air. As well as making interception difficult, it also means that multiple units within a local area can use the same frequency without the signals crossing over.

Not all the gadgets BAE was keen to show me were as cutting edge, although they were usually just as exciting. For example, the ‘liquid armour’ it is trialling was first used by the US military a few years ago,

Rather than being a form of armour on its own, this shear thickening fluid is added to Kevlar to help absorb the impact of bullets. Ten layers of liquid-infused Kevlar are more effective than 31 untreated layers, but are roughly 45 per cent lighter and thinner.

A shear thickening fluid is one that becomes more viscous under stress, as its molecules are forced together and form stronger chemical bonds. They’re also known as dilatants and are examples of non-Newtonian fluids. BAE wouldn’t say exactly what their liquid was, apart from saying it wasn’t a polymer, but the US used polyethylene glycol with added silica nano-particles.

Similarly, its ‘cloaking device’ and autonomous vehicle systems are good examples of how the firm is using existing ideas in new ways, rather than breakthrough technologies.

Although tight-lipped on the technical details, BAE did explain that its stealth overcoat for vehicles added protection from radar and thermal detection to visual camouflage – the first time all three forms of disguising technology have been used together.

And when it came to the self-driving vehicles, BAE admitted that while its competitors probably have similar units, its technology stands out because it can easily be applied to a range of vehicles. For example, it took them just four weeks to fit out a Land Rover with an autonomous system.

While the UK’s defence industry may not yet be ready to make battle missions look like scenes from a science fiction film, the imagination and ingenuity of its engineers are helping give British troops the technological edge.

With the strategic defence review just around the corner, should Britain continue to invest in niche defence technologies or simply concern itself with current operational requirements? Let us know what you think.

Readers' comments (10)

  • Subs are not 'ships' they're 'boats' (even when they're really big subs).

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  • It depends on the application and the devices effectiveness. If it is going to save soldiers lives it should be deployed but if all it is going to do is kill the enemy - we already have enough weapons on the planet that can do that.

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  • Surely, killing the enemy before he kills you, saves our soldiers lives!

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  • What a bunch of grumpy nit pickers read your column. Here we have leading technology that could transform our forces' performances on the ground and afloat and they pick you up on semantics! It must fill the hearts of our soldiers to know they are fighting for this type of person.
    As to the technology we seems to be getting ever nearer to employing nano particles in useful activities. Most warfare technology has civilian spin offs and I am looking forward to using adaptaions of this technology in my daily life. Of course the nit pickers who enjoy the freedom, provided by our armed forces, to say anything will have something disparaging to say about this.

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  • Are you sure that submarines are technically 'afloat'?

  • @Trevor Best

    You look forward to making use of a civilian cloaking device, liquid body armour? That can't be good.

    And in this day and age of fewer resources, no doubt it won't be long before we use military technology for attack rather than defence... indeed, when has it ever been defence, since the Falklands?

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  • Excellent site, keep up the good work. I read a lot of blogs on a daily basis and for the most part, people lack substance but, I just wanted to make a quick comment to say I’m glad I found your blog. Thanks

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  • Sure its a good thing to reduce holes in the hull to maintain structual integrity. But sending data *acoustically* (or even by vibrations) via the hull might give the British Subs a unique signature that enemies can detect.

    Instead of using their Sonar to bounce a beam off the sub for detection, enemies could read the sensor acoustic waves from afar and home in, OR get a location.

    What were these guys thinking when developing such a thing ?

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  • Innovations in other industries always filter down to the commercial markets in some form or another... Clearly no-one is going to be driving an F1 car around the UK roads, but their ceramic brakes are now improving family car's brakes... No-one is going to space anytime soon but there are plenty of innovations from the space market we all use every day...

    Its the same with the defence market, if the Kevlar armour is good for stopping bullets, why not see if there is a use for car bumpers or crumple zones to save lives on the roads...

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  • This "liquid armour" - shear thickening fluid - is already being used in the industrial sector. This is the same concept as what Audi car manufacturer is using in their shock absorbers for the next generation cars.

    I am not so sure who found it first - military or industry, but it is being used in the industrial sector so we will see some benefits from this technology.

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  • @Jeff,

    the shear thickening fluid has automotive applications, as metnioned already, and cloaking materials have applications in masking unsightly but necessary installations such as mobile phone masts and wind farms... so long as they're not under flight paths at least ;-)

    and that was what instantly came to mind. Who knows what civil applications there are if we actually sat down and thought about it!

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