For all the robots in our arsenals, conflict will still involve actual human beings for a long, long time. Keeping all those people in uniform trained, educated, rested, housed, watered, powered and cared for medically will place a growing strain on the maritime services’ resources. Trying to “get 20 pounds of flour into a 10-pound bag” with the Optimal Manning Program is now acknowledged to have been a failure, and it remains to be seen whether its results are framed as valuable experimental data or fuel for risk aversion.
Training is now so critical to working and maintaining a high-tech Navy and Marine Corps that it must, in Vice Admiral Richard Hunt’s words, be seen as “future tooth” in the tooth-to-tail ratio. He even alluded to the concept of a “PS3″ or “X-box” ship, one that is engineered and configured to be easy to master. This is not trivial. Consider a push by the Navy to make all manner of complex propulsion, communication and other systems able to teach operators and maintenance crews how to use themselves. Such technology, once propagated into the civilian space like the Internet and wireless technologies, could be revolutionary.
Imagine almost never needing to call tech support. Your car or entertainment system could walk you through how to use it and repair it. In the competitive market for video games, a great deal of work has gone into developing common button responses and actions, akin to automotive dashboard controls. Although there is certainly a current of deliberate obscurity and complexity to many techniques, due to the currency of arcane knowledge in game circles, the general trend has been to open the fields to users by lowering the bar to actual gameplay.
Wandering the West 2011 exhibit hall, I was struck by other cutting-edge technologies. At the Ballistic Missile Defense booth, I noted the sheer physical scale of the hardware: tall fat missiles and intensely complex kill vehicles, their innards elegantly cut away to reveal telescopes and rockets. Admittedly, it was a little weird to watch a video with the Rising Sun ensign fluttering over a successful Japanese Self-Defense Force BMD test 300 miles off Hawaii.
Never mind most of the now-tired-looking CGI: the beautiful scale models of the F-35 and the DDG-1000 entranced this model-builder and animator. Over at the Navy’s SPAWAR space, Daniel Tam’s demo of a seawater jet turned into a radio antenna was really thought-provoking. It’s still in the testing phase, he told me; next he wants access to a fireboat so he can push the transceiver range.
The coolest space on the convention center’s floor was, without a doubt, the StarTIDES booth, focused on high- and low-tech humanitarian relief. You couldn’t miss the booth, it was right out of Burning Man — staffers ate lunch inside a foamboard hogan, next to a satellite ground station inside a giant beachball. Overhead floated “Mako,” a plastic-bag blimp with wings, attached to its suitcase ground station by 200-pound fishing line. (See video.) Its pocket-cam broadcast nifty live streams to John Surmont’s laptop as he talked about his company’s garage zeppelin. I’ll cover Sofcoast’s blimp in another article; suffice to say that serious people noted that it’s the only UAV that doesn’t require an FAA permit — a very big deal.
Other coolness to be seen was Lifegivingforce’s desalinator-in-a-box (100 pounds, 500 gallons per day, solar-powered), durable shelters with a kilowatt of photovoltaics bonded to the fabric and an adobe brick-maker that fits on a standard military trailer and can crank out 300 bricks an hour out of anything compactable.