by October 12, 2002 0 comments

Defense or war technologies have always been at the cutting edge of technology, so much so that critics have often dubbed it as having a never-ending appetite for funds. But all said and done, many great inventions that have contributed to civilian comfort and efficiency have been thanks to military spin-offs. Computing itself is a prime example, having been born of wartime efforts in the US Army and Navy to calculate ballistic trajectories of munitions during the Second World War. Early efforts to calculate trajectories for Army firing tables by specially trained personnel nicknamed ‘computors’ using just a 
calculator, pencil and paper later led to the development of huge machines like the Eniac. Computing was given a boost by the efforts of the US Navy and NASA in the post-war period and has never looked back since then. Fast forward to the 1970s, when the US military developed the ARPANET, the forerunner of today’s Internet. Even e-mail, the quintessential killer app that changed the way we communicate, was a spin-off from a military project. It started as Ray Tomlinson’s SNDMSG program to leave messages for his colleagues at defense contractor BBN’s labs.

Here are a few interesting spin-offs from military research.

Indian Defense Spin-offs
Coming to the Indian scenario, the DRDO and its sister organizations have been behind the military research efforts in the country. Many things developed for the armed forces have since found their way into general usage later.
The much-debated LCA (Light Combat Aircraft) project has been the creator of many major technology spin-offs. The Autolay composites software developed by ADA (Aeronautical Development Agency) has been chosen by Airbus Industries for the development of its new 600-seater jet, the A380. Already the software has earned ADA, revenues of $4 million in seven years. Today ADA is a major player in the CAD/CAM software market and has software like Autolay that are in the same class as CATIA from IBM or PACKS from
From DRDO itself a number of useful and cost-effective inventions have been spun off, from the money and efforts put into the missile and LCA research. Some of these interesting inventions that are quietly changing lives are:
Lightweight limb support for polio patients called the FRO (Floor Reaction
Orthosis). The ultra-strong lightweight reinforced plastics used to make missile nose cones is now used to reduce the weight of a conventional 4 kg caliper to an FRO one-tenth of its weight (400 g).
India’s first indigenous coronary stent (a scaffolding device used to dilate constricted arteries for proper blood flow in heart patients). While an imported stent costs around Rs 60,000, the indigenous ‘Kalam-Raju
stent’ developed by defense scientists from three Hyderabad labs will cost only Rs 25,000.
Nd-Yag laser for treating glucoma and cataract
PC-based scanjet digital scanner
A chopper-control system that will now be used in suburban trains. Its usage is expected to save about 25% of current energy bills

Satellite photography was originally for the military’s exclusive use. Both American and Russian ‘birds in space’ kept a sharp lookout on the other’s military assets, particularly nuclear missiles. The end of the Cold War resulted in the commercialisation of satellite-imaging technology. Today, remote-sensing satellites do everything from discovering new petroleum deposits in the sea bed, keeping an eye on the ozone hole to even taking aerial pictures for town planners. GIS to a great extent has developed as a new discipline only because of the availability of high-resolution satellite imagery of physical locations.

Telemedicine, which uses video conferencing and digital-imaging technologies to bring together doctors and patients who are separated by hundreds of miles, is another prime spinoff from NASA’s efforts to be in visual reach of astronauts. Remember NASA itself was set up as a corollary to US military ambitions in space.

Space programs the world over are a direct spin-off of the military usage of rockets in warfare. Tipu Sultan’s father Haider Ali is reputed to be the first person to have used rockets for warfare. Since then little had changed up to the time when Nazi Germany bombarded London with the famous V2 rockets, a technological marvel of the time. Once the Second World War ended, both US and Russia embarked on active space programs with the help of German scientists who had worked on the V2 rockets. On the other hand, computing, monitor technology and 3-D imaging all grew thanks to the space program.

Patient monitoring equipment that nurses use in hospitals is based on the technology first developed by NASA to monitor the health of astronauts. Of course, the sensors and displays have changed, but principles remain the same.

Benoy George Thomas

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