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TechWatch: Commercial Expos

The annual Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas is the world’s largest exposition of cutting edge civilian technology – both recently entered into the marketplace and planned to begin shipping within the coming year.

But looking at those products and technologies from a military perspective creates a decidedly new paradigm. Regardless of eventual civilian applications, how a technology – or its underlying research – may be of use to the military or, if it does succeed as a commercial product, how might it improve the lives of individual warfighters, can change the course of future combat.

Two such products unveiled at CES in recent years demonstrate this concept.

Jadoo Power (Folsom, Calif.) developed a small, lightweight hydrogen fuel cell for use with television remote video cameras. By the time they had it down to the size of a soda can, it had attracted the interest of the U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM). A fuel cell of the type shown at CES in 2006 – capable of providing up to 275 watt-hours of power each to virtually any device and rechargeable in the field using a compact refill station – could help solve a major military problem.

All the services have become increasingly dependent on batteries to keep many important devices operating, from satellite phones and military laptops to night vision goggles and individual GPS navigation units. Traditional batteries create a multitude of problems, from the number that must be carried in the field to disposing of dead batteries. Simply tossing them away is both an environmental problem and a sign to enemy forces that the unit is in the area.

The Jadoo fuel cell had problems of its own, such as requiring hydrogen tanks for the refill station. With no need of their own, Jadoo’s commercial customers had little interest in helping pay the cost of developing a system to pull hydrogen directly from the air. But the fuel cell itself was popular with the TV and movie industries, providing a commercial base for future development. And it was the kind of technology military labs might be able to enhance – including developing a hydrogen system – at far less cost and risk than creating everything from scratch.

Since that CES expo, Jadoo has been contracted by DoD to produce an aeromedical rescue and transport power system based on their fuel cell, and has provided power for Navy tests of a next-generation version of an unmanned aerial vehicle widely used by SOCOM.

The second CES unveiling was the digital picture frame, capable of storing dozens – eventually thousands – of still images and short video clips on a device the size of a small picture frame (ultimately, one small enough to carry on a keychain). Basically a combination of existing data storage and display technologies, it had a huge manufacturing base.

The military application was tenuous, however. While able to hold a large number of maps, images of buildings and individuals, even training and maintenance guides, similar capabilities already existed or were under development. And those came with built-in security and field-level ruggedization.

For the individual warfighter, however, the ability to carry so many family photos and videos – with new material downloadable at any time by Internet – was a major boost to morale. Those deployed to combat theaters have a strict limit on personal items; that limitation approaches zero when they are on patrol, convoy duty or other assignments away from their primary quarters. Thus the value of small digital frames that can replace the one or two faded old photos past generations of warfighters carried into battle in their helmets.

When approached at CES, the manufacturers had typical reactions. Jadoo was well aware of the military potential of their fuel cells and was pursuing that with SOCOM. For the digital frame companies, however, making minor design modifications to improve portability and durability, then marketing directly to military personnel, appeared to be an epiphany.

From powerful LED flashlights and small format extended life batteries to portable solar power generators and water filtration systems developed for hunters, hikers and campers, each new CES reveals multiple potential dual use technologies and devices.

As commercial interests worldwide continue to push the frontiers of science and technology, in both breadth of concepts and number of efforts, well beyond the resources of the Pentagon and its counterparts, the value of identifying and adapting such work will become an increasingly vital part of future military capability. It is no longer just a matter of COTS or dual use, but a vital, invaluable and irreplaceable extension of defense R&D.

In future TechWatch articles, we will look at some of the most recent developments from CES 2010 and similar commercial technology shows.

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J.R. Wilson has been a full-time freelance writer, focusing primarily on aerospace, defense and high...