It’s a common enough Hollywood trope that we’ve all probably seen it: the general, chest bespangled with medals and ribbons, gazes at a big screen swarming with the phosphor traces of incoming ICBMs, defeatedly picks up the phone and somberly intones, “Get me the president.” We’re left on the edge of our seats as we ponder what it must be like to have to deliver the bad news to the boss, knowing full well that his response will literally light the world on fire.
Scenes like that work because we suspect that real-life versions of it probably played out dozens of times during the Cold War, and likely once or twice since its official conclusion. Such scenes also play into our suspicion that military and political leaders have at their disposal technologies that are vastly superior to what’s available to consumers, chief among them being special communications networks that provide capabilities we could only have dreamed of back then.
As it turns out, the US military did indeed have different and better telephone capabilities during the Cold War than those enjoyed by their civilian counterparts. But as we shall see, the increased capabilities of the network that came to be known as AUTOVON didn’t come so much from better technology, but more from duplicating the existing public switched-telephone network and using good engineering principles, a lot of concrete, and a dash of paranoia to protect it.
The jet engine has a long and storied history. Its development occurred spontaneously amongst several unrelated groups in the early 20th Century. Frank Whittle submitted a UK patent on a design in 1930, while Hans von Ohain begun exploring the field in Germany in 1935. Leading on from Ohain’s work, the first flight of a jet-powered aircraft was in August 27, 1939. By the end of World War II, a smattering of military jet aircraft had entered service, and the propeller was on the way out as far as high performance aviation is concerned.
In the age of the Internet and open source, technology moves swiftly around the world. In the consumer space, companies are eager to sell their product to as many customers as possible, shipping their latest wares worldwide lest their competitors do so first. In the case of products more reliant on infrastructure, we see a slower roll out. Hydrogen-powered cars are only available in select regions, while services like media streaming can take time to solve legal issues around rights to exhibit material in different countries. In these cases, we often see a lag of 5-10 years at most, assuming the technology survives to maturity.
In most cases, if there’s a market for a technology, there’ll be someone standing in line to sell it. However, some can prove more tricky than others. The ballpoint pen is one example of a technology that most of us would consider quaint to the point of mediocrity. However, despite producing over 80% of the world’s ballpoint pens, China was unable to produce the entire pen domestically. Chinese manufactured ballpoint tips performed poorly, with scratchy writing as the result. This attracted the notice of government officials, which resulted in a push to improve the indigenous ballpoint technology. In 2017, they succeeded, producing high-quality ballpoint pens for the first time.
The secrets to creating just the right steel, and manipulating it into a smooth rolling ball just right for writing, were complex and manifold. The Japanese, German, and Swiss companies that supplied China with ballpoint tips made a healthy profit from the trade. Sharing the inside knowledge on how it’s done would only seek to destroy their own business. Thus, China had to go it alone, taking 5 years to solve the problem.
There was little drive for pen manufacturers to improve their product; the Chinese consumer was more focused on price than quality. Once the government made it a point of national pride, things shifted. For jet engines, however, it’s somewhat of a different story.
Imagine you’re out behind enemy lines in WW2, setting up demolition charges that may save the lives of your fellow soldiers. How do we make a solid connection between wires that will last? One of the solutions that were used by the OSS and SOE, the predecessors to the CIA and British Secret Service, were self soldering sleeves that could be lit like a match. [ElementalMaker] managed to get his hands on a box of these sleeves, and found that they work incredibly well, even after more than half a century.
The sleeves consist of a copper tube with solder and flux inside, and wax-covered pyrotechnic compound around the outside. A small blob of striker compound similar to a match head is used to set the soldering process in motion, using the striker surface on the outside of the oversize matchbox that the sleeves are packed in. The pack that the [ElementalMaker] got was made in 1964, but is supposedly no different from those used in WW2.
When lit, the pyrotechnic compound does not create any flame, it only smolders, probably to make it safer to use, and avoid detection at night. As the solder inside the sleeve melts, the operator is supposed to push the wires further into the tube to make them overlap. Although [ElementalMaker] didn’t cut open the sleeves, it definitely looks like a good joint, with solder oozing from the ends. Check out the video after the break! If you want to get your hands on a pack of these sleeves, it looks like a military surplus store in the UK managed to source some.
The economies of scale generally dictate that anything produced in large enough numbers will eventually become cheap. But despite the fact that a few thousand of them are tearing across the sky above our heads at any given moment, turbine jet engines are still expensive to produce compared to other forms of propulsion. The United States Air Force Research Laboratory is hoping to change that by developing their own in-house, open source turbine engine that they believe could reduce costs by as much as 75%.
The Responsive Open Source Engine (ROSE) is designed to be cheap enough that it can be disposable, which has obvious military applications for the Air Force such as small jet-powered drones or even missiles. But even for the pacifists in the audience, it’s hard not to get excited about the idea of a low-cost open source turbine. Obviously an engine this small would have limited use to commercial aviation, but hackers and makers have always been obsessed with small jet engines, and getting one fired up and self-sustaining has traditionally been something of a badge of honor.
Since ROSE has been developed in-house by the Air Force, they have complete ownership of the engine’s intellectual property. This allows them to license the design to manufacturers for actual production rather than buying an existing engine from a single manufacturer and paying whatever their asking price is. The Air Force will be able to shop ROSE around to potential venders and get the best price for fabrication. Depending on how complex the engine is to manufacture, even smaller firms could get in on the action. The hope is that this competition will serve to not only improve the design, but also to keep costs down.
We know what you’re thinking. Where is the design, and what license is it released under? Unfortunately, that aspect of ROSE seems unclear. The engine is still in development so the Air Force isn’t ready to show off the design. But even when it’s complete, we’re fairly skeptical about who will actually have access to it. Open Source is in the name of the project and to live up to that the design needs to be available to the general public. From a purely tactical standpoint keeping the design of a cheap and reliable jet engine away from potential enemy states would seem to be a logical precaution, but is at cross purposes to what Open Source means. Don’t expect to be seeing it on GitHub anytime soon. Nuclear reactors are still fair game, though.
The recent crop of cyberdeck builds are inspired, at least tangentially, by William Gibson’s novel Neuromancer and its subsequent sequels. In the novels, the decks are used as mobile terminals to access the virtual reality of cyberspace. In our world, they’re usually just quasi-retro boxes with Raspberry Pis in them. Artistic license and all that. But the “XMT-19 Cutlass”, a deck built by [CaptNumbNutz], attempts to hew more closely to the source material than most builds we’ve seen.
Of course it won’t be transporting you into the matrix, and ultimately it’s still just a casemod for the Raspberry Pi. But at least it does a fantastic job of fitting the Neuromancer motif. The design is supposed to look like the XMT-19 was a piece of high-tech military hardware that was later co-opted by a cyberspace cowboy operating in the urban megatropolis that Gibson called the Sprawl, with exposed wiring and a visual mish-mash of components.
If you can believe it, the build started out as a locking clipboard of all things. From there, [CaptNumbNutz] started layering on the hand-cut foam greebles and spraying on the WWII inspired color scheme. We especially like the yellow tips on the antennas that invoke the propellers of vintage airplanes, and the serial number stenciled onto the bottom. In a departure from basically every other cyberdeck we’ve seen to date, there appear to be no 3D printed elements on the XMT-19; all the parts are hand made with nothing more than an a sharp knife and a heap of patience.
In terms of the electronics, the whole build has been greatly simplified by the use of a SmartiPi Touch case, which integrates the Pi and touch screen into a single hinged unit that just needed to get bolted to the top of the deck. Plus it gave him an excuse to put a big rainbow ribbon cable on the back of it to reach the Pi’s GPIO ports, which as you know, instantly makes everything look more retro-futuristic.
Sun Tzu said, “The line between disorder and order lies in logistics.” This is as true in the modern world as it was 2500 years ago, and logistics have helped win and lose many wars and battles over the centuries. To this end, Logistical Gliders Inc. is developing one-time use, unmanned delivery gliders, for the US Military.
Reminiscent of the military gliders used in WW2, the gliders are designed to be dropped from a variety of aircraft, glide for up to 70 miles and deliver supplies to troops in the field. Specifically intended to be cheap enough to be abandoned after use, the gliders are constructed from plywood, a few aluminum parts for reinforcement and injection molded wing panels. There are two versions of the glider, both with huge payloads. The LG-1K, with a payload capacity of 700 lbs/320 kg and the larger LG-2K, with a payload capacity of 1,600 lbs/725 kg. Wings are folded parallel to the fuselage during transport and then open after release with the help of gas springs. The glider can either do a belly landing in an open area or deploy a parachute from the tail at low altitude to land on the crushable nose.
Gliders like these could be used to deliver supplies after natural disasters, or to remote locations where road travel is difficult or impossible while reducing the flight time required for conventional aircraft. Powered UAVs could even be used to carry/tow a glider to the required release point and then return much lighter and smaller, reducing the required fuel or batteries.
It is said that Benjamin Franklin, while watching the first manned flight of a hot air balloon by the Montgolfier brothers in Paris in 1783, responded when questioned as to the practical value of such a thing, “Of what practical use is a new-born baby?” Dr. Franklin certainly had a knack for getting to the heart of an issue.
Much the same can be said for Spot, the extremely videogenic dog-like robot that Boston Dynamics has been teasing for years. It appears that the wait for a production version of the robot is at least partially over, and that Spot (once known as Spot Mini) will soon be available for purchase by “select partners” who “have a compelling use case or a development team that [Boston Dynamics] believe can do something really interesting with the robot,” according to VP of business development Michael Perry.
The qualification of potential purchasers will certainly limit the pool of early adopters, as will the price tag, which is said to be as much as a new car – and a nice one. So it’s not likely that one will show up in a YouTube teardown video soon, so until the day that Dave Jones manages to find one in his magic Australian dumpster, we’ll have to entertain ourselves by trying to answer a simple question: Of what practical use is a robotic dog?