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Military inventions hit the civilian market

Although built for battle, these inventions are perfect in peacetime.

By Staff Writer for The Christian Science Monitor / June 19, 2008

MIT researcher Hugh Herr says he had trouble finding funding for his research into prosthetic limbs before US forces invaded Iraq. Now, thanks to military grants, his innovations can help both soldiers and civilians.

Tom A. Peter

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Cambridge, Mass.

Although Hugh Herr was a respected professor at Harvard Medical School, he says finding someone to bankroll a new prosthetic knee project was tough before the Iraq war. He could get funding from the prosthetic industry, but government sources showed little interest.

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But a year and a half after the invasion of Iraq, the tides turned. The United States Department of Veterans Affairs provided the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and several other institutions with $7.2 million to study artificial arms and legs for amputees. The money, along with key technological innovations, has helped Dr. Herr, now an associate professor at the MIT Media Lab, create a powered ankle and knee, the next generation of prosthetics.

“If you plot prosthetic limb technology versus time, you see a major spike in innovation after every war – except Vietnam … and this current conflict is similar in that regard,” says Herr. And since his latest research has implications for other fields, such as robotics, he hopes interest and funding will continue after the Iraq war ends.

Throughout history, war has presented unique challenges that have spurred and inspired the development of new technologies – inventions that may have taken years, or even decades, to evolve in the civilian market. After more than five years, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have begun to leave their footprint on science history, generating everything from thermal imaging devices to video-game-like training platforms that are already trickling into daily life.

The military has driven technology as far back as the Roman Empire. The Roman road system, for example, was originally built for troop transport, but civilians were the ultimate beneficiaries. The same could be said about Eisenhower’s interstate highway system, designed during the cold war.

“As war became so technologically dependent, a whole range of technologies became important and many of them had civilian applications,” says Alex Roland, a history professor who focuses on the military and technology at Duke University in Durham, N.C. “Each particular conflict, if it goes on long enough, spurs its own special kinds of development.”

In America’s current conflicts, concerns about overstretching the military have allowed for significant investment in devices that allow fewer troops to do more.In years past, soldiers on guard duty watched their base’s perimeter through a pair of binoculars. Today, many rely on thermal imaging. A system created by FLIR, an imaging company in Wilsonville, Ore., can generate a clear picture of an area 20 kilometers away in total darkness and through smoke or fog.FLIR has worked with the military to provide these systems since the 1980s, seeing a boom in business during each conflict. But nothing has generated business like the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Since 2000, the value of the company’s stock has increased by at least a hundredfold.

“When you look at a situation like the last few years, where you have a couple $100 million of additional equipment being purchased [and] going into the Iraq and Afghanistan theaters, $200 million’s worth of equipment means we’re investing $20 million in additional research and development,” says Andrew Teich, president of commercial vision systems at FLIR.