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21st September 2017

What will submarines look like in 50 years?

Concept designs for submarines of the 2060s have been revealed by Britain's Royal Navy.


future submarine technology 2060s
© Crown copyright 2017


The Royal Navy has unveiled a series of futuristic submarine concepts that mimic real marine lifeforms and could radically change the way underwater warfare is conducted in 50 years. With a crewed mothership resembling a manta ray, unmanned eel-like vessels equipped with sensor pods that dissolve on demand to avoid detection, and fish-like torpedoes that swarm against enemy targets, these concepts aim to inspire the world's future underwater combat environment.

The UK's brightest and most talented young engineers and scientists came up with the designs, after being challenged by the Royal Navy to imagine what a future submarine would look like and how it would be used to keep Britain safe in decades to come.

"These remarkable designs display the great promise of our young engineers and scientists and the great ambition of the Royal Navy," Defence Minister Harriett Baldwin said. "This kind of innovation is at the heart of defence and the UK's world-leading capability. That's why we are using our rising budget to invest in high-tech capability to keep our Armed Forces at the cutting-edge, and our £800 million Innovation Fund aims to take advantage of exactly these kinds of futuristic ideas."

The mothership would be built from super-strong alloys and acrylics, with surfaces able to morph and change shape. With hybrid algae-electric cruising power and propulsion technologies including tunnel drives working similarly to a Dyson bladeless fan, these submarines could travel at unprecedented speeds of up to 150 knots.


future submarine technology 2060s
© Crown copyright 2017


"With more than 70 per cent of the planet's surface covered by water, the oceans remain one of the world's great mysteries and untapped resources," said Commander Peter Pipkin, the Royal Navy's Fleet Robotics Officer. "It's predicted that in 50 years' time, there will be more competition between nations to live and work at sea, or under it. So it's with this in mind that the Royal Navy is looking at its future role, and how it will be best equipped to protect Britain's interests around the globe.

"Today's Royal Navy is one of the most technologically advanced forces in the world – and that's because we have always sought to think differently and come up with ideas that challenge traditional thinking. If only 10 per cent of these ideas become reality, it will put us at the cutting edge of future warfare and defence operations."

The project – named Nautilus 100 – was set up to mark the 100th anniversary of the launch of USS Nautilus.

Rear Admiral Tim Hodgson, the Ministry of Defence's Director of Submarine Capability, commented: "We want to encourage our engineers of the future to be bold, think radically and push boundaries. From Nelson's tactics at the Battle of Trafalgar to Fisher's revolutionary Dreadnought battleships, the Royal Navy's success has always rested on a combination of technology and human skill.

"The pace of global innovation is only going to increase, so for the UK to be a leader in this race it needs to maintain its leadership in skills and technology. Hopefully this project has inspired the next generation of British scientists to be bold in their ambitions and I congratulate them for their inspiring work."


future submarine technology 2060s
© Crown copyright 2017


Young British scientists and engineers from UKNEST, a not-for-profit organisation which promotes science, engineering and technology for naval design, answered the challenge. More than 20 of them took part in the project, 'visioneering' a new submarine fleet for the future Royal Navy.

Gemma Jefferies, 21, from Bristol, an engineering assistant with L3 Marine Systems UK, said: "It was amazing to see a whole manner of disciplines coming together in this project. It was great to let our imaginations run with crazy ideas – some that may not actually be considered science fiction in the near future."

The young engineers behind Project Nautilus 100 visualised a future submarine with a whale shark-styled mouth and manta ray body, allowing a combination of speed and stealthiness unmatched by today's technology. Its 3D-printed hull would be a combination of light but super-strong materials capable of withstanding extreme pressures at depths of 1000m or more. This mothership would have a reduced crew of around 20 people, capable of brain-computer control of the submarine's command system.

There would be two propulsion systems – one for silent and efficient cruising for thousands of miles at up to 30 knots, and the other for short bursts of high speed in a 'fight or flight' scenario. A recovery bay in the underside would act as a docking station for the transfer of people, payloads and general stores. Weapons bays would be integrated into the top of the submarine, holding a variety of weapons and sensors, plus conventional torpedo tubes for self-defence decoys able to be 3D-printed on board.

Unlike the submarines of today, which perform multiple roles in one hull, it is envisaged that the Royal Navy of the future would operate a family of submarines of various shapes and sizes, both manned and unmanned, to fulfil a variety of tasks.


future submarine technology 2060s
© Crown copyright 2017


Unmanned Underwater Vehicles (UUVs) shaped like eels would be the main sensors and secondary weapons carriers launched from the weapons bays on top of the mothership. Capable of total autonomy, these could travel hundreds of miles in near silence, using an eel-like sine wave propulsion motion to disguise them as real marine lifeforms in the eyes of an enemy's sensors.

Their main purpose would be to eject individual sensor pods, each using blue-green laser energy to communicate, forming a self-meshing underwater network with secure command and control hundreds of miles apart.

These multi-purpose sensors would also listen for residual sound energy or electro-magnetic disturbances, sharing vast amounts of data using AI to provide battle-winning automated assessment and decision-making.


future submarine technology 2060s

© Crown copyright 2017


Alongside these UUVs would be a variety of micro drones (pictured below). Made from cold saltwater-soluble polymers like the liquid capsules used in your washing machine, they could be released in blooms, and communicate with each other and the eels, providing detail reconnaissance of targets.

The pods could produce a constant supply of sensors and drone swarms via 3D printers, which would gather biological material from the ocean and use it to build new sensors. These micro drones could play a role in escort duties when the Royal Navy is required to shadow foreign submarines or vessels detected in British waters. The micro drones would follow and escort them until they were back in international waters.

They would be engineered to dissolve after a predetermined period of time – so if deployed in enemy waters, they would be undiscovered. The drones would also have adhesive properties in their semi-dissolved state, and could be directed to enemy ships to block their uptakes and intakes, rendering the vessels inoperative.


future submarine technology 2060s
© Crown copyright 2017



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20th August 2017

Elon Musk and over 100 experts call for outright ban on killer robots

Leaders of top robotics and AI companies have called on the UN to enact a worldwide ban on killer robots.

The letter, whose signatories hail from 26 countries and include Tesla's Elon Musk, reads as follows:

An Open Letter to the United Nations Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons

As companies building the technologies in Artificial Intelligence and Robotics that may be repurposed to develop autonomous weapons, we feel especially responsible in raising this alarm. We warmly welcome the decision of the UN's Conference of the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW) to establish a Group of Governmental Experts (GGE) on Lethal Autonomous Weapon Systems. Many of our researchers and engineers are eager to offer technical advice to your deliberations.

We commend the appointment of Ambassador Amandeep Singh Gill of India as chair of the GGE. We entreat the High Contracting Parties participating in the GGE to work hard at finding means to prevent an arms race in these weapons, to protect civilians from their misuse, and to avoid the destabilizing effects of these technologies. We regret that the GGE's first meeting, which was due to start today (August 21, 2017), has been cancelled due to a small number of states failing to pay their financial contributions to the UN. We urge the High Contracting Parties therefore to double their efforts at the first meeting of the GGE now planned for November.

Lethal autonomous weapons threaten to become the third revolution in warfare. Once developed, they will permit armed conflict to be fought at a scale greater than ever, and at timescales faster than humans can comprehend. These can be weapons of terror, weapons that despots and terrorists use against innocent populations, and weapons hacked to behave in undesirable ways. We do not have long to act. Once this Pandora's box is opened, it will be hard to close. We therefore implore the High Contracting Parties to find a way to protect us all from these dangers.

A key organiser of the letter, Toby Walsh, Scientia Professor of Artificial Intelligence at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, said: "Nearly every technology can be used for good and bad, and artificial intelligence is no different. It can help tackle many of the pressing problems facing society today: inequality and poverty, the challenges posed by climate change and the ongoing global financial crisis. However, the same technology can also be used in autonomous weapons to industrialise war. We need to make decisions today choosing which of these futures we want. I strongly support the call by many humanitarian and other organisations for a UN ban on such weapons, similar to bans on chemical and other weapons."

Ryan Gariepy, founder of Clearpath Robotics, commented: "The number of prominent companies and individuals who have signed this letter reinforces our warning that this is not a hypothetical scenario, but a very real, very pressing concern which needs immediate action. Unlike other potential manifestations of AI, which still remain in the realm of science fiction, autonomous weapons systems are on the cusp of development right now and have a very real potential to cause significant harm to innocent people along with global instability."

Stuart Russell, founder and Vice-President of Bayesian Logic, said: "Unless people want to see new weapons of mass destruction – in the form of vast swarms of lethal microdrones – spreading around the world, it's imperative to step up and support the United Nations' efforts to create a treaty banning lethal autonomous weapons. This is vital for national and international security."


killer robots future technology


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12th August 2017

U.S. Army lab discovers new energy source

Scientists and engineers at the U.S. Army Research Laboratory (ARL) in Maryland have demonstrated a new nanomaterial powder that creates large amounts of energy by simply mixing it with water.


nanotechnology powder energy
Credit: U.S. Army Research Laboratory


The substance is described as a nano-galvanic aluminium-based powder. It creates a bubbling reaction that splits apart water – two molecules of hydrogen and one of oxygen.

"The hydrogen that is given off can be used as a fuel in a fuel cell," said Scott Grendahl, a materials engineer and team leader. "What we discovered is a mechanism for a rapid and spontaneous hydrolysis of water."

It has already been known for a long time that hydrogen can be produced by adding a catalyst to aluminium. However, this normally takes time and requires elevated temperatures, added electricity and/or toxic chemicals. By contrast, the nanomaterial powder seen here does not require a catalyst and is very fast. The team calculates that one kilogram of the powder can produce 220 kilowatts of energy in just three minutes, which is doubled if you consider the amount of heat energy produced by the exothermic reaction.

"That's a lot of power to run any electrical equipment," said Dr. Anit Giri, a physicist for the Weapons and Materials Research Directorate. "These rates are the fastest known without using catalysts such as an acid, base or elevated temperatures."

As seen in the video, the team demonstrated a small radio-controlled tank powered by the powder and water reaction. They believe their discovery is dramatic in terms of future potential. It could be 3-D printed and incorporated into future air or ground robots. These self-cannibalising machines would feed off their own structures, then self-destruct after mission completion. It could also help future soldiers to recharge mobile devices for recon teams.

"There are other researchers who have been searching their whole lives and their optimised product takes many hours to achieve, say 50% efficiency," Grendahl said. "Ours does it to 100% efficiency in less than three minutes."

"The important aspect of the approach is that it lets you make very compact systems," notes Anthony Kucernak from Imperial College London, who was not involved in this particular study, but is an expert on fuel cell technology. "That would be very useful for systems which need to be very light or operate for long periods on hydrogen, where the use of hydrogen stored in a cylinder is prohibitive."




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6th February 2017

Directed energy atmospheric lens could revolutionise future battlefields

Within the next 50 years, scientists at BAE Systems believe that battlefield commanders could deploy a new type of directed energy laser and lens system called a Laser Developed Atmospheric Lens. This would enhance commanders' ability to observe adversaries' activities over much greater distances than existing sensors.

At the same time, the lens could be used as a form of 'deflector shield' to protect friendly aircraft, ships, land vehicles and troops from incoming attacks by high power laser weapons that could also become a reality in the same time period.

The Laser Developed Atmospheric Lens (LDAL) concept, developed by researchers at the company's military aircraft facility in Lancashire, UK, has been evaluated by the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) Rutherford Appleton Laboratory and specialist optical sensors company LumOptica and is based on known science. It works by simulating naturally occurring phenomena and temporarily – and reversibly – changes the Earth's atmosphere into lens-like structures to magnify or change the path of electromagnetic waves, such as light and radio signals.


directed energy atmospheric lens
Credit: BAE Systems


LDAL is a powerful concept that mimics two existing effects in nature – the reflective properties of the ionosphere; and desert mirages. The ionosphere occurs at very high altitude and is a naturally occurring layer of Earth's atmosphere which can be reflective to radio waves. For example, it results in listeners being able to tune in to radio stations many thousands of miles away. Radio signals bounce off the ionosphere, allowing them to travel very long distances through the air and over the Earth's surface. The desert mirage provides the illusion of a distant lake in the hot desert. This is because the light from the blue sky is 'bent' or refracted by the hot air near the surface and into the vision of the person looking into the distance.

LDAL would simulate both of these effects by using a high pulsed power laser system and exploiting a physics phenomenon called the 'Kerr effect' to temporarily ionise or heat a small region of atmosphere in a structured way. Mirrors, glass lenses, and structures like Fresnel zone plates could all be replicated using the atmosphere, allowing the physics of refraction, reflection, and diffraction to be exploited.




"Working with some of the best scientific minds in the UK, we're able to incorporate emerging and disruptive technologies and evolve the landscape of potential military technologies in ways that, five or ten years ago, many would never have dreamed possible," said Nick Colosimo, BAE Systems' Futurist.

Professor Bryan Edwards, Leader of STFC's Defence, Security and Resilience Futures Programme, said of the work: "For this evaluation project, STFC's Central Laser Facility team worked closely with colleagues at BAE Systems. By harnessing our collective expertise and capabilities, we have been able to identify new ways in which cutting edge technology – and our understanding of fundamental physical processes and phenomena – has the potential to contribute to enhancing the safety and security of the UK."

Craig Stacey, CEO at LumOptica added: "This is a tremendously exciting time in laser physics. Emerging technologies will allow us to enter new scientific territories and explore ever new applications. We are delighted to be working with BAE Systems on the application of such game-changing technologies, evaluating concepts which are approaching the limits of what is physically possible and what might be achieved in the future."


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26th January 2017

Doomsday Clock moves closer to midnight

The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists has moved the hands of the iconic "Doomsday Clock" forwards by 30 seconds.


doomsday clock 2017


The Doomsday Clock is now at two and a half minutes to midnight, having previously been at three minutes to midnight. Normally when changes occur, the hands are moved forwards or backwards in increments of a minute. But today, for the first time in the 70-year history of the clock, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists' Science and Security Board has moved the hands 30 seconds closer to midnight. In another first, the Board has decided to act, in part, based on the words of a single person: Donald Trump, the new President of the United States.

The decision to move the hands of the clock is made in consultation with the Bulletin's Board of Sponsors, which include 15 Nobel Laureates. The Science and Security Board's full statement about the Clock is available online.

In January 2016, the Doomsday Clock's minute hand did not change, remaining at three minutes before midnight. The Clock was changed in 2015 from five to three minutes to midnight, the closest it had been since the arms race of the 1980s.

In a statement today, the Bulletin's Science and Security Board notes: "Over the course of 2016, the global security landscape darkened as the international community failed to come effectively to grips with humanity's most pressing existential threats — nuclear weapons and climate change... This already-threatening world situation was the backdrop for a rise in strident nationalism worldwide in 2016, including in a US presidential campaign during which the eventual victor, Donald Trump, made disturbing comments about the use and proliferation of nuclear weapons and expressed disbelief in the overwhelming scientific consensus on climate change. The board's decision to move the clock less than a full minute — something it has never before done — reflects a simple reality: As this statement is issued, Donald Trump has been the US president only a matter of days..."

The statement continues: "Just the same, words matter, and President Trump has had plenty to say over the last year. Both his statements and his actions as President-elect have broken with historical precedent in unsettling ways. He has made ill-considered comments about expanding the US nuclear arsenal. He has shown a troubling propensity to discount or outright reject expert advice related to international security, including the conclusions of intelligence experts. And his nominees to head the Energy Department, and the Environmental Protection Agency dispute the basics of climate science. In short, even though he has just now taken office, the president's intemperate statements, lack of openness to expert advice, and questionable cabinet nominations have already made a bad international security situation worse."

In addition to addressing the statements made by President Trump, the Board also expressed concern about the greater global context of nuclear and climate issues: "The United States and Russia—which together possess more than 90 percent of the world's nuclear weapons—remained at odds in a variety of theatres, from Syria to Ukraine to the borders of NATO; both countries continued wide-ranging modernisations of their nuclear forces, and serious arms control negotiations were nowhere to be seen. North Korea conducted its fourth and fifth underground nuclear tests and gave every indication it would continue to develop nuclear weapons delivery capabilities. Threats of nuclear warfare hung in the background as Pakistan and India faced each other warily across the Line of Control in Kashmir after militants attacked two Indian army bases."


nuclear weapon states


In surveying the status of climate matters, the Board concluded: "The climate change outlook was somewhat less dismal (in 2016) —but only somewhat. In the wake of the landmark Paris climate accord, the nations of the world have taken some actions to combat climate change, and global carbon dioxide emissions were essentially flat in 2016, compared to the previous year. Still, they have not yet started to decrease; the world continues to warm. Keeping future temperatures at less-than-catastrophic levels requires reductions in greenhouse gas emissions far beyond those agreed to in Paris—yet little appetite for additional cuts was in evidence at the November climate conference in Marrakech."

Rachel Bronson, executive director and publisher, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, said: "As we marked the 70th anniversary of the Doomsday Clock, this year's Clock deliberations felt more urgent than usual. In addition to the existential threats posed by nuclear weapons and climate change, new global realities emerged, as trusted sources of information came under attack, fake news was on the rise, and words were used by a President-elect of the United States in cavalier and often reckless ways to address the twin threats of nuclear weapons and climate change."

Lawrence Krauss, the Bulletin Board of Sponsors chair, said: "Wise men and women have said that public policy is never made in the absence of politics. But in this unusual political year, we offer a corollary: Good policy takes account of politics, but is never made in the absence of expertise. Facts are indeed stubborn things, and they must be taken into account if the future of humanity is to be preserved, long term. Nuclear weapons and climate change are precisely the sort of complex existential threats that cannot be properly managed without access to and reliance on expert knowledge. In 2016, world leaders not only failed to deal adequately with those threats; they actually increased the risk of nuclear war and unchecked climate change through a variety of provocative statements and actions, including careless rhetoric about the use of nuclear weapons and the wanton defiance of scientific evidence. To step further back from the brink will require leaders of vision and restraint. President Trump and President Putin can choose to act together as statesmen, or as petulant children, risking our future. We call upon all people to speak out and send a loud message to your leaders so that they do not needlessly threaten your future, and the future of your children."

Retired Rear Admiral David Titley, Bulletin Science and Security Board, said: "Climate change should not be a partisan issue. The well-established physics of Earth's carbon cycle is neither liberal nor conservative in character. The planet will continue to warm to ultimately dangerous levels so long as carbon dioxide continues to be pumped into the atmosphere— irrespective of political leadership. The current political situation in the United States is of particular concern. The Trump administration needs to state clearly and unequivocally that it accepts climate change, caused by human activity, as reality. No problem can be solved unless its existence is first recognised. There are no 'alternative facts' here."





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28th December 2016

Giant robot could patrol military borders

A four metre (13 ft), 1.5-ton bipedal robot, designed and built by military scientists in South Korea, has taken its first steps.

As demonstrated in the video below, "Method-2" can hold a pilot who sits inside the torso and controls its arms and legs, allowing it to walk. Fans of science fiction movies like Aliens and Avatar will notice the similarity with hi-tech machines depicted in those films. The robot is so large and heavy that it shakes the ground nearby when walking.

Its creation has involved the work of 30 engineers at robotics company Hankook Mirae Technology, guided by lead designer Vitaly Bulgarov who has previously worked on films such as Transformers, Robocop and Terminator.

"One of the most common questions we get is about the power source," he said on Facebook. "The company’s short-term goals include developing robotic platforms for industrial areas where having a tethered robot is not an issue. Another short-term, real world application includes mounting only the top part of the robot on a larger wheeled platform – solving the problem of locomotion through an uneven terrain, as well as providing enough room for sufficient power source."

“Our robot is the world’s first manned bipedal robot and is built to work in extreme hazardous areas where humans cannot go (unprotected),” said company chairman Yang Jin-Ho. He has invested 242bn won ($200 million) in the project since 2014 to "bring to life what only seemed possible in movies and cartoons".

The company has already received inquiries from manufacturing, construction, entertainment and other industries. There have even been questions about its possible deployment along the Demilitarised Zone with North Korea. It might also be used for cleaning up disaster sites like Fukushima. However, the machine needs further research and development first to improve its balance and power systems. At present, it remains tethered by a power cable, but if all goes according to plan, it should be able to move more freely within the next couple of years. The price tag for Method-2 will be 10bn won ($8.3 million).




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