Before the holiday season last year, Amazon.com scored a lot of press on 60 Minutes with the news that it was considering employing drones—unmanned aerial vehicles—to deliver some of its packages. Then, just as everyone started thinking that it was a masterful publicity prank, the FAA announced six drone testing sites across the nation for the purpose of determining whether drones can inhabit the same skies as airplanes.
While it sounds like the stuff of science-fiction, if drones are flying high by the end of 2015—the FAA's goal—it would hardly be the first time a company capitalized on technological advances first developed in the military. In fact, if history is any guide, an entrepreneur would be crazy not to consider the military as an incubator for the next big thing.
If you need any convincing, here's just a small sampling of what's available for consumer use, thanks to the U.S. armed forces:
- The Internet. The Internet had many inventors, but its roots come from the military, specifically, the ARPANET, a military program (circa 1969) that allowed people to securely share documents between facilities.
- GPS. Global positioning systems are in everything from smartphones to cars. Using satellite technology—also a military invention, conceived in 1957 and created in 1959—it was initially designed in 1963 for the Air Force and Navy.
- The ultrasound. "The Curies discovered the principle in the 1880s, before they became interested in radium," says Guillaume de Syon, a professor at Albright College in Reading, Pennsylvania, and an expert in tech history. "The application of ultrasound machines was first done in World War I to try to detect submarines. It failed, but research continued into World War II, with sonar and radar following the echo principle of ultrasound."
- Microwave ovens. In 1945, Percy Spencer, a contractor for the U.S. Department of Defense, invented the first microwave oven from radar technology developed during World War II. Two years later, the first one was sold to the public.
- Cargo planes. In the early days of cargo planes, it was common to "build down" military designs so commercial companies could use them, de Syon says. Commercial planes rarely used exact military blueprints, de Syon explains, "because military planes are so heavy and have so many bells and whistles that the market for them is pretty small. A typical civilian cargo plane doesn't need to land on a grass strip."
- Drive-thrus. Although the military didn't invent the concept of drive-thru restaurants, they certainly had a big impact on its success. In 1975, McDonald's opened its first drive-through near Fort Huachuca, a military base in Sierra Vista, Arizona. Because military members weren't allowed to leave their cars if they were dressed in uniform at that time, the new drive-thru lane was a hit, and the rest, as they say, is history.
- Duct tape. During World War II, soldiers needed a strong, flexible waterproof tape that could seal ammunition cases to keep them protected from water. The Johnson & Johnson Co. was enlisted to create the tape, and one of its divisions developed a sticky, water-repellant tape the soldiers nicknamed "duck tape" (either because of the duck cloth used to manufacture it or because of its ability to repel water). After the war, the tape was more commonly used to hold air and heating ducts together and became the now-familiar gray "duct" tape.
- The Jeep. It was created for American troops in World War II. The military received the first lot of them in 1941; the rest of the country was able to purchase them in 1945.
Other than remotely piloted aircraft, what other military-related products or services could we see in the future? When it comes to small package delivery, businesses may also be able to employ disposable aircraft developed a few years ago by the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory. A printed circuit board that looks a bit like a toy airplane and can carry light payloads, this technology could eventually make its way to the private sector for use by businesses that want to upgrade their shipping methods or improve their infrastructure.
Business owners and consumers will also likely benefit from "the things that are happening on the military side in the cyber defense world," suggests Dennis McCarthy, a retired lieutenant general and former Assistant Secretary of Defense and now one of the principals at Columbus, Ohio-based The Military Experts, a research firm that specializes in developing solutions to the challenges that armed forces personnel face. "The military will be looking for people who have experience in IT areas in order to capitalize on the cyber world," McCarthy says. "But you'll also see people who were trained in the military bringing their skills to the civilian world."
In other areas, the U.S. Fleet Forces Command is currently working to develop unmanned aquatic vehicles that are controlled remotely and can patrol the ocean. It doesn't take a giant leap to imagine that the technology could eventually make its way to security firms whose clients want to keep intruders or corporate spies at bay. The idea has already been developed into the first app-controlled aquatic drone. Ziphius can be used to take photos or record videos.
One technology being put to new use by the military is 3D technology. Engineers from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the military's research wing of the U.S. Defense Department, have been using 3D technology in battle planning to give military personnel a 360-degree, 3D holographic view of battle locations. This application of the technology could also be employed by event-planning firms and other companies that help stage large events.
What's the best way to get those military products on the consumer market? If you're interested in a product now used exclusively in the military, bypass the armed forces and go to the manufacturer, advises Aaron Negherbon, founder and CEO of San Ramon, Califonia-based nonprofit Troops Direct, which fills custom orders for armed forces who are in harm's way and unable to get what they need through regular military channels.
Drilling down even deeper, if you want to mass produce a technology exclusive to the military, then you're going to have to wade through a lot of bureaucracy. "Respect the red tape," Negherbon suggests, adding that it's there for a reason. "While there's always going to be somebody who has to adhere to the protocols, there will also always be a person in the military who understands and respects and appreciates what you're trying to do for them, and they'll lend you the counsel to circumvent that roadblock."
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