Articles

4 animal superpowers we want before our next deployment

So, the American warfighter is one of the most technologically advantaged warriors in history.


But we could still make it better, right? No one wants a fair fight in war, and nature is full of animal superpowers that would give the U.S. a greater advantage.

Here are four that might be on the way:

1. Snow fox rangefinder

(Photo: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Dave Smalls)

Snow foxes have achieved internet fame recently for their "built-in compass" that makes them more successful in hunting mice under the snow or dirt when they strike at a small range of compass directions to the northeast of their position.

But it's not exactly a built-in compass, it's more of a range finder. This Discovery Blog article does a good job of explaining it, but the snow fox can basically sense disturbances at a fixed distance from them along a fixed direction. This allows them to much more accurately sense the exact range of the mouse from their position and attack with precision.

Is it coming?

(Photo: U.S. Army Spc. Samuel Soza)

Troops currently can receive acoustic systems for identifying sniper locations and radar systems for artillery and mortar point of origins, both of which are always getting better.

As for targeting enemy forces that aren't actively engaging them, soldiers still have to spot the enemy and either guess, hit them with a laser rangefinder, or compare the enemy positions to their position on a map and do the math. No magic hunting powers are on the table yet.

2. Grizzly bear time-defying nose

(Photo: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Terry Tollefsbol)

Bloodhounds are famous for their sense of smell, and the reputation is well-earned. Their noses are so sensitive that they can detect minute differences in scent trails that are almost 13 days old.

Grizzly bears, meanwhile, are seven times as sensitive as bloodhounds. And yeah, they can do the time-traveling nose trick as well.

Is it coming?

The Defense Advanced Research Project Agency has been backing mechanical smell breakthroughs for a while, and a major step forward came in 2013 when Honeywell created the miniature vacuum pumps necessary for mobile mass spectrometers. Basically, all the components are now there for mechanical sniffers that can detect any and all materials in the air near them, even pathogens.

There are still software limits, though. Someone will have to teach the mechanical noses what elements are present one, two, or eight days after an enemy infantry patrol passes a given point or a fuel point has been disbanded.

3. Snake thermal imaging

(Photo: Otavio Marques/Instituto Butantan)

Some snakes that hunt small animals can see in the dark through protein channels that pick up infrared energy that enters through the snake's "pit organs," those little opening near their eyes that look like nostrils.

Is it coming?

A former Navy SEAL fires an infrared round that is invisible to human sight. (YouTube: Discovery)

The short answer is maybe. Troops currently can see infrared energy through bulky optics, but there's a possibility for contact lenses that sense infrared radiation. Because it's tied to ultraviolet detection, it's explained at the end of entry 4, below.

4. Jumping spider and bat eyes that see four primary colors

(Photo: Opoterser/CC BY 3.0)

Yes. Four of them. We are told that the three primary colors are red, yellow, and blue. But that's not exactly true. Red, yellow, and blue correspond with specific wavelengths of light that stimulate humans' three kinds of color receptors. Human corneas filter out light in another, otherwise visible band, ultraviolet. Some bats and spiders can see this band.

Soldiers who can see UV light would have much better night vision with none of the "tunneling" of most NV goggles. They would also be able to see insects better, helping troops avoid them, and fingerprints, helping with site exploitation.

Is it coming?

Maybe. The major technology breakthroughs have already come thanks to graphene, which can be used to make "ultra-broadband" photoreceptors. Basically, sensors that can detect infrared energy, visible light, and UV rays and combine them into one final image.

Best of all, graphene is thin enough that the possibility exists to make these receptors into contact lenses. But no one has currently commissioned graphene contact lenses for the troops. Still, fingers crossed.

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