Nanotechnology, the science of manufacturing tiny mechanisms and robots not much bigger than molecules, could soon become a big part of national security in the US.
By Ian Hardy
Much of it is still fantasy, but nanotech students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have received a $50 million (£32 million) grant from the US Army, which is hoping for long and short term results.
By 2025, soldier uniforms could be tough and flexible
It means that by 2025, soldiers could be wearing thin uniforms which are not only flexible but are also tough enough to withstand bullets and blasts.
Uniforms under development have GPS guidance systems and live satellite feeds of the battlefield piped through an eyepiece in the helmet. There is also a built-in air conditioning system to keep the body temperature normal.
By the end of this decade, the Objective Force Warrior may be a common sight on the battlefield. Ultra lightweight body armour protects the soldier and the suit is fitted with a wireless computer, video camera and communications devices.
"It's all about lightening the load. Today the soldier has a system that weighs about 100lbs, that's what's called the fighting weight," said Dr A Michael Andrews, chief scientist with the US Army.
"Our objective is to cut that weight in half, and to do that in about 3 years from now," he told BBC World's ClickOnline.
Underneath the suit is a full range of bio-sensors sending back medical data about the body in real-time to a command post.
By 2010 Objective Force Warrior could be fighting
A medical team could be alerted automatically the moment a soldier is shot and his blood pressure drops.
MIT researchers will be allowed to train with the military to hear first hand about problems encountered by soldiers in combat, like Sergeant Raoul Lopez who fought al Qaeda fighters in the mountaintops of Afghanistan.
"The air up there is very thin and the weight on our backs was very heavy, so a lot of guys had problems doing extended periods of walking with those loads," said Sergeant Lopez.
"It became excruciating. Plus, the inability to breathe definitely took a toll on some people."
"Soldier survivability" is a top priority for researchers and work is already under way to ensure this. Conventional methods of waterproofing, for example, rely on a single coating that gradually loses its effect.
With new revolutionary techniques, individual fibres from a bullet proof vest can be covered with a few nanometres of Teflon. This adds almost no weight to a uniform, yet keeps every drop of water out.
Another useful discovery is the ability to turn microscopic iron spheres from liquid state to a solid in a few seconds using electromagnetic forces.
This could bring about major changes to the flexibility and comfort of body armour and it means bullet proof vests of the future are likely to have on and off switches.
"The current Kevlar jacket is a composite material that involves layers of Kevlar fibres woven into a fabric, and ceramic plates in between which give you the large ballistic impact," explained Gareth McKinley, Professor of Mechanical Engineering, MIT.
"The goal is to replace the ceramic plates, which are rigid and not very moveable, with something that is liquid when the field is off and then becomes rigid when the field is on."
Mechanical nanostructures can also be made to act like human muscles, so particles can expand and contract on cue.
One use for this is for uniforms which could sense a gunshot wound and automatically tighten around it to prevent blood loss.
Suits of the future may also be able to make normal tasks easier. This could be anything from simple lifting or motion, to jumping higher than before.
Mechanical nanostructures could tighten around gunshot wounds
But it does not end there. Nanotechnology has infinite uses.
A pack of sausages can last much longer if the tray has a special coating, goggles can stop bullets without splintering, and boot soles can last for decades.
The immediate focus for the researchers however is miniaturisation. Even current devices are being adapted for the Army's use.
Using a PDA (Personal Digital Assistant) for example, soldiers could transmit co-ordinates of a target back to base in less than three seconds, 10 times faster than now.
Bulky radio handsets will be replaced with button-size microphones on the collar, and night vision goggles may become the size of contact lenses.
Not surprisingly there was great enthusiasm for these ideas at the recent opening of the Institute of Soldier Nanotechnologies.
MIT wants to be at the centre of military innovation and describes much of the research as fundamental, not just to the military but to society as a whole.
In a few years there could be major changes in everything from the clothes we wear to the gadgets we carry as advances in nanoscience become increasingly evident.
There are security safety nets in place though. If a project becomes too sensitive it will immediately become classified and moved to the Army's own laboratories to minimise exposure to terrorists or spies.
As long as the experiments remain in the MIT labs, the details will be available for public inspection.