Tourniquets to Robots, Iraq War Innovations Finding Wider Use

Tourniquets to Robots, Iraq War Innovations
Iraq Army soldiers practice proper use of the combat application tourniquet. Hospitals from the U.S. to New Zealand are buying the tourniquet for their emergency medical crews, according to the manufacturer's operations manager. Source: U.S. Army

Filling the need for handy, ready-to-use tourniquets to save troops wounded by roadside bombs, Composite Resources Inc. began making them in small lots in 2004.

The device, an inch-wide nylon band with Velcro and a plastic peg to cinch it tight around a bleeding limb, is now on for $25. Hospitals from the U.S. to New Zealand are buying it for their emergency crews, said Donnette Brock, the company’s operations manager, in an interview.

“War is a great catalyst for innovation,” Tom Dee, the Pentagon’s director for rapid acquisition, said in a phone interview. “Because you’re in a bit of a hurry, you innovate in a hurry and that will spin off for a long time.”

While not a “good reason to go to war,” that inventiveness leaves behind lasting benefits, he said.

The last U.S. forces left Iraq a week before Christmas after almost nine years of war that left 4,487 troops dead. The cost to U.S. taxpayers may add up to $823 billion, not counting humanitarian aid.

The jet engine, radar and nuclear power emerged from World War II technologies and shaped much of the second half of the 20th century. The U.S. and Russian space programs descended from Nazi Germany’s rockets. Those innovations have led to fast air transit, GPS, weather radar and instant international satellite communications.

During the Iraq war, drone technology including aircraft and robot vehicles, have come to the fore. So has language translation software and biometric identification, versions of which are already in civilian applications.

Not All Transfer

Not all the Iraq war’s technologies will have commercial application.

The Pentagon spent about $36 billion to develop and build blast-proof trucks called the Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles, or MRAPs, to protect troops from roadside bombs called improvised explosive devices.

The trucks are made by BAE Systems Inc., the U.S. subsidiary of London-based BAE Systems Plc., Force Protection Inc., and Navistar International Corp. Oshkosh Corp., makes an all-terrain variant of the vehicle.

Although the vehicles themselves may not have other uses, the military learned to “rapidly integrate commercial technology” and start a production line, Dee said.

Medical Advances

Advances in battlefield medicine may have the most non-military use, Dee said. Improvements in battlefield dressings that speed up blood clotting and prevent infection as well as prosthetics and rehabilitation technologies may have “applications in the civilian world,” Dee said.

Better body armor and helmets reduced injuries to soldiers’ heads and torsos. That left limbs exposed to blasts and shrapnel, and led to the focus on devices such as the improved tourniquet to stop bleeding, Colonel Patricia Hastings, a doctor in the U.S. Army Medical Command, said in an interview.

Composite Resources, a privately-held company based in Rock Hill, South Carolina, in 2010 sold 1.5 million tourniquets to U.S. and allied militaries, Brock, the company executive, said.

For troops who have lost limbs, military research on prosthetics has yielded so-called smart limbs that can calculate weight put on them and adjust for movement, Hastings said. Some artificial limbs can mimic real ones by moving with the aid of the user’s brain waves, Hastings said.

The Army’s Institute of Surgical Research in San Antonio has developed canisters that simulate negative blood pressure in volunteers, to train doctors to identify shock in patients, Hastings said. “The treatment of shock would probably be the most lasting legacy for improvements in medical care” to come from this war, she said.

Autonomous Vehicles

Airborne drones for surveillance and cargo operations, as well as the ground robots, may find commercial uses, Dee said.

In Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. has deployed drones such as the Predator and Reaper made by General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc., San Diego, as well as the Raven-B and Switchblade made by Aerovironment Inc. of Monrovia, California.

In Afghanistan, the Pentagon is testing an unmanned cargo helicopter called K-MAX made by Lockheed Martin Corp. and Kaman Aerospace Corp., of Bloomfield, Connecticut.

Lockheed also developed a prototype autonomous six-wheeled vehicle, called the Squad Mission Support System, that can carry soldiers’ gear. Developed as part of the Army’s Future Combat System program, parts of which were canceled in 2009, the autonomous vehicle component also was canceled this year.

The surveillance drones and cargo helicopters will find civilian uses in border patrol as well as construction, mining and logging operations, Dee said.

Self-Driving Cars

The ground robots whose technologies were adapted from the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s Grand Challenge program -- it offered a $2 million prize for a vehicle to drive autonomously over 132 miles in the desert -- may lead one day to autonomous cars, said Peter Singer, author of “Wired for War: The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the 21st Century” and director of the 21st Century Defense Initiative at the Brookings Institution in Washington.

Google Inc. already has adapted technologies from the competition to outfit existing cars that can drive themselves in traffic. Bayerische Motoren Werke AG or BMW also is experimenting with self-driving cars.

Ground robots may also have other applications in dull, dirty or dangerous jobs in places like warehouses and hospitals or in agricultural applications, said Ed Durfee, professor of electrical engineering at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.

The university began working with the U.S. Army in 2007 and also partners with General Motors Co., Deere & Co., and Toyota Motor Corp., on research into autonomous vehicles.

The robotic technologies underlying such efforts and developed by the military “will be a huge game changer one day for ground transportation,” Singer said in a phone interview.

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