MIT Security Studies Program Seminar
The Role of Size and Range in the Future of Aerospace Power
"An Aero Guy's Perspective on the
Role of Micro/Nano Technology in Future Military Affairs"
Professor Alan Epstein
Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics, MIT
September 22, 2004
There is a lot of excitement because of the immense technical
possibilities and large amount of money being invested in these technologies,
both in Washington and among venture capitalists. The precise definition of
nanotechnology is important given the level of funding that is being given to
it. With these technologies we are really talking about the ability to manipulate
- Micro: refers to miniaturization. First devices in the 1970s. It's starting
to get real. Rapid growth started about 1985. Example: MEMS (micro-electronic
mechanical systems) gears, 100 nm across.
- Nano: involves new physics, chemistry, and biology. The working definition
is it's nano if the properties of the object are different than they would
be in bulk. Ex: semiconductor quantum dots for some lasers.
- Microscience and technology: silicon electronic chips, MEMS, micro-reaction
arrays for drug discovery.
- Nanoscience and technology: large, but countable number of atoms. No atom
is far from a surface. Integration of unique properties for macroscopic effects.
Quantum dots for semiconductor lasers. Genomics. This isn't about miniaturization.
It is about new physics, chemistry, biology.
But I'm an engineer, and for me miniaturization is all right. I don't care
what's in the box as long as the box does something useful. Consider some past
examples of dramatic reductions in sizethe ENIAC vs. the Intel Pentium
- There is an industry group that projects the future. Shrink continues on
a 3 year slope per 50% reduction. Nanotechnology may enable trends to continue
and get smaller, possibly to zero.
- Consider the idea that "quantity has a quality all of its own."
Attributed to Stalin. What I maintain is that the same thing applies to things
of military value today.
- Look at the density on a disk for disk storagegigabytes per square
inch. We may be reaching the limits of magnetic storage. IBM is turning to
manipulation of individual atoms. They can demonstrate that there is the potential
for very high densities.
- But what can all this do for me? What if I wanted to assemble a dossier
on every person on the planet? How much storage and bit density would I need?
For 1 page on every person on earth, you need about 103 gigabytes per square
inch. This can happen in 2005 or 2006. I don't know what you can do with this.
People are finite, the planet is finite.
- What if I wanted to have a description of every square meter on the planet-everything
about it and what has been observed there? We might have to wait for another
5 years to be able to put all that on a 3 1/2" disk.
- There are also new nano-engineered materials. Nanoscale fabrication will
enable wholly new materials based on new science at the nanoscale. Historical
it takes 20-30 years to go from the MIT bench to the system. No reason to
believe nanotechnology will be any faster.
Possible military applications
- I'm going to take an MIT-centric approach, since we have the patents in
this area, and focus on miniaturization. What used to be larger than a person
is today smaller than your finger tip. Same functionality for a million times
less weight. Things that used to go in bombers can now go in grenades or even
bullets. Guided projectiles.
- Another aspect of MEMS is microchemical reactors. Chemical plants on a chip.
Example: phosgene synthesis. Each one doesn't make very much of the chemical,
though, so maybe you put one in each shell.
- Now let me talk about flying. This is the 100th anniversary of the Wright
brothers. The NC4 was the first plane to fly across the Atlantic. It was the
smallest airplane that could do the job. It had a crew of 6, weighed 27,000
lbs, and was representative of the technology of 1919. Move forward to 1927,
and Lindbergh's plane weighs only 5,100 lbs and had a crew of one. The next
milestone was the first commercial service, begun in 1939, with a seaplane
weighing 84,000 pounds. The 747 is 700,000 lbs in 1970. They weigh even more
- As a technical matter, what is the next trans-Atlantic flight milestone?
I'd say it's one that weighed 30 lbs. and flew at same speed and altitude
as Lindbergh, in 1998. The miniaturization of the electronics and GPS lets
you do this. Since then an 11 lb. airplane has done it.
- The old metric was how big you were. The new metric for the next 20-30 years
is how small you are.
- Let's think about a military application and consider over time the sorties
needed to destroy a 100 x 300 ft. building. In WW II, you needed 3,200 sorties
to destroy the building, with huge crews on the air and ground. In Korea,
you needed 550 sorties; in Vietnam, 44; in the first Gulf War, 8. And in the
current war, 1. All these airplanes weigh the same, about 50,000 lbs. It's
an improvement of 3000 to 1 in weight, 60,000 to 1 in people. You're down
to 1 and it's tough to get less than one.
- How large is large enough to destroy a bridge? In 1971, a million pounds
left the runway, and it cost about $10 million to destroy the bridge. In 1991,
destroying a bridge took 2 Tomahawks with the same range as an F-4, 6,000
pounds left the ground, and it cost about $2.5 million. You saved money, no
one was at risk, and you actually hit the target.
- So what's the future? Today it is incredibly even more precise. In 2021
maybe you can do it with 15 lbs. and $250,000. The technology is letting you
get the same job done for much less money.
- In-service large UAVs designed for long endurance are also getting smaller.
- Consider as well the smaller systems now in service: Dragon Eye, Pointer.
These have 3-4 foot wing spans and are 5-10 lbs. gross weight. They cost only
$10,000 each. How small can these things go? There is a lot of variation in
current UAVs from Black Widow to Global Hawk.
- Now let's think about where money is going in a typical strike campaign
profile: about 2/3 of the cost is in the foreign basessomething you
don't see in the defense budget. There is a lot of money in foreign bases
that technology can free up.
- Micropocket engine. Our sponsor asked, what are you going to do with this
stuff? These little airplanes are enabled by microelectronics. We're also
looking at building small space launch vehicles, the size people could carry.
Microsatellites are a possibility as well.
- Micro systems (MEMS) ready to move into systems:
- Mainly engineering rather than science
- Dramatic reduction in system size and cost
- New capabilities, not just replacement functionality
- Nantotechnology is in its infancy:
- Enormous excitement
- Qualitative and quantitative system implications not established
- System organization, complexity, and design may pace applications
- Many new military systems can/will be much smaller
- Both micro and nano may be most important as new threats. Other countries
that do not have as much invested in the heavier, bigger, older technologies
may move into these areas and be able to challenge us with them.
What does the future hold?
- Consider the history of aeronautical predictions: at turn of last century
we greatly underestimated the power of air flight and of the gas turbine.
Now people may underestimate the possibility of these technologies.
- In the end, Thackery may be right: "how very small the very great are."
Rapporteur: Caitlan Talmadge
back to seminar summaries, Fall 2004