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The Military Biotech

US Military Eyes the Glow of Fireflies 98

Posted by samzenpus
from the get-some-glowing dept.
GarryFre writes "According to the AP: 'Someday, the secrets of fireflies or glowing sea plankton could save an American soldier in battle, a Navy SEAL on a dive, or a military pilot landing after a mission. That's the hope behind a growing field of military-sponsored research into bioluminescence, a phenomenon that's under the microscope in laboratories around the country. This phenomenon is noteworthy because this produces light without wasting energy because it does not generate any heat. A possible military use of bio-luminescence would be creating biodegradable landing zone markers that helicopters can spot even as wind from their rotors kicks up dirt.'"
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US Military Eyes the Glow of Fireflies

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  • by Anonymous Coward

    Didn't Cobra do something similar?

  • And give us glow-in-the-dark soldiers!
  • Florescent lights also produce light without generating heat, as do LEDs. What makes them unsuitable for military applications?
    • by caladine (1290184) on Saturday September 11, 2010 @10:00PM (#33549746)
      I take it you haven't touched your CFLs/Fluorescents or LEDs in a while. Both generate heat, it's just considerably less than traditional incandescents.
    • by Vlado (817879)

      LEDs produce huge amounts of heat, if they're really bright.

      I scuba dive and LED's are (as in most fields) the way that underwater flashlights are going to. For most of the LED-based underwater flashlights the rule is that you should not have them on for any extended amount of time (5 minutes or more) above water. If you do, you run risk of severely overheating and damaging them.

    • by Phoghat (1288088)
      No heat? Surely you jest. Maybe you me Cold cathode lights, but the last time I touched a flourescent when it was on it was plenty warm.
  • Otherwise known as dust. What makes them think just because it's a biological source that somehow the light will penetrate places other light cannot?

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by catbutt (469582)
      That was never implied. All that was implied was that it could be a more convenient and biodegradable that other ways of putting luminous markers. As for seeing through the dust, it helps because it is luminous....doesn't matter that it is biological.
      • That was never implied. All that was implied was that it could be a more convenient and biodegradable that other ways of putting luminous markers. As for seeing through the dust, it helps because it is luminous....doesn't matter that it is biological.

        No it wasn't implied, it was directly mentioned as a feature.
        From the article:

        A possible military use of bio-luminescence would be creating biodegradable landing zone markers that helicopters can spot even as wind from their rotors kicks up dirt.

        emphasis mine. If the statement ended with "that helicopters can spot." I would agree, but they added the additional reason that they could be seen through the flying dirt. I'm pretty sure that regular markers are capable of being seen through flying dirt because they are 'luminous' as you mention. So the inclusion of the 'see through dirt' means it was a reason they want them. Which is a ridiculous statement for the reporter

        • by catbutt (469582)
          No, you are reading it wrong. (a tip might be the obviousness of the fact that being biological doesn't magically change the ability of light to penetrate dust)

          Here, let's say that X = "landing zone markers that helicopters can spot even as wind from their rotors kicks up dirt"

          Now, read the sentence with my emphasis:

          A possible military use of bio-luminescence would be creating biodegradable X.

          It's not ridiculous at all. It's just that you put the emphasis in the wrong place, and wrongly inferred t

          • You're saying the same thing I am. Which is that if the driving force was to create biodegradable landing lights the statement is fine.

            It says that the goal is to create biodegradable landing lights that can be seen through flying dirt.

            I see 3 possible reads of the statement:
            1. It's quite redundant since as you say *any* luminenscence can be seen through the flying dirt.
            2. It is implying that non-biodegradable lights can't be seen. Which we agree is false.
            3. It actually means that one of th
            • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

              by TheRaven64 (641858)
              Existing landing lights can be seen through dust, that's not the problem. There are existing bioluminescent lights (at least in labs, probably not in military deployment), but in spite of their efficiency the overall output is quite low. They are two independent sets of constraints:
              1. The light must be bright enough to penetrate a certain amount of dust.
              2. The light must be biodegradable.
              • A fair reading, but I would still say that the original statement is misleading.

                By your reasonable definition, they should have said "create biodegradable lights [that are strong enough] to be seen through flying dirt".
        • by mpeskett (1221084)

          Contrast against markers that aren't lit at all; if you just painted a mark on the ground then it might easily be obscured by the dirt kicked up in landing. Add some lights and it becomes visible through a certain amount of dust. Add some biological whatever and it becomes biodegradable. You could probably also have a biodegradable marker that wasn't luminescent, but that would be easily obscured by dust.

          Using some firefly-like biological light source is useful because it's both luminescent (an advantage o

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by Anonymous Coward

      Also mentioned in TFA was that they want to modify the proteins to emit far red infrared. This spectrum of light has the capability to penetrate dust and smoke.

      • by PitaBred (632671) <slashdot@pitabre ... g ['s.o' in gap]> on Sunday September 12, 2010 @12:16AM (#33550338) Homepage

        Even better, it's not visible without vision enhancing equipment, so it won't draw attention to the soldier using it.

        • by RichiH (749257) on Sunday September 12, 2010 @09:51AM (#33552308) Homepage

          Unless the enemy cheats and uses the US-exclusive infra-red spectrum.

          • by PitaBred (632671)

            The enemy is typically nearly destitute any more, with minimal technology. They're lucky to have explosives and bullets for the most part, and everything else is scavenged from consumer level stuff.

            • by RichiH (749257)

              1) Who tells you the enemy, whoever that might be, isn't well-funded?

              2) IR night-vision goggles are cheap.

              3) Take the filter out of any webcam, any point-and-shoot or just use a stock phone cam and you can see IR.

              • by Lord_Byron (13168)

                Understood. However, the history is that we haven't fought a war against an opponent with that level of technical sophistication since Korea. They do other innovative stuff, and plenty of it, but things like night vision and computer-based situational awareness systems just don't seem to be happening very much.

                And maybe the next fight is against someone who can see in the dark, in which case this just won't be as effective. That happens all the time, it's just the nature of war.

                • by RichiH (749257)

                  In an age when you can simply order military-grade night-vision goggles from ebay or build a working one from a cell phone and a cardboard box, "level of technical sophistication" is not a concern any more.

  • Cylumes (Score:1, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward

    WTF is wrong w/ break and shake cylumes? Consumer versions are pretty small, but they could be made bigger.

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by acnicklas (1740146)
      The military has them up to about three feet. Possibly larger, but those are the biggest I've personally used.
  • by Anonymous Coward
    Just as battleships were hot, then nukes were hot, then mind-reading and mind-control was hot, then IT was hot, now biotech and robotics are hot.

    Lotsa money will go in on "strategic" grounds, and who will get what will, as usual, depend on how well connected they were before they left the army.

    Welcome to the world of MIC. Want a piece of the pie too? Then join the service.

    Would you like to know more?
    • by Sir_Lewk (967686) <sirlewkNO@SPAMgmail.com> on Saturday September 11, 2010 @10:26PM (#33549862)

      now biotech and robotics are hot.

      You know, of all the things the military could be spending money on, I really can't bring myself to complain about this... Funding science is pretty much the only nearly universally accepted upside to having a military.

      • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

        You know, of all the things the military could be spending money on, I really can't bring myself to complain about this... Funding science is pretty much the only nearly universally accepted upside to having a military.

        Even better is that our military isn't small, or underfunded. Having a military like Liberia's leaves you with no room for R&D, unlike the US military, which has more money going into R&D than active duty personnel in combat operations.

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by roman_mir (125474)

        ah, science, military style, what proportion of orange juice needs to be added to gasoline to make sure that the best results are obtained to burn people alive? They already figured that out of-course and found better additives than orange juice too, something glycerin based I suppose. Pulling rocks into space to drop them on heads of people who wear turbans with best precision, that's the more current stuff, isn't it?

    • by MachDelta (704883)

      +1 Starship Troopers reference.

    • by neo0983 (837728)
      We are researching how these bugs are able to adapt so quickly to our army stumbling around on klendathu. CENSORED Would you like to know more?
  • by The_mad_linguist (1019680) on Saturday September 11, 2010 @10:08PM (#33549774)

    Back in the 1950s Johns Hopkins offered a penny a piece for each live firefly you gave them. Lots of kids got pocket money, but the population noticeably dropped for the next couple of years.

    • by grcumb (781340) on Saturday September 11, 2010 @10:52PM (#33549966) Homepage Journal

      Back in the 1950s Johns Hopkins offered a penny a piece for each live firefly you gave them. Lots of kids got pocket money, but the population noticeably dropped for the next couple of years.

      They've not only researched it, they've used it in combat. I'm afraid I don't have an online reference, but I recall reading in a National Geographic magazine in the late 70s or early 80s that Japanese and Allied officers used bioluminescent plankton and mold to read maps and documents in the Pacific theatre during WWII.

      • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

        by pspahn (1175617)

        Sounds to me like a good way to get your battleship sunk by an enemy that had access to lightbulbs.

      • by sconeu (64226)

        I don't know if it really happened, or was just in the script for Apollo 13, but the movie has a story about Lovell following a bioluminescent plankton trail to find his carrier at night.

    • by Thud457 (234763)

      Back in the 1950s Johns Hopkins offered a penny a piece for each live firefly you gave them. Lots of kids got pocket money, but the population noticeably dropped for the next couple of years.

      I think that probably has more to do with the prevalent overuse of DDT for everything, including as a potato salad additive.

  • by Rejemy (78237) on Saturday September 11, 2010 @10:14PM (#33549810) Homepage

    By the time the rotors are kicking up dust from the landing area, isn't it a little late to be looking down at landing markers anyway?

  • by Plazmid (1132467) on Saturday September 11, 2010 @10:15PM (#33549814)
    One of the reasons bioluminescence gets researched by the military so much is because bioluminescent plankton create flashes of light that interfere with submarine laser communication systems. As plankton and submarine laser communication systems like to use wavelengths of light that transmit furthest in water(blue-green).
  • by RyoShin (610051) <[tukaro] [at] [gmail.com]> on Saturday September 11, 2010 @10:19PM (#33549832) Homepage Journal

    When I was a kid, we'd capture fireflies and put them in empty soda bottles. When we wanted them to light up, we'd shake the bottle real hard. I think the army can handle that.

    One check please.

  • by Anonymous Coward

    Doesn't that violate some law of physics?

  • This phenomenon is noteworthy because this produces light without wasting energy because it does not generate any heat.

    Oh, for Cthulu's sake! Of course it generates heat. It's a freaking irreversible chemical reaction happening at room temperature.

    Just because it doesn't generate as much heat as a magnesium flare doesn't mean it doesn't generate any heat. Geniuses.

    • by watermark (913726)

      This phenomenon is noteworthy because this produces light without wasting energy because it does not generate any heat.

      Of course it generates heat. It's a freaking irreversible chemical reaction happening at room temperature.

      In most cases, that's true. But it doesn't necessarily have to be true. If the increase in entropy is large enough, Gibb's free energy can still be negative at room temperature and therefore the reaction could happen spontaneously without generating heat.

    • Re: (Score:1, Interesting)

      by Anonymous Coward
      Actually, the efficiency of the firefly type of bio-luminescence is something on the order of 98%.

      So, if you're not an entropy nazi, yeah, it is indeed a "cold light".
  • by neo0983 (837728)
    Dont let Peta find out about this but fireflies in a glass jar work fairly well and I am sure are far cheaper than researching how they do it.
  • Fireflies (Score:4, Funny)

    by siride (974284) on Saturday September 11, 2010 @10:54PM (#33549978)
    Would this just attract a bunch of pubescent, emo girls? They could be more dangerous than terrorists.
  • Calvin has been trying to figure out which muscle to flex for decades...

  • I thought that these were called glow sticks... You'd just have to change the casing from plastic to some bio-degradable casing..

    David

  • This article demonstrates how researchers get grants from the military for research completely unrelated to warfare. It's all about the framing.

    I'm all for this kind of behavior.

  • by ILuvRamen (1026668) on Sunday September 12, 2010 @01:00AM (#33550540)
    Maybe I'm overthinking this but wouldn't it be A LOT cheaper on the research budget if they just develop a shatter resistant hampster ball that they can fill with actual fireflies? Then they could drop that out and make a landing zone marker with it.
  • by tirefire (724526) on Sunday September 12, 2010 @03:23AM (#33551072)
    Hey you know what else saves the lives of our beloved GIs?

    Not fighting optional wars. (Rimshot) [instantrimshot.com]
    • by TheLink (130905)
      For my tiny country of 20+ million people, if our political leaders ever _starts_ a war against another country, it could actually be patriotic to kill those leaders.

      Yes, depending on the border we could have more oil/fish or less. But many rich countries don't have that much in terms of natural resources.

      In fact in many countries that have lots of oil or other natural resource, the leaders don't need the people, and so don't care at all - they just split the wealth between some foreigners and themselves.
  • As TFA states, soldiers have used bioluminescent creatures in battle for centuries. One of the first military submarines, the Turtle [wikipedia.org] , used foxfire [suite101.com] (a bioluminescent fungus) to light the controls for the operator during the US revolutionary war.

  • Back in the early '50-ies my dad was serving in (the then) Dutch New Guinea, at the time that the Indonesians started their commando infiltration campaigns.

    My dad told me how on night patrols they used to put some fireflies in their breast pockets, shining through the fabric, so that they could identify each other in the dark without being obviously visible from afar.

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