Designing DEFENSE: from the first thrown stone, to the very latest drone

Written by Carlo D’Alesio & Piero Santoro
Illustrations by Diego Soprana

Week 40

Talking about war – or “defense”, as you may prefer – is always an extremely delicate subject.
Many people suffer and many people die; time, capital and resources are wasted. War, as a concept, is something mankind still refuses to consider as part of its evolutionary saga; it spans from the first stone being flung full-force, to the last drone flying overhead.
It’s a delicate question, particularly when observing it from afar – from privileged and providential eyes.
Although time and geopolitics have been kind, and our existence has been peaceful up until now, war has shot another arrow onto centre stage – technological progress, often at high and unpardonable costs.
Today you can consider your loved ones safe thanks to a detailed CAT (Computer Axial Tomography) made using the latest generation of Philips medical appliances. Or, more artlessly, are you in love with your vintage Vespa? Did you know that Piaggio had to convert their facilities and production line into something entirely different following World War Two?
In this article, we’ll have a look over what is pertinent to us as industrial designers. We’ll focus on design – meaning the process that drives innovation, in between technology and human usability. To reduce the scope even further, we’ll speak of our era alone – our contemporary times.
“Contradiction” is the best word to describe the world in which we are living: a double-faced Janus (the Roman god of beginnings and transitions) wandering through time. Let’s have a look at the antipodes of this innovation game: the High-End and DIY approaches.
The High-End involves billion-dollar corporations, spending a great part of their income on non-stop, and often extreme, research and development. They pursue the best compromise between cost and performance, not limiting themselves to “selling equipment”. Their tailored maintenance services, private training operations and after-sales activities are among their most valuable products.
Have you ever heard of General Atomics, FinMeccanica, BAE Systems, Northrop Grumman or Raytheon? Doesn’t mater, even SAAB, Boeing, Caterpillar and IBM are willing to play the game.
These big guys are developing the most cutting-edge human technologies. Sometimes they seem too daring; in fact, they’re Nikola Tesla’s worst nightmare. To give you an example, we’ll cite the following projects.

BAE SYSTEMS – Thermal Adaptive Camouflage Cloak
Design specialty: Product Design

This is basically a modular system of thermal resistors. They are connected to each other in order to form shaped surfaces, which can read the surrounding temperature, or reproduce other desired thermal states. The result? Whatever is covered with this device becomes virtually invisible if looked at via Infrared (IR) technologies.
The chosen shape of each module is the hexagon – one of the most efficient building block shapes ever to have existed.
In the pictures, Her Majesty’s Cloak is installed on a Polish Obrum PL-01 Panzer.
Among other things, this tank can disguise itself as a civilian car when observed through Infrared night visors.

ZIL (1)
Illustration © Diego Soprana

ZIL – Punisher Lightweight Carrier
Design specialty: Automotive/Transportation

This carrier comes from a highly regarded manufacturer. ZIL is well known for its in-your-face designs, and not only in their most recent productions. The overall appearance of this vehicle screams ‘bad news has arrived’. The extremely sloped front glass is not a mere design choice: it helps maximize the aerodynamics of the vehicle, and minimize the angle of impact of incoming bullets. The Punisher is a design project that plays with ones psychological and emotional states, and it’s also an efficient communication tool for the manufacturer itself.

BAE SYSTEMS – Virtual Cockpit and Portable Command Center
Design specialty: User Experience, Virtual User Interfaces

What’s the most expensive part of a working Jet Fighter? The pilot. In these days we continually here talk about drones (or UAVs – Unmanned Aerial Vehicles), but still, a human’s capacity for decision-making and comprehension have yet to be technologically replicated. Even if BAE’s Virtual Cockpit and Portable Command Center are still under development, we’re hard-pressed to think about a manned aircraft without any physical interface: no buttons, no nothing. Each pilot that will physically man these future “mute” aircrafts will have a personal, one-of-a-kind control interface, that will be adapted to each mission and each individual’s skills and prior training.

Design specialty: Key Enabling Technologies, Tech-driven design

As Lockheed Martin claims in its online news section, this is really “turning up the heat”.
ATHENA, short for Advanced Test High ENergy Asset, is a 3’000 W laser rail gun. Please keep in mind that you’ll burn your eye and retina if you stare at a 1W laser beam. ATHENA is mentioned here because it is a great example of technology-driven design. It is a huge rail gun whose bullets are basically invisible to us; it does not need a barrel, since it shoots a light beam. The resulting product architecture of this weapon is completely new: it resembles a friendly amateur telescope, rather than a deadly laser coming straight from Duke Nukem’s wet dreams.

ARCA – AirStrato
Design specialty: Avionics

An astonishing electrical UAV (Unmanned Aerial Vehicle) built for endurance flights and fitted with artificial intelligence attributes. Not only can it hold a flight course and follow specific points, but it can also make decisions based on predetermined conditions. For instance, it prevents the pilot entering a restricted area; in case the connection between AirStrato and the interface is lost, the aircraft knows to call technical support at ARCA Space Corporation.
Its design seems as though it has been shaped by wind; a smooth silhouette beautifully encompasses two lengths of solar panels and is kept agile thanks to its six small next-generation rotor engines.
A remote cockpit – whose design however is highly questionable – is set to be the human interface.
The AirStrato can be yours starting at 20K USD – but an additional 15K are required for the cockpit alone.
Enjoying the fancy colours, thinking about the affordable price and guessing that this will have no implication on Long-Range SIGINT (Signal Intelligence) missions? Oh come on…
In other words, if you’re not in a position to reserve a ticket for the next Washington D.C.’s “Sea-Air-Space Show” or Abu Dhabi’s IDEX (International Defense Exhibition and Conference), you can stay updated with or on

On the flip side of the coin: the DIY Approach. What happens if you lack equipment? What if you lack the basic resources these big guys have: construction and maintenance facilities, fuel, armour, tools, remote control or aviation support? What if you face desperation and nothingness for days? The bottom-up approach may be dangerous, but it’s also the most powerful method, and in most cases, it’s the approach that wins.
Access denied to enabling technologies has just proved a winning strategy – because history tells us that the thought and will to be human will go on, no matter what. It’s evolution in its rawest form.

IED (1)
Illustration © Diego Soprana

Design specialty: Product Design

Short for Improvised Explosive Device, these deadly artefacts scatter strategic roads and sensitive environment pathways. They can be remotely controlled, timed, or pressure sensitive. In the first case, we refer to an instable and dangerous ignition mechanism that can often be activated by a cell phone. IED’s are cheap, fast to assemble and easy to be deployed – they are buried a few centimetres under ground level. The main explosive charge may vary from an anti-man mine to more devastating powers, able to flip or destroy armoured vehicles such as troop carriers, or to disable a tank. IED’s represent a huge threat for the enemy, both physically and psychologically. In fact, enormous amounts of time and resources are used to clean infested areas.

Illustration © Diego Soprana

Design specialty: Automotive/Transportation

A Bomb Truck has one specific purpose: getting to the target without exploding first. On the other hand, an armoured truck is used to keep troops safe or as an equipment carrier. The recipe may seem simple, but it’s not. Trucks are converted in particular facilities, often in constant movement. Steel elements are forged together to assemble improvised armour, in a constant trial-error process, which has to accommodate armour protection without compromising existing truck drivability. The results of this hands-on approach are huge, slow behemoths roaming open landscapes on targeted courses. It’s not only something that “rebels” can construct; for instance, the Kurdish Peshmerga Army – one of Iraq’s most trained and well equipped forces – flaunted a truck of this nature on the battlefield.

Design specialty: Automotive/Transportation

Same as above… but less costly and quick to produce. Pickups and vans are the most treated, grinded and assembled. A Technical can carry anything from anti-tank machinery to surface-to-air missiles. Preparing a Technical is also the most effective strategy to recycle disposed enemy machinery, by “simply” fitting it on the new carrier. Being often civilian vehicles, their aesthetic customization is a must. Featured paint jobs are made with spray cans, dry mud, glued flags and insignia patchwork.

We hope that this article has been helpful and interesting to read.
Again, as stated at the very beginning, we’re aware that this is a delicate subject matter.
But knowledge is important, and this information could be useful for those wanting to deepen their understanding of the topic. For instance, you can start right now. Suggestions? An outstanding project by MOMA with great images and little text, or check out the official publications of the US Department of Defense, which contains a lot of text and very little imagery.

Carlo D’Alesio & Piero Santoro is an independent lighting design firm based in Milan. Owners of the MEG project, their area of interest covers a wide range of design fields