August 5, 2021

Startups are helping armies create legions of super-soldiers

There is a new arms race happening in the world of defence: using biotechnology to create more powerful soldiers.

(Microsoft’s military-adapted Hololens headset being tested. Source: US Army)

This is the second of a four-part series on how armies around the world are embracing startups to give them a technological edge. The first is an overview, and this is about human augmentation. The next two are about autonomous drones and satellites.

There is a new arms race happening in the world of defence: creating more powerful soldiers.

Militaries in China, the US and Europe have all signalled that they are actively exploring ways to enhance soldiers’ bodies for the battlefield, looking at everything from implants and powerful exoskeletons to gene editing.

To do this they are turning to private tech companies with innovative new products to help them, with startups such as Cylensee, LimpidArmor Synchron and Nia Therapeutics all being roped in to help.


While some of the research and experimentation is being done by government agencies, many of the companies at the cutting edge of human enhancement are young, fast-growing tech companies (often looking for non-military applications).

It is further encouraging the defence sector to engage with the new economy in the fight to stay relevant as warfare changes around the world.

“‘Yes’ to Iron Man. ‘No’ to Spiderman”

Different countries have different ethical standards when it comes to augmented troops.

The Chinese military appears to be the most willing to dramatically alter its troops’ anatomies, with the country’s Academy of Military Medical sciences reported to be involved in gene editing trials, using Crispr technology.

China was responsible for the first use of Crispr gene editing on a human that, while supposedly intended to provide HIV immunity, is thought to have improved the subjects’ cognitive functions.

And while it’s obvious why armies might be interested in the ability to improve their soldiers’ memories and learning abilities, the European and US militaries have stopped short of gene editing in their plans.

Last year, the French military’s ethics committee approved research into human augmentation of soldiers, but stated that any enhancement should be reversible.

“We say yes to Iron Man’s armour and no to the augmentation and genetic mutation of Spider-Man!” said France’s minister of Armed Forces, Florence Parly.

The US military, meanwhile, does appear to be interested in exploring techniques which might not be so reversible.

A 2019 report from the US Department of Defense titled “Cyborg Soldier 2050: Human/Machine Fusion and the Implications for the Future of the DOD” laid out four areas of human enhancement that might be possible by 2050.

Superhuman night vision?

The first section of the Cyborg Soldier 2050 reports talks about augmented vision as a first step in the process of creating super-soldiers.


It talks about “ocular enhancement for imaging, sight, and situational awareness” while the report also mentions the possibility of replacing soldiers’ eyeballs — passing data “directly into the optical nerve bundle behind the eye.”

So far, the closest thing to this futuristic proposition of a bionic eyeball comes from the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, which has developed an artificial eye that uses nanowire light sensors to mimic the photoreceptors of human retinas.

artificial eyeball Hong Kong University of Science and Technology
The world’s first artificial eyeball, source: Hong Kong University of Science and Technology

This artificial eye has yet to even be tested in animals. But in the world of new technology companies, Paris-based Pixium Vision, founded in 2011, has developed a sub-retinal implant that has already restored vision in a blind patient as part of a clinical trial.

The US military’s report suggests that tech like this could be used to give soldiers access to visual spectrums that humans can’t see, such as infrared which is currently used in night-vision goggles.

Pixium Vision’s retinal impact uses infrared as its source of visual information that it delivers to patients, and founder and chairman Bernard Gilly says that enhanced infrared vision could be possible, even if it’s not necessarily a good idea.

“​​That's a particularly interesting use of these retinal implants, but I think to some extent, it is still a little bit of science fiction for the moment,” he says. “Something that’s quite scary about a retinal implant for that kind of use is that it’s a one way trip. When you get a retinal implant, it’s done. You can remove the implant but the retina will be destroyed.”

The Cyborg Soldier 2050 report does acknowledge that soldiers with healthy eyes would be unlikely to take such a risk, but says it could be a viable option for those with ocular injuries.

Laser sight

The US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (Darpa) hasn’t yet approached Pixium Vision about its sub-retinal implants, but there are other visual augmentation projects in Europe that are catching its eye.

In 2015, Switzerland's École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne announced that the Pentagon agency had funded research to develop telescopic contact lenses for long-range sight.

With just a blink, the contact lenses can magnify the wearer’s vision by 2.8x, although the researchers later cautioned that the technology would be more useful to sufferers of glaucoma, than for bionic super-soldiers.

That hasn’t put Darpa off though.

The agency is now taking interest in Cylensee — a new spinout startup from French technological university IMT Atlantique, which has developed contact lenses with embedded laser pointers.

Cylensee IMT
Cylensee’s contact lens

Jean-Louis de Bougrenet de la Tocnaye, lead researcher on the project, told Sifted that he is in close contact with Microsoft, which is working with the Pentagon on a battlefield adapted version of its augmented reality Hololens headset.

Cylensee’s laser pointing lenses could be useful to Microsoft as a way to improve the eye tracking and menu interface system in the headset, according to de Bougrenet de la Tocnaye.

“If you compare with standard eye trackers that use image processing to detect the direction of gaze, using a laser pointer has a lot of advantages,” he says. “The first one is accuracy because it doesn’t depend on image processing. You just have to detect a beam that’s linked to the eye motion, so it’s a very direct and accurate way to measure the direction of gaze.”

Accuracy might become a genuine matter of life and death if these headsets make it to the battlefield, as eye tracking could be used for target designation for drone strikes.

The Ukrainian military is already testing this application for tank commanders, using software and hardware from Kiev-based augmented reality startup LimpidArmor, in combination with Hololens.

Microsoft hololens military headset
Microsoft’s military-adapted Hololens headset being tested. Source: US Army

De Bougrenet de la Tocnaye says that laser contact lenses will also help reduce the bulkiness of the headsets, as they negate the need for more eye tracking hardware on the goggles.

Under the skin

Darpa’s Cyborg Soldier 2050 report mentions another area of research that could take body augmentation further into the realms of science fiction.

It suggests that soldiers could be implanted with sensors under their skin to form an “optogenetic bodysuit sensor web”, which could allow soldiers’ limbs to be controlled remotely, allowing novice troops to complete complex tasks beyond their own abilities.

Optogenetics is a biological technique that has only very recently been tested on humans, which uses light to stimulate neuron cells, adapting their functionality. Scientists at MIT have used this method of controlling neurons to influence limb movements and reduce muscle fatigue in mice and rats, but the research is still in its very early stages.

Paris-based GenSight Biologics is another biotech company founded by Pixium Vision’s Bernard Gilly, which is using optogenetics to develop treatments for sight threatening diseases, the first use of the technique in humans.

He believes that using optogenetics on neurons in the human eye is far easier than in muscles, as they are already adapted to receive light signals, but that the US military’s vision could theoretically be possible by 2050.

“When you talk about the military using optogenetics to add additional functions to the muscle, I think that may be the case in 20 or 30 years, but for the moment that's not possible,” he says.

Talking to the brain

Another research field mentioned in the Cyborg 2050 report is brain-computer interfaces, saying that one day soldiers will be able to control battlefield machinery with their minds, and directly receive information from drones and other sources.

Darpa has already funded a number of US-based brain-computer interface startups, such as Synchron and Nia Therapeutics, but European players in the space currently seem to be more focused on medical applications than mind-reading weapon control.

Cambridge-based startup BIOS, for example, is developing ways to understand and rewire the links between the brain and different organs of the body, with the aim of treating illnesses such as Crohn’s disease in new ways. Meanwhile, Barcelona-based InBrain is developing graphene-based neural implants for treating Alzheimer’s, dementia and other memory loss.

One European brain-computer interface founder, who preferred not to be named for this piece, told Sifted that most of the US-based companies taking money from Darpa claim to be doing so to research memory restoration and treatments for PTSD.

When asked if they would welcome investment from the agency, the founder said the issue was not black and white, but that seeing Donald Trump in the Whitehouse had made the proposition far less reassuring.

The Cyborg 2050 report says that while a neural implant’s invasiveness and potential irreversibility might not be acceptable to some soldiers, troops in the special forces, such as the Navy Seals, might “be more inclined to accept these technologies.”

Jetpacks and super strength

It’s not exactly human augmentation as this technology is strictly wearable, involving an engine worn as a backpack and thrusters attached to the arms. But Gravity Industries’ jetpacks are bringing a truly Iron Man-like flight capability to the military.

Britain's Royal Navy has been testing jet packs, to allow soldiers to board ships at sea by Iron Man-style flight. A Youtube video demonstrates the manoeuvre. 

The company has also collaborated with the Dutch Maritime Special Operations Force to test the suit. Gravity Industries CEO Richard Browning says the startup is working with six different special forces units, in the UK and abroad.

There are also plenty of civilian uses for the technology, including work with mountain rescue services as well as film special effects, but the technology, which allows flight for a few minutes at a time, has obvious interest for special forces soldiers.

“Nothing else can move a human being in this way, over obstacles, over water,” says Browning.

The system runs on jet fuel and pushes out ferocious heat and noise as the engines fire up. It also takes some work to learn how to get the right angles and propulsion to get lift-off. In fact, one of the activities Gravity Industries makes money from is running a flight school at its base in Goodwood in Chichester.

Browning famously raised  $650,000 in funding from Tim Draper following a demo flight in the company’s car park in 2017. Draper wrote the 'term sheet' on the back of a $100 note — a scene that felt like it enhanced every Silicon Valley bro testosterone cliché. But Browning is not sure whether any further fundraising is on the horizon. Investors demand too much predictability for what is still a very young and experimental company, Browning told Sifted.

“They would want projections of earnings. I can’t predict the next six months, let alone three years from now.”

There are also dozens of startups that are making exoskeletons to make the human body stronger and faster. In the US, a programme to develop a vision-enhancing and partially bullet-proof TALOS bodysuit was recently discontinued. But more modest exoskeleton concepts, which would take the strain off different body parts — like back, legs or arms — are continuing.

Many of Europe’s exoskeleton makers are focusing on medical therapeutics, but a handful are designing exoskeletons for more general use in manufacturing and potentially military use.  Exoskeletons made by Dutch startup Laevo are being tested in the warehouses of the Dutch navy.

The enhancement of soldiers is a highly controversial topic in Europe, with states like France explicitly stopping short of anything irreversible. There is still a wealth of technologies that can enhance eyesight, strength and agility.

Much of this technology is being developed in university departments and recent university spinouts. Many of these startups are more focused on medical uses — and are reluctant to discuss potential military applications. But these are the technologies that European defence departments will need to tap into to develop their super-soldier programmes.


Maija Palmer is Sifted’s innovation editor. She covers deeptech and corporate innovation, and tweets from @maijapalmer. Tim Smith is Sifted’s Iberia correspondent. He tweets from @timmpsmith 

This is the second in the four-part series about military technology. The next two sections will look at autonomous drones and the AI/data war.