The Government and Technology Innovation That Shined in 2021

Some agencies laid some groundwork for new developments that might make life better in the future.

Now is the time to start making plans for celebrating the end of 2021. For most people, this year was not quite as bad as 2020, when we were all blindsided by the pandemic and a wave of new cyberattacks. But then again, being better than 2020 is a pretty low bar. I think most of us are hopeful (once again) that the New Year will be a better one for everybody.

But despite 2021 being a rather lackluster year overall, we did see some interesting advancements in government technology, as well as some groundwork for new developments that might make life better in the future. For my last column of the year, I wanted to review some of those bright spots, and maybe provide a few updates on a couple of areas we have not covered in a while. So let’s begin with the standout star of 2021: NASA’s Integrity helicopter.

The Wright Stuff

Launched as a technology demonstration to prove that flight was capable on Mars, the Integrity helicopter was only expected to fly a single mission. Instead, it rose to the challenge and then some. It seemed like every week we were treated to a new story about how the little helicopter was completing yet another flight, each time going farther and higher than ever before. One of its flights was even accompanied by a 3D movie filmed as the Perseverance rover watched nearby.

And then, eventually, the Integrity mission started to evolve. After the fifth or sixth successful flight, I think NASA realized that its helicopter experiment was a resounding success. So instead of simply doing more test flights, Integrity was tasked with helping the Perseverance rover explore Mars. Having an aerial scout is an incredible asset for a rover because it can fly ahead and help its ground-based companion spot interesting landmarks to investigate, as well as avoid hazards like deep sand that might otherwise doom the mission.

We still get occasional news about Integrity itself. Earlier this month, NASA reported that the little helicopter had wracked up 30 minutes of flight time on Mars, which is an accomplishment for a robot that was expected to last for a few seconds on a single flight. However, most of the news from Mars today is about discoveries that Perseverance and Ingenuity are making together. The helicopter has evolved from a technology demonstration to a vital part of the overall mission.

And that bodes well for future robot explorers. NASA is already testing the next generation of explorer robots which will take on even more difficult tasks, like collecting rock and soil samples and returning back to Earth with them. We are still a few years away from that happening, but if Integrity’s performance is any indication, we can be confident that the next generation of robot explorers will be up for the challenge.

Virtual and Augmented Worlds Get More Real

We have been covering virtual reality and its close cousin, augmented reality, for several years now, mostly in terms of technology demonstrations. Virtual reality (VR) is formed when a user puts on a full headset so that they can no longer see or hear anything from the real world. A computer simulation is then displayed inside the headset which takes the place of reality. As VR gets more realistic, humans will more easily be able to “forget” the real world while they are interacting within a VR. Augmented reality (AR) by contrast is normally achieved with less intrusive devices like tablets or even smartphones. In AR, viewers see the real world through their device’s camera, but the computer is able to position simulated objects on the screen as if they exist in same space. 

Both AR and VR are good for gaming, but in 2021 they started to make the jump to more serious applications. A perfect example of this is a program underway at the Air Force Special Operations Command to help augment the maintenance of the CV-22 Osprey aircraft.

The CV-22 Osprey is a perfect example of a military aircraft that is both revolutionary and complicated to maintain. Reports have stated that historically, as many as four in ten planes in active service are unavailable for combat because of maintenance issues. The Air Force is addressing this issue by implementing an AR program for maintenance personnel working on the Ospreys. According to those working on the program, the AR screens can show technicians exactly how different parts should look, and how to connect wiring and other components. They can easily compare the perfect setup they are seeing through the AR to what they are seeing on the actual aircraft. If the AR world and the real one don’t match up perfectly, then more work needs to be done.

With AR and VR making their way into more mainstream applications, it’s almost a sure thing that we will start to see even more innovation in this field in the near future.

5G Finally Started Creeping Across the Country 

The next generation of wireless communications, dubbed 5G or fifth generation, finally started rolling out to people in 2021. Unfortunately, most of us only got to experience a small fraction of 5G this year. Even if you had a 5G phone and a provider with so-called 5G technology, most likely you were riding on a 5G signal overlayed on a 4G network. A true 5G network would be almost entirely software-based, and requires a reworking of most existing cellphone towers. So while you might experience a bump in performance with 5G right now, it’s nowhere near the 100 times faster speed and 100 times lower latency that the technology promises.

The one place where true 5G was in full swing in 2021 was in the military, specifically deployed at bases with 5G technology testbeds. Those testbeds were all part of the first phase of the military’s 5G Strategy Implementation Plan. Bases with testbeds experimented on many projects in 2021 including telemedicine, real-time 3D rendering, intelligent vehicles, creating private 5G networks in the field, advanced cybersecurity and many more programs. Phase two of the plan has already begun, and the New Year will see more 5G testbeds come online.

It seems like the military is destined to drive new 5G applications. That could mean that 5G applications will follow the same path as other innovations like GPS that started in the military and eventually went mainstream and became widely available for everyone.

Innovation Will Continue in 2022

If the previous couple of years has taught us anything, it’s that nobody can fully predict the future. Nobody knew that the global challenges we faced in 2020 and 2021 were coming. And yet, despite everything, government officials and technology innovators were still able to advance in key areas, in no small part thanks to the hardworking and smart people who rose to the challenge and got things done despite the trying times.

We may not know what will happen in the New Year, or what new challenges we will face, but looking back at some of the impressive feats of the past year can at least provide a glimpse at some of the successes and achievements that we can continue to build upon. Yes, there will be new problems, and some of them will likely be serious, but we can overcome them and keep moving forward. It’s what we did over the past two years, and what we will continue to do in the future. 

John Breeden II is an award-winning journalist and reviewer with over 20 years of experience covering technology. He is the CEO of the Tech Writers Bureau, a group that creates technological thought leadership content for organizations of all sizes. Twitter: @LabGuys