5 Pieces of Star Wars Technology That Exist Right Now
In order to avoid disappointment later on, let's just get this out of the way right off the bat: No, science has not yet created the lightsaber (goddammit). But, as we've mentioned before, scientists are doing their absolute nerdiest to make Star Wars a reality every single day, despite the fact that nothing in the film was created with realism in mind. A generation of scientists and engineers who grew up with the trilogy has already given us ...
The speeder bike scene in Return of the Jedi taught adolescent boys everywhere two things: First, all it takes to defeat the highly trained soldiers of an evil empire are some conveniently placed trees and a few hairy dwarfs. Second, it's not only the lingerie section of Mom's Sears catalog that can cause confusing feelings in your Underoos.
To this day, we still want to make sweet love to that scene.
Mark DeRoche, head of a company called Aerofex, was apparently a big fan of that scene as well. But unlike most of us who spent years of our childhoods pedaling our bikes between trees while making swooshy sounds with our mouths, DeRoche actually has the wherewithal to make it happen:
Free hairy dwarf included with every purchase!
Yep, that's not a Photoshop -- his company is in the process of perfecting a "low-altitude tandem duct aerial vehicle" that's sure to have every Star Wars nerd scrambling to auction off his NIB action figure collection for the cash to snag one. When you watch the Aerofex hover bike in action, it's easy to see why DeRoche says it's "probably a tribute to George Lucas' team":
So, are you ready for the bad news? It'll be a while before you can go down to a dealership and get one. At a current price tag between $50,000 and $100,000 and a target market of "agriculture, search and rescue, border control and transportation ... the Australian Outback, East Africa, a doctor going between villages," the odds of us everyday folk scoring one of these bad boys aren't looking real favorable.
Still, we're going to latch on to that faint glimmer of hope and hold it in a death grip -- because the potential payoff of simultaneously fulfilling our childhood Skywalker fantasies and our present-day "unobstructed commute" fantasies is just too good to let the dream die that easily. Now, if only science would come up with a laser cannon that we could duct tape on there to make it truly movie-authentic ...
Lasers have to be technology's biggest disappointment. For half a century, sci-fi taught us that in the future, guns would shoot glowing beams of energy that could blow the shit out of anything in our way. It's 2013: We thought we'd be living an entirely laser-based lifestyle by now, and instead they're just key-chain-size cat tormenters. How are we going to blow fighters out of the sky with that shit?
All we wanted was to die getting shot by something like this. Is that too much to ask?
Well, the military is finally getting into the Death Ray business. Here's what it looks like when a ship-mounted laser goes all Empire on a passing drone:
That's right: The U.S. Navy has tested out a warship-mounted laser cannon (officially and uber creatively dubbed the Laser Weapon System, or LaWS) and successfully used it to destroy drones and smaller boats at a cost of a meager buck per shot (whereas firing off missiles costs hundreds of thousands of dollars a pop). The first of such laser weapons will be deployed on the USS Ponce in early 2014, after which they'll presumably start sticking them on, just, everything, because holy shit it's a laser cannon.
Sadly, there's no accompanying "pew-pew" sound effect, and unlike in the movies, the weapon doesn't fling out a visible laser-turd that a 10-year-old jump rope expert could effectively dodge (because in real life, light travels at the speed of light). But to give you a better idea of what's happening just before the drone bursts into flames, here's the scene depicted using the very latest in '90s PC gaming technology:
"Damn, I don't remember MS Flight Simulator being this hard."
In addition to the "zap you straight to Davy Jones' Locker" setting, the laser cannons will reportedly also feature a "dazzle" setting, which we assume still zaps you just as dead, but does so like C-3PO: fabulously.
Floating Probe Droids
In The Empire Strikes Back, said Empire sent a probe droid to Hoth to scour the icy planet in search of rebel scum. This drone was able to autonomously float along the planet's surface and scan for life, while simultaneously looking all creepy and insect-like.
Where's a giant rolled-up newspaper when you need one?
To develop our own real-world probe droid, we first need a drone capable of the type of hovering movement seen in the movie. The MLB Company took care of that part when they developed an unmanned aerial vehicle dubbed the V-Bat, a "long endurance VTOL design" capable of floating around with a 5-pound payload for 10 hours.
We would've gone with "The Great Winged Dongbot," but whatever.
That's pretty cool and all, but DARPA took one look at it and decided it wasn't quite cool enough (and for DARPA, the concepts of "cool" and "terrifying" are somewhat intermingled). They figured what the V-Bat really needed was the ability to act autonomously. Oh, and also a clawed arm. The primary function of this bastardized V-Bat is to hover its way into hard-to-reach places and deliver a "payload" -- what exactly that payload is isn't specified, but we're going to assume it's not throwing pies. As you can see in this video, it's already working pretty well:
Using its "vision cameras," the V-Bat is able to successfully judge the distance to its target, approach, clamp on its payload, and retreat -- all without any human direction. While they're using a stationary target in that demonstration (a ladder), you know it's only a matter of time before they train it to track down moving targets (read: humans) and latch on to them with its freaky robot claw. And since it's completely autonomous, it'll be able to do so without any operator input beyond a cry of "That guy! Sic him!"
"Who's a good boy? You're a good boy!"
It may not be the Force Choke you've always daydreamed of performing on freaking Dave from accounting, but hey, a Robot Choke is almost as good, right?
"Remotes" (Miniature Hover Bots)
In Star Wars, remotes aren't something you use to mute your holographic space TV, they're little spherical droids that float around and carry out whatever tasks are required of them aboard spaceships: repairs, carrying equipment, reconnaissance ... basically, they're butlers in the form of soccer balls. That float. And pack lasers.
Floating and lasers: two things historically lacking in conventional butlers.
After seeing them in the movies, science decided to go right ahead and tinker up some remotes of their very own. We're being completely serious there, by the way -- on the first day of class back in 2000, MIT engineering professor David Miller showed his students the scene where Luke trains with a remote and told them, "I want you to build me some of those."
And, with backup from NASA and the Department of Defense, they've done just that. SPHERES (Synchronized Position Hold, Engage, Reorient, Experimental Satellites) are designed to carry out general tasks in a zero-gravity environment, the idea being that they'll serve as mission control's proxy presence aboard the spacecraft -- zipping around to perform maintenance checks, creepily watching over the astronauts while they sleep, and basically doing whatever else the eggheads in ground control tell them to do for their amusement.
"No, please, not the laser again!"
Today, there are three of these adorable little smartphone-powered droids hanging out on the International Space Station (red, blue, and yellow, in case you were wondering). Sadly, none of these early models comes equipped with lasers, but they do come equipped with tiny gas cylinders and ridiculously complicated algorithms that allow them to efficiently navigate through their weightless environment and, of course, do the ol' hands-free juggle:
Prosthetic Limbs With Feeling
We're fully aware that we covered Luke's bionic hand in the first iteration of this article. However, while it's true that the field of prosthetics has made some mind-boggling leaps in the past few years, the aftermarket parts have always been lacking in one area in particular. Watch this snippet from The Empire Strikes Back and see if you can spot what that might be:
After the New Hand Droid gives Luke his new hand in the movie, it tests it out by pricking it in several places, and Luke feels the pricks. No amount of amazing advancements in robotics can replace that sense of touch, and just think of how important it is: If you had no way to differentiate between the amount of pressure you're applying when removing a lug nut versus, say, "tugging the ol' lug nut," if you know what we mean, you'd be in for a world of hurt.
But then DARPA took some time off from bringing us death and destruction in new and zany ways to create an artificial limb interface that actually allows its user to feel.
What is this black magic? Well, DARPA's Reliable Neural-Interface Technology program (or RE-NET, because despite all its prodigiousness, DARPA still isn't quite clear on how acronyms work) has been busy figuring out how to plug prosthetic interfaces directly into the recipients' nerves to "control prosthetics and to provide direct sensory feedback." In other words, he's controlling that prosthetic arm in the very same, unconscious manner that he controlled his old-fashioned flesh-and-bone model -- and it's not a one-way street, because the interface allows him to feel with it, too.
While the technology obviously isn't perfected quite yet -- in that video demonstration, for example, we're pretty sure his beard caught more of that latte than his mouth did -- it's already nuanced enough to allow the wearer to snatch a stripper hanky out of midair:
It also allows for the precision placement of $5 bills.
Josh wants you to be his friend on Facebook, follow him on Twitter, and learn how to be awesome at everything on his column This Ain't Amateur Hour. Aaron Short is a film student. You can check out his blog on film stuff ... if you dare.
Related Reading: We started catching up with Star Wars a while back. Read about it here, and learn about the intelligent droids we're building to show up C-3P0 and R2-D2. And speaking of Star Wars, did you know the biggest plothole in that series had to do with the humanity of stormtroopers. If all that deep musing has you bummed, read about the Star Wars characters too retarded for film.