Gadgets that may become reality
As celebrates its 50 th anniversary this year, a look at the show’s futurist tech
It’s a little over 50 years since the Star Trek burst onto US television and began boldly going where no man had gone before. Over that time we’ve been treated to hundreds of episodes, more than a dozen films and scores of characters. Even as a show set in the future (way, way in the future), looking at it now, the sci-fi involved hasn’t aged a day ... Or has it? Machines that could print food? Lasers that shoot to destroy things? Virtual reality rooms? They sounded absurd, once.
John Puddy is UK Technology Lead, Land, for BAE Systems, which specialises in technology-leg defence and aerospace infrastructure. Puddy’s job title means he heads up the team of scientists tasked with sorting science from science fiction: which pie-in-the-sky gadgets might be worth investing greater research in, and which are best left to screenwriters. Predictably, too, he’s a Trekky, and is all too keen to explain six elements of Star Trek that have actually come to predict — or in some cases even inform — future science.
“Things are accelerating at an amazing rate,” Puddy says. “Just think about 10 years ago, and the idea of driverless cars. They were a vision then, but unmanned vehicles are everywhere now. The pace of change is incredible, but so too is the adoption. People are willing to try things and trust them, so a lot of the stuff from sci-fi films is perfectly possible now.”
In Star Trek, a replicator was a (fairly enormous) machine that could create and recycle objects on demand, such as food. It won’t surprise many to know that BAE already have these in the form of 3D printers, but their ambitions reach far beyond that of a normal one.
“3D printing is something that a lot of people can probably relate to,” Puddy says. “You can build your own 3D printer from collecting parts from a monthly magazine now — it’s accepted and in use all over the place.” We use them to create metal and plastic parts for vehicles, often creating shapes that would be impossible otherwise, and this will be vital in the future when you don’t need to wait for replacement parts to arrive at your location in order to fix something. They’re already using it in that way on the International Space Station, for instance.
“Where we’re looking to go next with it is moving from printing inorganic matter to live things and active chemicals.”
With the University of Glasgow, BAE have helped develop a machine
called a Chemputer, which might allow for printing things at a molecular level. It’s a way off, but the possibilities are endless.
“Imagine printing electronic circuits in one go?” Puddy says. “Or human tissue, even. There’s really nothing you couldn’t, conceivably, do with this, making it incredibly exciting for all industries.”
Cloaking devices were used in Star Trek in an attempt to do just that: make things invisible. Namely, the starship.
In real life, militaries and others have attempted to reach peak stealthiness for centuries, but never with great success. Now there’s a different technology, and it’s ready for use.
“No matter how hard you try, a big object like a vehicle is always going to give off a signature to thermal or infa-red cameras,” Puddy says. “Instead of trying to disappear, then, we’ve developed a camouflage system called ADAPTIV which uses tessellating panels to make things appear as something else. A military vehicle could give off a signal looking like a normal car or a transit van, for instance, so it’s hidden in plain sight. Even if it doesn’t work, whoever is looking at it won’t be sure what’s there, so they won’t know how to respond, either. That buys valuable time.”
There’s lots of research going in to electromagnetic weapons, Puddy says, though they wouldn’t quite work in the same way as Star Trek’s tractor
3 Cloaking Phasers:
beams, which could attract or repel huge objects.
“They’re called ‘energy weapons’, and lasers are an area we’re investing in heavily. A bit like phasers in Star Trek, we could easily have laser devices fitted to vehicles or handheld, for individual use, soon. There’s a lot of interesting stuff happening with sound, too. If we want to disrupt, rather than harm, then sound is a way of doing it. Remember Captain Kirk rolling around because of the terrible screech? Well, like that, in a way.”
Travelling faster than the speed of light, blitzing across the galaxy? Not quite, but nearly. “There’s a limit to how high regular planes can go, since their engines rely on oxygen from the atmosphere,” says Puddy. “Air is pulled into the jet engines, which pulls the
4 Warp drive:
plane forward. When you get to a certain height in the atmosphere there isn’t enough air to do that, which is when you need big, flaming rocket engines.
“A new thing we’re working with is something called the Hypersonic SABRE engine, which combines both of these things. So you could take off from a normal runway, but go at almost any height, as the engine can transition between the two.”
Blurring the line between air travel and space flight, the engines would allow — in theory — for a four-hour journey between London and Sydney, travelling at around five times the speed of sound. It won’t be soon, mind: they don’t expect anything to be ready for a decade or two yet.
Star Trek’s Dr Crusher was probably the most common user of hypospray, said to have developed in the mid22nd century. It seemed to work like an intravenous shot applied to the neck or arm, though without a needle, and could help with all manner of health conditions.
In reality? Things are closer to a Fitbit. As seen in professional rugby or in Team GB, wearable tech can now be used to monitor far more than just steps, instead sending detailed health data back to doctors so that the wearer gets exactly the treatment they need — such as when to rest, what to eat, how much exercise to do and vital medical details.
“We’ve been looking at developing that technology for soldiers, seamen and airmen and women,”
Medicinal hypospray: 5
StarTrek Puddy says. “If we can transmit health stats straight to paramedics that treat these personnel on the ground, health care can be much quicker and much more effective.
“Equally, there’s no reason why this non-invasive medical support couldn’t be used on vehicles, too, helping us to predict failures before they happen, and even leading to the stage of having self-healing aircrafts.”
The pace of change is incredible ... People are willing to try things and trust them, so a lot of the stuff from sci-fi films is perfectly possible now.” John Puddy, UK Technology Lead, Land, for BAE Systems
A kind of virtual reality room in which familiar places, new concepts and stories could be conjured for the benefit of the crew, holodecks are a familiar sight in the Star Trek universe.
It isn’t far off the VR “caves” already built at BAE’s base in Telford. For years, pilots have used VR helmets that allow them to be fed data and visuals right in front of their eyes, yet the uses of virtual reality extend further now.
“It’s like advanced VR. We use Oculus Rift in training, to let people know how it feels to drive something or be somewhere, and there are developments, led by gaming, like having smells involved too, in order to make it more real,” he says.
“We’ve also got a holodeck — a cave where we can create full 3D environments to see how big things will look and how they might look out in the field. It requires a lot of space, but it could cut costs massively, reducing the need to send people away for as much training with the real things. All of this data-driven stuff is susceptible to hacking, of course, which is a concern for everyone, but it’s incredibly exciting.”
StarTrek (2009) is a US science fiction adventure film directed by J. J. Abrams. It is the 11th film of the film franchise and is also a reboot that features the main characters of the original television series,