Gad­gets that may be­come re­al­ity

As cel­e­brates its 50 th an­niver­sary this year, a look at the show’s fu­tur­ist tech

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - LIFE­STYLE - By GUY KELLY

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

1 Repli­ca­tors:

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.”

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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:

StarTrek

de­vices:

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.”

6 Holodeck:

PRO­VIDED TO CHINA DAILY

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,

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