Star Wars technologies that are closer than you might think
On Dec. 18, science fiction fans worldwide will feel a galactic disturbance in the Force when the new Star Wars movie hits theaters. Set several years after events from George Lucas’ original trilogy, Star Wars: The Force Awakens promises to update us on the adventures of Han, Luke, and Leia, as well as introduce a new generation of heroes and villains.
Like Hollywood’s other, lesser sci-fi franchises—that’s a personal opinion—Star Wars deals with futuristic technologies that often have their origins, or even their rough equivalent, in real-world science. It’s a tradition as old as science fiction itself. The writers and designers who dream up sci-fi systems, weapons, and vehicles begin their notional noodling with the actual technologies they see around them.
Here we look at 10 Star Wars technologies and shift our gaze deeper toward the inspirations and real-world science behind them. Blasters. Droids. Hyperspace drives. It’s good to be talking about these topics again, isn’t it?
An elegant weapon of a more civilized age, the lightsaber remains the greatest contribution from Star Wars to the sci-fi weaponry arsenal of fame. Mythology holds that each weapon is powered by a quasi-mystical kyber crystal, which resonates both with the Force and with its individual Jedi—or Sith. The blade is made from focused plasma energy, held within an invisible containment field.
Lucas conceived of the lightsaber as a sci-fi update to the standard sword wielded by heroes in fantasy stories and film serials. The original name for the weapon, “lazersword,” was thankfully revised as the original film script developed.
Could we actually make a real lightsaber? Maybe. Back in 2013, researchers at Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology managed to get photons to bond together like molecules, creating a state of matter that had previously been purely hypothetical. “It’s not an inapt analogy to compare this to lightsabers,” said Harvard’s lead researcher at the time, causing worldwide swooning among the faithful.
Possibly the single coolest combat vehicle in the Star Wars universe, Imperial Walkers, or AT-ATs (All Terrain Armored Transport), are used by Imperial ground forces to crush enemy resistance and morale. At the infamous Battle of Hoth, AT-ATs proved to be the decisive weapon in breaking Rebel defenses, and gave the original trilogy one of its signature set pieces.
Legend holds that George Lucas’ inspiration for the Imperial Walker came from giant cargo lifters on the San Francisco Bay—although this origin story has apparently been refuted by the the man himself. In any case, subsequent details gradually emerged in the Star Wars canon: AT-ATs stood 22.5 meters high and were powered by massive hydraulic joints using compact fusion drive engines.
In the realm of contemporary robotics, Boston Dynamics’ BigDog robot (inset) is similar in style, if not scale, to those massive Imperial Walkers. About the size of a small mule, the BigDog uses a hydraulic actuation system to power four articulated legs designed to navigate rough terrains. BigDog can run, climb slopes and carry more than 300 pounds of cargo.
Not all of the technologies in Star Wars are Hoth-shaking monstrosities. Some appear as quick throwaway lines or references, which nevertheless have held an enduring fascination for fans of a sufficient intensity. For instance, on Luke Skywalker’s arid home planet of Tatooine, farmers must deploy “moisture vaporators” to pull water out of thin air. C-3PO’s fluency with the binary language of these vaporators leads to his employment with the Skywalkers, and subsequent heroics.
Techniques and technologies for pulling moisture out of the air actually go back hundreds and maybe even thousands of years. It’s simply a matter of cooling water vapor into a denser liquid state—the Incas were quite good at it, for instance. In recent years, engineers have developed some interesting variations on the theme, like the bicycle-mounted moisture vaporator.
Luke Skywalker’s junky landspeeder—the X-34 model, technically—was the first of many levitating vehicles that would be introduced in the Star Wars universe. Whether small or large, like Jabba the Hutt’s pleasure skiff, the vehicles were powered by antigravity technology known as repulsorlift engines, according to Star Wars lore. Repulsorlifts, in turn, were imagined as manufactured “knots” of space-time that could be directed to push back against existing gravitational pull.
Antigravity is a time-honored science fiction trope, going all the way back to H.G. Wells and some of the earliest sci-fi stories. As for contemporary theories about antigravity, the science gets extremely complicated and much depends on how you define your terms. But we certainly have plenty of “levitating” vehicles to choose from, including hovercraft RVs and maglev trains. Volkswagen is one of several companies looking into the idea of electromagnetic hover cars.
Han Solo’s many daring escapes in the original Star Wars trilogy often involve the Millennium Falcon’s rickety hyperdrive engine. A classic FTL (faster than light) device, the hyperdrive concept allows Star Wars ships and characters to zip across the galaxy to different planets, which makes the storytelling a whole lot easier.
FTL travel has long been a useful conjecture in science-fiction stories for exactly that reason. References to hyperspace and other modes of interstellar travel date back to the golden age of science fiction in 1940s and 1950s, where George Lucas found inspiration for many of space opera ideas.
We’re nowhere close to hyperdrive technology, but if a growing collection of reports is to be believed, NASA is indeed investigating an “impossible” alternative spaceflight technology. The controversial electromagnetic propulsion drive, or EM Drive, purportedly converts energy directly into thrust and continues to be tested at NASA’s Eagleworks Laboratories.
“Hokey religions and ancient weapons are no match for a good blaster at your side, kid.” So says Han to Luke in the original Star Wars movie, advocating for sidearms over ‘sabers. Referred to as blasters throughout the film series, these ranged weapons follow very specific rules throughout the entire Star Wars multimedia empire.
For one thing, don’t call them laser guns. Blasters are more accurately termed particle beam weapons, in that they shoot bolts of energized particles rather than beams of focused light. In the various Star Wars videogames that have been developed over the years, blaster bolts are treated as ballistic projectiles within the physics of the game.
In terms of real-world tech, blasters would be considered a kind of directed-energy weapon that fires highly charged particles of negligible mass. Directed-energy weapons are already in use by the U.S. military, most notably the Navy’s antidrone Laser Weapon System (LaWS).
The tractor beam concept is by no means exclusive to the Star Wars franchise—Trekkers can tell you all about it, for instance. But Star Wars does make use of the idea throughout the series. A kind of projected force field, a tractor beam is used to guide incoming vessels into space stations or ports. They can also be deployed to forcibly capture misbehaving ships in the vicinity—as when Vader’s Imperial Star Destroyer captures Princess Leia’s ship.
Scientists have been researching different kinds of tractor beam concepts since at least the 1960s, usually involving the projection of electromagnetic energy as a way to attract or repulse objects at a distance. More recently, engineers in the United Kingdom created a type of sonic tractor beam that projects sound waves to grab and manipulate lightweight objects. The device manipulates an array of 64 miniature loudspeakers to create acoustic fields of force. Neat.
As he reminds us throughout the Star Wars films, C-3PO is a protocol droid specializing in “human-cyborg relations” and programmed to translate between languages. He is, in fact, fluent in over 6 million forms of communication. He never shuts up about it, really. Threepio’s essential function is a plot device that’s been inserted into all manner of sci-fi and fantasy stories—the machine or artifact that translates language between characters or cultures.
In the field of modern computer science known as natural language processing, real-time language translation has been a kind of Holy Grail for the past several decades. We’re getting surprisingly close: Skype is currently preview-testing a new service that translates spoken language in near real-time between callers. Skype Translator is currently available in English, Spanish, French, German, Italian, and Mandarin.
Attentive viewers of the Star Wars saga will notice that a curious number of characters get their limbs hacked off. Luke, most famously, loses his hand to Vader’s lightsaber in The Empire Strikes Back. But Luke gets his revenge in Return of the Jedi, claiming a hand back from Vader via lightsaber. In the prequel trilogy, we learn that Anakin already lost that hand—plus both legs—when he became Darth in the first place. Other characters that lose limbs: C-3PO, Mace Windu, General Grievous, Count Dooku, the Wampa, and Darth Maul.
The actual science of limb prosthetics has made tremendous strides in recent years, thanks to improvements in robotics, material science, and neural interface technology. In September, medical researchers successfully attached a prosthetic hand to a spinal cord patient that relayed tactile sensations directly to the brain. Electrodes placed in the patient’s motor cortex also allowed the patient to move the prosthetic hand with his thoughts. According to the research team, it’s the first time both capabilities have been put into the same prosthetic device.
Speaking of mind powers, it’s been almost 40 years (!) now since Star Wars introduced our planet to the concept of the Force. As a storytelling notion, the Force is much more akin to the magic of high fantasy than the technological speculation of hard science fiction. But then that’s always been a hallmark of the series, which proceeds from swords-and-sorcery as much as sci-fi—not to mention Westerns and samurai movies.
Here’s the funny thing: Very recent advances in high technology have resulted in instances of what might be termed Force-like powers. Neuroprosthetics are arguably a kind of telekinesis—people are moving things in the physical world simply by thinking about them. And experiments in brain-to-brain interface (BBI) have successfully approximated telepathy, enabling people to read each other’s thoughts via brain monitoring and stimulation.
Science-fiction author Arthur C. Clarke once wrote that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. Keep that in mind when you settle in for the next chapter in the Star Wars saga. May the Force be with you.
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