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The tech in Star Wars: The Force Awakens isn’t that far, far away


Star Wars: The Force Awakens opens in the UK on December 18, hyperspacing us back to a galaxy far, far away and its unique mix of heroes and villains, high and low technology.

We might be light years away from building a working lightsaber or a space station that can destroy a planet. But some Star Wars science isn’t entirely out of our reach. From TIE Fighters and medical droids to Stormtroopers and laser weapons, here’s how science fact is fast catching up with Star Wars science fiction.

Gentleman, start your ion engines

Science fiction: Things have changed in the Star Wars universe in the 30 years since Return of the Jedi. But the First Order (what’s left of the Empire) is still flying TIE Fighters in The Force Awakens.

These iconic, one-man spaceships have two solar panels that generate power for Twin Ion Engines (hence the ‘TIE’ designation), making them fast and highly manoeuvrable. John Boyega’s character Finn flies and crashes one in the new movie. You can see it in the trailer below.

Science fact: Ion engines exist and they power real spacecraft. Although they are far from fast or highly manoeuvrable. Like the TIE Fighter, NASA’s Dawn probe incorporates a set of ion thrusters and powers them via two solar panels. Thrust is generated by ionising xenon gas and propelling it out of the engines.

The only catch is that this thrust is miniscule — 19 to 91 millinewtons, to be exact. In real terms, Dawn’s ion engines can accelerate the craft from 0-60 mph in four days. While the NASA probe did reach speeds of 24,000 mph on its way to map the dwarf planet Ceres, it took over five years of continuous thrusting to do so

Old MacDonald had a moisture farm

Science fiction: Luke Skywalker grew up on his aunt and uncle’s Tatooine moisture farm and moisture vaporators probably exist on the desert planet Jakku in The Force Awakens. The original devices consisted of a central column supporting a number of refrigerated tubes, which condensed the humid air and collected the water droplets that formed on them.

Science fact: Back in 2011, Australian inventor Edward Lineacre scooped the International Dyson Award for his solar-powered Airdrop condenser, although it seems to have disappeared since. Less high-tech, residents of Chungungo, on the edge of Chile’s Atacama desert, use ‘fog catching’ nets to collect water. As National Geographic explains:

“Constructed from a very fine mesh, the nets hang vertically above a series of troughs. As the fog condenses on the nets’ surfaces, moisture drips into troughs; pipes then carry the water down to the village… The fog-catchers supply the village with an average of 2,600 gallons (10,000 litres) of water every day.”

These aren’t the droids you’re looking for

Science fiction: The Star Wars universe is chock full of droids in all shapes and sizes — protocol droids like C3-PO, astromechs like R2-D2 and the new BB-8 in The Force Awakens. Not to mention battle droids, assassin droids, medical droids, probe droids, maintenance droids and ‘gonking’ power droids.

BB-8 on Jakku from Star Wars: The Force Awakens
The BB-8 droid from Star Wars: The Force Awakens. © 2015 Lucasfilm Ltd. & TM. All Right Reserved.

Science fact: Robots are becoming ever more commonplace in our world, from huge pick-and-place industrial robots and auto-vacuuming Roombas to Amazon’s warehouse-prowling Kiva bots and the companionable Pepper droid, which recently sold out in Japan in under a minute.

Starship Technologies delivery robot
Starship Technologies hopes that its delivery robots will be commonplace on our streets in the future.
Pepper robot
Aldebaran’s Pepper robot has been designed specifically to interact with humans and to recognise emotions.

Elsewhere, the da Vinci Xi surgical system already helps with complex operations, while the Bosch Bonirob is a four-wheeled automaton programmed to identify and destroy rebel weeds in farmers’ fields. Who knows, perhaps the six-wheeled delivery robots designed by Starship Technologies will soon be trundling along our streets?

Can you give me a hand with this?

Science fiction: At the end of The Empire Strikes Back, Luke Skywalker gets his hand sliced off during a lightsaber duel with Darth Vader. Fortunately, by the end of the movie, medical droid 2-1B is able to replace it with a robotic hand that looks just as good. In The Force Awakens, it looks as if Luke (if that is Luke’s hand in the picture below) has a completely different mechanical limb.

R2-D2 in Star Wars: The Force Awakens
Star Wars: The Force Awakens..Ph: Film Frame..© Lucasfilm 2015 & TM. All Right Reserved.

Science fact: Prosthetic limb technology is getting better (and cheaper) all the time. Look at the fantastic work that Limbitless Solutions does in this area, designing and developing customised, 3D-printed bionic limbs for children. At the other end of the scale, the bebionic artificial hand is capable of 14 grip patterns. This is a multi-articulated myoelectric hand that Luke Skywalker would be proud of.

Aren’t you a little short for a Stormtrooper?

Science fiction: The white plastoid Stormtrooper armour from Star Wars episodes 4-6 gets a stylish makeover in The Force Awakens. The First Order helmets have cleaner, sharper lines, while the armour plating itself looks heavier and more robust. This body armour looks like it could stop a laser blast, which the original Stormtrooper armour seemed woefully incapable of doing in the original trilogy.

Stormtroopers from the First Order in Star Wars: The Force Awakens
Stormtroopers from the First Order. Star Wars: The Force Awakens..Ph: Film Frame..© Lucasfilm 2015 & TM. All Right Reserved.

Science fact: The Ministry of Defence recently unveiled its Future Soldier Vision (FSV), which shows what a British soldier could be wearing on the battlefield in 2025. It’s not an all-over body armour solution, but a uniform that’s laden with sensors and gadgets, including smart glasses, a smartwatch and an integrated power supply.

Of course, it’s not a patch on TALOS (Tactical Assault Light Operator Suit), a US military project to create an armoured exoskeleton that aims to protect 60 per cent of the wearer’s body, provide enhanced strength, augmented battlefield information and biometric feedback. CNN broke news of the so-called ‘Iron Man’ suit this year and prototype TALOS gear could go into testing as early as 2017.

A good blaster at your side

Science fiction: In Star Wars, laser weapons are everywhere — on the X-Wings, the TIE Fighters and in the blasters carried by the Stormtroopers. Lasers even power the lightsabers wielded by the villainous Kylo Ren and John Boyega’s Finn.

X-Wings and TIE Fighters battle in Star Wars: The Force Awakens
X-Wings and TIE Fighters battle. Star Wars: The Force Awakens..Ph: Film Frame..© 2014 Lucasfilm Ltd. & TM. All Right Reserved.

Science fact: We can’t build lightsabers. Or hand-held lasers blasters. While equipping today’s fighter aircraft with huge, weighty Solid State Lasers would rob them of their ability to get off the ground, rendering them useless.

But that’s not to say that lasers aren’t a viable weapons system. The USS Ponce has carried a $40 million, 30-kilowatt Laser Weapon System (LaWS) since 2014, blowing up boats and drones with it. Check out the video below.

It’s just the start. The US Department of Defense recently contracted Northrop Grumman Space & Mission Systems to continue Solid State Laser development, noting that: “improvements in lethality may be achieved through maturation and optimization of a variety of system characteristics, including laser power, beam quality, beam director architecture, and other physical and optical aspects of the laser system design.”

You’ll have to sell your speeder…

Science fiction: In the original Star Wars, Luke Skywalker famously owns an X-34 landspeeder, which he sells to buy passage aboard Han Solo’s Millennium Falcon. The X-34 is the first example we see of a repulsorlift vehicle that can float above the ground. It’s the first of many — Imperial speeder bikes, Jabba’s sail barge, hover tanks, pod racers and Rey’s boxy anti-grav ride in The Force Awakens.

Rey on a speeder bike in The Force Awakens
Rey on a speeder bike. Star Wars: The Force Awakens..Rey (Daisy Ridley)..Ph: Film Frame..© 2014 Lucasfilm Ltd. & TM. All Right Reserved.

Science fact: If there’s a secret to anti-gravity, then scientists have yet to unearth it. At first glance, the Lexus Hoverboard seems to fit the bill, floating across a skatepark on superconductors cooled with liquid nitrogen. But the technology also requires a magnetic track, something you don’t see in the eye-opening demo video.

The Aeroflex Aero-X
Landspeeder-esque, the Aerofex Aero-X is a 45mph flying bike powered by rotary fans.

Instead, the closest we might get to a Star Wars speeder is a prop-powered hover bike like the Aerofex Aero-X. Powered by a three–rotor rotary engine, the Aero-X can carry two people and skim over the ground at heights of up to 10 feet, reaching speeds up to 45mph. On a full tank of petrol, the designers claim just over an hour of hovering time. How much? A cool $85,000. When? 2017.

What other Star Wars-inspired tech isn’t as far, far away as people think? Let us know in the comments below and we’ll add your ideas into this article. —  Dean Evans (@evansdp)

Main image credit: Star Wars: The Force Awakens..Captain Phasma (Gwendoline Christie)..Ph: David James..© Lucasfilm 2015 & TM. All Right Reserved.

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