May the 4th be with you: 7 wild 'Star Wars' technologies scientists are building right now
From warp drive to lightsabers, researchers are on it.
A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, technology was way cooler than it is in our reality: Commercial spaceships bending space-time to cross galaxies in seconds; autonomous androids capable of translating any language on the fly, or leaving a battlefield in ruin; deadly swords of plasma that fit comfortably under your bathrobe.
These classic "Star Wars" technologies have captured imaginations for decades — and some of them are finally coming to fruition.
Here are seven futuristic Star Wars technologies that could soon become a reality.
Unmanned aerial vehicles (see: battle drones) have been a staple of warfare for several decades — but you'll never hear two Predator drones bickering like an old married couple, a la R2D2 and C3PO. Artificial intelligence is still a work in progress, but humanoid robots (aka androids) have taken literal leaps in ability and design in recent years. U.S. tech firm Boston Dynamics demonstrates this with two now-infamous robots: Atlas — a terrifyingly agile bipedal droid that can sprint, backflip and do parkour — and the robo-dog Spot — an autonomous, four-legged robot that has already found work in hospital wards, on farms and with the NYPD. These bots aren't designed specifically for combat, — but we'd hate to run into either of them in a dark alley at night.
Lightsabers are perhaps the single most coveted piece of technology for any kid who grew up watching "Star Wars." Made of a retractable plasma blade generated by a made-up gem called kyber crystal, combat-ready lightsabers are still far beyond the grasp of modern science. However, creative inventors — like those behind the YouTube channel Hacksmith — have come up with some clever (and deadly) laser swords that come pretty close to the preferred weapon of the Jedi. In 2018, Hacksmith created the world's first retractable, plasma-based energy sword, with a 4,000-degree Fahrenheit (2,200 degrees Celsius) blade capable of cutting through solid titanium. The blade requires an external fuel pack full of compressed propane gas and oxygen, so it's not likely to fit on any aspiring Jedi's belt. But, it could easily burn through a human hand, should you and your father want to reenact the climax of "The Empire Strikes Back."
Depending on how well your lightsaber works, you may soon need the assistance of a bionic arm, like the one Luke receives at the end of "Empire." Here's a piece of technology that's not just science fiction anymore. Functional prosthetic arms that can grasp, pinch, make a fist and even give a thumbs up are increasingly common — and some of them are even inspired by "Star Wars." The prosthetics company Open Bionics, for example, sells a Hero Arm for adults and children ages 8 and up, which is available in more than 50 styles, including Star Wars and Marvel look-alikes. These typically sell for between $10,000 and $20,000 an arm, according to BionicsForEveryone.com.
C3PO is famously fluent in more than 6 million forms of communication. On paper, that sounds a lot more impressive than the 100-or-so languages that Google Translate knows — but how often do you really need to ask for directions in Ewokese, anyway? On the plus side, you won't need to visit any shady scrap dealers to take advantage of Google Translate. Simply open up the website on your phone or computer, then type directly into the box — or speak into your microphone and watch the app translate your voice into the language of your choosing, in real time. You'll never need to conjugate another verb again!
Landspeeders (high-speed hovercraft)
The best way to cruise across the dunes of Tatooine in style is in a Landspeeder — a sort of hovercraft/car hybrid that can comfortably fit a family of four (or two humans and two droids, as the case may be). Hovercraft technology has existed since the late 1950s, according to the U.K.'s Hovercraft Museum, but only recently have hovercraft designs veered closer to the speedy, stylish fare of "Star Wars." Several firms are working on real hovering motorcycles, including the U.K.-based Malloy Aeronautics and the U.S.-based Aerofex. Both projects are still in the prototype phase, but these test videos of hoverbikes speeding across the Mojave Desert look promising.
To escape the sandy backwater of Tatooine, Luke and Obi-Wan hire a private spaceship for 17,000 credits. In our world, commercial space travel costs a bit more — and you don't even get to leave the solar system. In June 2021, an auction winner paid $28 million to join the inaugural flight of Blue Origin, a commercial space travel company founded by Amazon's Jeff Bezos. The lucky winner’s son joined Bezos and his brother on a 10-minute trip to space — reaching a maximum altitude of about 62 miles (100 kilometers) above Earth (technically, past the point where Earth's atmosphere ends and space begins). That's an expensive 10 minutes — but some experts have predicted that the cost of commercial space travel could drop to about $100,000 per person in the coming decade. Hooray?
Occasionally, Han Solo's ship, the Millennium Falcon, makes a daring "jump to hyperspace", allowing the vessel to travel extraordinary distances in mere moments. If hyperspace is the same as "warp drive" — a concept that the U.S. government has been actively researching, according to recently released documents — then it involves distorting the shape of space-time to pass from one part of the universe to another. In 1994, physicist Miguel Alcubierre published a paper showing how warp drive could be physically possible, by using equal amounts of positive and negative energy to simultaneously compress the space in front of a spaceship while expanding the space behind it. But for now, negative energy remains purely speculative, as does warp drive technology. Still, that hasn't stopped theoretical physicists from investigating it.
Originally published on Live Science.
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Brandon is the space/physics editor at Live Science. His writing has appeared in The Washington Post, Reader's Digest, CBS.com, the Richard Dawkins Foundation website and other outlets. He holds a bachelor's degree in creative writing from the University of Arizona, with minors in journalism and media arts. He enjoys writing most about space, geoscience and the mysteries of the universe.
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