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Droids and The Force: How the Science in ‘Star Wars’ Is Actually Real

P.W. Singer

(Wall Street Journal) – For a story that takes place “a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away” a great deal of the technology in the “Star Wars” series actually has parallels today on planet Earth. Part of the reason is, ironically, how long the franchise has been around. Concepts and ideas that were the stuff of science fiction when the first “Star Wars” movie came out in 1977 have had almost four decades of science to become real.

Here’s a look at a few of the technologies and scenes that you can tell fellow moviegoers are actually the real deal:

Lasers and Energy Weapons: “Hokey religions and ancient weapons are no match for a good blaster at your side, kid.” Han Solo warned Luke Skywalker when they met in “Star Wars: A New Hope,” and some 30 years later in “The Force Awakens” he’s still packing the same blaster he shot first with. But while Ronald Reagan was inspired back then to try to build his own version of what became known as “Star Wars” weapons to fend off the Soviets, such energy weapons like blasters and laser cannons were pure science fiction. Today, though, the U.S. Navy has deployed lasers aboard warships like the USS Ponce in the Persian Gulf to defend against drones and small boats, while testing is under way for more powerful truck-mounted and airplane-mounted lasers. Similarly, the electromagnetic rail gun that was one of the many defenses of the first Death Star will be tested for deployment onto U.S. warships like the USS Zumwalt (the star, in turn, of our book “Ghost Fleet”), while China is working on its own version.

Stormtrooper Armor and Women at War: Part of why lasers are so common in “Star Wars” is the prevalence of suits of armor that can defeat old-school bullets (but importantly not Ewok stones). The Stormtroopers of the new “First Order” in “The Force Awakens” are a sleek next generation, culminating in Captain Phasma’s intimidating chrome version. The real world version is the Tactical Assault Light Operator Suit, or TALOS, a project involving 10 national laboratories, 13 universities, 16 government agencies, and 56 companies, all working together to build the powered armor suit for U.S. Special Forces of the future. In both “Star Wars” and real wars, though, the clothes don’t make the man or woman. While women in earlier movies were mostly damsels in distress, that Captain Phasma is a woman makes her no less fearsome a combat leader, just as women have taken on more active roles in the U.S. military, including recently completing U.S. Army Ranger school.

Droids: The new movie will feature a range of new robots, like the cute BB-8 as well as old friends like R2-D2. While they may not chirp and burble in the real world, real robots have already become a staple of the modern battlefield. Thousands of all shapes and size already serve in the U.S. military, from the MQ-9 Reaper in the air or the Packbot on the ground. And, if the U.S. Air Force’s strategic plan for the future comes true, they soon will be flying as wingmen alongside manned fighters; imagine if droids didn’t ride in the back of the X-wing fighter but flew on their own.

Space Battles: Fighting it out in the vacuum of space is a staple of science fiction, but is also becoming a key part of war plans. Unlike back in 1977, space is now the nervous system of the modern military. Over 1100 communication satellites link planes, missiles and troops in the field (80% of overall communications the U.S. military sends goes through satellites), look down to spy on every movement on land, air and sea, and run navigation networks such as GPS that are used not just to guide trucks and tanks (and your car), but also to place missiles on targets with an accuracy of centimeters. As a result, the U.S., China and Russia are all at work on space weaponry of some sort to take this advantage away from their foes, ranging from U.S. and Chinese tests of anti-satellite missiles (notably, the test shot of one missile was described as causing “an explosion worthy of the ‘Star Wars’ franchise”) to Russian work on killer kamikaze-style satellites. Or, the space systems could mount weapons themselves. In another example of science fiction crossing with science reality, astronomers at UC Irvine are exploring the mounting of a laser on the International Space Station in 2017, in order to destroy any threatening space debris…or attacking TIE fighters.

Lightsabers: While high-powered lasers and kinetic kill vehicles may be used in space combat, they are also “clumsy and random” as Obi-Wan Kenobi warned, requiring a more “elegant weapon” for close-in fights. So too, if you wanted to capture a valuable orbital asset (such as International Space Station or the “Ti?ng?ng,” China’s planned space station set to go operational around 2022), you wouldn’t be able to use guns, as they’d damage and depressurize the very thing you were trying to seize. That’s why future space battles may also involve hand-to-hand combat with a mix of ancient and new weapons. Think sabers and Tasers, rather than lightsabers.

Tractor Beams and Holograms: The “Star Wars” story began with an opening scene of a spaceship being pulled in by a tractor beam, whereupon a holographic emergency message was recorded to the Rebel Alliance’s “only hope.” These two technologies have been combined today in the “holographic acoustic elements framework,”research that has shown off the ability to “levitate objects of different sizes and materials through air, water and tissue.” In the real world, though, its goal is to move tiny objects without touching them, such as for microsurgery without cutting open the body.

Mind Control and The Force: It wasn’t just starships that could move objects from afar, but also the Jedi, in their case by thought alone. Even more, they couldmanipulate other peoples’ thoughts. While the U.S. military does have a team of strategists at the School of Advanced Military Studies known as the Jedi, the real-world parallel is more through technology, not mythical “midichlorians.” Brain-machine interfaces, such as the Braingate project, turn your thoughts into digital signals that can go out to control machines, such as a bionic hand (Luke’s artificial hand actually looks a bit dated compared to the real worldDEKA, a bionic, mind-controlled hand approved by the FDA last year). In turn, projects such as DARPA’s Systems-Based Neurotechnology for Emerging Therapies, or SUBNETs, program are designed to send signals back into the brain, reshaping thoughts and memories. They initially designed for treatment of maladies that range from Parkinson’s disease to PTSD.

What Isn’t There: What’s also interesting are technologies we take for granted today but didn’t exist in the movies. The Internet didn’t exist back in 1977, either in the movies and arguably the real world. Princess Leia couldn’t just send an email to Obi-Wan Kenobi, nor could Luke learn his Jedi training by watching Yoda training videos on YouTube. In 1977, the entire world of networked computers could be laid out in a map of just over 50 nodes on what was then called ARPANET, and the word “cyberspace” wouldn’t even be coined for another five years. Today, the Internet is integral to the continuing popularity of the franchise, as a place to watch the latest trailers, share the latest fan reactions, buy the latest toys, or just geek out over all the cool science fiction of “Star Wars” turning into science reality.

P.W. Singer and August Cole are the authors of “Ghost Fleet: A Novel of the Next World War.” P.W. Singer is a strategist at New America anda  consultant for the U.S. Department of Defense and intelligence community. August Cole is a writer, analyst, and consultant, and a former defense industry
reporter for The Wall Street Journal. He is an Atlantic Council nonresident senior fellow, focusing on using narrative fiction to explore the future of warfare.

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