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When science fiction becomes science fact

Image credit: eyevine

In recent months, we’ve seen a glut of sci-fi movies reach the silver screen with more to come in 2020, but in depicting a vision of scientific realism, which ones have succeeded in crossing over into the real world?

From underwater laboratories to autonomously changing liquid metal, rolling robots to real-world invisibility, Hollywood boldly takes us where no [wo]man has gone before, giving us tantalising glimpses of technology to come. Who knew when audiences first saw the iconic Star Trek communicator on their TV screens back in the 1960s that today we would have the ubiquitous mobile phone? What manner of scientific wizardry has sparked the evolution from fiction to fact of Robbie the Robot to give us Asimo? We look at the latest films to find their likeness in the real world. 

Terminator: Dark Fate 

In the sixth instalment of the Terminator film franchise – he certainly did keep coming back – Sarah Connor and a sassy hybrid cyborg human, alongside Schwarzenegger’s freshly reprised yet sweetly aged Grandpa cyborg, must protect a young girl from a newly modified liquid metal Terminator from the future. Cue the re-hashed, yet entertaining, cyborg-time-travel-robot action. Yet here's the thing: US Air Force scientists have now actually developed a liquid metal which autonomously changes structure, stretching the concept of Connor’s terrifying liquid nemesis over into reality. Military scientists at the US Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) have developed ‘Terminator-like’ liquid metal systems for stretchable electronics that can be bent, folded, crumpled and stretched. In a twist worthy of a Hollywood blockbuster depicting futuristic apocalyptic human-machine war, the technology is the focus of major research into next-generation military devices. 

It’s a well-known fact that conductive materials change their properties as they are strained or stretched. For example, electrical conductivity usually decreases, and resistance increases with stretching. However, the AFRL’s new material, snappily called Polymerised Liquid Metal Networks, does just the opposite. It can be strained up to 700 per cent, then autonomously responds to that strain to keep resistance between the two states virtually the same, returning to its original state with no detection of fatigue even after 10,000 stretching cycles. The self-organised nanostructure within the material performs these responses automatically. Researchers started with individual particles of liquid metal enclosed in a shell. Each particle was then chemically tethered to the next via a polymerisation process, akin to adding links into a chain. As the connected liquid metal particles are strained, the particles tear open and liquid metal spills out; connections form to give the system both conductivity and inherent stretchability. Don’t take your eye off the torn-open liquid metal ball yet, Sarah Connor…  

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker 

The trilogy to end all trilogies gave us sweeping battle scenes, the enduring war between good and evil, a reunion of old friends and enemies (some of them even alive…), and a tying up of some very loose ends. However, one thing Stars Wars has always given us in spades is technology, albeit within a culturally contextual cyberpunk reality; think of the low-life, high-tech setting of Luke Skywalker’s home planet Tattooine, filmed in the Tunisian desert. Another lasting theme within the franchise’s portrayal of technology is the pivotal role of the humble droid, who, like the foot-soldiers in any battle, end up saving the day with their strength and bravery.

R2-D2 was the ever-reliable astromech droid who saved the rebellion’s hopes of disabling the Death Star by escaping with its blueprints, and BB-8 was the sphere droid, whose head sits atop a rolling ball, an integral member of the Resistance, using his tools and skills to save his friends in critical situations. The latter finds his likeness in an actual, real-life invention called the High-velocity Spherical Microbot, developed by the US Naval Information Warfare Center – Pacific. Inside the Microbot are two servo motors that are oriented orthogonal (that’s at right angles, to you and me) to each other. A castor is attached to each motor, with a rubberised traction ball corresponding to each one, which engages with the castor and inside wall of the Microbot, so that when the motors rotate, the traction balls rotate and cause the Microbot to roll. The design incorporates a mechanical plunger that strikes the inside of the housing, allowing the Microbot to propel itself in any direction across an environment, hopping over obstacles while carrying a variety of sensors, in that cute BB-8 way.  

Underwater 

Resurrected Alien cliché it may be, but Underwater ventures where few sci-fi thrillers dare to go, namely, underwater. Set in a subterranean laboratory seven miles under the surface of the sea, a crew of aquatic researchers work to get to safety after an earthquake destroys their seabed facility, liberating something that should have remained buried in the process. Cue an unknown lifeform-induced human peril high-jinks, compounded by subaqua claustrophobia and imminent danger of drowning/suffocation. Currently, the only working facility that bears any resemblance to the ill-fated, alien-beleaguered subaqua lab in Underwater is the Aquarius Reef Base. Owned and operated by Florida International University (FIU), Aquarius is an undersea laboratory and home for scientists dedicated to the study and preservation of marine ecosystems. Located at some 20 metres below the surface, 9km off the shore of Key Largo, Florida, Aquarius sits on a sand patch adjacent to deep coral reefs in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. Through saturation diving techniques, Aquarius allows scientists to live and work underwater 24 hours per day for missions that typically last 10 days. 

A ‘habitat’ module comprises an 85-ton double-lock pressure vessel, entered via a ‘wet porch’. Aquarius’s largest living space is the ‘main lock’, which includes berths for a six-person crew, computer workstations, two large viewports and kitchen facilities, together with life support controls. The lab’s baseplate is a 116-ton structure that provides a stable and level support base, designed to survive severe storm conditions, and has successfully weathered hurricanes. The Life Support Buoy (LSB) is a 10m-diameter buoy maintained above Aquarius and includes a communication tower and workspace. Within are two diesel-powered 40kW generators, two air compressors, VHF radios, a cell phone, and a microwave broadcasting system. The LSB is linked to Aquarius by a 75mm-diameter 42-metre unitised umbilical, which contains hoses that supply air from the compressors and oxygen from storage flasks, power lines from the generators, and cables and wires for data and communications. A shore-based mission control centre, located in Key Largo some 12 km from Aquarius, includes a specially designed ‘watch desk’ with computers and communication equipment linked to Aquarius via wireless telemetry. Also located on shore are various work rooms, labs and accommodation, as well as a six-person, dual-lock decompression chamber for emergency evacuation of Aquarius, should aliens attack.  

The Invisible Man 

It might be as far away from HG Wells’ science fiction classic as you can get, bar the title, the title character’s surname, Griffin, and his invisibility, of course, but this re-imagining of The Invisible Man looks set to pack a punch where scary is concerned.

The action starts when Cecilia Kass’s abusive ex takes his own life…or does he? In a 'now you see him, now you don’t' set-up, Cecilia suspects the death of the scientific genius (do you see where this is going?) is a hoax, and as a sequence of events turns lethal, she works to prove that she’s being hunted by a protagonist that no-one can see – because he’s invisible! Griffin might have discovered the secret of invisibility in fiction and film, but Canada’s Hyperstealth Biotechnology Corp, a self-proclaimed world leader in camouflage, concealment and deception, is making invisibility a reality. The company has patented a new material, called Quantum Stealth, that can hide a person, vehicle, tank, aircraft or building, by making anything behind it invisible. 

The material doesn’t require a power source and is paper-thin and inexpensive, and works by bending light around a target to make it seemingly disappear. This light can be within the visible spectrum, or in ultraviolet, infrared, or shortwave infrared light, making the material, according to Hyperstealth, a ‘broadband invisibility cloak’, with the ability to work in any environment, in any season at any time of the day or night. You don’t even need to wear a wide-brimmed hat.

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