Star Wars Technology

By Special Guest
Paul J. Kostek, Senior Member, IEEE
December 28, 2015

When Star Wars first burst on to movie screens back in 1977 I was in the middle of college and my engineering studies. Now 38 years later we're waiting and anticipating the next chapter.  What new characters and technologies will be introduced?  Looking back at the early chapters the Death Star has fascinated many sci fi fans and left others wondering if one could be built.  Several years ago the Obama Administration provided the ability for citizens to petition on any topic as long as they had sufficient signatures.  The result, a petition to build a Death Star, the administration responded with a breakout of the cost to build a one.  Never mind the technology; the proposed cost $850,000,000,000,000,000.

It took years to complete the International Space Station, with numerous Space Shuttle missions how would we go about building the Death Star.  It would take the combined efforts of the national programs – U.S., Russian, Chinese, Indians and French along with the commercial launch companies – Space X, ATK and Orbital Sciences.  Would we want to dedicate all of our capacity to this effort and ignore launches to support future exploration and scientific research of the earth?  So unless there is a world wide effort to build a Death Star and agreement on what we would do with it don't expect to see one in work anytime soon.     

The previews of the latest chapter show crashed Star Cruisers on the planet Jakku.  From a size perspective they are larger than an aircraft carrier.  Which considering a sea based aircraft carrier cost $13 billion dollars, and the new Zumwalt class destroyer is $22B what would the cost be to build a similar size ship to operate in space?  Much like the Death Star the construction would need to take place in space, assuming modular assemblies are built and launched and the cost would exceed an aircraft carrier.  The ships would require a closed environment, people to crew the cruiser, supplies and fuel?  And we’re not talking about building a single ship, but a fleet. 

The TIE fighters are definitely cool, but if the Twin Ion Engine fighters were built today they would be much slower and take 2 days to accelerate to the speeds in the movie. It would make for slow motion dog fights. Ion engines have been used on the Deep Space spacecraft and the Dawn spacecraft.  They can get a vehicle moving for great distances, but not for high speed combat.   The TIE fighters and Y-Wings would also need to be deployed in space or have shielding to allow them to enter and exit the earth, as well as other planets and atmospheres.  What this weight would do to the performance is unknown, but would likely slow the fighter down. The X-wings and Y-wings look cool but likely wouldn't fly very efficiently or effectively in space or on earth.  

Landspeeders have fascinated, and been on wish lists as much as jetpacks, and there is some possibility of these coming to fruition one day. A blurred mystery in the movie,what was going on under the speeder to get them airborne?  In real life a hover motorcycles are in work, using ducted fans for lift, these are large versions on many of the current UAVs in use today.  

Now, robots we’re making progress on and the evolution from fantasy to reality is happening.  Today we see robots used for military and police detection of weapons and observation; surgery and flight. They don’t look like BB-8, R2D2 or C3PO, but humanoid robots appeared in the recent DARPA Robotics challenge.  The Japanese are introducing humanoid robots for use as companions of senior citizens, hotel front desk staff and for use in emergency situations.  Of all the technologies the robots may be the first we commonly see in use in the 21st century.

One common thread with today’s technologist and Star Wars is much of the development has been done by individuals, small teams and companies, just like the scenes of a young Anakin Skywalker building C3PO and his landspeeder.  The Makers movement is part of what is bringing Star Wars technology to market. 

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