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How far are we from a Star Wars universe?

15 December 2015

With the most anticipated movie of recent times now showing in cinemas across the world, engineer Paul Kostek wonders how far away we are from Star Wars-style innovation in the real world?

When Star Wars first burst onto movie screens back in 1977, I was in the middle of university and my engineering studies. Now, 38 years later we have the next chapter.  Looking back at the early chapters, the Death Star has fascinated many science fiction fans and left others wondering if one could be built.

Several years ago the Obama Administration allowed citizens to petition on any topic as long as they had sufficient signatures, which resulted in a petition to build a Death Star. The administration responded with a breakdown of the cost to build a one.  Aside from the technology, the proposed cost was $US850,000,000,000,000,000.

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 – US, Russian, Chinese, Indians and French along with the commercial launch companies – SpaceX, ATK and Orbital Sciences.

Would we really want to dedicate all of our capacity to this effort and ignore launches to support future exploration and scientific research of the earth? Unless there is a world wide effort to build a Death Star and agreement on what we would do with it, we shouldn’t expect to see one in work any time 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.  Considering a sea based aircraft carrier cost $13 billion, and the new Zumwalt class destroyer is $US22 billion, 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, a crew, supplies and fuel.  We should also take into account that a fleet of ships would have to be built, not just a single ship. 
The TIE fighters are another great technology, however if the Twin Ion Engine fighters were built today they would be much slower and take two days to accelerate to the speeds in the movie. It would make for slow motion battles. Ion engines have been used on on the Deep Space and Dawn spacecrafts.  They can move a vehicle through 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, and other planets, atmospheres.  What this weight would do to the performance is unknown, but it would likely slow the fighters’ performance. The X-wings and Y-wings look cool but likely wouldn't fly very efficiently or effectively in space or on earth.  

Landspeeders, which have fascinated Star War fans for decades and been on countless wish lists as well as jetpacks, have some possibility of coming to fruition one day. However, a mystery that has puzzled scientifically-minded viewers has been what was under the speeders to get them airborne. In real life, the creation of hover motorcycles is under way, using ducted fans for lift. There are larger versions on many of the current UAVs in use today. 

Robot technology is progressing and the evolution from fantasy to reality is happening as we speak. Today we see robots used for military and police detection of weapons and observation as well as surgery and flight. They don’t look like BB-8, R2D2 or C3PO, but humanoid robots appeared in the recent DARPA Robotics challenge.

Scientists in Japan are introducing humanoid robots for use as companions of senior citizens, hotel front desk staff and for use in emergency situations.  Of all the Star Wars technology, robots may be the first we will commonly see in use in the 21st century. 

One common thread with today’s technologist and Star Wars?  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. 

Paul J. Kostek is a senior member of the IEEE based in the USA

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