Industry Market Trends

Science Making Sci-Fi Reality

Mar 31, 2009

Whether flying cars or powered exoskeleton suits, some science fiction may be closer to reality than you think.

The Flying Car (Finally)

Americans have been waiting for a flying car for more than half a century. Flying cars have been in development since the 1930s, and although there have been numerous attempts to build a functional car/plane hybrid, we've mostly had to rely on science fiction for credible examples, such as in Back to the Future, Bladerunner, The Fifth Element and The Jetsons, among others.

But now Terrafugia, a Massachusetts-based engineering company, has developed a small personal airplane with the ability to travel on the road as easily as it takes to the sky. While it can't travel through time, the Transition hybrid vehicle features a cruising speed of up to 115 miles per hour and a range of approximately 460 miles. Its foldable wings allow it to travel on land up to 90 miles per hour with front-wheel drive and a car-style passenger entry.

In automobile form, the Transition runs on normal unleaded fuel and its dimensions allow it to fit inside a garage. The vehicle can convert from car to plane in about 30 seconds. It has already been cleared for road use in the company's home state of Massachusetts, reports CBS News, and its flight permits are pending.

Terrafugia expects its invention to hit the market in 2011, and dozens of people have already placed deposits for future orders. But with a projected price tag of $194,000, it may be considerably longer before commuters can avoid daily traffic jams by taking to the skies.

The flying Terrafugia car's maiden voyage

Bionic Bodies

The melding of biology and technological design has yielded a fascination with cyborgs, tissue augmentation and a range of theories regarding the possibilities of bionic enhancement. Although the bionics industry has yet to produce advances on the order of the The Six Million Dollar Man (based on Martin Caidin's novel Cyborg) and spin-off The Bionic Woman, it is rapidly approaching the standards of science fiction.

According to BBC News, a recently developed bionic eye implant has helped a blind man regain a modest degree of sight, allowing him to perceive light patterns and differentiate between white, black and gray objects. The implant works with a camera and video processor mounted on a set of glasses that wirelessly transmit images to an electrode array attached to the retina.

In a similar development, the world's first fully articulating and commercially available bionic hand was introduced last year. The i-LIMB Hand, from Scottish company Touch Bionics, is "a prosthetic device that looks and acts like a real human hand with five individually powered digits," reports the UK Telegraph. The company won the 2008 Royal Academy of Engineering MacRobert Award for its device.

Touch_Bionics_i-LIMB_bionic_hand.jpg

Patient Donald McKillop using Touch Bionics' i-LIMB Hand

These bionic systems are intended to assist people with disabilities and hold promise for additional medical applications. According to Doctors' Gadgets, a medical technology blog, rapid scientific progress is "making the dream of building a bionic human a reality."

The site lists a wide range of devices that are in development or undergoing trials, including bionic legs and arms, a bionic heart, a bionic brain (actually, an artificial hippocampus), bionic lungs, a bionic tongue and bionic liver, stomach and kidneys. Virtually any part of the body might eventually be replaceable.

Exoskeletal Warriors

The concept of powered exoskeletons for use in combat and specialized military applications has been around for a long time. Comic books such as Marvel's Iron Man and films like The Terminator popularized the idea of mechanical soldiers as the pinnacle of efficiency, and the U.S. military hasn't ignored the implications.

A new self-powered exoskeleton developed by Lockheed Martin offers soldiers the ability to lift and carry loads of up to 200 pounds with minimal strain. Appropriately titled HULC, the exoskeleton relies on titanium legs that transfer load weights to the ground and is flexible enough to allow crouching, crawling or upper-body lifting. It requires no joystick or external control, instead using a microcomputer that enables it to move in concert with the wearer.

The rival XOS exoskeleton, a Raytheon-Sarcos effort, is more overtly influenced by sci-fi, so much so that its manufacturer, Raytheon, admits it is "[r]eminiscent of super heroes depicted in comic books and Hollywood movies, the bleeding-edge technology effectively blurs the lines between science fiction and reality."

Like the HULC, the XOS allows its wearer to lift up to 200 pounds with ease, but is also agile enough to climb stairs or kick soccer balls. Although the HULC is further along in its development and can work without being tethered to an external power source, the emerging market for advanced exoskeleton equipment suggests there will be many more alternatives to come.

A look at the Raytheon Sarcos team's exoskeleton, development of which has been underway since 2000

Intelligent Robots

Developing robots with artificial intelligence is perhaps the most popular concept derived from science fiction. Engineers and scientists have long endeavored to build a machine comparable to the technology portrayed in works such as Isaac Asimov's Robot Series.

The appeal of all things robot recently led a team of Japanese developers to introduce a "runway robot" that is 5 feet 2 inches tall, weighs 128 pounds and has remarkably lifelike features, reports the Associated Press.

This new design is intended to highlight robotic ability to simulate human appearance and behavior by mimicking "an average Japanese woman," but limitations in the technology make it evident that robotic simulation still has a long way to go.

While the robot's appearance may be lifelike, its actions reveal the challenges confronting artificial intelligence. "The robot often looked surprised, opening its mouth and eyes in a stunned expression, when the demonstrator asked it to smile or look angry," reports AP.

One of the major obstacles to robot intelligence is teaching machines to perceive the world the way humans do. Robots excel at formal logic, but have difficulty translating it into real-world decisions.

"People realized at some point that you can only get so far with a logical approach. At some point these symbols have to be connected to the world," an MIT researcher told LiveScience.

The new focus in current-day robotics is to replicate the type of human perception that would allow robots to learn. This involves designing robots that can feel what they hold, detect how differences in light and color delineate objects and respond to nonverbal commands, such as gestures.

Despite these challenges, people are already worried about the potential safety implications of robots with artificial intelligence. If developers can overcome the hurdles presented by robotic comprehension, we may finally arrive at some kind of true artificial intelligence, a prospect that alternately excites and terrifies us.

Resources

Flying Cars & Roadable Aircraft

RoadableTimes.com

The Transition

Terrafugia, 2008

Move Over, Jetsons: Flying Car in Works!

CBS News, March 19, 2009

Bionic Eye Gives Blind Man Sight

BBC News, March 4, 2008

World's First Commercial Bionic Hand

by Roger Highfield

Telegraph, June 10, 2008

Building the Bionic Man

Doctors' Gadgets, March 26, 2007

How Exoskeletons Will Work

by Kevin Bonsor

HowStuffWorks.com

HULC

Lockheed Martin, 2009

The Exoskeleton: Extreme Technological Innovation

Raytheon, Sept. 25, 2008

Walking, Talking Female Robot to Hit Japan Catwalk

by Yuri Kageyama

The Associated Press, March 16, 2009

Robot Madness: Creating True Artificial Intelligence

by Jeremy Hsu

LiveScience, March 18, 2009