Recently, I wrote here all about the world of real life superpowers. While these powers are truly strange and amazing, unfortunately not all of us are so gifted as to be considered beyond ordinary human capabilities or in some cases even on par with normal humans. However, for those of us without the intense training or unique physiology to give us super gifts, science has us covered. It turns out that there are a wide variety of astonishing gear and gadgets in the works, and in some cases already available, with the capability of boosting a normal person from human to superhuman.
With the following astounding equipment, the only thing likely required for anyone to have access to superhuman powers is a whole lot of money. For the rich and discerning would-be superhero, I present some of the best crime fighting gadgets on the market or in development.
One highly sought after gadget that had its start in many science fiction and superhero comics and films, such as Marvel’s Iron Man, is the powered exoskeleton, a wearable robotic suit that can greatly augment the wearer’s physical abilities.
Such exoskeletons are now largely a reality due to continued research and development of such technology for use in a a wide variety of fields. Japan has long been a pioneer in the field of exoskeleton research. The ominously named Japanese firm Cyberdyne already produces a powered exoskeleton called HAL (Hybrid Assisted Limb), which has been used to assist patients with limited muscle strength or mobility due to injuries. The HAL was also used to some degree during the Fukushima nuclear plant accident following the 2011 Japanese tsunami disaster in Tohoku.
Other Japanese companies that have successfully released working exoskeletons are Panasonic, which unveiled the Powerloader suit for use in factory work, and Kobayashi Labs with its Musclesuit, a medical exoskeleton that boosts a nurse’s or care worker’s physical strength to enable them to lift and move elderly or incapacitated patients.
The medical field has also seen another partial exoskeleton in the form of the Argo Rewalk, a pair of powered exoskeleton legs that are designed to help paraplegics and other handicapped people to walk again. The Rewalk is already available to consumers for $65,000 and has an estimated 220 users around the world.
Of course the military potential for such exoskeletons is obvious, and there is no shortage of military research into using the technology for soldiers of the future. Such research has already moved past the proof of concept stage in the form of the Lockheed Martin Human Universal Load Carrier (HULC), and the Raytheon XOS2, both exoskeletons that have undergone actual field testing.
The HULC is a titanium, hydraulic powered exoskeleton designed to enhance a soldier’s strength to allow them to haul loads of up to 200 pounds over long distances with minimal strain. The exoskeleton can also increase endurance by hydraulically assisting the wearer in walking or running long distances or climbing over obstacles with the powered titanium legs. The HULC uses no joystick or control panel, instead using sensors and an onboard microprocessor to allow the suit to move in sync with the body’s natural movement.
Raytheon has developed a similar suit called the X02, which similarly fulfills the same purpose of heavy lifting and is claimed to have reduced power consumption. The suit is meant to allow soldiers to operate faster and for longer periods of time in the field, and it is said that one soldier with the exoskeleton can fulfill the role of two or three normal soldiers. The XO2 currently relies on a tethered power source, but an untethered version is reportedly on the way.
While these exoskeletons are certainly cool, they are nevertheless not meant for combat. They lack the mobility and power requirements necessary for combat operations. In addition, although they are made of titanium, they offer no real protection to the wearer from weapons such as bullets or shrapnel. Indeed, armor for exoskeletons has proven to be a difficult challenge to overcome as it adds weight to a system already power hungry due to its motorized joints. Lightweight carbon fiber armor has been proposed, but there simply hasn’t been a practical or cheap way to do this yet.
Perhaps the most combat oriented design for an exoskeleton is the proposed TALOS (Tactical Assault Light Operator Suit), being developed by the U.S. Army. The suit is envisioned as being a powered exoskeleton based on the HULC or XO2 designs that is more geared toward combat. The armor is envisioned as providing the wearer with superhuman strength, as well as other features such as the use of advanced head’s up displays and a unique liquid armor system that allows a liquid to instantly turn to a ballistics stopping solid through application of an electric current. The TALOS system would also theoretically be able to close the wounds of any bullets that got through the armor by utilizing a special injury sealing foam.
The main hurdle for powered exoskeletons remains supplying then with power. The suits, with their motorized limbs and other equipment, consume vast amounts of power and current battery technology just simply can’t keep pace to any useful or practical degree. However, you can be sure that researchers will continue to make engineering improvements and that fully armored, powered battle armor is a thing of the not too distant future.
Wall Crawling Gloves
Traditionally, climbing vertical surfaces has necessitated the use of a wide variety of bulky equipment such as ladders, ropes, and other climbing gear. Yet what if we had access to some sort of device that allowed us to effortlessly climb sheer surfaces like the Marvel superhero, Spider-Man?
There have been many attempts to create just such a device in the past. Until recently, the most common way of creating wall crawling equipment was to use complicated suction and vacuum pads. These devices, while achieving their goal of allowing a user to scale walls, have always been too bulky, power hungry, or difficult to use to be truly considered a practical alternative to ropes and other typical climbing gear.
However, in recent years scientists have been looking to the animal kingdom for clues on how to create the technology to mimic the climbing abilities of certain organisms.
One such creature is the the Palmetto tortoise beetle from Florida, which uses surface tension from tiny droplets of oil secreted by glands on its legs to clamp its shell down onto a surface when it is attacked or threatened by predators. Inspired by this ability, researchers at Cornell University in New York have devised a climbing device that uses a similar principle.
The palm sized device works by pumping miniscule droplets of water, about 1,000 times smaller than a human hair, through microscopic holes in a flat plate. The surface tension created by the water allows the plate to stick to another flat surface with astonishing strength, enough that that a mere 3 inch pad of the material can hold up to 280 pounds. The pad can be immediately unstuck and stuck again by simply flipping a switch to modify an electric current running through it.
The pads are light and very easy to use, and the inventors claim they can operate on any type of surface regardless of its sheerness, from rock, to wood, to glass
Another source of inspiration for researchers from the animal world comes in the form of the humble gecko, a lizard well known for its insect-like ability to climb vertical surfaces. Geckos achieve this ability not through suction cups or glue, but rather through millions of microscopic toe hairs called setae, which create forces of attraction between molecules, a principle known as the Van der Waals force. Using this force, geckos are able scale any surface and suspend up to 18 times their body weight, even upside down.
One company to try and mimic this effect is BAE Advanced Technology Center, which has successfully created a device that emulates how a gecko’s foot works. The device uses a material made up of polymer layers that support thousands of tiny stalks with splayed tips, similar to the microscopic setae of a gecko’s foot. The material has been successfully shown to hold a full grown man’s weight and has been tested on glass to a pull force of 3,000 pounds per square meter.
Another organization looking to the gecko’s foot for clues on wall crawling technology is the U.S. government’s own Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), who have created a remarkable material known as “Geckskin.” The material takes a different approach in that it does not seek to painstakingly replicate a gecko’s toe hairs, but harness the Van der Waal force all the same.
Geckskin is a rubber coated fabric that is not sticky to the touch, but causes a reversible molecular attraction between two surfaces. A 16 square inch piece of the material has been tested to hold up to 700 pounds on a vertical surface. To maximize the effectiveness of the remarkable material, the final climbing device is planned to incorporate a design that mimics the shape of a gecko’s foot.
There is a lot of potential for such technology, from the obvious crime fighting, to military use, to other commercial uses such as adhesives and other bonding applications where it is necessary to attach and reattach the bond regularly.
In countless action movies and comics, the tried and true weapon of choice for both heroes and villains alike has always been the trusty firearm. The problem for the average Joe is that firing these weapons takes a large amount of training and discipline to get to the point where you have any reasonable chance of hitting anything. But what if you could skip all of that pesky training and practice, yet still hit whatever you wanted?
This is exactly what is promised by research done by Sandia National Laboratories, a wholly owned subsidiary of Lockheed Martin Corporation. Sandia has developed a 4 inch long, 0.50 caliber bullet that can lock onto a target with a laser system and guide itself to its destination via built in fins that are steered by an tiny onboard 8-bit microprocessor. The processor sends data to tiny actuators, which make minor adjustments to the bullet’s fins. It is claimed that unlike traditional guided missiles, which use inertial measuring units, this processor can make up to 30 adjustments per second.
The main problem that designers were faced with was the spin that traditional bullets have when leaving the barrel of a gun. Researchers removed this factor through the use of a special aerodynamic design and the position of the center of gravity forward on the bullet. In addition, tiny fins on the bullet enable it to fly straight without spin. Essentially, the high-tech bullet flies more like a dart than a typical round.
Sandia’s self-guiding bullet has been successfully tested in the field and was shown to be able to accurately change direction in flight and hit a laser designated, locked target up to a mile away with an accuracy rate of within 8 inches. The bullets’ electronics systems were also found to be able to withstand the stress of flight.
The idea of a bullet that is basically a miniature guided missile is already the dream of soldiers and hunters everywhere, but it gets even better. It is speculated that in the future, such guided rounds could be perfected even further. For instance, there could be two laser designated target destinations, one in front of and one behind an obstacle such as a boulder. The bullet’s target algorithms could extrapolate from the data and feasibly swerve or curve around such large obstacles to hit a target behind. In addition, “smart bullets” of the future could carry explosive charges that could be programed to detonate before or after reaching the target.
Currently the company is working on ironing out some engineering bugs, as well as ways to make the technology cheaper and therefore more accessible.
The Real Life Batsuit
Perhaps shooting firearms is not your thing. Maybe you are the type of super vigilante who likes a more hands-on approach. If prowling the alleyways to confront villains with your fists is your thing, then perhaps what you need is your very own armored Batsuit.
An Australian company called Unified Weapons Master, has developed a set of light weight, full body combat armor. The armor system is designed to be light and flexible enough to move around in easily, yet strong enough to withstand even the most aggressive full on assault. The shock absorbing, impact resistant ceramic armor is designed to negate the damaging effects of high-impact blunt objects or weapons. It can take full contact strikes from hand or foot, as well as vicious blows from various blunt weapons such as baseball bats without the wearer feeling a thing.
In addition, the suit is outfitted with sensors that gage the specific location and force of strikes directed against it. Essentially, it can tell the wearer at a glance, in real-time, just where an attack connected and how much damage it would have done to the body if unprotected.
The company says that the armor was developed to create a new MMA (Mixed Martial Arts) sport, wherein competitors could attack each other with limbs or weapons without causing any of the actual injury that this would normally entail. Due to the real time damage data the suits collects, the winner of such a match could be objectively determined. Basically, the suits could be programmed to absorb a certain amount of damage before a combatant was deemed “knocked out” or “dead” and the match ended. The company even suggests that real-time damage statistics could be projected in 3D for audience members to see.
Regardless of the intention to use the armor as a form of combat entertainment, the potential applications for military and law enforcement, especially areas such as riot control, are obvious.
The armor was originally developed by Sydney based Chiron Global with the help of an armor designer for the series of Hobbit films. A spokesperson for Unified Weapons Master says that the armor and computer systems are currently fully working prototypes and that a training version of the suit should be available for purchase soon.
An exact release date has not been set, so anyone eager to suit up and fight crime will have to be patient.
Night Vision Contact Lenses
Night vision capability is not a new technology. We have long had various types of night vision scopes and goggles at our disposal. The problem with such devices so far has been that they have generally been fairly bulky and difficult to put on at a moment’s notice. Yet, what if you could have perfectly good night vision without all of the unwieldy equipment? What if you could contain all that technology within something as light and wearable as a contact lens?
This is precisely the project that has been taken on by researchers at the University of Michigan. The project team, headed by researchers Ted Norris and Zhaohui Zhong, have developed a method to harness nighttime “cat vision” within a special set of contact lenses.
The technology involves the use of a material known as graphene, a super thin material related to graphite, which has the unique property of absorbing infrared rays and translating them into an electrical signal. The reearchers have found a way to create an utra-thin coating of graphene, which subsequently acts as a light sensor.
A dual coating of atom thin graphene is layered onto an object such as contact lenses, and an electric current is passed between them. When infrared light hits this layer, it is amplified into a visible image. The end result is that dark objects appear brighter, granting visibility in very dark environments on par with the latest night vision googles and other such apparatuses.
The technology is still estimated to be several years away from a working prototype, yet the potential uses are vast. The military has perhaps not surprisingly shown interest in the technology, but the uses don’t end there. The coating could be used not only on contact lenses, but also on car windshields to facilitate safer driving in dark conditions, as well as camera lenses for nighttime photos and even possible uses for nighttime search and rescue operations.
There have been rumors that the military has already used such night vision contact lenses in the field, and that they were even used by Navy SEALs during the raid on Osama Bin Laden’s compound.
One of mankind’s great fascinations is the power of flight. We are enamored with the idea of taking to the skies, and our history is rife with examples of our technological determination to do so. Perhaps one of the pinnacles of our desire to take flight is wanting to take off and soar unfettered through the air, without riding in airplanes or other bulky craft. What better way to realize this than to have your very own jetpack?
Attempts to develop jetpack technology are not a recent trend. Indeed, since jetpacks made their first appearance in comics in the 1920s, humans have long sought to create such miraculous machines. Throughout the years, numerous attempts have been made to develop the technology to create real working jetpacks, yet it has always been a pursuit bogged down by a wide range of obstacles. Issues such as aerodynamics, fuel consumption, stabilization, problems presented by the Earth’s atmosphere and gravity, as well as the fact that human bodies just aren’t adapted for flight, have all weighed down our dreams of having truly operational jetpacks.
However, in recent years there have been many leaps and bounds made in this area, bringing us closer than ever to the dream. Perhaps the jetpack that is closest to being available for mass purchase is the P12 Jetpack, designed and produced by the New Zealand based company, Martin Jetpack. It is the result of over 30 years of development and represents the 12th iteration prototype.
Unlike traditional true jetpacks, the P12 is powered by ducted fans driven by premium gas. The company claims the P12 is capable of reaching speeds of up to 46mph, and an altitude of 3,000 feet. The jetpack also has a remarkably high range, with a flight time of around 30 minutes, capable of propelling a person 20 miles at an average speed of 35mph.
The P12 has built in safety features such as a rocket deployed parachute, although anyone flying in the device is required to provide additional protection such as a helmet, neck restraint, and a fireproof suit.
The company states that the P12 should be available to consumers as early as 2015, although it will initially be available only to first responders such as firemen and law enforcement. The jetpack will retail for the staggering price of between $150,000 to $250,000, not including the price for fuel and additional flight gear and safety equipment. Despite the hefty price tag, Martin claims to have already received 2,500 orders for the P12.
It would seem that no price is too high for the ability to soar through the skies like a superhero.
One common power seen in various superhero stories as well as in science fiction is that of invisibility. What better way to fight crime, since what can criminals do to you if they can’t even see you?
A cloak with the ability to render its wearer invisible may seem like pure science fiction, but various teams of researchers have been working to create just that, and many have seen promising results that prove such a device is totally feasible.
Most research in the area of invisibility cloaking has focused on the use of what are called “metematerials,” artificial composite materials with physical properties not found in nature. The metematerials create invisibility by essentially bending lightwaves around an object, rendering it invisible in a certain spectrum of light. The first demonstration of this effect was in 2006, when researchers managed to make a piece of copper wire invisible by bending microwaves around it.
This sort of technology, known as “passive cloaking,” has been pursued by various research groups and shows a lot of promise, yet it still has limitations. Namely, most current passive cloaking technologies can only achieve invisibility at very limited bandwidths of the electromagnetic spectrum. In some cases, the object may become invisible in one range of light, yet actually become more visible in another range.
In order to overcome this obstacle, the use of “active cloaking” in now being pursued, which entails using electric current over metematerials to make things vanish across a much broader frequency range. Researchers at the University of Texas, for instance, have managed to employ a superconductive thin film that is electrically powered and overcomes some of the limitations of current passive designs. It is also thought that such active designs will result in thinner and lighter invisibility cloaks, adding to their practicality.
Another avenue of research into invisibility cloaks has been undertaken by scientists at UC Berkley in California. The researchers have designed a new material composed of a fishnet of metal layers and tiny silver wires that neither absorbs nor reflects light, which they refer to as a dielectric material. This results in invisibility through light refraction, the same principle that makes objects submerged in water, such as a straw in a glass, appear warped or bent. Essentially, the Berkley researchers have made a cloak which remains transparent in the visible spectrum, and effectively causes light to flow around it like water around a rock.
The use of metamaterials for making large objects invisible still faces many challenges and is still years away from practical application, yet one simpler form of invisibility cloak has already been made and successfully demonstrated on people. The method is called optical camouflage technology, and involves projecting a background image onto a cloak of retro-reflective material, similar to what is used on projection screens. This effectively makes the wearer invisible to those standing at the projection source.
It seems that with more refinement and development, it is only a matter of time before we will have a readily available and practical invisibility cloak that we can throw on to roam about unseen.
Technology is an amazing thing. It has the power to make our lives easier, cure our illnesses, and open up new horizons. In the case of these super gadgets, it also has the power to augment our abilities far beyond the limits imposed upon us by nature. It remains to be seen if this kind of tech will be used for good or ill in the future, but one thing is for certain; as long as mankind strives to break free of our physical boundaries there will be those who tirelessly pursue the means to help us do so.
In some cases, these gadgets have moved past prototypes and can be purchased right now. For those with the money and the will to do so, please make sure you read the instruction manual carefully!