Home » Who wouldn’t want a C-3PO?

by Paul Kostek, IEEE

Star Wars, loved by generations of movie-goers ticks many technology boxes for the sci-fi enthusiast. The humanoid robot C-3PO is a firm favourite, landspeeders probably feature on as many wish lists as jetpacks, and the darkly fascinating Death Star is surely the ultimate space station. Yet, as we witness the annual passing of another ‘Star Wars Day’ (and ‘May the 4th be with you’ by the way) are we any closer to taking Star Wars technology from science fiction to science fact?

Alas, not really. Although for stateside fans, it’s not without trying. In 2012 over 30,000 took to the White House’s online petitions site to ask for a Death Star. Paul Shawcross, chief of the science and space branch at the White House office of management and budget obligingly outlined why building one wasn’t a good idea. In the deliciously titled ‘This isn’t the petition response you’re looking for’ he revealed it would cost $850,000,000,000,000,000 and – not surprisingly – the Administration ‘does not support blowing up planets.’

Now when it comes to robots, we are making definite progress. They are already used in a variety of ways, including military and police detection of weapons and observation, surgery and flight. They may not look like BB-8, R2D2 or C-3PO, but humanoid robots aren’t complete science fiction. In fact, they have already been developed with some success. In Japan, they’re considered to be one potential solution to the growing ageing population’s demand for care and companionship. Of all the technology we see in Star Wars, robots may be the first to be in common use in the 21st century.

Which is more than can be said for any real-world aspirations of the twin ion engine (TIE) fighter. The unmistakable hexagonal-panelled craft is definitely cool, but if it was built today it would be much slower and would take two days to accelerate to the speeds achieved in the movie. Which would make for some slow motion dog fights. Ion engines have been used on the Deep Space spacecraft and the Dawn spacecraft and can get a vehicle moving for great distances, but they’re not for high speed combat. Also, for TIE fighters to be deployed in space they would need shielding to allow them to enter and exit the earth and other planets’ atmospheres. What this weight would do to their performance is unknown, but it’s likely it would slow them down.

On the positive side, landspeeders could become a reality one day, although the mystery of what goes on under the speeder to get it airborne would need to be solved. Perhaps an early example of technology of this type in our time is the flying motorcycle (‘hoverbike’) which can be flown manned or unmanned and uses ducted fans for lift.

Perhaps the most interesting, and noteworthy comparison that can be drawn between Star Wars and the technology of our real life though, is that much of the development is undertaken by individuals, small teams and companies. Hands-on technologists turn their ideas into reality in our world too, just as a young Anakin Skywalker did when he put together C-3PO.

Paul Kostek is a senior member of the IEEE and Principal of Air Direct Solutions LLC.

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