Business Technology

8 Star Trek technologies that are becoming reality

9 min read

17 July 2013

It's technology – but not as you know it!

Technology that was once the stuff of science fiction is becoming reality. We switched to flip-phones as a result of the Star Trek communicator and gained inspiration for the bluetooth ear device from Lieutenant Uhura’s communication device. Where the Enterprise carried around pads, we now have tablet computers to match. But what about holodecks, phasers and teleportation? 

1. The deflector shield

Who is involved: NASARutherford Appleton Laboratory

Star Trek: Deflector shields are layers of energetic distortion which allow a starship to be protected. Energy and matter should be effortlessly deflected and only minor damage from a Klingon warship fight will be sustained.

Reality: Scientists have created a lightweight system that will protect astronauts from the harmful radiation that was picked up on Mars. The RAL plan is to create a concept spaceship called Discovery, which will recreate the earth’s magnetic field as a barrier. The deflector shield has already been tested on a model inside a fusion reactor and scientists are pleased with the results. The next stage of the plan is to scale it up and attach it to a real craft.

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2. The holodeck

Who is involved: Mechdyne CorporationUniversity of Illinois

Star Trek: In the holodeck room, Lieutenant Worf enjoyed cowboy adventures and Captain Jean-Luc Picard role-played as private detective Dixon Hill. Its programs can create “solid” props and characters as well as holographic backgrounds.

Reality: Computer scientists have created a virtual reality platform called CAVE2, which combines 320 degrees of panoramic, floor-to-ceiling LCD displays with an optical tracking interface. Project Holodeck is, essentially, a holodeck prototype – we’re still far from photon projected programs. It’s current program, Wild Skies, allows two players to pilot an airship through steering movements and can equip weapons by pressing buttons and executing gestures. The creators claim that the applications are virtually limitless, and could impact fields as diverse as space exploration, archaeology, architecture, and medicine.

Star Trek phaser

3. Phasers

Who is involved: US military, Missile Defence Agency

Star Trek: This small hand-held weapon is always carried by crew members when they leave the ship. It is a direct-energy gun that can be set to ‘stun’ or ‘destroy’.

Reality: In 2002, Scientist Paul Koloc created a weapon that could be used for a range of purposes, from stunning personnel to destroying electronically operated devices, small rockets and vehicles. Sound familiar? The Phased Hyper-Acceleration for Shock, EMP and Radiation (PHASER) weapon has successfully formed plasmoids a foot in diameter, but they have yet to be made sufficiently stable. Until this power can be controlled, the US military’s PHaSER and MMDEAS are the closest recreations – both of which can slow down rioters.

4. Replicators

Who is involved: Glasgow University, NASA, Systems & Materials Research Corporation

Star Trek: The replicator is a machine capable of creating objects and synthesising meals on demand. 

Reality: 3D printers, just like a replicator, allows us to recreate entire objects. We have reached the stage where 3D printers can replicate about anything, from car parts and dolls to textured display-only food. But we’re still a long way from having computers create fully cooked steaks. The reason why? We still work with plastic. This is all set to change, however, with Professor Lee Cronin’s Chemputer. This high-tech 3D printer has the ability to synthesise inorganic molecules. Ultimately, what starts as a vision of printing exact copies of complex pharmaceuticals, could actually turn into a modern version of Star Trek’s food synthesiser. NASA have also awarded a grant to the Systems & Materials Research Corporation to design a 3D printer capable of creating a pizza from 30-year shelf stable foodstuffs. This technology will later be used onboard space shuttles.

5. Sickbay’s biobed

Who is involved: University of LeicesterLeicester Royal Infirmary, NASA

Star Trek: The patient would lie on the bed and a screen would then show every possible problem in the patient’s body. The biobed was fitted with sensor clusters which would give a detailed analysis of the patient’s health.

Reality: Professors Paul Monks, Mark Sims and Tim Coats have transformed NASA’s technology to detect life on Mars into a real-life version of Dr. Leonard H. McCoy’s diagnostic bed. Although this modern Star Trek tech has yet to incorporate “medical scanners”, it is able to run non-invasive tests that can detect diseases and conditions ranging from diabetes to cancer – automatically reading respiration, oxygen and carbon dioxide levels in the blood and ultra-sound readings of the heart. The £1m plus disease detection facility is being tested in Leicester Royal Infirmary’s A&E department.

"beamed up"

6. Teleporter

Who is involved: University of ViennaNiels Bohr Institute 

Star Trek: Transporters convert a person or object into an energy pattern, then “beam” it to a target, where it is reconstructed.

Reality: Teleportation is possible – for sub-atomic particles that is. By taking advantage of a phenomenon called “quantum entanglement”, the Niels Bohr Institute succeeded in teleporting light and gas atoms – pretty neat given teleporters in Star Trek used the exact same method. Taking it one step further, Austrian scientists were able to destroy billions of photons and recreate them elsewhere as information, sent over a record distance of 89 miles. Since then, the experiment has been repeated successfully time after time. Although we are far from human body transport, we’ve made a step in the right direction, especially given that Star Trek’s own transporter was far from perfect.

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7. The tractor beam

Who is involved: St Andrews UniversityInstitute of Scientific Instruments

Star Trek: The tractor beam is a form of graviton beam used by starships to control the movement of external objects. 

Reality: A team of scientists from Scotland and the Czech Republic have found a way to generate an optical filed that reverses radiation pressure of light. In essence, a real-life miniature version of the “tractor beam” – which can draw objects towards the light source – has successfully been created. So all we need to do now is develop a large scale version and attach it to a starship.


8. Transparent Aluminium (Armor)

Who is involved: Surment Corporation, Air Force, Oxford

Star Trek: In the series, transparent aluminum is used in various fittings in starships, including exterior ship portals and windows.

Reality: The Surment Corporation in Massachusetts now manufactures ALON, a material similar to transparent aluminium. Scientists developed a transparent aluminium-based ceramic that is almost as strong. Four times harder than fused silica glass and 85 per cent as hard as sapphire, it has been used in armoured windows and lenses for battlefield optics. The Air Force has also tested the material with the hope of replacing windowsa with a lighter, yet stronger, bulletproof window. Oxford scientists, however, have recently created a transparent form of aluminium by bombarding the metal with a powerful soft X-ray laser.