Innovation

Futuristic Star Trek gadgets made real: Tractor beam, phaser, tricorder and more in Smithsonian documentary

Star Trek's tech concepts that have been turned into reality by Trekkies from NASA, Lockheed Martin, NYU, and more are featured in the show's 50th anniversary special on The Smithsonian Channel.

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Laser weapons are one technology from Star Trek that is being developed in real life.

Image: CBS Television Studios

Part of the thrill of watching Star Trek was imagining what it would be like to have the futuristic gadgets featured on the TV show in real life.

In the 50 years since the original Star Trek series began, scientists and engineers have turned some of those concepts into reality. The Smithsonian Channel is celebrating the 50th anniversary of the original show by looking at the lasting influence Star Trek has had on the world. The two-hour special, Building Star Trek, premieres September 4 at 8 p.m. ET/PT on the Smithsonian Channel and highlights scientific innovations and new technologies featured on the show that have inspired generations.

The TV show, with the now iconic Captain Kirk, Mr. Spock, and Dr. McCoy, debuted on September 8, 1966. Fans of all ages quickly became entranced by the handheld communication devices, desktop computers, medical tricorder, tractor beam, and phaser weapons. The two-hour TV special will focus on those scientists and engineers who have turned Star Trek's fictional tech into reality.

Designing a real-life tractor beam

The idea of being able to live in a world with these fictional objects truly existing was beyond comprehension for many viewers. And yet, that's exactly what David Grier did imagine, as he grew up fascinated with all things Star Trek and was determined to make it his life's work. Grier, who is a professor of physics and director of the Center for Soft Matter Research at New York University, is developing a real-life tractor beam.

"I grew up with the original series and it had a huge influence on my life...All this wonderful stuff was supposed to be 200 to 300 years in the future, and they made you really want it. And now you see all this technology creeping into everyday life, when a cell phone is more powerful than the Star Trek communicators. Or a tricorder where I could just point it at you and get a full medical diagnosis. You feel like we can travel to the stars," Grier said.

SEE: Photos of the original Star Trek series and the gadgets that inspired new tech

At NYU, Grier works on forcing cells to build and reorganize themselves and then harness them to do useful things by exerting force on the resulting microscopic objects. He discovered that light is the ideal medium to exert the precise amount of force to move objects.

He said his most amazing discovery was that "beams of light can push. Sometimes if a beam has just the right properties, it can also pull." He has been working to create a tractor beam to move fragile and delicate objects such as dust.

Non-defracting light beams have the capability of pulling. These are light beams that look the same at their point of origin to wherever you beam them (similar to how a laser pointer shines onto a wall and looks the same on the wall as it does at the place where it leaves the laser pointer.)

"Here's the dream: Creating a non-defracting beam that pulls along its entire length. Making one of these beams and shining it on the moon and shining it on the dust on the moon and pulling it home without you needing to be there," he said.

But pulling an object for that long of a distance is just that—a distant dream. So far, he's been able to pull dust one centimeter. While he admits that doesn't sound like much, the first time he was able to get a tractor beam to work it only pulled an object for 10 micrometers. "We were totally pumped when we got it up to 100 micrometers. Getting up to a millimeter was hard," he said.

"I'm working with NASA, and the next step is to get this running on a tabletop up to a meter. If we can do that, then the limit will probably be a kilometer. You're pulling it a kilometer. That is huge for space exploration," he said, explaining that dust could more easily be collected from a comet's tail if a spacecraft could pull the dust stream from a distance of a kilometer rather than be in the midst of the dust and rocks that could potentially damage the spacecraft.

Other scientists have been working to create tractor beams out of sound waves, he said, but those can only be used to pull larger items. "You get a lot more force out of a sound wave but you don't get to move small things. You don't get the precision and finesse. It's a lot easier to manipulate light than it is to manipulate sound," he said.

Being diagnosed by a tricorder

The tricorder is another Star Trek gadget made real, thanks to Cloud DX, which is a finalist for the Qualcomm Tricorder XPRIZE.

Cloud DX is a digital healthcare startup, founded in September 2014, and it has created a medical tricorder that takes your vital signs and uses artificial intelligence to give a diagnosis, according to Robert Kaul, founder and CEO of Cloud DX.

"We're all Trekkies to one degree or another so big parts of the tricorder are inspired by Star Trek for sure. Other parts go way beyond what Star Trek imagined. On Star Trek, you still need the doctor. What we had to invent to be part of the XPRIZE competition is to get rid of the doctor. The software makes the diagnosis all by itself," Kaul said.

Laser weapons and phasers

Over at Lockheed Martin, Rob Afzal, senior fellow for Laser Sensor and Systems, is creating laser weapons. And making his friends at work jealous because he's featured in the Building Star Trek documentary and they're not, he said.

"I've always been a big fan of the show, all of the technologies. It's really fascinating to see what those early ideas were that they took and how far we've really come. What's fun is some of the technologies that came and went. Like the floppy disk. They had this little card that looked like a floppy disk. It hadn't been invented, then it was invented and went away," Afzal said.

The laser weapon he's creating isn't going away any time soon. The weapon, known as the RELI Laser, which stands for the Reliable Electric Laser Initiative, isn't being used in real time yet, but it will be delivered to the Army next year for initial testing, he said.

At this point, there's not a handheld phaser device, but Lockheed Martin has managed to create laser weapons that can be transported on an Army truck, a Navy ship, or an Air Force plane. Even 10 years ago, the smallest laser weapon was the size of a building, so to be able to transport a laser weapon is a huge advancement, he said.

But the most important question has yet to be answered: Captain Kirk or Mr. Spock?

Afzal said, "Spock is my favorite character. With Kirk as a close second. You find there's usually the Spock camp and the Kirk camp."

Three takeaways for TechRepublic readers

  1. Much of the technology seen in Star Trek 50 years ago has been created in real life and is the focus of a two-hour documentary on The Smithsonian Channel airing on September 8.
  2. Lockheed Martin has created a laser weapon that will begin to be tested by the US Army next year, although they're still years away from the creation of a true handheld phaser.
  3. The tractor beam and the medical tricorder are two more devices that are a reality, thanks to the work of scientists such as David Grier at NYU and Robert Kaul at Cloud DX.

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About Teena Maddox

Teena Maddox is a Senior Writer at TechRepublic, covering hardware devices, IoT, smart cities and wearables. She ties together the style and substance of tech. Teena has spent 20-plus years writing business and features for publications including Peo...

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