Innovation

Star Trek technology in real life: Tricorder, tractor beam, and phaser

The high-tech gadgets of Star Trek have fascinated legions of fans for decades. Find out how Lockheed Martin and other organizations are turning some of those props into reality.

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Image: CBS/Paramount

The race to conquer bold new worlds in technology is never-ending, especially for those working to make the futuristic gadgets of Star Trek come to life.

Last year, TechRepublic published an article about how scientists at Lockheed Martin, New York University, and Cloud DX were working to make the phaser, tractor beam, and tricorder a reality. Read on to find out what's new with each innovative project.

NYU's real-life tractor beam

At NYU, David Grier, professor of physics and director of the Center for Soft Matter research, has been working with his team on tractor beam technology. The project, which was featured in the Smithsonian Channel's documentary, Building Star Trek, has grown by leaps and bounds since last year.

Argha Mondal, a doctoral candidate in Grier's group, has recorded data that shows the project has created tractor beams that are an entire meter long. Last year, the team could only create a tractor beam that was a few millimeters long.

SEE: A glimpse of the iconic scenes and gadgets of Star Trek (TechRepublic)

The meter-long beams are "400 times brighter than anything we've had before. These represent a real breakthrough, which we're preparing for publication now," Grier said. "What the images show is the intensity of the light in these tractor beams. Quite clearly, they're not the simple beams of light that come out of a laser pointer. They have some pretty wild three-dimensional structure. Achieving that structure is part of the secret to making a beam of light that can pull things upstream."

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NYU has created a meter-long tractor beam.

Image: NYU

The tractor beam forces cells to build and reorganize themselves and then be harnessed to do useful things by exerting force on the resulting microscopic objects. Light is the ideal medium to exert force to move objects, he said.

Grier said he's always thrilled to have people compare his work to the technology seen on Star Trek.

"It's super-exciting that science and science fiction are getting so much attention. I particularly love the theme that science fiction has become a sort of wish-list for science. I often tell people that the first season of Star Trek (the original series) is the playbook for my group's research program."

He added, "With Star Trek, the things those characters take for granted are sort of miraculous for us."

Don't miss: The new series Star Trek: Discovery on CBS All Access premieres Sept. 24, 2017. For more details, check out our Star Trek: Discovery viewer's guide.

Modern-day tricorders

Several companies raced to create tricorders to compete in the Qualcomm Tricorder XPRIZE to create a handheld medical diagnostic tool. Final Frontier Medical Devices and Dynamical Biomarkers Group won the biggest awards for their tricorders, and Cloud DX received $100,000 as a "Bold Epic Innovator" for its Vitaliti tricorder.

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The Vitaliti is the modern-day version of the tricorder.

Image: Cloud DX

Robert Kaul, founder and CEO of Cloud DX, said that his company's device takes vital signs and uses artificial intelligence to give a diagnosis.

He said he was inspired from childhood by Star Trek. "I have a very clear memory from 1980. For Christmas my parents got me a Star Trek technical manual. I brought that with me to school for an entire year. I was absolutely inspired by Star Trek. I bought all the models, and I had them hanging in my room."

One of the things that made Star Trek most interesting to him was because it was the only one he noticed that included the sick bay medical staff as main characters. "All the other franchises, whether Battlestar Galactica or Star Wars or Babylon 5 were military based. Almost like Westerns. But Gene Roddenberry and his vision is much more holistic. He recognized you couldn't go and explore the stars without taking care of your crew. That's why Star Trek is inspiring real-world medical breakthroughs."

Right now, there are components of the Cloud DX tricorder going through testing for FDA clearance, and it is expected to be on the market next year, Kaul said.

Phaser technology at Lockheed Martin

Rob Afzal, senior fellow for Laser Sensor and Systems at Lockheed Martin, has finished the work on the laser weapon that he featured in the Building Star Trek documentary. The project, known as the RELI Laser, which stands for the Reliable Electric Laser Initiative, was delivered to the Army earlier this year.

While it's not a handheld laser, like the Star Trek phaser, it can be transported on a vehicle. This is a breakthrough from even 10 years ago, when the smallest laser weapon was the size of a building.

"The technology is continuing to rapidly advance and what you're going to see in the coming year is a number of demonstrations of these initial systems. As a corporation, Lockheed Martin is continuing to advance the technologies both from developing higher power, smaller lasers moving toward eventually the handheld phaser or maybe one from the Starship Enterprise that would be in the ship. And we're continuing to work on the systems that you need to deploy a high-powered laser and make it effective like being controlled and getting it onto a platform," Afzal said.

As for an actual handheld phaser weapon, Afzal said, "we'll get there one day."

Also see

Disclaimer: Both Star Trek: Discovery and TechRepublic are properties of CBS.

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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