There are technologies that exist today that aren’t far off from what you’ve seen in superhero movies and comic books.
The Avengers may have had their endgame. But the superhero craze isn’t slowing down. As implausible as a lot of superhero technologies and abilities are, you might be surprised to know that a lot of the gadgets seen in comic books and movies aren’t dissimilar to real technologies being developed today. While it’s definitely not a good idea to don a mask and fight crime, there are innovations around today that could make your life as a crime fighter easier (or at least much cooler).
Check out the slideshow to see some of today’s most promising superhero-related technologies.
Every hero needs protection. Black Panther has a special armor that absorbs and redistributes kinetic energy. And while nothing on par with that actually exists today, the real world isn’t far off from it. Researchers at North Carolina State University have developed an armor made of composite metal foam that weighs half as much as metal armor but can stop armor-piercing .50-caliber rounds just as effectively.
(Image source: North Carolina State University)
If your dream is to become the next Iron Man you’ll be happy to know the US military as well as several private groups are developing exosuits capable of augmenting human strength and physical performance. Harvard University’s Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering is looking to improve on the typically bulky design of exosuits by using soft textiles to create an exoskeleton comfortable enough to be worn like clothing (shown above). Harvard recently released a study on the effectiveness of its exosuits in making walking and running less taxing.
But exosuits are already out there in the real world as well. In 2018 Ford Motor Company launched a project with Ekso Bionics to outfit its plant workers with exosuits to help them with heavy lifting and repetitive assembly tasks.
(Image source: Harvard University Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering)
Every superhero needs a cool ride. So why not have a flying car? There’s a small, but growing, ecosystem of companies getting into the “urban aerial mobility” market and bringing flying cars to consumers. One of the most notable companies is Kitty Hawk, founded by serial entrepreneur and former Google researcher, Sebastian Thrun. The company is actively testing its flying vehicles and has made partnerships with major aerospace companies like Boeing to further develop them as personal vehicles and as autonomous flying taxis for the general public.
(Image source: Kitty Hawk)
Want to scale walls like Spider-Man? DARPA’s Z-Man project has you covered. Inspired by geckos’ ability to cling to walls, researchers from the University of Massachusetts have developed Geckskin, a synthetic adhesive that allows for climbing of smooth surfaces like glass walls. During initial testing, an operator climbed 25 feet vertically on a glass surface using no climbing equipment except a pair of handheld paddles covered with the material.
It’ll be up to you to figure out how to handle the swinging and jumping after you climb that high though.
(Image source: DARPA)
If you prefer Japanese anime and manga over American comics, you may want to look into a giant robot. Japan’s Suidobashi Heavy Industry manufacturers a 13-foot, 4-ton robot called Kuratas that a single person can pilot via the cockpit or a smartphone interface. In 2017 Kuratas went head to head in a live-streamed battle against MegaBot – a two-pilot giant robot manufactured by US startup MegaBots Inc.
(Image source: Suidobashi Heavy Industry)
If you ask antiheroes like the Punisher they’ll tell you that sometimes justice calls for a more extreme approach. In 2015 DARPA started a project to give snipers an extra leg up with its Extreme Accuracy Tasked Ordnance (EXACTO), a modified .50 caliber round that can be directed toward a target after firing – like a miniature guided missile. Computer simulations done on a similar guided bullet technology by Sandia National Laboratories showed much greater accuracy for self-guided bullets over their standard counterparts.
(Image source: DARPA)
Why use your hands when you can use your mind? More and more advances in brain-computer interfaces are taking thought-controlled devices outside of the realm of science fiction. In 2015 DARPA researchers were able give a quadriplegic woman neural implants that allowed her to control a flight simulator with her mind.
Companies like Neurable and CTRL Labs (shown) have been developing novel technologies to allow consumers to interact with and control electronic devices using external sensors – eliminating the need for the type of surgery that would lead to a great superhero origin story.
And if you think no one is serious about this technology, consider that CTRL Labs was purchased by Facebook to the tune $1 billion.
(Image source: CTRL Labs)
A hero can’t be everywhere at once. Or maybe you’re just the type of crimefighter who prefers not to get their hands dirty. Robotics company Knightscope is giving law enforcement a hand with the K5. The robot is equipped with various sensors that allow it to patrol areas and report crimes in progress and even instances where it suspects a crime may be about to happen. The robot is already deployed in a few major cities. Knightscope recently announced it is developing new sensor technology for the K5 that will allow it to detect weapons.
(Image source: Knightscope)
Restored Vision for the Blind
Blind superhero Daredevil can “see” thanks to years of martial arts training and a special radar sense (mostly the radar sense). But thanks to the latest advances in medical science we won’t need freak accidents to restore sight to the blind.
In 2018 University of Minnesota researchers created a fully 3D-printed array of light receptors on a hemispherical surface – the first step toward what they say could be a bionic eye (shown). Researchers led by Laboratory of Organic Electronics at Linköping University in Sweden are also currently developing artificial retinas made from photoactive films that use organic pigments that could successfully repair certain types of blindness.
There’s no word on anyone developing an easier way to train martial arts and gymnastics however.
(Image source: University of Minnesota, McAlpine Group)
Super Healing Technologies
While human beings can’t heal as fast as Wolverine or Deadpool, there are medical technologies out there that can speed up the process. Engineers at the University of Wisconsin (UW)–Madison have developed a wound dressing that uses electrical pulses to speed up healing (shown above). For more serious injuries, Wake Forest University’s Institute for Regenerative Medicine has created a mobile skin bioprinting system that can print skin directly onto a wound. Combine this with innovations such as work done by Rice University and the University of Maryland to 3D-print materials that mimic bone and cartilage and you could be in for a quick and effective patch up from some very serious injuries someday.
(Image source: UW/Sam Million-Weaver)
Chris Wiltz is a Senior Editor at Design News covering emerging technologies including AI, VR/AR, blockchain, and robotics.