Innovation Science & Physics Technology

Serious Science: cloaking device

More and more of what was formerly the realm of science fiction is steadily becoming science fact. One notable recent example of real-world Sci-Fi would be cloaking devices, straight out of Star Trek, no less…

Over the coming weeks & months, we’re hoping Serious Science will bring a variety of real-world science topics to life — serious science discoveries and developments that break into the mainstream agenda; sciences with the potential capacity to create new, innovative technologies and change society.

Such things as cloaking devices are bound to grab headlines and turn heads:

“The cloaking devices that are used to render spacecraft invisible in Star Trek might just work in reality, two mathematicians have claimed. They have outlined their concept in a research paper published in one of the UK Royal Society’s scientific journals. Nicolae Nicorovici and Graeme Milton propose that placing certain objects close to a material called a superlens could make them appear to vanish.”

However, creating such things as cloaking devices isn’t without its challenges:

“… the cloaking effect works only at certain frequencies of light, so that some objects placed near the cloak might only partially disappear … ‘I believe their claims about the speck of dust and a certain class of objects. In the paper, they do give an instance about a particular shape of material they can’t cloak. So they can’t cloak everything,’ said Professor Pendry.”

And it isn’t just visible frequencies of the electromagnetic spectrum that this approach would work with, there are also military applications for ‘cloaking’ against radar detection, too:

“Will Stewart, an independent optics expert at the University of Southampton, UK,… says the approach could work well with a narrow band of wavelengths and could, for example, shield an object from radar.”

These are still very early days. Much has been accomplished, but there’s still much more to be done, also. New materials — known as ‘metamaterials’ — need to emerge as well as new techniques for manipulating light and other frequences:

“Metamaterials are exotic composites made of electronic components such as wires and inductors that can be engineered to precisely control the way light travels through them.”

Cloaking technology isn’t to be confused with the technology used on the B-2 Stealth Bomber, which uses radar-absorbent materials, as well as radar-reflective shaping of the aircraft to aid radar invisibility:

“The new material, known as Alternate High-Frequency Material (AHFM), is sprayed on by four independently controlled robots.”

However, the B-2 is still visible to the naked eye.

Ancient metamaterials

“… a type of glass containing nanometer-scale particles of gold. In ordinary daylight, a cup made of the glass appeared green, but then it glowed ruby when illuminated from the inside.”

Most likely, the ancient Roman glass-gold composite metamaterial was created totally by accident. But all too often, the mother of invention is error & happenstance working in unison.

The subject of cloaking devices isn’t a new subject for me. I once asked the question: how close are we to Star Trek technology? Which formed the basis for an article covering a variety of technologies, such as: matter transportation, force fields, warp drives, universal translators, phased weapons and medical ‘tricorders’ — all of which are in various stages of development.

Looking to the future of cloaking devices

The most obvious application for cloaking devices would be for creating the ultimate camouflage; for such things as battlefield ordnance, aircraft, spy satellites et cetera. Not only would it be possible to obfuscate visible frequencies of light, but also infra red — better known as heat — and as mentioned earlier, radar too.

But it’s not only the military who are keen on such things as cloaking devices. Smaller systems could be used in optical telescopes and microscopes to screen out unwanted sources of light interference, hugely increasing the clarity and accuracy of the images they capture.

There are also applications for an ‘invisibility cloak’ in the telecommunications industry, too:

“[Cloaking devices] that render objects essentially invisible to microwaves could have a variety of wireless communications or radar applications, according to the researchers.”

There’s no hiding from the fact that the present is quickly being overtaken by the future. And clearly, cloaking devices of all shapes & sizes could be finding their way into space vessels and science labs of a future near you…

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By Wayne Smallman

Wayne is the man behind the Blah, Blah! Technology website, and the creator of the Under Cloud, a digital research assistant for journalists and academics.

5 replies on “Serious Science: cloaking device”

Cloaking devices… disturbing idea. It’s worth noting, however, that even if you can somehow prevent an object from being seen, it can still be heard, smelled, touched, and tasted. That’s another challenge to overcome.

Hi Mark, thanks for the comment.

I’m not sure the other senses are a big issue in battlefield situations — you can’t exactly smell a jet fighter, or lick a tank!

However, there’s already technology available to cancel out sound…

My two cents:

Technology is already slowly disappearing with things being as small as ever, but to make a thing larger than my figer disappear is disturbing, because if the good guys thought it, the bad guys thunk it too, and they are probably a whole lot better resourced to create this technology openly and use it without a care.

The problem with getting it created in a hush hush manner is going to be a big issue and like Wayne said, the other sense dont matter at all, they already cloaked sound and now if sight is out of the question, then danger cannot be predicted at short notice.

My two cents only

Hi Partha, and thanks for commenting!

You make a good point. But while this kind of technology appears to be quite simple, it’s actually dependent on metamaterials, which are right at the cutting edge of nanotechnology.

Not the domain of the garage tinkerer, or the weekend hobbyist.

I imagine the end goal is to make any size or shape of object totally invisible to every wavelength of the electromagnetic spectrum.

A formidable challenge right now, but if there’s a need and the funding, I don’t see a reason why this shouldn’t happen.

But as you allude to, the question remains as to who will get there first.

Taking that idea a step forward, even a relatively old aircraft fitted with this kind of technology could wreak havoc, once within “enemy” airspace.

But we might be getting ahead of ourselves, here…

Quite possible that the “shadow people” seen by many could in fact be cloaked soldiers. This would explain why you can only see them under certain light. Not sure if you believe in the paranormal but I thought I might introduce this theory.

Jason P

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