Status Report: 7 ‘Star Trek’ Technologies Under Development

You won't even have to wait 200 years for some of them
Flagship of the Federation Kreg Steppe via Flickr CC by SA 2.0

Star Trek was visionary in the technology it predicted. The show foresaw cell phones, tablets, universal translators, and more. But we’re still waiting for some of the other technologies to materialize. Fortunately, researchers are working to bring you all the replicators, phasers, and warp drives your heart desires. Here’s how soon you can expect to get your hands on these treknologies.

1. Warp Drive

Can ships travel faster than the speed of light? Well, light speed is the universe’s speed limit, and only massless things (like light) can travel that quickly. That’s because it takes more energy to make something with mass go faster; it would take an infinite amount of energy to make something with mass go light speed.

But what if space itself was moving? Miguel Alcubierre theorized a warp drive that would create a bubble of negative energy in front of the spacecraft and could push the space surrounding the craft arbitrarily fast. But scientists haven’t proven the existence of negative energy. Plus, the bubble probably wouldn’t be stable, and the energy released once the ship slows down might create a massive explosion. Warp drives won’t be ready to engage anytime soon.

—Ryan Mandelbaum

2. Replicators

When someone needs food, a new tool, or really any inanimate object in the world of Star Trek, all they need to do to get it is tell a computer. The replicator, a technology that converts energy into matter of any form, is one of the most futuristic and iconic technologies of Star Trek. Though it doesn’t currently exist, there is certainly a modern-day analogue: the 3D printer.

Thirty years ago, Charles “Chuck” Hull invented and patented the first 3D printer. However, the technology really began to take off in 2009, as patents for 3D printers that use plastic filament began to expire. In December 2016, the patents for 3D printers that create with metal will expire, so expect to see more of those popping up, as well as multi-material printers.

Scientists were actually able to convert light into matter in 1997, and a 2014 paper proposed a way to do so more easily. Between that and 3D printers that can create food, the replicator is quickly moving toward science fact, rather than science fiction.

—Jason Lederman

3. Tractor Beams

Tractor beam-like tools exist today, but none of them are big or powerful enough to move a spacecraft. Scientists use “optical tweezers,” focused laser beams, to move and manipulate single molecules. Sound waves can push objects underwater, but that method would never work in space where there’s nothing for sound waves to travel through. If you only wanted to pull things toward your spaceship, though, the laws of gravity say your craft just needs to be big and heavy enough.

—Ryan Mandelbaum

4. Tricorders

In many ways, Star Trek‘s tricorder represents the epitome of what we envision the future of medicine to look like: A single noninvasive device capable of not only understanding the inner workings of the human body, but also pinpointing and diagnosing the causes of disease. But how close are we to actually having a device like this? Modern medicine has made incredible advances that challenge the fictional medical technology of the Star Trek universe. And some inventions by themselves rival aspects of the tricorder technology, but none have the same broad range of capabilities with the same non-invasive touch.

That’s not for lack of trying. In 2012, the microchip company Qualcomm initiated its Tricorder XPrize Competition, which challenged contestants to design a singular device capable of diagnosing 10 core health conditions as well as five vital signs, including blood pressure, temperature, and oxygen saturation. Ten teams made it to the final round and their devices began testing at UC San Diego’s Clinical and Translational Research Institute. But while most of the prototypes measured the vital signs quite well, they all had trouble diagnosing diseases. The judges eventually put a halt on the testing and gave the competitors two years to perfect their techniques.

As IEEE Spectrum points out, a major obstacle that the inventors are working against is that the device must account for the unpredictability and diversity of human nature. The way one person may describe their anemia or hypertension may be completely different than the way another one does.

The new deadline for the teams–there are only 7 left, three dropped out–to submit their prototype is September 2016, when judges will begin the next round of testing.

—Claire Maldarelli

5. Transporters

Quantum mechanics allows for two kinds of transporting. Quantum tunneling is a side effect of particles acting like waves. If a burst of particles hits a wall, there’s a chance some will pass through. The thicker the wall, the lower the probability; particles have an almost-but-not-quite-but-effectively-zero percent chance of passing through the walls of your apartment, although electrons do tunnel through tiny walls in flash drives.

Then there’s quantum teleportation. First, you’d need to get two particles entangled, making a system where one set of properties describes both particles, and pull the two particles far apart from each other. If you give some quantum information to the first particle, then you can transfer that information to the distant entangled particle almost instantaneously. Chinese scientists were able to transport photon information across almost 100 kilometers back in 2012.

Today, Scotty can only beam you up if you’re a single particle.

—Ryan Mandelbaum

6. Hyposprays

Star Trek‘s hypospray is really just a decked out jet injector–a medical device that uses the high pressure of compressed air or gas to inject a liquid instead of relying on a needle. Aaron Ismach, a civilian researcher with the Department of Defense, began work on the device in the late 1950s and early 1960s, and received a US patent for it in 1962.

Called the Multi-Dose Jet Injection Device, it was soon deployed as a fast and effective vaccination tool to combat smallpox around the world. But it turned out not to be without risk. Because the device penetrates the epidermis, the outermost layer of the skin, health officials quickly found that it had the ability to transmit diseases from one vaccinated person to the next, and many countries have stopped using this original device for this reason.

Recently, though, researchers have been able to develop jet injectors that employ single-use jet injectors that are much safer than older versions. One, the PharmaJet was approved for use by the FDA in 2014 to deliver a type of flu vaccine.

—Claire Maldarelli

7. Phasers

Gene Roddenberry imagined the future as a utopia, and then sent his characters into danger on the very edge of that space. Faced with threats in close quarters, Kirk, Spock, McCoy, and several unfortunate redshirts had only their wits, training, knowledge, and small hand-held laser weapons to rely on. The phaser is the most iconic weapon of the Star Trek universe, whether it’s the pistol-grip models of the original series or the dust-buster oriented wands of The Next Generation. In a universe more about human exploration than conquest, it’s notable that the phaser wasn’t just a lethal weapon: it can stun as well as kill, giving it far more flexibility than most fictional weapons.

For humans living in 2016, hand-held beam weapons seem about as far-off as the 23rd century. But phasers weren’t just an easy stand-in for guns–they were also one of the primary weapons used by the Enterprise and other ships, and this is where the present is closer to the future. In 2014, the U.S Navy deployed the USS Ponce to the Persian gulf complete with a laser weapon aboard. Powering a beam with 30 kilowatts, the Laser Weapon System could burn drones and small boats. The Pentagon is developing several more powerful directed energy weapons in the 100-150 kilowatt range, with tests expected in the early 2020s if not sooner.

—Kelsey Atherton