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Science Fiction Meets Engineering Experts... And Asks For Their Favourite Fictional Invention

21/02/2017 16:45

Can you remember the first time you watched Back To The Future's DeLorean time machine speed towards its time travel speed of 88 miles per hour? Or did you dream of hearing your canine friend speak after seeing the translation collar in Pixar's Up?

I'm sure many of us have wondered how our favourite fictional inventions would work out in real life. Whether on TV, on the big screen, or in comics, these creations can set our imaginations running wild.

But which of them might actually be useful? Which ones could theoretically win awards for changing the world?

I decided to consult my colleagues on the judging panel for the Royal Academy of Engineering MacRobert Award, the UK's most prestigious engineering prize. Each year, we are privileged to meet the teams behind some of the UK's best inventions. The Award has celebrated UK engineering innovation since 1969, and is known for spotting "the next big thing". Previous winners include Touch Bionics' i-Limb - the world's first bionic hand, Optos for the first laser retinal scanner and Microsoft's revolutionary Kinect motion capture software.

Each of our distinguished judges picked a fictional invention they thought might make it onto a shortlist for the award, albeit in a few centuries' time...

Harry Potter's broomstick - the Firebolt as chosen by Nick Cooper FREng

As well as being fun to ride, broomsticks would help slash travel time, ease traffic congestion and cut fuel emissions. And with a broomstick you would also be able to play Quidditch - what's not to like?

Dr Who's Sonic Screwdriver as chosen by Dr Andrew Herbert OBE FREng

Imagine what you could do with a Sonic Screwdriver! Among many other things it can pick locks, cut all kind of substances, aid teleportation, conduct medical scans, track alien life and provide geo-location. Sadly, it is made of Unobtainium and is rarely found in the shops.

The Total Perspective Vortex from The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy as chosen by Professor Ric Parker CBE FREng

The vortex is based on the perfectly sound principle that, starting from a small piece of fairy cake, you can extrapolate to a complete and accurate model of the whole universe by applying the theory of atomic interactivity. In the book the vortex went on to become an instrument of torture (which of course would disqualify it from the MacRobert Award) but it was originally invented by a man whose wife told him to get a sense of perspective. Humankind has rarely needed a sense of perspective more than at the present time.

The FTL Warp Drive from Star Trek as chosen by Dr Frances Saunders CB FREng

The original Faster Than Light TL Warp Drive was invented and built by an eccentric man called Zephram Cochrane, who was trying to do something that everyone said was impossible. It was successful - he launched himself on the maiden flight and it opened up the final frontier, allowing Captain Kirk and the crew of the USS Enterprise to "boldly go where no man had gone before."

The cable production in Timothy Zahn's novel Spinneret as chosen by Professor David Delpy CBE FREng FRS FMedSci

Many Sci-Fi tales rely on super-strong cables, including the diamond filament used to build the space elevator in Arthur C Clarke's The Fountains of Paradise, the carbon nanotube based cable in Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars novels, or the material used to build the Ringworld in Larry Niven's novels. What is different in Spinneret is the planetary scale of the device and the amount of material it can produce. The potential impact would surely make it an award contender.

Terraforming from Collision Orbit as chosen by Keith Davis, Chairman of the MacRobert Trust

In uncertain times, with food shortages and global warming, terraforming - the ability to transform other planets so that their environments mirror Earth's - could help alleviate many problems. The term, first coined by Jack Williamson in science-fiction story Collision Orbit, could allow humans to live and thrive on any planet they travel to.

And my personal favourite is the Star Trek 'Communicator,' a device that keeps the Star Trek crew in constant contact with each other, even allowing crew members to contact starships in orbit without relying on satellite to relay the signal. These handheld "communicators" pre-dated the real-life mobile phone but they looked much like the clamshell mobile phone that became so popular.

Could these inventions become a commercial success in the far future or prove to be beneficial to society? Of course it is hard to guess. But some fictional inventions do make the leap from the big screen to reality: Nike recently released self-lacing trainers similar to those seen in Back to the Future, and research is bringing holograms, akin to the ones seen in Star Wars, a step closer to reality. We may not be alive to see a sonic screwdriver winning the MacRobert Award, but it will certainly be up against some serious competition at the present rate of engineering innovation.

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