However much one might question the lack of realism in the Bond films, a surprising number of 007’s gadgets have their roots in reality. In this month’s blog, we’ll take a quick look at some of them and examine the science behind such gizmos.
To See Through Walls
For instance, wouldn’t we all love Bond’s x-ray glasses from The World Is Not Enough? We’re talking here the ability to see through a solid object, of-course, rather than the specific waves of the hospital fracture department. MIT recently demonstrated how to use the reflections from radio signals to achieve ‘x-ray vision’, and such a gadget could soon be on the horizon. In fact, they’ve spun off a new company specifically to engineer it into a real
product. The system MIT developed works by beaming weak radio transmissions from an antenna array and recording the resulting jumble of reflections. Powerful software algorithms remove any reflections that come from stationary items to leave behind a picture of anything moving, however slightly. It can detect the motion of a beating heart or breathing lungs in an adjacent room.
It may still be some years before it shrinks to the size of a pair of spectacles because its array of antennas is currently the size of an A4 sheet of paper, and it requires a laptop to run. However, it will no doubt shrink in time—compare the size and weight of the original handheld phone to today’s mobile handset to see how things can improve over a couple of decades.
If you want to learn more, there’s a great description of the system on livescience.com.
To Fly Like Superman
While you’re on the livescience webpage, take a moment to peek at their article on the personal jetpack that’s so reminiscent of Bond’s in Thunderball. This one is already here and ready to fly. Watch the video of its Australian designer David Mayman flying it round the statue of liberty.
A follow-up version that’s currently under development is touted to be able to hit 100mph. That really must feel like flying with Superman.
Is that a car I see before me?
Of-course, no consideration of 007’s gadgets could be complete without talking about The Cars. How about we start with the Aston Martin Vanquish in Die Another Day, which could become invisible at the touch of its key fob? Although definitely still in its infancy, even this idea has roots in reality. If you coat one side of an object in a colour display and fix an array of cameras to the reverse side, it’s possible to show on the displays what the camera sees. If done correctly, in theory, the item can seem to disappear because the user sees
what is behind the car. That technology is far from being at the state of the James Bond film, of-course – if the person moves, for instance, their angle to the vehicle would not alter as expected, which therefore breaks the illusion. But technology can overcome even that problem by placing a camera facing the person and using advanced imaging software and face-tracking algorithms to adjust what is shown on the display in response to where they are looking and their angle from the hidden vehicle. So, even this Bond car is not without a grain of scientific possibility.
Another 007 vehicle of interest to tech lovers must be the Lotus Esprit in The Spy Who Loved Me, which could convert to a submarine. Swiss innovation company Rinspeed, apparently inspired by that film, designed the electric powered sQuba concept car, which they presented at the Geneva motor show in 2008. It travels on land, on water, and at up to 10m below the waves. Bond wouldn’t avoid the bad guys using it, though, because its top speed is a mere 70mph on land, dropping to less than a disappointing 4mph on water, and not even 2mph when submerged. And, yes, that is slower than one could swim.
Nonetheless, the sQuba shows what’s possible and, if anyone sees a market, engineering time could be invested to improve its racing pedigree.
In case you’re wondering, the prototype was powered underwater by a pair of propellers, with two supplementary water jets to provide manoeuvrability. See their YouTube video for a demonstration. And the cost? This on-off prototype is purported to have set them back $1.5 million. A snip for Q.
And Now the Weapons
Another interesting gadget in The Spy Who Loved Me was the blow-through cigarette that fired a jet of knock-out gas. In real life, a similar technique was used by the Russian assassin Bogdan Stashinsky in 1957, to fire a jet of deadly nerve gas into his victim’s face. At 7 inches long, it was more akin to a cigar than a cigarette, and Stashinksy fired it from inside a rolled newspaper. The downside was an ever-present risk that wind would catch the gas and blow it back into his face, so the assassin had to swallow anti-nerve gas tablets just before putting it into use. Bond was somewhat more fortunate.
While thinking of weapons disguised as cigarettes, we should also consider 007’s cigarette gun from Casino Royale. Tiny weapons disguised as everyday objects such as these have often been favoured by real spies as well as the fictional. For instance, Washington’s Spy Museum displays a KGB-designed lip-stick gun from 1965, and a pistol disguised as a smoker’s pipe from the 1940s.
The lipstick fired a single 4.5mm shot and saw use in East Berlin during the cold war. The tobacco pipe was used by the British Special Forces, and was known to be deadly at short range. Where are such weapons hidden these days, one wonders.
Shedding Light on the Situation
At the other end of the size scale is Goldfinger’s laser cutter, with which he aimed to break into Fort Knox. If was housed in an ambulance and could be elevated to rise out of the roof. That, too, is now a reality. In 2015, Lockheed Martin demonstrated the prototype of a 30kW laser, which was able to disable a small truck in just a few seconds by burning though its
engine manifold from over a mile away. Ouch!
Bloody Nano Robots
To end, let’s go to Spectre, the latest Bond film, and shrink to the size of the smart blood nanotechnology used to track 007’s location. While this is purely fictional (powering such devices to allow them to communicate over large distances isn’t practical), robots small enough to swim in your blood stream do exist. They were invented by a joint team of Swiss and Israeli scientists to help doctors to deliver drugs to precisely the right point in the body. When an oscillating magnetic field is applied, two tiny magnetic “nano-wires” that make up segment of its body pulsate with it, thereby propelling it slowly through the blood stream.
So, Are They Fact or Fiction?
So not all of Bond’s gadgets are pure fiction, and many of them started life with at least a glimmer of reality. Whether the fiction has inspired engineers to develop matching technology, or whether the writers took the reality and built upon it with their fiction, though, is a totally different question.