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Science Behind the Fiction: Wakandan technology

Contributed by
Mar 6, 2018

Black Panther is dominating the box office for its third week running, having raked in almost half a billion dollars since release. The world can't get enough of the king from Wakanda or the society from which he hails. Not bad for a character who, just a few years ago, was relatively unknown.

There's a lot to praise about this movie, from set and costume design to the score, empowered characters, and a relatable villain. And that's just scratching the surface.

It's clear that Black Panther struck a chord with audiences the world over. Success at the theater is trial by combat and Wakanda has been crowned king.

All this might leave you wondering: What's the secret to the character's success? The real-world explanation is one I'm not qualified to discuss. I'm sure it's something to do with a successful track record from Marvel Studios, being the most recent installment in a popular ongoing series, and telling the right story at the right time, culturally speaking.

In-world, however, the Panther owes a lot to a mystical bond with the panther god, the mighty Dora Milaje, and sitting perched atop a literal mountain of vibranium. We've written before about the powers of vibranium and some of the real-life equivalents promising to bring a little bit of science fiction to the real world. But there's more to the otherworldly substance than a flashy suit and slashing claws.

In the film, T'Challa's sister Shuri (Letitia Wright) is a technological wunderkind; she's responsible for every incredible toy at the Black Panther's disposal. Those toys are many — and awesome. Let's take a look at what the Panther has in his proverbial utility belt and see how close we are to realizing them.

Handheld EMPs

One of the first images we saw in the trailer was of T'Challa calmly descending from a Wakandan ship, arms crossed, and flinging an array of handheld devices that find purchase on the hoods of a caravan of vehicles moving through the jungle.

 

This scene opens the movie, giving us our first real taste of the Black Panther in action. These discs render the vehicles inactive via a localized electromagnetic pulse, disabling mobility and communications. It's pretty cool and incredibly effective.

EMPs are a mainstay of science fiction. After all, in a world so dependent on technology, what's more frightening than having that taken from us? This is one area where the technology of Wakanda is pretty well rooted in reality. EMP weapons do exist and have for decades.

In July 1962, the United States launched a 1.4 megaton nuclear warhead 240 miles above the Pacific Ocean. The stated intent of the test was to determine if space-based nuclear detonations could destroy incoming missiles from the Soviet Union. As was the case with much of the nuclear testing going on at the time, those involved greatly underestimated the power of the weapons they were toying with.

The weapons, dubbed Starfish Prime, created a magnetic field that impacted electrical systems more than 800 miles away. Streetlights in Hawaii exploded, telephone lines went down, and radios blacked out. What's more, due to the altitude of the blast, some of the blast's radiation lingered for months in a belt above Earth.

The high-energy particles acted as a sort of electrical trip wire and were responsible for the damage and failure of at least six satellites. The devices showcased in Black Panther are significantly more elegant than a massive, runaway atomic explosion. But we're working on that, too. Eureka Aerospace developed a device in 2010 called the High Powered Electromagnetic System (HPEMS), which it claims is capable of disabling a car's electrical systems from more than 600 feet away.

The prototype is massive, not the sort of thing you could easily fling while descending to the jungle floor. There's a trade-off between portability and range that makes any sort of real-world electromagnetic pulse weapon unwieldy. If you're looking for something more portable, a quick Google search will yield you countless instructions for building your own handheld EMP device out of moderately common materials.

It should be noted, however, that interfering with electronics or jamming any signals without governmental authorization is a punishable crime and SYFY WIRE does not recommend the creation or deployment of any such devices unless you happen to be the uncontested monarch of the sovereign nation of Wakanda.

Invisibility/Cloaking Tech

Wakanda's cloaking technology is a sight to behold. Not only can the Wakandans completely shield their ships from view, but they've successfully hidden a highly developed, sprawling city from the rest of the world for centuries. Wonder Woman, eat your heart out.

Effective invisibility is one of those unattainable holy grails of technology and a common player in science fiction and fantasy. From classics like The Invisible Man to more modern fare like Harry Potter, rendering oneself invisible is the sort of answer that often comes up when asked what you'd like your superpower to be.

Just because invisibility is usually a subject of flights of fancy, though, doesn't mean it hasn't also been the subject of serious scientific research. And, believe it or not, some progress has been made.

Since sight relies on light reaching the eye of the observer, the traditional route in achieving invisibility has been to bend light around an object so that anyone looking would see whatever is behind what you're attempting to cloak.

Bending light is difficult, but not impossible. Gravitational lensing is responsible for distorting our view into the cosmos by bending light around highly gravitational objects and can result in hiding and revealing stellar objects to earth-side observers.

Stage magicians have been achieving a similar feat for decades through the use of mirrors to great effect. While that has it's limitations, specifically because mirrors only work when observing an object from a particular angle, it could be used effectively to shield specific objects in a controlled setting, like orbiting satellites.

A team at the University of Rochester has achieved similar results using lenses to bend light around small objects and have recently enhanced their cloaking technology through the use of digital screens and lenticular film. This allows a device to be cloaked from multiple angles but requires a controlled setting and specialized materials.

Another strategy being explored is entirely circumventing an object through the use of technology. Toyota recently applied for a patent that would allow drivers to see through parts of their cars, increasing visibility. Dr. Susumu Tachi, engineering professor at the University of Tokyo, is exploring relatively crude technology that offers rather stunning results, utilizing a camera behind the wearer and a fabric that acts as a screen. Images behind the wearer can be projected onto any object, including a person. While this wouldn't act as an effective invisibility cloak without the associated gadgets, it could be used to make the inside of a car effectively invisible by projecting the outside landscape into the viewing field of the driver.

In fact, you can achieve cloaking of a sort with objects you may have at home. By attaching a camera to your back and sending that image to a tablet computer mounted to your front (or two tablets in a pinch), you can fairly easily render at least a portion of yourself invisible.

Perhaps the fact that this comes off as gimmicky is a testament to how technology makes us jaded. This is the sort of thing that would have blown our minds as children. But you can pretty easily see how this method could be scaled to things like aircraft using cameras mounted around the vehicle and an exterior capable of displaying live video. Tony Stark used something similar for his plane in Spider-Man: Homecoming.

Remote Piloting

How cool was it to watch Shuri remotely drive a car in her holographic projection room across the world? Or Everett pilot a Wakandan plane while simultaneously losing his cool? What made those scenes so impressive was the tactile holographic projection of the vehicle in question. While most of that is definitely the stuff of sci-fi dreams, the remote piloting of vehicles was ripped right out of reality.

Drones have been a part of modern warfare, for better or worse, for years and the technology, without all the devastating weaponry, has made its way into the hands of civilians.

Personal drones, also known as quadcopters, are so commonplace they've become the stuff of gift fodder for children. But higher-end models come equipped with cameras capable of streaming live video to handheld phones. Coupled with cheap, easily-attainable VR headsets, you can pilot them as if you were riding along inside.

Likewise, autonomous vehicles have been in the works for almost a hundred years. Made popular by Google's self-driving car, the notion of a driverless vehicle is now commonplace with services like Uber working toward adding 24,000 to their fleet in the next few years.

While autonomous cars have been operating on our streets for years with a staggeringly impressive safety record, there is understandable — while perhaps unfounded — anxiety surrounding them. This has led to propositions that driverless cars will have the ability to be taken over by a human driver in a remote location.

Considering the statistics surrounding the safety of cars controlled by machines vs. humans, it isn't unlikely that the future of human driving will be entirely remote, if at all.

Real technology is, it seems, just a few steps behind the fictional Wakanda. All we need is an essentially endless supply of the most magical material on Earth and a teenage supergenius like Shuri to shepherd us the rest of the way.