When it comes to wanting a superpower, you generally have a Big Three: the ability to fly, teleportation, and being invisible.
All three are, of course, firmly rooted in the realm of science fiction and daydreaming.
Or are they?
Straight Outta Star Trek
Back in the 1960s, Star Trek popularized a cloaking device that made objects appear invisible. It’s been used as a plotline in science fiction ever since.
How does it work? Well, in simple terms, if light waves aren’t bounced off an object and passed back to your eyeball, you don’t see it. The same theory applies to radio waves and radar. So the physics behind an invisibility cloak is that light is deflected around an object (such as a starship in Star Trek), thus making it invisible.
And as technology advances, such cloaking devices are rapidly moving from science fiction to reality. But not just for a gimmick, though. The Pentagon wants to use the technology for its aircraft and drones.
From the Lab to Real Life
For years, scientists have played around with invisibility cloaks, or “metamaterials” that scatter light.
In 2006, for example, Duke University demonstrated that it was possible to direct electromagnetic waves around an object, making it invisible. But in only worked in two dimensions and only on microwaves.
But it was a start. Ever since, scientists have tried to overcome two big problems with the technology for an invisibility cloak.
The Material: The metamaterial used in such a cloak – usually based on Teflon – has proven far too bulky. For example, for an airplane to become invisible to radar or missile guidance, the most technologically advanced coating would have to be about 30 centimeters thick! Needless to say, that’s not practical.
The Light: These cloaks scatter light at lower intensities than when light first hits it. That means the area surrounding the cloak appears darker – an obvious giveaway.
But now, scientists at the University of California at San Diego announced a major breakthrough…
The San Diego Breakthrough
The UCSD team has developed a material it calls the “dielectric metasurface cloak.” Essentially, it’s Teflon studded with ceramic particles (dielectric cylinders).
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The material seems to have solved the two problems I noted above that are impeding the development of a practical invisibility cloak.
First, the Teflon-based material only needs to be three millimeters thick to fool radar. And the coating can be almost minuscule in thickness in order to fool the casual visual observer.
As for the light aspect, the scientists claim it can scatter light while being “almost lossless.” In other words, the intensity of the light around the cloak will appear the same as its surroundings.
But the science fiction part hasn’t fully translated to reality just yet.
First, the invisibility on the UCSD cloaking device isn’t perfect. The cloak developed so far has to have the incoming light or signal hit it at within six degrees of a 45-degree angle. But the project’s chief scientist, Boubacar Kante, says a “large range” of angles should be possible, according to the math behind the technology.
The more sizable drawback is that you can’t fool both radar and the naked eye simultaneously. The object can only be fitted with material that will fool either radar or the naked eye. That’s because radio waves and visual light waves have different wavelengths. As such, it requires a different, custom-made material.
But the Department of Defense’s involvement could help advance this technology further…
The Best Defense Against Enemies?
Despite the drawbacks, the Pentagon is highly interested in implementing this new camouflage system.
Think about the air superiority it could offer. All sorts of military planes and drones could become invisible to enemies. Perhaps naval ships could “disappear,” too.
Kayla Matola, a research analyst for Defense Department contractor Homeland Defense & Security Information Analysis Center, told the Army Times that the Pentagon’s utilization of this cloaking technology could only be five to 10 years away.
If so, it would give commanders a massive advantage over enemies. But if the technology gains adoption among those enemies, too, the game of war will suddenly take a very different – and very scary – turn.