Category Archives: Science

BattleTech Technology – Today!

At the heart of BattleTech is… well, really, a space opera unlike any other. But right beside the heart (maybe the left ventricle) is the traditional Sci-Fi focus on futuristic technologies. Giant robots, powered by fusion engines, bristling with lasers and advanced particle weapons, being flown around in spaceships that zip from planet to planet, then to entirely different solar systems. All of this sounds like technology so far in the future that we can only dream of it in books and video games. But how far off is the technology of BattleTech from today’s? The answer may surprise you.

Lasers

Lasers aren’t really a new technology at all. The word laser actually stands for “light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation”, and it’s been around since the 1960s. Lasers have all sorts of real-world applications, from optical disk drives, to laser printers, to barcode scanners, to fibre-optic cabling, to DNA sequencing, to medical surgery, and even manufacturing and welding. The weaponization of lasers on the other hand hasn’t quite caught up with BattleTech, although we are getting awfully close.

Currently the United States navy has one active laser weapon system in service. The AN/SEQ-3 Laser Weapon System is mounted on the USS Ponce, and while it hasn’t been used in combat, it has been successfully tested against simulated attacks by small boat and unmanned aerial drone. Fans of the MechWarrior games might be a little disappointed though; there’s no flashy green beam that melts whatever it strikes. Instead, it’s just a lens that gets pointed at something, and then that something explodes without any warning or fanfare.

Particle Projection Cannons

Particle cannons go by many names in the realm of science fiction: phasers, particle accelerator guns, ion cannons, or proton beams just to name a few. The general idea behind them is the same no matter what you call it – super charge a bunch of subatomic particles, and then direct them out at high velocity in as straight a line as you can manage. Those particles then impact the target disrupting its molecular cohesion. Violently.

So far, particle cannons remain firmly in the realm of science fiction. While we can certainly get subatomic particles up to speeds that would be horrifically damaging, it takes an area the size of a small town to get them going that fast. Or maybe not – the SLAC National Accelerator laboratory has reported getting particles up to speed in as little as 30 cm. Miniaturization, and possible weaponization, may be just around the corner.

Gauss Rifles

Gauss rifles, also known as coilguns for reasons that will become evident, use magnetic fields in order to accelerate a projectile up to catastrophic speeds (at least, if you’re on the receiving end). One or more coils (see?) of conductive material is wrapped around a barrel and an enormous amount of electricity is pulsed through them. Inside the barrel is a ferromagnetic projectile that is grabbed by the magnetic fields produced by the coils and then whipped out of the barrel at extreme velocity, like so:

Coilguns are actually nothing new. First patented in 1904 by Norwegian scientist Kristian Birkeland, Gauss rifles have been around for over a century. Many hobbyists even make them in their garage. So why don’t we see them more often? Well, historically they haven’t been very practical. The energy requirements for military applications of a coilgun are immense, even if you use a small projectile. Consequently they’re just more expensive to operate than regular guns using chemical propellant. However, as superconductive technologies become more readily available, coilguns are getting a second look by militaries around the world.

Why the name Gauss? It’s a reference to Carl Friedrich Gauss, the German mathematician who was one of the founding fathers of the equations governing electromagnetism. He’s no Maxwell, but I guess having a gun named after you is pretty cool.

Myomer Muscles

In case you haven’t clicked the link, Myomer Muscles are what makes ‘Mechs possible. They’re the electroactive material that expands or contracts depending on whether there’s an electric current being run through it – just like the muscles in a human body. When BattleTech was just being born this was all still theoretical, but now it’s crossed from the realm of science fiction into science fact.

The theory behind myomer materials was first laid down in 1880, when Wilhelm Röntgen first conducted an experiment whereby a rubber strip was sprayed with electric charges which caused the charged parts of the rubber to contract. In the 1960’s and 70’s it was discovered that other polymers would react in the same way. Flash forward to today and we now have thin elastic materials that contract with small amounts of electricity, or muscles that are a thousand times more powerful than a person’s. The obvious application would be the replacement of limbs for victims of terrible accidents, but we here at Sarna know the best use would be to make multi-story killer robots.

Fusion Engines

As a gross simplification, fusion power happens when you slam two atomic nuclei together, which produces a brand new atom and energy. A lot of energy. Only problem is, how do you get two atomic nuclei to slam together and stick? Well, there’s lots of different ways ranging from magnetic containment (like in BattleTech), lasers (is there anything they can’t do?), or if you’re really strong you can even pinch ‘em together. Historically, all these methods took far more energy just to get those nuclei to fuse than you got energy in return, making fusion a less than ideal power source.

We’re getting pretty close though. In 2014, the US-based National Ignition Facility produced the first net-gain fusion reaction. Both MIT and Lockheed are working on making compact fusion reactors that will hopefully bring fusion power into the economically viable zone in the next 5 years. How long it will be before we’re able to power giant walking death machines with miniature suns inside is anybody’s guess, but it’s looking like that day will be sooner rather than later.

DropShips

Humanity has had functional space ships for several decades. The Space Shuttle is the most well known craft that has catapulted humanity to the stars, although the Soyuz crafts are by far the most widely used. Both options still had the problem of having non-reusable components; the booster rockets for the Shuttle, and pretty much everything but the crew compartment for the Soyuz.

Sadly, DropShips may be the technology that is furthest away from seeing reality. There are certainly planned refinements to the Soyuz style rocket technology, like the Falcon 9, but so far the enormous energy requirements of getting something as large as a DropShip to space and back is just well beyond our current knowledge. But there is hope – private companies are developing space planes that are designed to operate both in atmosphere and out. It’s a far cry from being able to take a lance of multi-ton humanoid tanks to the moon and back, but it’s a start.

Kearny Fuschida Jump Drives

Okay, I was wrong – this is actually the furthest away from reality. So far looks like there’s still a lot of complicated math involved before we can travel between the stars.

BattleMechs

I’ve got a surprise for you; they exist! Sure, they don’t have legs, and they’re not powered by a fusion engine, and you don’t need a neurohelmet to control them, but they’re giant robots. And they aren’t just being used in fictional combat – they’re gunna actually fight.

What a time to be alive.

TALON Precision-Guided Rocket- Turning Dumbfire Hydra Rocket Pods into Streak SRM Launchers

Historically, rocket munitions have always been more effective when fired in swarms. From the 15th century Korean Hwatcha rocket propelled arrow launcher to the MLRS or Grad rockets of today to the Itano Circus prevalent in ’80s Sci-Fi anime- and by extension, BattleTech. Rocket swarms can be brutally effective- if a not very efficient means of hitting your target. But those are artillery type weapons. Equipment covered in BattleTech by Arrow IV Missiles. What about something closer in?

The mainstay of western rocket direct-fire weapons for the past 60 years has been the Hydra 70 2.75″ (70mm) rocket pod. The Hydra rocket series weighs in at a hair over 6 kg, has an effective range of 8,000 meters and has an absolutely ridiculous selection of warheads to choose from (19 from the Wikipedia list). White Phosphorus, Flechette, cluster munition, HE, smoke, you name it.

M261 Hydra 70 launch pod with two different munition payloads.

M261 Hydra 70 launch pod with two different munition payloads.

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Real World Lasers are getting Smaller, and MEANER

Ever since Jules Verne and H.G. Wells enticed citizens and warmongers alike with talk of energy-based beam weapons, mankind has been struggling to catch up to its own imagination. And naturally, BattleTech is chock full of it – mainly in the form of lasers, and mainly seen from the view of a 1980s-era war game designer as a futuristic weapon.

Which it is… considering that compared to projectile, missile, and even flame weapons, lasers (especially weaponized ones) are to quote Val Kilmer in Real Genius “a young science.”

If only Jordan Weisman and team FASA could have seen the advance of real laser weapons in the past ten years from the ’80s. Israel is probably the most advanced so far, with several types in operation, mainly for air defense. Didn’t think the laser AMS got its start in the 21st century did you? The Iron Beam, as it’s called, is the close-in part of a multi-tiered air defense system called the Iron Dome. Iron Beam is reported to have an 80-90% success rate, and can engage even artillery and mortar shells in mid-flight with “into the hundreds” of kilowatts of energy. It’s essentially a land based version of a laser/projectile defense system like those used on the USS Ponce – which can also engage surface targets. But these are massive units the size of inter-modal shipping trailers. Next up, laser weapons that can be mounted on a light vehicle.

ATHENA: Looks like something you'd fight in MechWarrior IV.

ATHENA: Looks like something you’d fight in MechWarrior IV.

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Russia’s Inferno LRM Carrier

I follow world geopolitics pretty intensely. I credit epic, political space opera settings like Dune and, of course, BattleTech for my many years of interest. I was browsing some of the latest Russian shenanigans in Ukraine and Syria when I saw a Russian armored vehicle that made me wonder if they’ve been buying from Quickscell.

The TOS-1 Buratino really is a mobile warcrime waiting to happen, as it uses only incendiary and thermobaric 220mm munitions in the 30-tube launch system. The rockets have a minimum range of 400 meters and a maximum effective range of 3.5km. Short enough of a range that the system and crew are quite protected by the armored chassis of a T-72 MBT. Well armored by artillery standards anyway. This video shows that they can expend their loadout very quickly:

Be afraid, mechwarrior. Be VERY afraid.

Be afraid, mechwarrior. Be VERY afraid.

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Man Fitted with Cybernetic Hand Wired Directly into his Brain can ‘Feel’ Again

BattleTech has a lot of amputee characters. Morgan Kell, Justin Allard, Kael Pershaw, Anastasius Focht/ Frederick Steiner, and Grayson Carlyle for instance; driving ‘Mechs is a dangerous business. But in the novels, most of the prosthetics were fairly advanced from a modern viewpoint. The characters could typically receive biofeedback and simulated nerve induction similar to the original limb. Some even had weapons built into them in a manner similar to cyberpunk settings like Neuromancer or Shadowrun.

By contrast, in real life, most prosthetic limbs seem more ornamental than functional. The can be cheaper and useful in the age of 3D printing, but they are still mainly wire and pulley affairs. The few electronic prosthetic limbs out there are usually specially-made affairs so expensive only the super-rich could afford — and are still clumsy and slow.

Hands are more than simple bone and meat clamps to hold things with. The motor cortex of the brain dedicates a full quarter of itself just to hand control- most of which is for fine motor control. The skin of the hands; particularly the fingertips and palms have some of the highest concentrations of nerve endings in the body. Simulating that in a prosthesis has been pretty much impossible. Until now.

Perhaps more refreshing than the water is the sense of accomplishment.

Perhaps more refreshing than the water is the sense of accomplishment in regaining control and a sense of touch.

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Chameleon LPS for Modern Combat Vehicles?

Did you know that powered active camouflage has been around since World War 2? Perhaps inspiring such things as the Star trek cloaking device, shift suit from Predator, and of course the Chameleon Light Polarization field from BattleTech, clever military planners used what was later called Diffused Lighting Camouflage to reduce the visual signature of naval vessels and aircraft at range.

The system consisted of a series of installed light fixtures with carefully calibrated light bulbs that mimicked the ambient brightness of a sunlit sky. The ship or aircraft didn’t need to be completely covered. In the case of the Yehudi lighting used in U boat hunting aircraft, just the leading edges of the aircraft were rigged, to make it less likely to be spotted by German crewmen during an attack run.

PL-01, Poland's new mini stealth tank looks the part of a science fiction battlefield.

PL-01, Poland’s new mini stealth tank looks the part of a science fiction battlefield.

 

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MAXFAS Exoskeleton: Human Fire Control Supports against Fatigue

Remember Drake and Vasquez’ smart guns from Aliens, or the surgically invasive exoskeletal hardware from Elysium? As opposed to ghost ringsreflex sights or lasers, they provided a passive targeting system to increase the accuracy of their operators, and decreased their battle weariness. In case of the Smart Gun, the fluff said that it had a guided mode – making it an ambulatory equivalent to the Remote Sentries from the Special Edition that were completely unmanned. And the harness and gyro-stabilized mount for the gun (and the camera it was designed for) made for a stable firing platform.

Seems we’re ‘aiming’ at active auto targeting for the warfighters of the future. Based on the same type of strap-on physical therapy devices used to treat stroke victims and sufferers of Traumatic brain Injury, the MAXFAS is less exoskeletal suit and more of an automatic traction system that stabilizes and prevents the muscular tremors in tired hands and arms from throwing off the operator’s aim.

MAXFAS exoskeleton: making Duck Hunt way too easy a game.

MAXFAS exoskeleton: making Duck Hunt way too easy a game.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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MegaBots vs. Kuratas Fight Kickstarter

MetaBotsWith both the challenge and acceptance videos from the MegaBots crew and team Suidobashi numbering nearly ten million views in little more than a month, it looks like this good-natured rivalry is turning more heads than just those belonging to us big stompy bot fans. Especially with BattleBots back on the air… which, of course, brings me to some of the heavy-hitters getting involved. It’s no longer just a team of spirited ‘mecha-nauts’ anymore.

I mentioned in my first article about the challenge that the co-founders of MegaBots were no strangers to the media. But the crew they’ve managed to put together for this undertaking honestly reminds me of a 21st century Team Bonzai. And going by the new concept artwork for the redesign, the new Mk.II looks like a mashup between Robot Jox and Rocky IV- just dripping with ostentatious patriotism.

All this concept art needs is Captain America's shield and Hasbro would be all over this.

All this concept art needs is Captain America’s shield and Hasbro would be all over this.

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Renowned Scientists Warn Against Killer Robots

“Military Artificial Intelligence Arms Race Could Soon Develop if Preventative Measures are not Taken.”

Many people don’t realize that (as far as we know) the current generation of Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicles (UCAVs) are in fact, flown by rated pilots; only by a (hopefully) secure data link from several hundred miles away. Flesh and blood hands still pickle the bombs and missiles off those drones. Interruption of that data link or some other sort of fault triggers a return to base order; some of the only real automation on the current series of UCAVs.

MQ-9 Reaper armed with AGM-114 Hellfires and Small Diameter Bombs

MQ-9 Reaper armed with AGM-114 Hellfires and Small Diameter Bombs

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MK2 Megabot vs Kuratas in Upcoming Solaris-Style Battle

ONE SHALL STAND, ONE SHALL FALL...

ONE SHALL STAND, ONE SHALL FALL…

After their unsuccessful Kickstarter in October of last year, the Oakland California-based MegaBots Inc. seems to have done the best thing they could do to stay active in the public arena. They picked a fight.

In late June via video, Andrew Stroup and Gui Cavalcanti challenged Suidobiashi Heavy Industries to a duel- A batchall, if you will, to fight against Suidobiashi’s current combat mecha- Kuratas. Neither Stoup nor Cavalcanti are unfamiliar with either engineering competitions nor high media exposure. Both appeared in the 2012 Discovery Channel reality show: The Big Brain Theory: Pure Genius.

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