Did Back to the Future Get it Right?

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DID BACK TO THE FUTURE   GET IT RIGHT?
LOCKHEED MARTIN TECHNOLOGISTS' SCORECARD

In Back to the Future: Part II, Marty McFly travels from 1985 to a futuristic 2015, complete with hoverboards, energy created from waste and even flying cars.

Although it may seem like technology didn’t keep pace, you may be surprised to know that many of the movie’s futuristic inventions have real-life parallels today, while others are inching closer to reality.  

So, how did the movie do? Read on below to see how our Lockheed Martin technologists score the movie based on its technology vision for 2015.  


HOVERBOARDS

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Perhaps some of the most highly desired technology coming out of Back to the Future is the modes of transportation. While hoverboards aren’t yet the norm, there are several technologies that could be scaled up in this way. For example, the Air Cushion Landing System (ACLS) used on the hybrid airship is a similar technology that consists of three hoverpads. These hoverpads create a cushion of air that allows the airship to float along the ground nearly friction free. Unlike Marty’s hoverboard, the ACLS gives the airship the power to work on water! Plus it can grip the ground during operations and windy conditions to provide additional stability.

SCORE: B

Despite Lockheed Martin’s hover technology on the hybrid airship’s landing system and commercial attempts at hoverboards similar to Marty’s, the fact remains that people are still some time away from enjoying a hoverboard as a replacement to the traditional skateboard.


WASTE-TO-ENERGY (i.e., MR. FUSION)

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When Doc arrives to take Marty and Jennifer to the year 2015, he powers the DeLorean time machine using ‘Mr. Fusion,’ a convenient appliance that converts garbage to energy using nuclear fusion. Unfortunately for us, it won’t be anytime soon that we can create a safe, personal source for nuclear reactions. However, waste-to-energy systems are an emerging technology that we’re already proving as a reliable and clean source of renewable energy. In fact, we are using advanced gasification waste conversion technology in plants that we are building in New York and Germany that will create enough energy for 5,000 homes and businesses. Soon we will also use the hydrogen in the synthetic gas created at these plants to even fuel a car just like Doc’s!

SCORE: B+

While waste-to-energy technology is becoming a reliable source of energy, it will still take several engineering and design advancements to create a system affordable or compact enough for use in peoples’ homes or cars.


FLYING CARS

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From The Jetsons to Back to the Future, flying cars have long been desired. Though they haven’t actually taken to the skies, the version of this technology depicted in the movie was fairly insightful. In particular, the idea of having devices (other than large wings) to support a car in flight is very similar in function to today’s quad copters, which use four propellers for lift, thrust and control. However, for us to realize a practical flying car, three key technologies need to be matured—compact efficient lift devices that allow for good gas mileage, ‘sense and avoid’ in three-dimensions and ‘fail-safe’ when something goes wrong with the vehicle. Today, we are developing an efficient, ducted-fan unmanned aerial system called ARES that can pick up many things, including your car. It’s also designed to be autonomous with both ‘sense and avoid’ functions and ‘fail-safe’ systems to allow it to land safely in an emergency. With this approach, you can land where you need to go and let the wing fly off by itself to be stored until you need it to pick you up again. 

SCORE: B

The three technologies required for practical flying cars—compact efficient lift devices, ‘sense and avoid’ and ‘fail-safe’—have made tremendous strides since Back to the Future: Part II first hit the screens. When the ARES vehicle flies next year, we could be on our way to a practical ‘flying car’ in no time. Stay tuned!


VIRTUAL REALITY AND HANDS-FREE GAMING

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Marty wears smart glasses to watch TV at the dinner table and answer his phone. And at the arcade, no one uses their hands to play video games. Sound familiar? We’ve come a long way in consumer electronic technology and video gaming. In fact, these technologies have become so advanced that pilots are using them to conduct more than half of their training in a simulator before ever stepping foot inside a cockpit. And, as the ultimate MMO (massively multiplayer online) game, pilots around the world connect into a shared virtual world from simulator cockpits to rehearse missions together.

SCORE: A+

When it comes to digital technology, we have far surpassed Marty’s gadgets. Already, we are using smart devices and applying technologies like sensor fusion and augmented reality in real-world scenarios. Like Marty’s smart glasses, wearable technologies are available now at an increasingly affordable price point.


ROBOTS

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In Marty’s 2015, robots perform all sorts of tasks from pumping your gas to walking your dog. While you won’t see any robotic dog walkers (just yet), there are several examples of car re-fueling and re-charging robots. In general, autonomous or semi-autonomous robots are being widely used across modern society. From probes on Mars to unmanned aerial vehicles, robots are working with people, helping us do tasks that are better suited for machines. 

SCORE: A

Paired with machine-learning capabilities and advances in electronics, today's robots are even more capable than the movie's writers imagined.


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Published October 20, 2015