Ah, the summer blockbuster, a time-honored tradition of deafening explosions, eye-popping special effects… and science?
Yes, you read that right; this summer, studio execs have been hedging their bets on action flicks with a healthy dose of sci-fi thrown in. First, we were given War of the Worlds, whose alien invaders were made ultimately susceptible to humble Earth bacteria; then came The Island, a surprisingly thought-provoking look at cloning humans as spare parts. Now, we can add Stealth, the latest from director Rob Cohen (XXX, The Fast and the Furious), to the mix.
The true star of Stealth is not any of its human actors, but rather the futuristic plane its plot centers around. EDI (“Eddie”) is a prototype Uninhabited Combat Aerial Vehicle, or UCAV, being piloted by the US Navy — in other words, he’s to be a replacement for human fighter pilots in particularly risky missions. Although he sounds (both literally and figuratively) eeriely similar to 2001′s HAL, his technical specifications are actually quite grounded in reality.
In fact, the real-life Navy has been looking into the construction and deployment of UAVs for both combat and surveillance since the 1960s. 11 different models have been developed over the course of various programs, and 3 have entered actual production. And in the decade between 1985 and 1994, UAVs logged over 10,000 operational flight hours.
In particular, the Pioneer UAV highlights the effectiveness of such vehicles, with its great contributions to the success of Operation Desert Storm. Six of these planes flew in over 300 combat missions, their AI systems aiding in target selection, detection of enemy gunfire, and damage assessment. There was even one incident where Iraqi soldiers surrendered to a lone UAV; they knew that despite the lack of weaponry on the plane itself, they were surely being targeted by far-off battleships that had just been tipped off to their location.
Currently, you’ll be more likely to see UAVs like the Pioneer silently gathering intelligence instead of kicking ass and taking names like on the silver screen, but a squadron of machines like EDI is not out of the realm of possibility.
EDI’s brain isn’t the only thing of note about him, though. He’s also equipped with a Supersonic Combustion Ramjet, or “scramjet,” that can propel him to speeds up to 15 times that of sound. The basic premise for these propulsion systems is to eliminate the liquid oxygen used in typical rockets, which allows crafts to be either smaller or carry more cargo. Replacing the liquid oxygen is air taken in from the surrounding atmosphere; the air is passed through a constricted tube where it is compressed, used to combust liquid fuel, and vented at a higher speed than it entered at. There are few or no moving parts involved in this process; however, since the scramjet requires supersonic speeds to operate, some other propulsion system is also needed to accelerate to such speeds. Options include a booster rocket or a combination with a traditional jet engine; the SR-71 Blackbird, which incorporates basic ramjet that takes in air at subsonic instead of supersonic speeds, is a prime example of the latter.
The operational requirements limit the scramjet’s use in low-altitude aircraft, so it likely won’t replace our current jumbo jets. However, it remains an extremely viable option for high-altitude travel and space exploration. A scramjet-powered plane, be it for passengers, cargo, or combat, could potentionally traverse the Earth via its upper atmosphere in 90 minutes, once issues such as the safety of high-g loads are addressed. And though much work on it is classifed, we do know that NASA has looking into building practical spacecraft based on this design for the past decade. Incorporating a scramjet stage into launch procedures would decrease fuel requirements and make space travel cheaper; one prototype design, the X-43A, is currently undergoing ground testing.
As a movie, Stealth is is nothing particularly spectacular. It’s a decent two hours worth of summer entertainment, free of gaping plot holes and complete with fetching eye candy and fiery explosions, though not one that the Academy would pay mind to. A few moments are devoted to talk of the implications of a military comprised totally of machines, though not nearly enough to satisfy policy buffs. However, what’s remarkable about this movie is the degree of accuracy in its science fiction; though it’s not perfect, Stealth comes the closest of any movie this season to depicting technology that we may see in the skies both now and in the very near future. Here’s hoping for more stars like EDI in the future.