Star Wars is the biggest movie in America and around the world right now and the movie may well end up becoming the biggest film of all time by box office revenue. One of the things that makes the Star Wars franchise so endearing to so many fans is the vision of a futuristic world that seems real to present day viewers. One trio of characters from the movies (both new and old) that capture the mix of modern and futuristic are the robots (or “droids”) C-3PO, R2-D2, and BB-8. Each of the droids seems almost plausible to viewers because we see robots all around us today that are not that different from the droids, and so the likes of R2-D2 seem like they should be just over the horizon for humanity.
So what are the obstacles for C-3PO and his pals coming to a store near you?
Beyond the obvious issues of artificial intelligence for all three which is not where we need it to be yet, there is also the issue of power consumption. BB-8 and company are perhaps most analogous in a modern framework to a cross between a Roomba and one of the Kiva robots that Amazon is increasingly using to run around its mammoth warehouses. Both Roombas and Kiva robots run off of a rechargeable battery powered system. In each case the robot sits in a dock and charges its battery then leaves to fulfill its programmed mission before returning to the dock when power starts to run low.
The “mission” for BB-8, R2-D2, and C-3PO are more complex than that of a Roomba of course, but that’s really a matter of software and artificial intelligence rather than power needs. It’s not that big a difference between a housewife saying “Help me Smith Family Roomba, you’re my only hope of clean floors”, and Princess Leia’s famous line from the original movies.
Yet in the movies, we never see any of the droids go to a charging station to recharge their internal batteries. Could it be that the droids run on some sort of internal engine or fuel? Perhaps, but there are two arguments against this – first the kind of movements needed for the droids (like C-3PO’s arm motions) are a little more mechanically efficient to accomplish with motors and servos than with pistons and gears. And second, we never see any signs of the droids using any type of fuel for an engine, nor do we hear an engine running when they are around.
Of course it could be that the droids run on nuclear power or fusion power which would give them an almost limitless source of fuel and avoid the necessity of either recharging or fueling up, but that presents a practical issue. A fuel source that powerful is also highly dangerous simply due to the energy concentration it contains. As a result, if R2-D2 is carrying around a miniature nuclear reactor, and takes a stray laser blast from a Stormtrooper, the movie is over and everyone in the area, hero and villain alike is incinerated. From a practical standpoint then, a portable reactor of almost any sort is probably not the best option.
Battery power looks like the best option for the droids then, but it’s still unclear what they do about recharging. The answer is probably two-fold. First, much more efficient battery technology gives the droids a longer operational life without power charging. Second, wireless power could solve our recharging issues completely. Wireless energy is just starting to be commercially useful today, but over a period of decades or centuries between now and the world of Star Wars, a much more efficient form of wireless energy could be constantly charging the droids anytime they are near any sort of civilization. Star Wars does not delve into the science behind the droids of course, that would likely be a recipe for a true box office bomb, but a combination of battery powered electronics, and wireless charging is the best recipe for a droid to save the day for Luke Skywalker and his friends.
By Michael McDonald of Oilprice.com
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