The Concept Underpinning The Invisible Car Is Closer To Reality. British Physicist John Pendry Is A Pioneer In The Field Of Meta-Materials
“The ultimate in British engineering,” Q boasts. “You must be joking,” Bond replies. “As I learned from my predecessor, Bond, I never joke about my work,” Q snaps back. “Aston Martin call it the Vanquish, we call it the Vanish. Tiny cameras on all sides project the image they see onto a light-emitting polymer skin on the opposite side.”
As Daniel Craig’s incarnation of 007 takes his final bow in No Time To Die, fans of the franchise will invariably take stock and remember his era as grittier and more realistic. These qualities are much prized because his predecessor’s swan song, 2002’s Die Another Day, was derailed by inept CGI and a gadget that many deemed to be the most ridiculous in the entire series: the infamous invisible car Chris Corbould, the long-running special effects supervisor on Bond and veteran of fifteen 007 movies, has seen it all – his first film was 1977’s The Spy Who Loved Me, with its submersible Lotus – but even he reckons the Aston Martin Vanish tested the audience’s credulity to breaking point. “Where we stretched it too far was on Die Another Day and the invisible car I wasn’t keen on that from day one. We went too far,” he later admitted.
It’s a moot point, given some of the ridiculous stuff Bond has got up to over the years. Corbould, though, is a keen adherent of practical effects, and believes that however crazy things might appear, the gadgets should have a fundamental credibility. But here’s the irony: the invisibility technology was firmly rooted in reality, and inspired by work being done by (the now defunct) Defence Evaluation and Research Agency. Script co-writers Robert Wade and Neil Purvis had read about it while researching for the film and defended its inclusion. “When we suggested it originally we weren’t sure anyone would go for it,” Wade once told me. “The idea is that in Iceland or in the desert, when there’s not much contrast in the background, it’s invisible, but in an urban environment you’d be able to see it.” Or, as Q puts it, it’s a camouflage, not a cloaking device.
Corbould is always amused when reality catches up with Bond’s gadgety flights of fancy. And it’s already happening with the invisibility technology. BAE Systems, one of the world’s largest aerospace and defence contractors, worked with the Swedish Defence Materiel Administration to develop a system called Adaptiv for use on its tank fleet. The vehicle was covered in hexagonal pixels; thermal cameras scanned the background against which the tank was seen from every angle then adjusted the pixels to match. Sound familiar? “Earlier attempts at similar cloaking devices have hit problems because of cost, excessive power requirements, or because they were insufficiently robust,” says Peder Sjölund, the project leader. “Our panels can be made so strong that they provide useful armour protection and consume relatively low levels of electricity, especially when the vehicle is at rest in stealth recce mode.”
There were challenges. You can cloak the tank but hiding heat traces from the exhaust is difficult. Then there’s the small matter of noise, an issue shared with Bond’s Vanquish. It was powered by a 5.9-litre V12 whose sonic signature was one of the best things about it but hardly helps if you’re trying to be stealthy. Back in 2012, Mercedes created a fuel cell vehicle based on its B-Class family hatchback that was covered with a $263,000 mat of LEDs and a digital SLR camera on the opposite side of the car. Footage captured on the passenger side was then displayed in real time on the driver’s side. This optical camouflage technology was pioneered by scientists at the University of Tokyo. The hardware needed to make it work weighed 499kg, highlighting the problematic dependence on cameras and projectors.
Almost a decade on, however, the concept underpinning the invisible car is closer to reality. British physicist John Pendry is a pioneer in the field of metamaterials. These consist of a group of nano-engineered microscopic structures that can deflect electromagnetic waves, bending light around an object and therefore rendering it invisible. He and his team at Imperial College London are also busy investigating the science of plasmonics: the control and manipulation of light down to the nanometre scale.
In parallel, the cost of manufacturing metamaterials is coming down and interesting real world applications are beginning to appear. Canadian company Meta is working with Airbus to develop an optical shielding filter called metaAIR that protects pilots from laser strikes. Hundreds of nano-metre layers in the cockpit glass reflects different light frequencies to block the laser radiation. Meta is also working on a replacement for the transparent metal that coats smartphones, a material whose properties and robustness will hasten the arrival of bendy or foldable devices. Metamaterials can also be used to protect buildings from earthquake damage: used at foundation level they can reflect or absorb seismic waves. All of which would be lost on the man who was drafted in to replace Bond stalwart Desmond Llewelyn as Q, back in 2002. As John Cleese confessed, “I despise technology in all its forms. I can make very few things work. I’ve had trouble with pencils sometimes.”
This news was originally published at Wired