We live in a world where nearly everyone is familiar with the idea of flying Iron Men and shields made from Vibranium. The amazing technology common in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, stitched into our genre DNA decades before Kevin Feige even hatched the First Phase, is part and parcel of pop parlance.
But just how removed from reality is this hardware, favoured by gods and superheroes, from the world of you and me?
With the ubiquity of drones and even flying battle suits (take a bow Britain’s Richard Browning and his personal jet thrusters), it seems like reality is nipping hard at the heels of fantasy.
To learn if we really might one day take a trip on SHIELD’s helicarrier, bond with an Adamantium skeleton or get a Deathlok body upgrade, we asked scientists, academics and futurologists to reality-check some of the MCU’s most awe-inspiring tech.
Our expert panel includes members of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), which proclaims itself to be ‘the world’s largest professional technical organization dedicated to advancing technology for the benefit of humanity’, so basically real-life Avengers; a research analyst from ABI Research, specialists in transformative technologies; and a spokesman for TechUK, which represents FTSE 100 tech companies and start-ups alike on global stage.
In short, Stark Industries has nothing on these guys.
Nothing says MCU tech more than Tony Stark’s iconic Iron Man armour. The runaway success of Robert Downey Jr’s debut ushered in the Marvel Cinematic Universe as we know it.
Stark has since developed a multitude of metal threads, each more fanciful than the next, to cover almost every occasion, but Stan Lee’s original Iron Man concept is perhaps far nearer reality than some might imagine.
“They don’t fly yet, but we are already seeing the expanded use of exoskeleton suits for medical, industrial work and military uses,” reveals Paul Kostek, systems engineer at Base 2 Solutions and a senior IEEE member.
The key to a recognisable real-life Iron Man hinges on the development of lighter materials, he suggests, which would not only improve performance on the ground, but lead to flight. “Then integration of virtual assistants into the suit will help with tasks and comms…” JARVIS/FRIDAY anyone? More on AI later…
Richard Browning’s ‘Iron Man’ suit, however, already HAS the flying part sorted, says Kostek. “It just needs to increase power to support an integrated exoskeleton. Again, it’s a materials issue, finding the right combination to provide protection and at the same time light enough to seal the suit and allow high altitude operation.”
Clearly spandex and tin foil isn’t going to work. By the time we get to Avengers: Infinity War, the Iron Man suit has, of course, had multiple iterations. Its first appearance in 2008’s Iron Man owed much to the original bulky design, created by Don Heck and Jack Kirby back in 1963. Then it was as much life support as exoskeleton. Iron Man 3 introduced a bunch of suits all at once in the form of remote-controlled versions, including the blue and silver Igor and Shotgun variations, and silver and red Silver Centurion, as well as the gold Midas model, all of which would give way to the red and gold colour scheme more commonly associated with the armoured Avenger. Stark’s current armour is constructed from nanotech but what would we use IRL?
“Possibly composite materials could be used to provide full body coverage,” muses Kostek. “If it’s to be used for military purposes then the material covering would need to be some type of body armour. For any high-level flights, an environmental system will be needed to control both temperature and breathing. To meet these requirements, realistic Iron Man armour will likely resemble, or even be, a space suit.”
That said, it could be some time before our real-life Avenger can unleash anything more destructive than a hard Paddington stare.
“We have a few years to go before Pulse Bolts, laser weapons and Repulsor Rays are available and small enough to fit on a person!” he admits.
So, while we have the basic ingredients for a preliminary suit now, will we see a full Iron Man suit in the future?
“I think this will be achieved via evolutionary rather than revolutionary change,” says Kostek. “The question is: will the suits be purely for military and policing purposes, or will there be a civilian use? Will it even be necessary for the suits to contain a person? Or will the continuing development of robotics eliminate the need for a pilot?”
When it comes to control, smartphones and GPS could provide the answer. “Since drones are controlled using phones, there’s no reason why Iron Man couldn’t be controlled by an app.”
Ironically, just such a revelation provides the climax for Iron Man 2, in which an army of drone Iron Men, actually weaponized versions of Stark’s Mark II armour, take on Shellhead and his buddy, War Machine – controlled by Russian with a grudge, Mickey Rourke’s Ivan Vanko.
The idea of such an army of Iron Men may be closer to reality than many people assume, suggests Kevin Curran, Professor of Cybersecurity at Ulster University and another senior IEEE member.
The idea behind Iron Man drones extends beyond military, says Curran: “They could have roles in health care, nuclear disaster clean-ups, law enforcement, sports, bouncers, pilots, rehabilitation, construction workers, astronauts. They could also be useful fruit pickers.”
Working prototypes of powered exoskeletons include XOS by Sarcos, and the Human Universal Load Carrier (aptly acronymed HULC) by Lockheed Martin, says Curran.
Several companies have also created exosuits for medical work, including the HAL 5 by Cyberdyne Inc. Similarly, Ekso Bionics has intelligently powered exoskeleton bionic devices that can be strapped on as wearable robots to enhance the strength, mobility and endurance of soldiers and paraplegics.
Perhaps the closest we probably have right now is the Tactical Assault Light Operator Suit (TALOS) created by U.S. Special Operations Command, he says.
“TALOS does everything from provide the wearer with night vision and superhuman strength to protecting them from gunfire. It’s a comprehensive family of systems in a combat armour suit – an exoskeleton with innovative armour, displays for power and health monitoring, and integrating weaponry into that. The suit also provides heat, air conditioning and oxygen. If a soldier is wounded, the TALOS would monitor their health and even stop bleeding using a ‘wound stasis’ programme, such as one being developed by DARPA that sprays foam onto open injuries.”
One potentially insurmountable problem, before our real-life Avenger can assemble, though, is power. This, we are to find, becomes a recurring issue for Marvel tech in the real world.
One potentially insurmountable problem, before our real-life Avenger can assemble, though, is power. This, we are to find, becomes a recurring issue for Marvel tech in the real world.
“There are currently few power sources of sufficient energy density to sustain a full-body powered exoskeleton for more than a few hours,” admits Curran. “Non-rechargeable primary cells [batteries] tend to have more energy density and store it longer than rechargeable secondary cells, but then replacement cells must be transported into the field for use when the primary cells are depleted.”
Probably not what you want when squaring off against Thanos, to be honest.
“Rechargeable cells can be reused but may require transporting a charging system into the field, which either must recharge rapidly or be swapped out in the field, to be replaced with cells that have been slowly charging.”
“Iron Man was right to use an Arc Reactor!” concludes the professor. “It’s important to remember that a battery is electrochemical. Basically, it’s a container that is slow to fill up, holds only a finite amount of charge and has a limited lifetime. Advances in battery technology have not made anywhere near the progress of advances in, say, fiber optics or microprocessors, but there has been a steady incremental advance in many aspects of the field of batteries.”
When it comes to everyday gadgets, improvements in battery life are largely down to manufacturers reducing the power consumption of their devices. “Lower power requirements in exoskeletons can help,” suggests Curran. Basically, Iron Man needs to be a lot greener.
When it comes to any real-world Avenging, the Hulkbuster is probably a more realistic proposition, suggests ABI research analyst Rian Whitton: “At least then you’re talking about a larger, more cumbersome suit that can carry all this weight.”
And the robotic appendages of Doctor Octopus are “a bit more realistic” again, he adds. “Supernumerary arms are being tested out in research laboratories, although they are far less impressive than those of Doc Ock. They could more likely function as assistive devices for people with no upper-limb mobility, as opposed to robbing banks.”
Sarcos Robotics has developed a full body exoskeleton that can help the user lift an extra 220lbs, adds Whitton. This has yet to be deployed at scale but would represent the first full body powered exosuits targeted towards the commercial space.
In the Marvel Cinematic Universe, even the most ghastly of wounds can be repaired using a skin regenerator. A quick session in Helen Cho’s Regeneration Cradle can fix some pretty nasty scrapes, courtesy of ‘nano-molecular functionality’. But is such technology bunkum or based on real science?
Just the de-aging stuff they did on me [in Captain Marvel], I’m down with that. Can I have some of that?” — Clark Gregg, who plays Phil Coulson in the MCU, on an aspect of Cho’s healing tech he’d like to see in the real world.
Craig Melson, Programme Manager at TechUK, suggests real-world developments are already heading in Cho’s direction.
“Imperial College and other universities are developing new materials to hasten skin and injury repair,” he told Fandom. “These basically talk better to the human body’s natural repair systems to heal wounds faster. We’re also using 3D printed parts in surgery, for things like hip replacements, while augmented reality is making surgery and diagnostics more efficient.”
SHIELD’s Helicarrier is one of the more spectacular hardware attractions in the MCU. But sadly, our experts all agree that even given the fast developing pace of drone technology, it (literally) wouldn’t fly in the real world.
“If we assume it has four rotors designed to carry the equivalent of a Nimitz-class carrier (100,000 tons), then the only possible (theoretically) currently available energy source would be nuclear fission, or four rockets that somehow have a stable supply of fuel,” says ABI analyst Rian Whitton. “Even then, the water required to run the reactor and the internal infrastructure would force serious design changes. And how fast could the helicarrier go? Presumably it’s going to attract a lot of attention from enemy SAM (Surface-to-Air Missile) systems? Does it have sufficient point defence [in-built protection] or stealth capability to mitigate this threat? You’ll be adding a lot of weaponry to it. And then there are the fighter/bomber/gunship aircraft that have to be housed. That will add a lot of weight — and how will it deal with all these planes landing while in mid-air?”
It’s worth questioning whether such a vehicle is necessary or even makes much strategic sense, concludes Whitton. “The cost of building and running it would be exorbitant. And we haven’t even got to the issue of altitude. How high can a 100,000 ton airship go? It is going to be a challenge to get it above 10,000 feet, which again makes it quite vulnerable.
“Current drones (rotary) run on electric motors, and have poor energy efficiency. The flight time for most DJI drones is between 30-50 minutes. You could use hydro cells to massively extend the time, but that will increase the weight. Current off-the-shelf multirotors tend to reach about 2.5kg, or 6lbs. You are talking about magnifying that design to well over 1,000 tons (at minimum). The largest aircraft in history could have a take-off weight of just less than 700 tons. Without some unforeseen breakthrough in Ark Reactor technology, I count this idea as both unfeasible and strategically flawed. Why not just build 50 aircraft carriers for the same price? Or 1,000 AWACS [Airborne Warning and Control System]?”
That said, the fundamental idea of an airborne command and control aircraft, or mothership, that houses other aircraft or drones is quite real, says Whitton.
“The US air force recently debuted Gremlin drones, which are essentially missile-sized unmanned vehicles that are launched from a C-130 Hercules [plane] and can be returned through a Wayne Enterprises-style sky hook. This will serve as a design evolution for future air warfare. Large unmanned and manned aircraft could house dozens, or potentially hundreds of smaller drones that can be released to protect the larger aircraft, or to strike ground targets. It will be more desirable that these systems are unmanned, you lose less if they get shot down, and you can use more internal space to carry smaller drones.”
Helicarriers are feasible mathematically, but are not possible from an engineering perspective,” agrees TechUK’s Craig Melson. “The necessary rotor speed and fuel required would make a helicarrier too big, slow and heavy to be useful based on today’s tech. DARPA is looking at a smaller version to act as a drone base station, but, in all honesty, the 3,000-piece Lego set will have to do.”
OK, so the helicarrier is a non-starter, but what about a flying car? Lola, Agent Coulson’s Chevrolet Corvette, has made frequent appearances in Agents of SHIELD. Lola doesn’t just soar above the tarmac, it also has an integrated weapons system, all thanks to modifications designed by the original innovator Howard Stark.
You don’t see it as much because it’s a bit ostentatious, but to have a flying Corvette in LA traffic that can fly above and clear the 405 [would be my dream real-world tech].” — Clark Gregg
Of all the technologies in the MCU, Coulson’s car is perhaps the nearest to reality, says IEEE member Paul Kostek. But there’s a caveat… also known as eVTOLs (electric vertical take-off and landing), the flying car of tomorrow is less likely to fight Hydra, and more likely to take you shopping.
Google’s Larry Page has invested in two eVTOL start-ups, Kitty Hawk and Opener. Toyota has a flying prototype called Sky Drive, which it’s hoping to show off at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Daimler Benz has invested in flying taxi outfit Volocopter, and Audi and Airbus have partnered on the modular drone taxi Pop-up.
Not to be left behind, Uber is working on UberAIR, and has partnered with NASA to develop urban air mobility devices.
If real-world development continues at its current pace, we’ll all soon be riding our own Fantasticars. In fact, regulatory hurdles may prove more daunting to overcome than technology ones. Whether you’ll actually need to learn to fly one yourself is debatable.
“The challenge facing the introduction of flying cars isn’t technical,“ says Kostek. There are bigger challenges. “How will these vehicles be integrated in the airspace around cities? Will the flight portion be autonomous or will a pilot’s license be required to operate one? How are we going to ensure the safety of the passengers and people on the ground? Already, discussions are taking place about the safety of heavy drones (those in excess of 18kg) to deliver packages. This will be a technology that evolves faster than the rules.”
Seems like there’s gonna be a lot of paperwork facing Agent Coulson wannabes…
The X-Men may not officially be part of the MCU, but we’ll take a little licence here, not least because it’s only a matter of time before they are. And besides, Wolverine is just too exciting a prospect to ignore.
Logan famously (and painfully) had his skeleton bonded with Adamantium, the strongest metal in the Marvel universe. A bit like a hip replacement with a bad attitude, he can snikt!-out claws when he needs to kick ass or open a can of tuna. But just how far can we really go with this kind of surgery? When does bone replacement or augmentation become a superhero upgrade?
“I’m not sure we’ll see pop-out claws anytime soon,” admits Kostek, “but do expect to see continued improvements to transplants to replace damaged body parts. Today, we can replace knees, shoulders and hips, and use donated organs including corneas and hearts to improve and extend lives. Moreover, artificial legs, arms and hands have evolved from simple mechanical replacements to incorporating computer controls, even integration into a person’s nervous system.”
So does this mean we can look forward to exoskeletons being surgically implanted in a body?
“While I can’t say ‘no, it won’t happen’, the question is under what situation this would occur – military, first responders, workers in industrial, construction or mining?” ponders Kostek. “There is plenty of work being done to help patients overcome paralysis with an exoskeleton. Would this be done on a healthy person to enhance their performance? Why do this when they could be replaced by a robot?”
TechUK member Tesla Suit just won an award for the world’s first fully integrated smart clothing with haptic feedback, motion capture, climate control and biometric feedback systems, says Craig Melson.
“In Sweden people are having microchips implanted as a form of digital identity and payment, there are also exoskeletons to help injured or disabled people improve their mobility and in Japan, Panasonic and Mitsui have been working to make powered exoskeletons (think of the PowerLoad from Aliens) help warehouse workers cope with heavy loads.” — Craig Melson, Programme Manager at TechUK
A version of Deathlok the Demolisher, created by Rich Buckler and Klaus Janson back in 1974 (Astonishing Tales #25), has been lending a cyborg hand from time to time on Agents of SHIELD. He’s Marvel’s poster boy for prosthetics. So how far away is Deathlok for real?
The wearables market points to some of the possibilities where smart electro-mechanical components could replace existing organs, suggest Kostek. Bionic eyes are being developed to help individuals with limited, or even no sight, see again. The potential for such tech is enormous.
“Insulin pumps provide a constant monitoring for diabetes patients; could these be permanently installed in a person? The advent of 3D printers is allowing for the creation of human body parts. Brain implants are being developed to treat people with diseases like Parkinson’s. Additionally, we’ll continue to see advancements allowing handicapped or injured individuals to replace limbs, eyes, improve or restore hearing.”
But would any doctor perform these types of procedures on a healthy person?
“There will be plenty of ethical questions to be addressed,” suggests Kostek. “But we are already looking at a future where the ability of a person to recover from a severe accident and disease will be at a level once only dreamed of or considered science fiction.”
Of all the technology in the Marvel Universe, Artificial Intelligence is the only already in everyday use.
It’s perhaps only fitting that Tony Stark has the ultimate smart home, powered by an AI called JARVIS. When JARVIS is destroyed, he restores an older AI, called FRIDAY, who adopts a very different personality.
Of all the technology in the Marvel Universe, Artificial Intelligence is the only already in everyday use. We’re increasingly using AI assistants, like Alexa and Siri. But rather than thwart Ultron, they mainly play music, time eggs and give weather reports.
“1.8 billion people are expected to be using smart assistants by 2021 and the consumer use cases are pretty clear, with lots of competing platforms and devices coming with AI assistants built in,” says Melson. “JARVIS is actually more of an enterprise level AI tool, and we haven’t seen smart assistants really take off in factories and offices (yet!). Plenty of AI software exists to help businesses become more efficient, but I suspect it’ll be a while until we get smart assistants in our places of work, though I would love my current smart speaker to respond to JARVIS.”