Super-villain Darth Vader famously severed Luke Skywalker’s hand in a lightsaber battle, moments before revealing to Skywalker that he was actually his father (cue heavy mask breathing). The Jedi pupil’s injuries prompted a nickname for a robotic arm that was approved by the federal Food and Drug Administration for use by amputees this year. The DEKA Arm System was developed in part with funding from the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, with wounded veterans in mind.
The system is “affectionately dubbed Luke,” its maker, DEKA Research and Development Corp., of Manchester, N.H., says on its Web site. Here’s a video of it in action:
Acquisition lessons from the ‘Dark Side’
Air Force Lt. Col. Dan Ward wrote an article in the Defense Department’s acquisition journal in 2011 that created a fair amount of buzz by saying the military should take lessons that Darth Vader missed in his own galaxy and apply them at home. His basic point: In building enormously complex weapons like the Death Star, the Galactic Empire left itself vulnerable.
“From a design perspective, a system as enormously complex as a Death Star is more than any program manager or senior architect can handle, no matter how high their midi-chlorian count is,” Ward wrote. “There is bound to be an overlooked exhaust vent or two that leads directly to the reactor core. That is just the sort of vulnerability an asymmetric opponent can exploit. In my professional engineering judgment, a flaw of this type was inevitable.”
By contrast, Ward notes, vacuum-cleaner lookalike droid R2-D2 makes numerous vital contributions, and cost a small fraction of what the Death Star did.
“Whether it’s repairing the Millennium Falcon’s hyperdrive, destroying a pair of Super Battle Droids, conveying a secret message to old Ben Kenobi or delivering Luke’s light saber at the critical moment on Jabba’s Sail Barge, he’s always got a trick up his proverbial sleeve,” Ward wrote.
Laser cannons for military craft
The Aero-adaptive Aero-optic Beam Control turret that Lockheed Martin is developing for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and the Air Force Research Laboratory has completed initial flight testing. The prototype turret was tested on the University of Notre Dame’s Airborne Aero Optical Laboratory Transonic Aircraft in Michigan. (Photo courtesy the Air Force Research Laboratory)
Lockheed Martin and DARPA turned heads in September by announcing progress on a gun turret for airplanes that would fire laser beams at enemy targets. Flight tests over the next year will test the weapon in increasingly complicated operations, Lockheed officials said.
The news sparked a flurry of Star Wars-themed headlines. “DARPA testing planes with a ‘Star Wars’-style laser cannon,” reported the tech Web site CNET. “DARPA Tests Out Planes Mounted With Laser Turret,” said Ubergizmo, wondering if “we could be looking at some sort of Star Wars future?”
Similarly, the Navy recently deployed a laser gun on the USS Ponce in the Persian Gulf, giving the service the ability to take out drone boats or aircraft and other small targets.
“Some of the Navy’s futuristic weapons sound like something out of ‘Star Wars,’ with lasers designed to shoot down aerial drones and electric guns that fire projectiles at hypersonic speeds,” The Associated Press reported in February, noting the project’s development.
Jedis and stormtroopers on U.S. bases
Look no further than the photographs the U.S. military releases to see the affinity for “Star Wars” in the active ranks. For example, here is a photo taken last year at a Star Wars Day at Camp Lejeune, N.C.:
That is clearly a Jedi in training.
In another example this year, the New York Air National Guard released a feature story about an airman who was involved in the 501st Legion, a Star Wars re-enactors group. Staff Sgt. James Bavaro got the urge to wear an Imperial Clone Trooper outfit just before deploying to Afghanistan for the first time, he said.
“My roommate threw me a going away party before I deployed,” Bavaro said. “A couple of guys from the 501st showed up in costume. After that, I knew I wanted to be a member. So my buddy Eric gave me a suit so I could get in.”
The Pentagon has its own Yoda
For at least a few more weeks, the Pentagon’s own Yoda is serving.
The future of the think tank was considered in question last year, as defense officials assessed how to cut the Defense Department budget. It survived, but Marshall has still decided it is time to step down, Defense News reported.
The original Star Wars program
Of course, there is also the Defense Department’s “Star Wars” program, which President Reagan proposed in a speech on March 23, 1983, to counter growing Soviet military power.
The Strategic Defense Initiative was designed to intercept enemy nuclear missiles, rather than having the United States rely solely on the threat of massive retaliation to deter a nuclear attack. Funding for it was reduced at the end of the Cold War, and it was eventually reorganized to focus on ballistic missile defense.
The Star Wars nickname for Reagan’s plan was not all positive. Critics — including some in the Pentagon — called it that to make it clear they thought his vision was unaffordable and too futuristic to ever work.