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The Future of Spying

Spy Technologies

How real-life technologies inspired spy movies. Credit: Thinkstock

How real-life technologies inspired spy movies. Credit: Thinkstock

Warp drives, laser-based space weapons and even Star Trek-style transporters: more than ever, the cutting edge of science seems to be inspired by Hollywood movies. But the flow of ideas occasionally moves in the other direction. Such is the world of spy movies – where, since the 1960s, the real-life technology used in espionage has often found its way onto the silver screen.

THE JET PACK

Ever since its appearance in 1965’s Thunderball, the jet pack – used to propel Bond into the air after he kills Jacques Bouvar – became the envy of children everywhere. They would be disappointed to hear that the real-life original had a flying time of only 20 seconds. The Bell Rocket Belt – also known as the simulated Lunar Flying Vehicle (LFV) – was built by Bell Aerospace for NASA and the US Army in the early 1960s. Costing $380,000 (£232,000) each, it used hydrogen peroxide as fuel, which was mixed with nitrogen and ejected as steam and oxygen via two hand-steered propulsion nozzles. However, due to the steam’s superheated temperature of 74°C, all pilots had to wear insulated clothes. Even then the jet pack could climb no higher than around nine metres, and only reach speeds up to 16km/h. Even worse, additional engineering in the 1990s could only improve the flying time to 30 seconds – paltry by the standards of any child.

ELECTROMAGNETIC GLOVES

For anyone with a pathological dislike of stairs, Tom Cruise had an ingenious solution in 2011’s Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol: as Ethan Hunt, he scaled the Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest skyscraper, using gloves that stuck him electronically to the windows. And yet according to former US Delta Force commander Peter Blaber, magnetic gloves are already a reality in active service. “I don’t know the composition of the Dubai skyscraper,” he told the Washington Post, “but the gloves we use are pretty effective when used on steel buildings, even allowing you to climb upside down.”

But Ethan Hunt was a decade behind the times. Back in 2001, scientists at the UK’s Manchester University developed a super-sticky material mimicking the feet of geckos, allowing objects to hang off walls and ceilings using van der Waals forces – the weak intermolecular forces that draw materials together any time they get close. Since then their “Gecko Tape” has been enhanced with nanoscopic hairs just 0.2 microns thick, dipped into a protein-based adhesive solution inspired by mollusks, enabling it to support the weight of a human. As team leader Andre Geim told New Scientist back in 2003: “Spiderman is science fiction and will remain in comics – but hopefully 'Gecko-man' will become less science fiction and more a reality in the near future.”

THE TRUTH SCANNER

At the start of 2010 spy movie Salt, an explosive revelation from a Russian defector – that Angelina Jolie’s character is an undercover assassin – needs quick confirmation. Conveniently, her CIA office has just the tool: not some old-fashioned lie detector, but the very latest “truth scanner” – a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scanner. In real life, of course, fMRI technology has been around for decades – using powerful magnetic fields to pinpoint, for example, the active regions of a subject’s brain. But since the September 2001 attacks, research by DARPA, the Pentagon's high-tech research arm, has accelerated – and now correlates these readings with our growing understanding of the brain's anatomical functions. The result is a machine that, slowly but surely, is becoming able to read our thoughts. For example: back in 2007, Vanderbilt University neuroscientist Frank Tong told Popular Mechanics magazine that his fMRI system can tell “with 70 to 80 percent accuracy” what object a person is thinking about. And while not yet in operational use by any intelligence agencies, fMRI is nevertheless seen as the future of mind-reading. As Professor Sean Thompson wrote in the Cornell Law Review, “Torture is obsolete, or at least obsolescent. Researchers funded by the Department of Defense have developed technologies that may render the ‘dark art’ of interrogation unnecessary.”

THE RADIO SHOE

Agent 86 in Get Smart – both the 1965 TV series and the 2008 movie remake starring Steve Carell – would use his shoe to contact his base at Control. And yet communicating via footwear wasn’t as comically ludicrous as the show’s creator Mel Brooks might have thought. Up until the late 1950s, the Soviet KGB built shoes with a radio transmitter, microphone and batteries embedded inside the heel. A maid or valet would then swap the target’s own shoe with the radio shoe, then pull out a white pin to activate the device – thus transmitting all audible conversations to a nearby monitoring post.

SMART CONTACT LENSES

The private Heads Up Display (HUD) mounted on his eyeball didn’t help agent Trevor Hanaway much in the 2011 movie Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol; he was killed by a rival agent within the first ten minutes. But the science behind the smart lens is real, and evolving fast. In 2010 a team of US and Finnish bioengineers at the University of Washington in Seattle embedded an antenna, radio receiver, control circuitry and LED into a wearable contact lens. The resolution of the “screen” is so far low: just one blue pixel. It requires a battery pack hooked over your ear. But the lifestyle applications in Google Glass, for example, have shown potential. The development team, led by Babak Parviz, hopes to include wi-fi communication, radio frequency power transmission and solar cells in future developments. Elsewhere, Swiss company Sensimed is already selling a smart contact lens that monitors glaucoma.

THE MATCHBOX CAMERA

The secret camera of Omega Sector agent Harry Tasker in the 1994 film True Lies was a lifesaver: hidden in a box of cigarettes in a public lavatory, it alerted him to imminent assassination by a Palestinian terrorist. But Arnold Schwarzenegger may be disappointed to hear his technology was almost half a century behind the UK’s Secret Intelligence Service. Specifically the SIS’s Directorate of Training and Development[LW1]  – headed by an army quartermaster colonel with the Bond-like designation “Q”. A recently declassified 1947 newsletter, published in the official history of the SIS,revealed the production of a camera hidden in a matchbox for clandestine surveillance operations. Also in development, incidentally, was a pen that fired miniature tear gas pellets at pursuers, an exploding safe, and special cigarettes drugged with cocaine.

THE CATERPILLAR DRIVE

Run silent, run deep, was the maxim of the1990 thriller The Hunt For Red October – as agent Jack Ryan chased, and finally boarded, the titular Russian submarine to help its crew and oddly Scottish-sounding captain defect. Also at stake was the ship’s prototype “Caterpillar Drive” – an engine with no moving parts that allowed the sub to manoeuvre the depths in silence. In real life, author Tom Clancy based the technology around the magnetohydrodynamic drive (MHD), a type of propulsion first built in 1965 at the University of California, Santa Barbara. In principle, the engine would electrify the propellant (gas or water) and then direct it via magnetic fields, pushing the vehicle in the opposite direction. In reality, however, it would be a stealth disaster: not only would the magnetic field be easily detectable, but the electric current would create gases and noise not unlike flatulence – one reason why the MHD remains impractical. Might have made Jack Ryan’s job easier, though.

Paramount Pictures recognise the growing International curiosity in espionage in the modern era and therefore wanted to reach out to audiences with an engaging content series which explored the unique psychology, technology and intrigue within this field. The film launch of JACK RYAN: SHADOW RECRUIT provided the ideal backdrop to start this dialogue. It was also the perfect opportunity to recognise Tom Clancy’s contribution to the genre of espionage, after he first put pen to paper on a character called Jack Ryan.