From Science Fiction to Reality: U.S. Navy Technology and Innovation

Happy Science Fiction Day!

The unofficial “holiday” coincides with the 1920 birth of sci-fi writer Isaac Asimov. Almost 100 years later, what was once only fiction is now either reality or under development, thanks to researchers and innovators like those at the Office of Naval Research .

From investments in the earliest computers to spearheading seminal research in deep sea exploration to cultivating groundbreaking efforts in solid-state electronics and countless other innovations, ONR has been shaping the Navy and Marine Corps — and the world around us — for seven decades and counting.

So, let’s celebrate Science Fiction Day with a look at four science fiction-like technologies that ONR is developing and researching.

By David Smalley
Office of Naval Research Laser Weapons

From the 1930s on, science fiction comics, books and movies had plenty of futuristic portrayals of “ray guns” shooting some kind of mysterious energy.

Decades later, Star Wars and Star Trek helped captivate millions more with the idea. But all along, the Office of Naval Research has been steadfastly developing the real thing. Starting in the 1950s, ONR sponsored research that ultimately led to the first “lasers” (light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation). Today, ONR is working on high-energy, solid-state laser weapons. The Laser Weapons System (LaWS), a prototype, was fitted on a ship in the Arabian Gulf in 2014 and proved the ability of this test platform to shoot down UAVs in the air, and surface targets on the waves. Laser capabilities and power are growing every year. Coming soon to a theater (of operations) near you! Robotics

MOBILE, Ala. (Nov. 6, 2014) The Office of Naval Research-sponsored Shipboard Autonomous Firefighting Robot (SAFFiR) undergoes testing aboard the Naval Research Laboratory’s ex-USS Shadwell in Mobile, Ala. SAFFiR is a bipedal humanoid robot being developed to assist Sailors with damage control and inspection operations aboard naval vessels. (U.S. Navy photo by John F. Williams/Released) Like ray guns, robots have dominated popular imagination for decades.

And as with the development of lasers, yesterday’s science fiction has really become today’s science fact. Today robots perform complex duties on factory floors, clean floors in our houses and even deliver meals to your hotel room. But robots can also save lives. Think shipboard fires. Take lots of Sailors or Marines, add gunpowder and tight quarters where maneuverability is limited, and shipboard fires are a deadly threat – and extraordinarily dangerous to combat. As Sailors learn in firefighting training: In a fire at sea, there is no place to run. What if, ONR scientists thought, we could lessen the dangers of firefighting aboard ships? Using decades of investment into robotics (in 1963, ONR sponsored Shakey the robot, the first to reason through what actions it should take to fulfill a command), ONR researchers are developing SAFFiR – the Shipboard Autonomous Firefighting Robot. This human-sized robot can find and suppress even extreme shipboard fires, keeping Sailors out of harm’s way. Here’s hoping SAFFiR never has to do his (its?) job – but it’s nice to […]