Science Fiction Problems: Drone Ideas

Hello everyone! Last week I talked about thinks you need to consider when adding significant drone warfare to your science fiction story, and this week I’ve got a bunch of different articles and videos that can give you some ideas for different kinds of drones you might want to use. These fall roughly into three categories (Air, Land, and Sea) and represent both combat drones and drones that could be used in war situations.

Air (Not Just Unmanned Planes)

This is a form factor we’re all familiar because it’s the one currently being put to effective use. The other form factors are struggling to find a place in modern warfare, but unmanned air vehicles have already proven useful in a support role to existing human forces. First, let’s cover the basics.

US military drone types CBO Publication 4083

These are the basic types of US military drones, drawn to scale, courtesy of the Congressional Budget Office. Not shown is the Navy’s new stealth fighter drone, the X-47B, which is still in testing. This diagram gives you a sense of scale, where the biggest drones are almost as big as their manned counterparts, and the smallest are man-launched hobby-plane sized.

Here are some non-traditional form factors for your consideration:


I cannot imagine a more terrifying sound for a drone, can you? I think this is an incredibly creative design taking an obvious hint from nature. The “boomarang launch” shown in the video makes me think this could be a really easily man-launched vehicle, and if someone decided to take the project’s acronym literally (ignoring the Geneva Convention), you could have a particularly deadly anti-personnel weapon on your hands.

I know I’m putting a lot of videos in this post, but with some of these, you really have to see it to be able to understand what makes these drones unique. In this case, the concept is rather simple: it’s basically a prop plane that flies propeller-side up. But look at the way it moves! It can drift and loft like a helicopter and then tip and zip away, using its fins as wings to generate lift. As a scout drone, this is an ingenious design for urban settings.

Land (Over Hill, Over Dell, Etc.)

Land-based drones have not been typical in modern drone warfare simply because it’s hard to come up with something better than foot soldiers and normal ground vehicles. Instead, the US military has relied on aerial drones in a support role to ground forces, coordinating airstrikes, gaining perspective on the battlefield, and generally making soldier’s jobs easier and less dangerous. There are, however, several ground-based drones in the works (and in some cases already on the field) that are intended to operate in combat situations. Here are some examples to get your creative juices flowing.

This is the APD (Autonomous Platform Demostrator), a remote weapons platform being developed by TARDEC, a firm of the US Army (similar to DARPA). As you can see from the video, it’s pretty quick could act in many support roles on the battlefield (just stick a gun on it first). Vehicles like these are fairly basic ideas (it’s pretty much just a giant remote-controlled tank), but remember that with these, you don’t have to make room for passengers and pilots, and you can drive it into battle without the risk of human lives.

Here are some other less typical form factors:


I’ve featured BIGDOG in other posts and should point out that it is technically a robot, however, I think it’s a perfect example of muli-legged drone from factors. The extra legs give it added stability and carrying capacity, as the purpose of the ‘bot is basically just to haul 400 pounds of baggage across rough terrain. Legs, as opposed to tracks or wheels, can handle terrain types that would otherwise be unmanageable, and can self-right and self-balance if they fall. Before adding legged drones to your story, however, think hard about whether or not wheeled or tracked drones wouldn’t be more practical. Star Wars-esque walkers just for the sake of having walkers is pretty cliche.

DARPA Petman posing
The non-skull-crushing version of the pose pic, obviously photoshopped to make us squishy humans more comfortable.

I couldn’t talk about land-based drones without talking about DARPA’s latest Terminator-prototype! Again, I’ve featured PETMAN before, but this is the best example of intentionally combat-oriented bipedal ‘bot I could find as an example. Granted DARPA claims it’s just supposed to used for testing chemical suits (a claim somewhat undermined by the announcement of their new bipedal robot competition), but there’s no doubt that having something like PETMAN to breach the door of a terrorist den or pop its non-brain-filled camera head up to check for snipers would be a great boon for any soldier.

Sea (Because Sailors Need Robots Too)

To cover my bases, I went and looked up as much as I could on water-based drones used for combat, and while I turned up loads of evidence that they are even now being widely used, there don’t seem to be that many articles detailing them. However, I did manage to find this pretty goofy (but apparently real) promotional video for RAFAEL’s Protector USV (Unmanned Surface Vehicle).

So basically, a remote-controlled boat with a gun on it. Eh, works for me. They’re actually very tactically useful (especially against an invading squadron of bull sharks, apparently). When the coast guard confronts pirates and smugglers, sending USV’s like this in first shows that they mean business. The intimidation factor of not actually having soft targets to fire guns at makes it hard for any criminal to hold out for long.

However, there are several other non-standard form factors to think about:

Ok, they don’t blow up or anything, but they look pretty much exactly like torpedoes. The Seaglider, designed by iRobot (the same makers of Roomba and several safety/disposal drones), is capable of 10 month long data-gathering missions up to a 3300 foot depth, tracking temperature, chemical traces, and other information. They’re currently being used to monitor the Gulf of Mexico after the Horizon oil spill a while back. As far as combat usefulness, having a bunch of these swimming around patrolling the ocean would make it almost impossible to sneak into a country’s borders unnoticed, and hey, you could make them blow up like real torpedoes too, if you want (why wouldn’t you?).

Looking more like an invasion of tiny alien death pods, these little sensor drones were invented by Jules Jaffe at the Scripps Institute to be scattered over areas of interest in order to track anything from aquatic life to  chemical pollution. They are designed to work in vast networks with larger, soccer ball-sized units out in the open sea. They might look like bouys, but they have a special balast system that lets them rise and sink as needed. An alternative to the moving torpedo-type drone, smaller, networked drones have the benefit that if one of the smaller parts is damaged or destroyed, the overall effectiveness does not suffer, as the network rebuilds itself dynamically.

Well that was a lot of information! I hope you will find this useful  as a reference (or at least an interesting distraction). There’s a lot I didn’t cover, but I think this is a good mix of standard and unusual  types of drones to get your ideas flowing. I’m not on the roster for next month, but I’ll pop in every now and then for updates!

Until then, what do you all think? What are your favorites, or which ones do you think are the most practical? Do you think that legged drones will ever come into widespread use? Let me know in the comments below!

Science Fiction Problems: The Pros and Cons of Drone Warfare

Hello everyone! I’m finally back with another Science Fiction Problems, where I take an issue that writers of sci-fi tend to struggle with (or with which I myself struggle) and offer handy advice for tackling the issue. This often comes in the form of debunking myths (like “space is cold!”) and attacking cliches that appear in books, movies, and video games that many writers take for granted.

gray eagle drone air force unmanned plane
I've actually always thought these looked kind of creepy

This time around, I’ll be addressing an issue that I haven’t actually read or seen much of in sci-fi recently: drone and robotic warfare. Even if you’re not from the States, I’m sure you are well aware that the American military makes very effective use of remote-operated bombers in the middle east. This is the most well-known form of drone warfare, and has been the center of a lot of contraversy as people consider whether or not such a method is ethical.

Specifically, I Don’t Mean The Terminator

I find this as ironic as I find it disturbing

Now, there have been movies and books about robot soldiers and planes (like that horrible Stealth movie), but there’s an important difference there: drone warfare specifically involves a human controller, not artificial intelligence (that almost always becomes self-aware and goes on rampage). This creates a real ethical problem, because the cold calculation of war is not left up to a computer, but still very much in humanity’s hands. Does this dehumanize the controller? Does it create an ilusion of separation between the decision and the operator that makes it more like a video game than real war? These are some of the many questions that are asked about real life drones.

If you plan on using drones in your sci-fi, even in a limited sense, there are many points to consider. While I’m labeling them Pros and Cons, this more reflects the real-world perspective. Any one of these points could be a “good” point to leverage in an interesting way in your story.


  • Reduced Casualties: proponents of drone warfare be quick to point out an obvious benefit, which is that many (friendly) lives are saved. This is a boon no matter who is using them, whether the military using them cares more about public relations image or the lives of the soldiers themselves.
  • Tactical Superiority: American bomber drones are so effective because they can pop in and out of warzones, do some quick reconnaisance, and perform precision sneak attacks. And that’s just the bomber drones! In Sci-fi, we can have anything from tank drones to submarine drones, and any size or shape that is needed for a job.
  • Retaining Skilled Pilots: in times of war, highly trained personnell are essential. Often, skileld pilots in the field will be killed or captured if their vehicle is destroyed. Not so with drones! If a drone is destroyed, the pilot is fine, and could be piloting another one immediately.


  • Potential Costs: War is always expensive, but the more sophisticate your approach, the more costly is can be. Often, there is a tradeoff between casualties and investment per soldier, but in this case, assuming a large proportion of your fighting force is robotic, then the cost per “soldier” shoots through the roof. If a nation is fielding mostly drone forces, if they start doing badly, the sheer financial burden could accelerate easily out of control (which could turn into a Cold War style ending for a country, if that’s what you’re going for).
  • Dehumanizing Factor: This may or may not be true of real-world drone warfare, but in the case of science fiction, there is a real potential for abuse. In a culture already inundate with violent video games and media, it would be easy for a less-than-ethical government to turn particularly good gamers into ruthless drone pilots, making it more about their score than fighting for your country. Orson Scott Card did this in Ender’s Game (I won’t spoil it for you, though! Go find out how!), and offers an example where the players didn’t even know what they were doing was real. This is the extreme logical end of the ethical problem, and could be a great plot point.
  • Diminishing of the Reality of War: It is already difficult today to feel that war is real, but think how hard it would be if no one in your country even really went to war. Especially if the government of a nation was actively concealing the reality of the war from its people, any sense of preparedness and attitude of prudence would be extremely difficult to maintain. Greece-style riots would likely break out at the first pressure of rationing or rising costs, because the populace would have no connection to the hardship’s necessity. This would be a logical consequence of how the nation handles its war, whether it decieves its people or not.

Well there you have it! That’s quite a lot to think about, and next week I’ll get into some ideas for different kinds of drones you might use! Until then, what are some other pros and cons for drone warfare? Is there anything that I overlooked? Has anyone seen any good books or movies that handles this well? Let me know in the comments below!

The Best of Erik Marsh: The Information Dump

Erik is under the weather and at the mercy of multiple assignments.  We hope you enjoy revisiting the article below, hand picked as his favorite.  It was originally published 3-16-2011.

-Lantern Hollow

If you haven’t already, check out Dr. William’s fantastic poetical compendium, Stars Through the Clouds!

In this post:

  • Information Dumping is the bad habit of dropping large amounts of exposition on your reader
  • This is very ineffective writing and can be avoided
  • In some cases, the writer has a character explain plot points at length to other characters who already know about them. This is unrealistic and cliche, and can be avoided by making sure that there are characters present that actually need the explanation, and by making the scene less like a monologue.
  • Another bad habit is the use of extended internal monologues in which a character explains a great deal of plot points to himself. This cuts off the story and confuses the reader, and is usually entirely inappropriate for the character. This can be fixed by integrating the thoughts into action and keeping the exposition at a minimum.
Info Dumptruck information dump stick figure
Drawing courtesy of Melissa Rogers

Hello everyone! This week I’m getting back to my Science Fiction Problems series with a more basic problem that many forms of fiction, and narratives in general, tend to run into. You may not have heard it addressed before, but I’m sure you’re familiar with it: the infamous Information Dump. A prime source of boredom and confusion, this nasty little habit seems to rear its head more readily in the pages of Science Fiction, and so today I will do my best to arm you with the tools you need to defeat it

Information Dumps are common in science fiction usually because, depending on how hard the science is, science fiction tends to need a bit more explanation, especially when it is written for people who are not familiar with the jargan and terms of the discipline involved. Also, the author has usually put a great deal of thought into their story’s technologies, so they’re understandably excited to show off. This innocent intent leads to breaks in the story, overdone exposition, and generally annoyed and/or confused audience. All that said, you can’t just not give the reader that information, or else they won’t understand your intricately crafted futuristic world!

Fear not! Here are a couple of the biggest ways people attempt to handle their information in science fiction, and my tips about how to manage it effectively.

The Impromptu Seminar (a.k.a.: “As you all know…”)

Tsk tsk- this one has to be the worst, and is definitely my biggest pet-peeve. We’ve all seen this technique before, usually at the beginning of a story, but frequently somewhere later after a big realization or event has happened- one character starts talking, making some kind of big presentation to the rest, and spends the next 5 pages explaining the interractions of humankind with the dreaded aliens, how the rapidly-evolving virus will destroy all life in the universe, or various other plot points that everyone in the room already knows about, usually because they were there. Everyone nods and makes glib little comments, accepting the absurdity of the situation and moving on to tackle the problem.

No exposition should ever begin with “As we all know.”  If the characters already know what they are being told, then

info dump information dump cognitive overload humor funny
If you overload your reader, they will become confused, frustrated, and distracted- not good if you want them to keep reading

the presentation is a waste of their time. This method of portraying important information is a rather weak attempt, artificially constructing an unrealistic situation in which the author can shoehorn exposition so that he can get on with the action. It is both cliche and obvious, and while many readers won’t mind overly much, this technique will still generate quite a few groans, and may turn some off to the rest of your story.

Solution: Careful Scene Writing. The goal here is to present all necessary information in the most effective way possible while not halting the story and keeping the reader interested and entertained. The Impromptu Seminar technique scrapes by with the first and may manage with the second, but only if the reader has not seen this done 4000 times before. If you feel that this sort of situation is appropriate and necessary (which does happen), have a character or two there who legitimately need to hear the explanation- don’t invent anyone strictly for that scene alone that won’t be seen ever again, but have someone there to whom this is actually new. If your heroes are about to rescue the king from a fortified lair, it would be reasonable to have some extra troops present for the planning session. Regardless, make sure that this is not a monologue unless it really should be, and have an ample amount of dialog between characters so that it does not feel like a lecture.

Spontaneous Navel-Gazing

The weight of your hero’s burden upon his mind has become too great, and he has finally snapped, becoming prone to extended periods of talking to himself and staring blankly into space. Well, not really- but that’s how it might seem if you try to explain too much through the thoughts of a character. This method is similar to the Impromptu Seminar technique in that the character is explaining information to another character (himself) who already knows it. If you think about it (heh), people don’t generally go into very much detail while thinking about things they already know, usually sticking to new ideas that are related to the problem they’re pondering. So, if you have your character inexplicably running through the entire history of the United Space Confederacy in his head while sorting his laundry, you’re going to make your readers think that either A.) He’s finally lost it or B.) You couldn’t figure out anywhere else to put this information. You will also disorient the reader with long, uninterrupted thoughts such as these, so that by the time the character’s done thinking, everyone’s forgotten what he was doing.

no dumping sign $500 fine
Now there's an idea- extra revenue for the Grammar Police, perhaps?

Solution: Proper Integration. This method only works in short bursts, and even then it’s likely that you could find a better way. However, there are times when a character would certainly be deep in thought about recent events or even contemplating very intricate issues (we all do that sometimes), and it can be done well. The trick is to integrate this process without trapping the reader inside the character’s head (unless that is the desired effect), and allowing the thoughts to mesh with the actions of the scene. Use your better judgement here, and tread carefully. Would Captain Marsus really be thinking so hard about the dreaded Zagriphth Plague and its impact on world politics, all in the midst of a full-scale bar brawl? Maybe he would, but it would certainly have to be consistent with his character, and you’d need to have him landing a few punches and dodging a few bar stools here and there so that it doesn’t seem like he’s mindlessly standing in the middle of the room.

These are only a few of the patterns I’ve seen in science fiction, and next week I’ll cover a few others as well as their antidotes. With a watchful attitude, this menace (like the apostrophe crisis already discussed by Stephanie, among other grammatical issues) will be defeated, and your story will stand above the amateur ramblings of the unenlightened.

So, what are some expositional faux pas you’ve encountered in your science fiction? Leave your comments below!

Science Fiction Problems: Laser-guided Bullets and Other Inconveniently Overpowered Tech

Hello again, everyone! After all that baby name nonsense, I feel the need to get back to talking about manly things like bullets and explosions, so when I saw this article, I got thinking about something that I’ve run into myself when thinking through the tech of my own science fiction worlds.

Tolkien’s Black Arrow

J R R Tolkien The Hobbit Bard Lake-Town Smaug black arrow
The best illustration I could find, by far. From

I’ve talked at length about making sure that your technology feels believable, but sometimes some of the emerging technology of our own day can feel almost like magic. In Tolkien’s The Hobbit, Bard of Laketown has a magical black arrow that wills hit any target he wills it to. I’ve always liked this arrow and how Tolkien presents it in such a mythical way that reminds me of the Norse sagas and Greek myths. What it didn’t strike me as, however, was being too powerful. The arrow has clear pros and cons, and rules that it abides by. Once fired, if not recovered, it can’t be fired again. Bard only has one, after all. This balance is important. Just think if Legolas had a magical quiver full of these black arrows! He could storm the gates of Isengaard practically on his own, or at least make most threats met in the Lord of the Rings trivial.

In science fiction, however, we have a different issue. Technology means power, and while we still have a sense that this power comes from natural forces, depending on the application, that force can become so overwhelming that it creates some pretty embarrassing plot holes.

Magic Bullets and How to Add Them to Your Story

That dart-thing is a specialized laser-guided bullet invented by Sandia Labs. That’s right, this thing actually flies itself at the target, and has accurately struck targets from over a mile away. If you’ve ever seen the movie Shooter or others like it, you might know that that’s almost twice the effective range of most bullets. At that range, factors like the ambient air temperature and even the curvature and spin of the earth can effect the trajectory of a bullet so much that it will miss by as much as 30 feet. If you’re writing a story, and your characters come under sniper fire, you have this sort of factor to fall back on. However, with Sandia Lab’s new bullet, that sniper is basically not going to be able to miss.

You might have seen this article and gotten excited about adding laser-guided bullets to your story, maybe have one of your characters use them with devastating effect in a cool scene with lots of gunplay and explosions- but now you have to answer the nagging question: if your character has these bullets, why don’t his enemies? In fact, why haven’t your characters been shot already? This is unfortunately just the sort of question your readers will ask if you don’t handle this carefully.

This problem applies to any number of technologies, from time machines to energy shields, to the basic, good ‘ol nuclear warhead. In each case, you have to make sure to answer these questions, either directly or through indirect means:

  • How prevalent is this technology? Is it widely obtainable? If so, why don’t more characters use it (including the villain and his minions)?
  • How is it defeated? Unless the technology is intended to be some kind of doomsday device (in which case the first question is probably already answered), you need to come up with reasonable ways characters can defend against it. For laser-guided bullets, for instance, characters might have enough specialized body armor that these bullets aren’t really any more deadly than any others, or maybe they have electronics that can jam the guiding software so that the rounds just veer off and expose the sniper’s location.
  • Does this technology justify itself in my story? Do high-tech bullets distract from the story you want to tell? Does that time machine screw up your carefully-crafted plot? As cool as it might be, you should probably just come up with a reason why this technology isn’t used, or otherwise isn’t in your story. Maybe the bullets just aren’t reliable enough to be effective, or perhaps in your world, time travel is simply impossible. You only have to address these things appropriately to the situation (if time travel never comes up, there’s no need to go out of your way to describe why no one has a time machine).

You can have your magic bullets if your really want them, but just keep in mind these questions so that you don’t accidentally hurt your story’s believeability. If you’re careful and thoughtful, you can add cool stuff like this to your story and add new dimensions and flavors to your world that otherwise wouldn’t be possible.

That’s all for this week (unless someone else gets sick, I guess)! Next week I’ll have another science fiction-related post for your enjoyment. Until then, what are some technologies that you’ve seen in stories or movies that you think broke the plot? Let me know in the comments below!

Science Fiction Problems: Cloaking and Invisibility

Hello all! This week’s a big one on a topic that’s been slowly building in my brain for some time now: cloaking. Whether it’s your run-of-the-mill Klingon Warbird or practically every cyberpunk anime ever created, someone somewhere is going invisible. Is this possible? Is this practical? Does it matter?

Yes. Sometimes. Absolutely! Let me show you how.

Set Ship to “Invisible Mode”

star trek klingon bird of prey
They sure like to get up close an personal, don't they? I suppose invisibility would be useful in that case- as long as no one uses any other methods for tracking ships.

Ok, here’s my first problem: you don’t need to be invisible in space. Chances are, if we ever do get to where we regularly traipse around the galaxy in our very own star cruisers, we won’t be relying on sight to pick out that tiny speck against the black of the infinite vacuum that may or may not be a pirate vessel bent on shivering your timbers and whatnot. It doesn’t matter if the ship’s painted bright neon orange- unless it’s about as big as a small moon, you’re not going to notice it from 1000 miles away in space.

Sure, you could  outfit your ship with hundreds of ultra-powerful telescopic cameras to let your on-board computers pick out suspicious objects in space, but there are other MUCH more effective methods which I’ll likely discuss in a later post. The gist of it is that depending on how space ships move around in your story, they’re going to emit all sorts of waves of radiation, heat, and light that could be used to pinpoint their location, in much the same way we do so with other things in space (planets, stars, asteroids, etc.).

If a ship wanted to be “cloaked”, all it would need to do is contain its heat/radiation/exhaust/whatever so that other ships that rely on detecting those things wouldn’t be able to. If the hidden ship did need to get close, a simple jet-black paint job would get him about as close as he could risk without being detected by other forms of sensors.

Mass Effect Normandy
That long lower section next to the hull is one of the containers that the engines can feed into while in stealth mode.

Some science fiction story worlds have taken this issue into account, one great example of which is seen in the sci-fi RPG video game Mass Effect, by Bioware. The Normandy (seen right), a human vessel designed as an elite stealth frigate, uses such a system to conceal its radiation and heat signature inside its insulated hull, rendering it practically invisible to anyone they might need to sneak up on.

If you really want to, you could come up with some specific instances where your ships would need to be completely invisible, but as you can see, it’s not as generally useful as you might think. Not to say that other things in space wouldn’t find it tactically relevant to make themselves invisible, but it would all have to be in addition to the kind of shielding described above. That way, the rebels can have their ultra-secret home base orbiting a mysterious gas planet- they’re just going to need a little more than a cloaking field.

Where it would in fact be incredibly useful is on the ground- soldiers, elite commandos, buildings, vehicles, you name it! Practically anything not in space would be close enough to its observers to make use of some good ‘ol fashioned invisibility.

It’s Just Magic, OK??

HG wells the invisible man
Wells envisioned it as some sort of chemical treatment rendering a man's molecules inert to light- impossible, but a great story anyway.

If only it was that simple. Sure, fantasy stories have the easy, no-questions-asked solution to the glaring problem of exactly how that particular article of clothing lets it wearer run around unseen, but if a sci-fi author wants anything similar, he has to WORK for it to be believable. Obviously TV and movies again get a bit of a pass here as long as the CGI department does its job, but if you want your invisible soldiers to feel like more than a convenient plot point, you’ll need some kind of tech basis for your cloaking device.

Since sci-fi writers don’t have access to some mystical veil that makes the wearer transparent, we have one of two methods available to us: optical camouflage or metamaterials.

Optical Camouflage

In a certain sense, we already have the technology to render someone invisible. Specially-designed patterns printed on clothing can diffuse the shape of a human into the background, and artificial leaves and other faux foliage woven into a suit can make a man impossible to find. Usually, becoming invisible is only really useful if your opponent is unaware of you- for snipers, it doesn’t make much difference if their gunshot reveals their location if their target is already dead. If you want to move unseen, however, camouflage can only help you so much.

As is the case in many areas of science, however, Nature has already done what we can only dream of. Cephalopods (octopi, cuttlefish, etc.) are capable of what is called Adaptive Camouflage, or camouflage that is able to change based on its background. The octopus is so adept at this that it can almost perfectly replicate the pattern and contrast of his environment:

See what I mean? How does he do it? No one quite knows, but we’ve been trying to do something similar for quite some time. What do we have so far? Well, this:

Kind of embarrassing, isn’t it? The basic means we have at our disposal is by using a camera to take in the image of the environment behind an object, and then projecting that image in front of it by some method. The effect is similar to invisibility, in that the observer can see through to the other side of the object, but of course it’s far from perfect. The folks at the Inami Laboratory break it down into an external projector and a reflective material (which seems like it would be inconvenient), but another way would be to use small screens to display the image being taken in by the camera. By setting up an array of cameras pointing in every direction, each display could then handle every angle, making it so that no matter what perspective an observer has on the user, the effect remains.

One similar idea is being done for BAEs ACTIV technology, but for infrared instead of visible light. Each hexagonal panel can heat or cool itself to match the background and blend in, making the heat signature of the tank indeterminable. If you did the same thing but with individual display screens, you could have something resembling Adaptive Camouflage. While this technology seems pretty basic at the moment, it is rapidly becoming more sophisticated and practical. In either case, there are Pros and Cons to consider:


  • Compatible with armor: screens could be built from nano-scale pixels built into the top layer of armor plating, or placed behind layers of transparent metals, allowing for both protection and camouflage.
  • Light weight and comparatively cheap. While the components of such a system would be tricky to manufacture, they would be comparatively cheaper and less bulky than the Metamaterials described below, and considerably more durable. If the surface was scratched, the image would just have a small blemish instead of just failing completely. What’s more, that small piece could be easily replaced.
  • Not true invisibility: while this method would allow for some pretty convincing camouflage that changes on the fly, it would still be quite possible to detect the user with normal equipment. Microwaves and other detecting light beams would still bounce off of the surfaces of the cloaked object, and with certain conditions (dust, rain, mud, etc.), the user could become easily visible to the naked eye as well.
  • Blur effect: Just as it works better for normal camouflage to be still, so would this optical camouflage work better if the user didn’t move. If he decided he needed to run for it, however, the effect would remain, but there would always be a danger that his movements would be faster than his on-board computer could refresh the screens of the system, creating a flicker or blurring effect. This effect could make it fairly easy to pick out a cloaked figure or vehicle, rendering the device almost useless.
This method for cloaking devices is the easiest for fooling the naked eye, but keep in mind that if you use optical camouflage, you will have to account for the other ways in which the cloak user could be found out. This could be a plot point, but it could also be a big hassle- be careful! There is a big potential for plot holes when you add cloaking devices into the mix.


Since the human eye works by absorbing the light waves bounced off of objects, if you somehow managed to make light bend around something, it would become invisible. An example of this is a mirage- the illusion of pools of shimmering water on the ground at a distance. This occurs when light shining across a surface distant from your vantage point bends over the horizon, obscuring the ground with a reflection of the sky. The ground is essentially being made invisible by the waves of light that are bending around it, so you see the sky where the ground should be.

metamaterials cloaker
The gold-colored metal you see there is etched with over 6000 unique metals and alloys in intricate fractal patterns

Researchers at Duke University managed to replicate this effect using intricately woven structures of exotic metals by generating just the right electromagnetic fields to divert light waves around an object (in this case, a small bump in the surface. The result is that a wide range of light waves (including some not in the visible spectrum) simply move around the bump instead of bouncing off of it, rendering it invisible.

Now that all sounds cool and everything, but the truth is its all on the micro-scale right now. Doing this on a larger, more useful scale is pretty far off at the moment, but they’re working on it, and that’s good enough for us. These devices could potentially be made to work off of one another, passing light waves off to bend around a surface (like a jumpsuit, or the armor of a tank), but it’s all very delicate. Alternately, the device could just be super-sized, but then it would be extremely heavy and not very mobile. There are a number of other Pros and Cons associated with this method:


  • Adaptability: This technology could be used not only to make objects invisible, but to mask them from radio waves, infrared, and any other light waves that could be used to detect it or carry a signal. It could also be used to redirect sound waves, and even seismic waves of energy carried through the ground.
  • This method, if successful, would be an absolute solution. It would not be an illusion, but an actual nullification of light-based senses in any spectrum. On top of that, in contrast to Optical Camouflage, metamaterials could be effective in spite of movement, at any speed slower that the speed of light.
  • Expensive and fragile. The exotic metals and intricate patterns required for this process would require extensive manufacturing with specialized equipment, and once it’s built, you can’t just slap some armor on it. Any sort of plating or traditional armor would disrupt the effect, and the metamaterials are fragile and intricate so that they could not work properly if damaged. You could put armor under the layer of metamaterials, but if the user is exposed because his invisibility field blinked out, that armor probably won’t be enough.
  • Distortion: while this wouldn’t be an issue if your system was just an upsized version of the metamaterials, if its made up of a composite of a bunch of little devices in order for it be mobile, as in the case of a personal suit or small vehicle, there would likely be some distortion as the pieces move and shift. The effect would probably not be a problem unless the wearer is already known and the enemy is actively looking for the tell-tale blur, but it is a consideration (and a potential plot point! Gosh I love those).
Gits katsuragi camouflage
Characters in the anime Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex make constant use of cloaking, which could be explained by either of the two methods described in this post

This method is a bit more like the traditional cloaking that we see everywhere (which kind of makes it even cooler since its a real technology), but it’s also the cleanest. This method is better used in moderation due to the potential plot holes that could arise if this sort of technology is easy to get at, but if you want a way to have invisibility without the problems associated with Optical Camouflage, metamaterials are the way to go.

A Conclusion to Cloaking
As you can see (or not… ha!), there are good and bad ways to handle this, and even if you’re basing your cloaking tech on currently developing technology, you’ll need to be extra careful that it fits with your story and doesn’t break your world. You can keep this in check by determining that this technology, though effective, is exclusive due to prohibitive cost or a shortage of the right materials (especially in the case of exotic Metamaterials) or just the means to make them (both would require complex algorithms and specially designed computer systems). Keep in mind that if the ‘good guys’ are using it, the evil genius shouldn’t bee completely unprepared for such a possibility, etc. Just like with every other aspect to your world building, make sure that the rules for invisibility make sense within the context of the larger world.
I hope this has been as interesting and helpful to you as it has been for me! Next week will be something new, so come back soon. Until then, what would you do if you could be invisible? C’mon, everyone’s daydreamed about that some time, so let’s hear it!