One of my favorite aspects of Battletech and the Mechwarrior games is the built-in connection with real world science and technology. The science of Battletech is much more grounded in reality than many tabletop games, and that is appealing to people like myself who are curious about how things work. It’s been a primary factor in the game staying popular and accessable for nearly three decades. What some people don’t realize is that the technology of the Battletech universe has become a piece of primary source history in the context of technological development of the 1980s and 90s. How they saw the future of warfare very much represents their understanding of the warfare at the time.
I’ve frequently been a witness to and occasionally a participant in discussions about the viability of the game’s technologies with players who use their perspective as someone living in 2013 to judge the game’s creators harshly. Of course, there are plenty of examples of Battletech equipment and design that seem quite silly when looked at from our 21st-century perspective. The very idea of spending years and years training MechWarriors to sit inside these lumbering behemoths seems wasteful, as we’ve seen the rise of unpiloted combat drones in the past ten years. It's much the same way that training the English longbowmen their entire lives became a huge waste of time with the emergence of the arquebus and grenadiers in 15th Century Europe.
That being said, there are some Battletech technologies that continue to tempt us with their possibilities today. Thankfully, there are some that appear to be just over the horizon.
Myomer Cables (Artificial Muscle)
Battletech lore tells us that the first myomer cable, the artificial muscles that are wrapped around a battlemech’s limbs to allow for movement, were first developed in 2350 in a research project titled, “Operation Musclebound.” The lead researcher, Professor Gregory Atlas, was charged with the task of making these “microscopial poly-acetylene tubes filled with an acti-strandular fiber” into a viable technology.
For the Battletech newcomers, myomer cables are strands of wrapped plastic tubes that react by contracting when a strong electrical current is passed through them. Though he wouldn’t appreciate their later military applications, Professor Atlas was successful in making them useful beyond a scientific experiment.
The good news is that it probably will not take 337 years for this technology to become common place, at least in respect to the use of artificial materials to create an analog for muscle tissue. There are a variety of different types of artificial musculature already under development, some of which are very similar to the concept outlined in the Battletech canon. Electroactive polymers (EAPs), for example, are compounds that react to the presence of an electrical field by changing size or shape.
Though the concept of EAPs has been around for more than one hundred years, advancements in nanotechnology and materials to the point where EAPs become economically and practically viable have only occurred in the past few decades. The cost of manufacture has fallen, as well as the size of the required electromagnetic field to obtain the desired effect. EAPs are already being used in robotics as well as in a variety of other technologies, including the screens of phones and tablets. In one practical application, a tablet’s screen - which is imbedded with EAPs - will actually change shape and create a textured surface when the user pulls up the on-screen keyboard.
Over the next decade EAPs will become commonplace in factories as well as in the hands of consumers. The only question now is how long it will take for researchers to build me an Elemental Suit to crush my enemies and hear the lamentations of their pony-kin.
Lasers have been around for a long time, and are a staple of science-fiction going back to the 1950s. Mankind has been fascinated by beam weapons even longer, so it’s no surprise that in the far-flung Battletech future, lasers are still a favorite on the battlefield. With 100 ton death machines wrapped around a fusion reactor, it is expected that some sort of energy weaponry exists to take advantage of the almost limitless possibilities of the energy source. Lasers hit the big time in the First Gulf War, as people around the world watched in awe and sometimes horror as cruise missiles tipped with video cameras showed the power and accuracy of laser navigation.
In 2013, we stand on the cusp of a new and more direct application of lasers in warfare. The U.S. Navy is planning on outfitting the U.S.S. Ponce with a $32 million dollar laser weapons system that can knock munitions and even planes out of the air using only electricity to charge the laser. Instead of using costly missiles or many thousands of rounds of ammunition to bring down a target, a single shot from the Laser Weapon System (Laws) costs roughly one U.S. Dollar. This is especially notable as it will be the culmination of a laser weapons development dream held by the U.S. Military going back generations. Hundreds of millions of dollars have been invested in turning lasers into a viable weapon, and it seems their day has come.