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Graduate students calculate Batman tech feasibility

Published: Thursday, July 19, 2012

Updated: Wednesday, July 25, 2012 19:07


Without laser vision or the ability to run on water, Batman is left with the resources of his personal fortune to be Gotham’s salvation. But the questionable feasibility of Hollywood technologies found in movies such as the Dark Knight trilogy are a comical fallacy for some student-engineers, however still entertaining as ever.“Batman is known for having all sorts of gadgets and machines, and I think that contextually [Christopher] Nolan will do a decent job of keeping the sci-fi tech believable enough that it’s not too outlandish,” said Mitch Williams, senior aerospace engineering major. “As long as the line isn’t crossed into the absurdly implausible, I’m fine with it.”

Aimed at instilling the same fear he knew since he was a boy, Bruce Wayne characterizes his vigilantism with a bat. Well, what is a bat without its wings? One of the most iconic elements of a superhero is the cape. And Batman, the caped crusader, flies into this category. Or does he fall?

“The bat cape is more like a wing suit [or] a squirrel suit,” said aerospace engineering graduate student Michael Belisle. “It allows a controlled descent, but doesn’t really slow you down by much.”

In “Batman Begins,” the Applied Sciences Division of Wayne Enterprises provided Batman with a memory fabric technology that turned a nylon-based material rigid when an electric current was applied. Even if this cape was rigid enough to glide, physicists speculate that Batman would be falling at about 50 mph and would need an additional force to slow the fall.

“A wing suit flight still ends by deploying a parachute, unless you’re [stuntman] Gary Connery and land on a runway of cardboard boxes,” Belisle said.

If he isn’t gliding by cape, Batman is usually flying in the Batplane, otherwise known as the Batwing. In the third and final movie of director Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, Batman will sport one of the more fantastic technologies yet.

Aerospace engineering graduate student Robert Brown said his primary concern with the feasibility of the Nolan version of the Batwing is the force required to hover.

Outside of Hollywood, engineers have designed and built a functional hovercraft called the Osprey. It looks like an airboat and never completely leaves the ground, at least not like Nolan’s Batwing, which can be seen spinning over a Gotham skyscraper in the second “Dark Knight Rises” trailer.

The roughly 17-foot-wide Batwing has two propellers at an estimated 6-foot radius each. Brown said the disc area of such dimensions would support about 3,000 pounds.

Compared to the Osprey, which has an engine for each of its propellers that weigh about 900 pounds apiece, Brown calculated the Batwing would have a little more than 1,000 pounds left over once the propeller engines are accounted for. For the Batwing to fly, the spare 1,000 pounds would be the limit weight for the remaining elements of the craft, including rocket launchers, dual machine guns, flood lights, an EMP cannon, fuel, the Batman himself and, of course, armor.

“This is a daunting task, to say the least,” Brown said.

Fun fact — the smaller a propeller’s rotors, the faster they must spin to generate the same amount of thrust. Brown said it’s likely the propeller blades on a craft such as the Batwing would have to spin at supersonic speeds to generate enough thrust, causing shockwaves and lowering efficiency — let alone diminishing any stealth capabilities.

“I would conclude that without ultra-lightweight materials or some sort of advanced ‘comic book’ propulsion system not shown on film thus far, the Batwing would never leave the ground,” Brown said.

Belisle said he thinks the basic idea of the Batwing is feasible.

“Although, it’s doubtful something will ever be that maneuverable in close quarters without causing the pilot to blackout — even if we assume that the Batsuit has anti-g-force capabilities,” he said.

Even as a graduate student studying for his doctorate, Belisle said the improbability of Hollywood technologies doesn’t necessarily make a movie less entertaining.

“It’s neutral for me. It only has to be 10 percent true, then the rest is imagination,” he said. “I usually avoid pointing out inaccuracies unless I’m in friendly engineering company.”

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