About Me

Rob Pincombe is a prolific television writer, recovering comedian and sometime comic artist/storyboard artist who just wasn't satisfied with a single blog. He writes about sci-fi and fandom at rebelalert.com, Canadian comics at comicanuck.com, and shares thoughts and insights on writing at starkravingadventure.com

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Gundam Control - "Mobile Suit Gundam" anime spawns real world applications

Welcome to the rebellion.

It's a Gundam world. Or at least, we're heading in that direction.

Thanks to rebel general Joe O'Brien's Hardcore Nerdity blog, we've received a tip that a new force is entering the fray for control of the galaxy.

After years of testing through intense animated adventures, Japan is at last ready to build their first, 18-metre tall, Mobile Suit Gundam to "guard" Odaiba's Shiokaze Park, an outdoor public park in Tokyo known for its creative art displays.

A cover story at The Mainichi Daily News insists this is merely a highly detailed statue built to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the "Mobile Suit Gundam" animated television series. But the detail on this thing is unbelievable. The report tips its hand when it reveals:

The lower half of Gundam's body, which measures about 11 meters high, has already been constructed. After other parts of the character's body are finished, including the head, arms and torso, they will all be assembled.

The completed Gundam statue is expected to weigh nearly 35 tons, move its head and emit light or mist from 50 points of its body.

We rebels have learned to read between the lines in transmissions like this. "Move its head"? That likely suggests tracking ability. "Emit light" is a euphemism for lasers if ever we heard one. And shooting "mist from 50 points of its body" screams deadly gas warfare or smoke-screen technology.

Gundam suits are heavily armored and extremely maneuverable. It's likely mere X-wing or Y-wing fighters would have difficulty winning a space dog fight with one. More of the Mainichi Daily News' photo reconnaissance of the Gundam suit can be found here.

After uncovering copies of the plans, a rebel force has been sent to destroy the suit before it becomes fully operational and on display at the park from July 11 to August 31. Luckily, the public display is free of charge so we were able to save some credits on this mission.

Sunrise's anime classic Mobile Suit Gundam, created by writer/director Yoshiyuki Tomino, premiered in 1979. Despite popularity, the sponsors backed away from a full 52 episode run but the production company, Sunrise, was able to negotiate 43 initial episodes. The ratings really took off once models of the various Gundam suits began to fly off the shelves.

Mobile Suit Gundam, along with Macross, is credited with moving anime away from the giant super robot (huge fantasy creations with an arsenal of fantastic weapons, imperiousness to damage, often transforming into different shapes and backed by a legendary or mystical origins). genre into the realm of so-called real robots (whose power sources and mechanics could be explained somewhat by real science).

Since then, Gundam (and Macross) have spawned a whack of sequels, movies, novels, manga and comic books. The influence of Gundam on pop culture is evident in the fact that Tokyo would put a life-size version of one on public display. The Japanese recognize that such "event: displays draw the public out and spawn dividends in terms of ancillary spending.

It's also a message to the world that Japan is ready to defend her borders with the latest in robot technology. Check the damage and ethical questions these powerful suits create in this preview of the newest Gundam incarnation from Sunrise and Bandai entertainment.

Gundam fighters like these may be closer to reality than you think. The various versions have spawned a number of real world initiatives driven toward creating the technology featured in the show and its various spin-offs.

The Times Online reports that the world's first academic institution based on a cartoon will debut this fall in the form of the Gundam Academy, staffed by a "virtual faculty". This is not to be confused with the Gundam Academy RPG. This is a real virtual institute created to promote “the most inventive possible thinking” and discuss how to turn the 66 year-old Tomino's series into reality.

The Times goes on to state that dozens of engineers, astrophysicists, doctors, anthropologists, linguists and city planners have been invited to contribute.
The agenda will be broad: the Gundam comic series has been running since the late 1970s and its storylines have constructed one of the most complete and complex future-scapes in science fiction.

Central to Gundam are the huge, occasionally dysfunctional, battle suits used by the characters to settle squabbles that arise as humanity fights over resources and power. The robotic engineering, the low-gravity control mechanisms and the life-support systems will all be subjects at the Gundam Academy.

One aeronautics expert involved in the project said that, as a serious scientist, he can see clearly which parts of Gundam are technically feasible and which are not.

Nuclear-powered thermal rockets and spherical helper robots should be pursued, he said.

Start digging those fallout shelters in the backyard. It's like the nineteen fifties race to nuclear supremacy all over again.... with cooler effects.

At a recent symposium held by the founders of the academy and academics, there were lively discussions about emulating the protective coating which prevents the fictional battle suits burning-up on atmospheric re-entry, and the airbags that protect the pilot from the violent lurches of battle.

The underlying storyline in the Gundam series is one of political strife, endless war and the challenges that arise when mankind begins to move away from Earth.

Shinya Hashizume, a professor of urban planning and architecture at Osaka Prefectural University, said: “Gundam presents the reader with many challenges that we will encounter. It is vital to begin conducting research into these. Scientific research in Japan desperately needs a flow of new ideas.”

Founders of the project told the Times they feel the project could inspire institutions and companies across Japan to look into new fields of research, perhaps including "the perfection of a universal translation device to moon settlements and the construction of a mega-particle cannon." Two out of three peaceful applications ain't bad, I suppose.

The people behind the project hope that by freeing the minds in attendance from the realities of everyday economics and political challenges and encouraging them to dream big, they will inspire new leaps of discovery and insight.
Shinichi Nakasuka, a professor of astronautics at the University of Tokyo and one of the founders of the academy, said: “Studying fiction is an excellent way to get ideas about the future. Scientists often restrict their way of thinking to what they factually know. The comic shows how ordinary people without much deep scientific knowledge can come up with very good ideas.”
It's not that big a leap, really. Star Trek inspired a great many real world, scientific applications. William Shatner profiled many in his book, "I'm Working on That", and the follow-up TV special, "How William Shatner Changed The World" (or "How Techies Changed The World With William Shatner" out side of Nortth America). Why do you think cellphones flip open like communicators? Computer voice recognition dialing, NASA deep space probe's ion propulsion and non-invasive medical imaging technology were all partly inspired by Star Trek.

Let's face it, most science geeks grew up as sci-fi geeks.

Dava Newman models her BioSuit flanked by the 40-year standard for
gas-pressurized spacewear and the designs seen in Mobile Suit Gundam.
Photo by Donna Coveney from MIT News' website slideshow.

Lauren Davis of io9.com, points out two possible areas where Gundam's influence may already have inspired innovation. MIT aeronautics professor Dava Newman has been working on a counter-pressurized BioSuit as sleek as those found in the anime series. And NASA has been working on nuclear thermal rocket research.

Newman shows off the suit's flexibility.
Photo by Donna Coveney from
MIT News' website slideshow.

Dr. Newman's suit is a marvel. She has responded to the serious limitations of mobility created by the bulky, heavy, gas-pressurized suits currently used in space. According to MIT's website, these suits suffice in zero-gravity but become quite a hindrance to even "partial gravity exploration missions". Dr. Newman has flown numerous experiments in space and done extensive, multidisciplinary research for the project.
Newman, her colleague Jeff Hoffman, her students and a local design firm, Trotti and Associates, have been working on the project for about seven years. Their prototypes are not yet ready for space travel, but demonstrate what they're trying to achieve--a lightweight, skintight suit that will allow astronauts to become truly mobile lunar and Mars explorers.

Over the past 40 years, spacesuits have gotten progressively heavier, and they now weigh in at about 300 pounds. That bulk -- much of which is due to multiple layers and the life support system coupled with the gas-pressurization -- severely constrains astronauts' movements. About 70 to 80 percent of the energy they exert while wearing the suit goes towards simply working against the suit to bend it.

The back of the BioSuit can accomodate an oxygen tank.
Photo by Donna Coveney from MIT News' website slideshow.
Newman's prototype suit is a revolutionary departure from the traditional model. Instead of using gas pressurization, which exerts a force on the astronaut's body to protect it from the vacuum of space, the suit relies on mechanical counter-pressure, which involves wrapping tight layers of material around the body. The trick is to make a suit that is skintight but stretches with the body, allowing freedom of movement.

...Another advantage to her BioSuit is safety: if a traditional spacesuit is punctured by a tiny meteorite or other object, the astronaut must return to the space station or home base immediately, before life-threatening decompression occurs. With the BioSuit, a small, isolated puncture can be wrapped much like a bandage, and the rest of the suit will be unaffected.

Newman says the finished BioSuit may be a hybrid that incorporates some elements of the traditional suits, including a gas-pressured torso section and helmet. An oxygen tank can be attached to the back.

...The new BioSuit builds on ideas developed in the 1960s and 1970s by Paul Webb, who first came up with the concept for a "space activity suit," and Saul Iberall, who postulated the lines of non-extension. However, neither the technology nor the materials were available then.

"Dr. Webb had a great idea, before its time. We're building on that work to try to make it feasible," says Newman.

MIT's TechTV also features a fascinating hour long address Dr. Newman gave on "Astronaut Performance: From Earth to Mars" and her BiosSuit to students from the MIT Summer Research Program (MSRP). Aerospace engineering meets nueral engineering. She discusses human performance in space and shows off the BioSuit, which she hopes will help stave off the significant muscle atrophy and bone mineral density loss that astronauts suffer from in long-term missions.

The other Gundam-eque move forward pointed out by io9.com is the renewed call for research into nuclear propulsion for deep space missions. As this Space.com article by Greg Clark suggests, for all the sci-fi talk about anti-matter, improbability drives and solar or magnetic sails, such concepts are still confined to the realm of fiction and could take decades to harness, or longer.

And so engineers are currently stuck with making bigger, bulkier and extremely expensive versions of the chemical rockets we use today. But a cheaper and potentially more powerful option was all but abandoned 30 years ago in the call for a ban on anything nuclear. NASA's Nuclear Engine for Rocket Vehicle Applications (NERVA) program was apparently cut off in 1972 after extensive testing in the Nevada desert.
"It's continually talked about. Whenever you start seriously contemplating human missions back to the moon and Mars in an economical way with reuse potential, nuclear always comes to the foreground," said Stanley Borowski, a nuclear and aerospace engineer at NASA's Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, Ohio.

In the past few months, several NASA notables, including associate administrators Joe Rothenberg and Gary Payton, have mentioned publicly that nuclear power in space transportation deserves a closer look.
The system currently being suggested is very similar to those suposedly used in Gundam robots: a Bimodel Nuclear Thermal Rocket. The system was developed by Borowski and his fellow GRC aerospace engineer Leonard Dudzinski to provide both "thrust and electricity for a human-crewed mission to Mars." The article goes on to discuss the ways in which nuclear rockets are more efficient, providing enough power to get a crew to Mars in Mars rather than years and still be able to supply all electrical needs, refrigeration, and the mechanics required to create artificial gravity.

The pro-nuclear scientists also suggest nuclear power is the safer proposition. The nuclear is not used to actually launch the vehicle, the nuclear engines only come online in the depths of space with extensive shielding. Borowski is even quoted as suggesting the small amounts of concentrated uranium used in the on-board reactors are "no more dangerous than a large pile of dirt"!

So the potential is there for the power sources we've seen in Gundam. It's obvious NASA has little interest in this particular project having military applications, but in a world fraught with nations jockeying for political and technological superiority, a military application is never far from worried anti-nuke minds.

I am reminded of a 10-year old documentary also narrated, coincidentally enough, by William Shatner, "Nukes in Space: The Rainbow Bombs". Written and directed by Peter Kuran, who won an Academy Award for "The Atomic Bomb Movie", the film makes extensive use of footage of ICBM tests on the lip of our stratosphere which accidentally led to the discovery of the Van Allen Belt, a "donut-shaped band of radiation trapped by the Earth's magnetic field" and a world gripped with fear of radiative death raining down from space.

It looks like we really are are heading toward a Gundam world. Whether it's a utopian world of peace inspired by man's exploration of our universe or the battle scarred society of world burned by nuclear destruction depends on what the artists within us all draw next.

Dava Newman explores space in her mechanical
counter-pressure BioSuit on the MIT Campus'
Henry Moore sculpture "Reclining Figure".

Photo by Donna Coveney from MIT News' website slideshow.



  1. I don't get why the two Youtube vids are suddenly off-centre and missing the left side.

    Sorry all.

    Just click twice and it will open up the original Youtube page.

  2. quci kquestion is this real has the gundam in japan really started a revtion in the peoples minds so there going to try and aim for the stars and make stuff from the show a reallty if so i hope it donst take too long i would love to see that day come