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The real life Q

  1. It’s not long into the latest Bond blockbuster Skyfall before 007 is given a black box containing his trademark Walther PPK. Next to it is a small radio transmitter, about the size of a matchbox. Q looks pleased. Bond does not. “A gun and a radio,” he says. “Not exactly Christmas, is it?” His disappointment was echoed through the world’s multiplexes. This is the first time we’ve seen Q since Die Another Day in 2002, when John Cleese played the role of MI6’s eccentric quartermaster. But he’s gone now, replaced by a younger, snarkier version. So what happened to Aston Martins with rockets? And shouldn’t his watch fire laser beams?

    Q’s toys are a vital Bond ingredient. Who could forget the DB5 ejector seat or Connery’s briefcase bomb? And if Roger Moore doesn’t arrive in a crocodile submarine, popcorn shall be thrown. Set against this tradition of gadgetry, Skyfall would appear to contain all the tech of Downton Abbey. And yet, to the trained eye, it was about as cutting-edge as it gets, and uncannily close to real life. Have a look around. Your car has Bluetooth. Your PC has WiFi. At the core of them all? Good old-fashioned radio waves. Seems like the new Q is on to something…

    Words: Dan Read

    Photos: Alex Lake 

  2. “If you can’t hear or smell it, it’s probably radio,” says Ramsey Faragher, before returning to some soldering. Who is Ramsey Faragher? Officially, he’s principal scientist at the top-secret Advanced Technology Centre (ATC) - a hotshot R&D base for defence contractor BAE Systems. Unofficially, he’s the real-life Q: one of the government’s go-to boffins who spends his life inventing gadgets used by actual secret - and perhaps double - agents. But he’s not just for spooks. His gadgets, and his colleagues’ creations, are used by serving troops, pilots, submariners and, one day, you.

    Let’s say you’re driving along when the road dips underground. Your satnav freaks out and satellites become useless, in the same way they’re useless to a desert ops driver whose enemy has jammed the GPS signal. You now need Ramsey’s NAVSOP (Navigation via Signals of Opportunity) system. Essentially, it harvests all sorts of radio signals - from phone masts to telly towers - then uses them to build a picture of your surroundings. In other words, it knows where you are according to how good Terry Wogan sounds in that neck of the woods. And because there’s some sort of radio signal everywhere on Earth, even if very faint, it works in tunnels, dense jungles and hatchbacks.

  3. It’s also the tangible version of the tech that turns Bond or Bourne into a blinking dot on a monitor, as they crawl through some sewer or villain’s lair. “People see a red blip on a cinema screen and assume this stuff must actually exist,” says Ramsey. “But sometimes we’re behind the movies… and, at other times, we’re way ahead.” And it’s not just here at the ATC. In the 1990 film The Hunt for Red October, the American subs plot their position by measuring gravitational fields. It turns out the US government was actually working on such a system, and, perhaps fearing a leak, the Pentagon eventually declassified the project.

    There’s sensitive stuff going on here too, which is why Ramsey is careful with his words and our camera is checked as we leave. However, we did discover a few other things before giving our passes back. Things like an autonomous off-roader, which is a bit like Google’s self-driving Prius, only much meaner. It’s based on a Bowler Wildcat and uses laser scanners to ‘see’ the landscape, and servos to operate the controls. So it’s similar to the robo-Prius, but where Google’s car is designed to read road signs and avoid running over children, this one’s for blasting across dunes while talking to fighter jets and possibly dispatching a few insurgents.

  4. There’s a model of it on Ramsey’s desk, among the soldering irons, circuit boards and a radar unit from a car’s active cruise control. Turns out he’s working on a hardcore version for military convoys, which rip across the sand like very fast camel trains. This is fine for the bloke up front, but his trail of dust blinds everyone further back. With Ramsey’s system, each vehicle would follow the movements of the lead driver. If he swerves, they swerve, but only when they reach the same point. Useful when roadside bombs are lying about. Or, when you think about it, in the outside lane of the motorway in thick spray when a lorry’s wheel has just fallen off.

    For this to work, you need more than radar. That’s fine for judging distance, but a car must also know how long to wait before copying the first car’s actions. Or not copying, in the case of a crash. And so it must receive a motherlode of information in the blink of an eye. Which is why Ramsey’s road train also uses 60GHz WiFi - about 25 times faster than average home broadband - to dump enormous amounts of data from one car to the next. But it’s not just for desert tailgating: road cars could use it to talk to each other. Let’s say you slide on some mud. Your car could tell others nearby, which could arm their traction control to deal with the impending slipperiness.

  5. There’s more. Ramsey shows us a helmet with a head-up display, like the ones worn by fighter pilots today but capable of handling much more data. It could also project live images from cameras outside the aircraft, but only when the wearer looks in their direction - effectively making the fuselage transparent. This is useful when you’re at 50,000 feet without a rear-view mirror. Got a bogey on your tail? Just turn your head and have a look at the bastard. Imagine what this could do for the blind spots in racing cars.

    In fact, you can extrapolate much car stuff from the inventions in this place. Take the Demon drone. It uses ‘flapless flight’, by replacing rudders and ailerons with thousands of holes that allow the wings to suck and blow as a way of controlling their pitch. This smoothes the surfaces, which is good for agility, aero and stealth. It works by using the airflow of the jet turbine, but could just as easily work with any engine that produces high pressure. An F1 motor, for example. You could pipe air from the intakes and exhausts to a rear wing, which then breathes in and out to control the pressure around it. So instead of a fixed shape for the whole circuit, you could have constantly adaptive aero. Are you reading this, Mr Newey?

  6. We could go on. How about an armoured personnel carrier that sends data - and power - through solid steel? With cameras on the outside sending images wirelessly, you could do away with letterbox windows that attract more bullets than light. And what if the whole vehicle was then skinned in a special stealth material, which, when examined by enemy radar, can turn a Chieftain into a herd of cows? Or make it look like an original Volkswagen Beetle? For a final layer of protection, troops could lose bulky flak jackets and instead wear a vest containing a special gooey centre, which hardens on impact with projectiles. On close inspection, it appears to be a sort of bulletproof custard. Weird.

    Ramsey’s team even works with a human performance division to make sure all this tech is usable by actual humans. Psychologists, astrophysicists, chemists, professors of everything… they’re all here - about 180 of them - and they rarely stop. Some clock out, then sneak back to their desks to dream up more stuff. And sometimes Ramsey will be riding home when he gets a call from someone important in the MoD. They need a thing invented, quickly, and would he mind cycling back to the office to knock something up by the morning? Sometimes, it’s a matter of life and death, with troops on standby for the new kit.

  7. Which perhaps goes some way to explaining the new Q’s parting shot to Bond. “Were you expecting an exploding pen?” he says. “We don’t really go in for that any more.”

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