Turning Invisible

Morgan O'Rourke


October 1, 2011

Whenever Halloween rolls around, I'm reminded of the fascination I had as a kid with the classic monsters of the old black-and-white Universal Studios movies. Back then, I not only tried to learn everything I could about Dracula, Frankenstein, the Wolf Man, the Mummy and the Creature from the Black Lagoon but also about the legendary actors that played them, like Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff and Lon Chaney, Jr. Halloween was always great because in addition to pounds of free candy, my favorites were always front and center, and often these were my go-to costume choices. I'm sure there was nothing like being greeted at the door by a pint-size Dracula to scare the Baby Ruths out of you back in those days.

The one monster in the classic rogues' gallery that no Halloween costume could ever really do justice to, however, was the one that probably had the coolest power of them all: the Invisible Man. Even today, if you ask a group of adults what superpower they would want if they could have one, someone always chooses invisibility. Evidently, there's something about being able to disappear and walk around undetected that appeals to us. I know I wouldn't mind giving it a try. It certainly would make for fewer interruptions during the workday and you wouldn't have to worry about finding tickets to that sold-out show. And, of course, the prank potential is off the charts.

Well it turns out that invisibility may not be so far-fetched anymore. Researchers have already created "invisibility cloaks" that use cameras to project what is behind an object onto its surface, but that has seems like a bit of a technicality. The real goal is to make something truly invisible, and it may happen soon.

Just last month, British defense company BAE Systems, revealed that they had developed a new technology, called Adaptiv, that can make vehicles invisible to infrared detection. They demonstrated the technology on a tank, showing how the system's panels can change temperature to mimic their surroundings, which would render the tank invisible to infrared scopes, or can even be used to make the tank look like something else entirely. BAE engineers have also been able to combine the Adaptiv system with other technologies to make vehicles invisible in other areas of the electromagnetic spectrum as well. Granted it's not pure Invisible Man invisibility, but it could be very useful for anyone who wants to stay undetected in a dangerous area.

The quest for invisibility does not stop there. Another group of scientists have developed an actual invisibility cloak out of nanotechnology-based metamaterials that can hide objects that are visible to the human eye. Basically, when the new "carpet cloak" is placed over an object, it bends light away from the bump the object creates and makes the cloak appear flat. At the moment, however it has only been tested on microscopic objects the size of a red blood cell, but it is progress.

Aside from being a neat party trick, there are some practical, risk-based applications for invisibility that don't include giving a new meaning to corporate transparency. For instance, an invisibility cloak could protect personnel in high-risk areas or hostage situations by keeping them out of sight of a threat. Invisibility cloaks would also be an excellent solution for protecting goods from theft or tampering.

Some scientists have even experimented with using the concept of bending light waves on water waves, in an effort to make coastlines or offshore oil platforms "invisible" to tsunami waves. In limited scale experiments, they have had some success with diffusing incoming water into a specifically designed ringed structure that if it were to one day be extrapolated to a larger model, would cause a tsunami wave to pass right by anything behind the "cloak" with no effect. It would be as if the object was not there.

As far as I'm concerned, this stuff is amazing. Sure, the results have been modest so far but the fact that researchers are even trying to make invisibility possible—and looking for practical uses on top of it -- is a testament to their ingenuity. Risk management can come from some strange places, but I'm pretty sure nothing would be stranger than if it seemed to come from nowhere at all.

Morgan O’Rourke is editor in chief of Risk Management and director of publications for the Risk & Insurance Management Society, Inc. (RIMS)