The Dark KnightIn the 2008 superhero movie, 'The Dark Knight', Batman managed to track down the Joker by using a sonar device to spy on every cell phone in Gotham City. The device captured high-frequency sonar signals from cell phone users and translated them into a visual surveillance map.

While the Caped Crusader's sonar tracking device was beyond current capabilities, in principle, it's not beyond the realm of possibility, says electric engineer, Ivan Dokmanic, who has been working on sonic mapping technology for the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology. The technology combines microphones with an algorithm in order to map the dimensions of a closed room, similar to the way a bat echolocates.

Such technology is not currently capable of generating the level of detail Batman's device was able to produce, Dokmanic says, but other types of surveillance technology are catching up, and even surpassing the tracking capabilities envisioned in comic books and superhero sci-fi movies. Here are three examples of how real-life surveillance technology is catching up to and outpacing comic book and Sci-Fi films.

Batman #109
Drone Surveillance

Sonar cell phone tracking devices aren't the only surveillance technology Batman has deployed in his long career fighting crime. In Batman #109, published in 1957, Batman invented the Flying Eye, a self-powered hovering machine with a camera eye that transmitted images and audio back to the Batcave. Batman has continued to use drones for surveillance since then, building a Batdrone plane to track the Minstrel's broadcast signal in 'The Minstrel's Shakedown', for example.

Today's surveillance drones are far more sophisticated than the fictional Batdrone, thanks to advances in aircraft design, smartphones, artificial intelligence, and camera technology. By combining brushless aircraft motors with the type of lithium-polymer batteries used in smartphones, drones can be powered electrically, making them lighter, stealthier, and more reliable. Smartphones can now be used to control drones, with smartphone cameras serving as a remote monitoring screen. Artificial intelligence allows drones to be programmed to fly in pre-planned paths, with less risk of error than human operators. Drones can also now be deployed in swarms, providing greater coverage than single units.

Superman's x-ray vision
Low-light Surveillance

One of Superman's most famous powers is his x-ray vision, which enables him to see through solid objects, except for lead. A lesser-known fact is that the Last Son of Krypton also possesses other forms of superhuman vision that enables him to see frequencies invisible to the human eye, including electromagnetic auras, radio waves, and infrared light. These abilities enable Superman to see even in the dark.

Today's cutting-edge night vision wire-free security cameras can virtually replicate this feat. Night vision cameras can capture images in low-light conditions by bouncing infrared light off of an LED-illuminated target, converting the collected light into electrons, running the electrons through a photomultiplier tube, and then converting the electrons back into photons for display on a screen. This enables key details such as suspect hair color and eye color to be captured even in extremely low light.

Spider-Man's Spider-tracer
Personal Tracking Devices

Spider-Man has always been ahead of the curve on personal tracking devices. While still in high school, Peter Parker invented the Spider-tracer, a tracking device he could attach to a villain in order to follow the target with a small electronic receiver, or later with his Spider-sense. Spidey has also been on the receiving end of tracking devices. In fact, an electronic device the Kingpin placed on Spidey's ankle in one 1977 comic strip, inspired Judge Jack Love to commission the creation of the first real-life ankle-tracking bracelet.

Today's personal tracking devices may not use Spider-sense, but they have the advantage of GPS technology. Tracking devices used for purposes such as tracking children or monitoring employees can be set up to monitor designated digital perimeters and send automatic notifications when a perimeter has been breached. Devices can be held in the hand, worn as a watch or a necklace, fit in a pocket, or embedded in a microchip. Some devices have two-way communication features, such as a panic button a child can press in an emergency.

Drone surveillance, low-light surveillance, and personal tracking devices are three areas where reality has already outpaced fiction. Other comic book surveillance technology, such as Cerebro, still remains fiction, although Facebook and Elon Musk say they're working on telepathic technology. Truth is stranger than fiction.


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