Undercover Tech

Check out the real-life technology that inspired the supercool stuff in the book.


Flying RoboBees! Mood glasses! Classrooms that morph into far-flung destinations! In the book Explorer Academy: The Nebula Secret, 12-year-old Cruz Coronado and his friends attend an elite school where they study to become world-class explorers. There they encounter amazing technology they’ve never seen before.


How It Works in the Book: When Cruz and his pals get locked inside a janitor’s closet, Cruz’s honeybee-shaped MAV, or Micro Air Vehicle, flies to their rescue. “Mell” zips under a door and uses her stinger to unlock the closet.

How It Works in Real Life: Mell was inspired by real micro drones built by electrical engineer and Nat Geo explorer Robert Wood. Though these RoboBees don’t have stingers, the insect-size bots might one day help with real-life rescue operations. Wood hopes the RoboBees will eventually be able to zoom into places that would be too difficult or dangerous for humans to access. For instance, they could fly into collapsed buildings or help find an accident.

These drones won’t be voice commanded like Mell in the book or even controlled by a joystick. “They’re much faster than a human mind and hand could control,” Wood says. Instead they’ll fly by themselves, with heat-seeking sensors to find survivors and pre-programmed commands to keep them from bumping into walls. When they find what they’re after, they’ll wirelessly send a message.


How It Works in the Book: Cruz discovers a hidden slip of paper that assembles itself into an origami sphere with a secret message inside.

How It Works in Real Life: Scientists like Nat Geo explorer Skylar Tibbits are engineering materials that can actually assemble themselves. A founder of the Self-Assembly Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Tibbits is the inventor of 4-D printing. The fourth “D,” or dimension, stands for time, because over time this technology will allow printed objects to reshape or self-assemble themselves. “People often use robotics to make things smarter,” Tibbits says. “We’re trying to do that with only the materials.”

In other words, these materials can move on their own with no added electronic parts, like a cell phone that can assemble itself. Temperature, pressure, and even light can trigger the parts to start assembling. In the future, Tibbits’ method could be used to create clothing that changes form to fit better, or even replacement body parts like heart valves that automatically adjust inside the body.


How It Works in the Book: Cruz’s classmate Emmett creates a pair of glasses that change color and shape depending on the wearer’s mood. Bad mood? Glasses turn gray. Feeling good? They pulse kaleidoscopic blue!

How It Works in Real Life: Emmett’s glasses work by connecting to his brain waves. But real thermochromic materials can change colors easier than that. Some contain billions of microscopic capsules, or super-tiny cases, that hold liquid crystals that appear different colors at different temperatures. Others materials have chemical dyes that change color with light or heat. So your glasses could appear one color when you’re feeling calm, and turn a different color when your face heats up!


How It Works in the Book: The students at Explorer Academy wear skinny wristbands called Organic Synchronization (OS) bands that measure their vital signs and also use that info to unlock doors.

How It Works in Real Life: Heart-monitoring ID wristbands actually exist. The Nymi Band was made to use your electrocardiogram—that’s a heartbeat reading, also called an ECG—as your password to unlock doors. Just press your finger on top of the band, and it measures tiny bursts of electricity sent from your heart. Those bursts create a pattern that’s unique to you.


How It Works in the Book: Explorer Academy’s students train in the CAVE, or Computer Animated Virtual Experience area. There, the kids are transported into a virtual world where herds of wildebeests stampede by, virtual butterflies land on their shoulders, and a virtual ship takes them on an adventure.

How They Work in Real Life: While gadget-free virtual-reality classroom experiences like the CAVE don’t exist yet, VR headsets can take you out of your world and into a new one. The Oculus Rift virtual reality headset uses a face-mounted screen and surround-sound headphones to transport you anywhere!

You might have already played games using the Oculus Rift. But the military has used the VR system as well to train soldiers, and doctors may one day use the tech to heal patients remotely. You might even use the Oculus Rift someday to take a high-tech field trip to another country!


How It Works in the Book: Cruz takes a class in mind-control photography, in which a headpiece with a single lens uses electrodes to read his brain waves. To take a picture, he just thinks of the word “photo” and shuts his eyes for two seconds. Snap! The finished photo is uploaded straight to a computer.

How It Works in Real Life: Smart glasses like Snap Spectacles are wearable computers that look like eyeglasses with a small extra lens in one corner. They’re wirelessly connected to the internet and have a camera built in on one side. And it doesn’t need to read your brain waves to take videos. Pressing the button on the left side triggers a sensor to start recording the world from your perspective, hands-free.

Some factory workers wear smart glasses so they can read instructions while keeping their hands free to assemble products. They’re also used by some doctors, who can wirelessly send live video of their appointments to an assistant in a different location. The assistant takes notes so the doctor is free to focus on their patients.

All illustrations by Scott Plumbe