How to make a Star Wars light saber

A couple of years ago I explained how to make a free-floating combat drone: , like the ones in Halo or Mass Effect. They could realistically be made in the next couple of decades and are very likely to feature heavily in far future warfare, or indeed terrorism. I was chatting to a journalist this morning about light sabers, another sci-fi classic. They could also be made in the next few decades, using derivatives of the same principles. A prototype is feasible this side of 2050.

I’ll ignore the sci-fi wikis that explain how they are meant to work, which mostly approximate to fancy words for using magic or The Force and various fictional crystals. On the other hand, we still want something that will look and sound and behave like the light saber.

The handle bit is pretty obvious. It has to look good and contain a power source and either a powerful laser or plasma generator. The traditional problem with using a laser-based saber is that the saber is only meant to be a metre long but laser beams don’t generally stop until they hit something. Plasma on the other hand is difficult to contain and needs a lot of energy even when it isn’t being used to strike your opponent. A laser can be switched on and off and is therefore better. But we can have some nice glowy plasma too, just for fun.

The idea is pretty simple then. The blade would be made of graphene flakes coated with carbon nanotube electron pipes, suspended using the same technique I outlined in the blog above. These could easily be made to form a long cylinder and when you want the traditional Star Wars look, they would move about a bit, giving the nice shimmery blurry edge we all like so that the tube looks just right with blurry glowy edges. Anyway, with the electron pipe surface facing inwards, these flakes would generate the internal plasma and its nice glow. They would self-organize their cylinder continuously to follow the path of the saber. Easy-peasy. If they strike something, they would just re-organize themselves into the cylinder again once they are free.

For later models, a Katana shaped blade will obviously be preferred. As we know, all ultimate weapons end up looking like a Katana, so we might as well go straight to it, and have the traditional cylindrical light saber blade as an optional cosmetic envelope for show fights. The Katana is a universal physics result in all possible universes.

The hum could be generated by a speaker in the handle if you have absolutely no sense of style, but for everyone else, you could simply activate pulsed magnetic fields between the flakes so that they resonate at the required band to give your particular tone. Graphene flakes can be magnetized so again this is perfectly consistent with physics. You could download and customize hums from the cloud.

Now the fun bit. When the blade gets close to an object, such as your opponent’s arm, or your loaf of bread in need of being sliced, the capacitance of the outer flakes would change, and anyway, they could easily transmit infrared light in every direction and pick up reflections. It doesn’t really matter which method you pick to detect the right moment to activate the laser, the point is that this bit would be easy engineering and with lots of techniques to pick from, there could be a range of light sabers on offer. Importantly, at least a few techniques could work that don’t violate any physics. Next, some of those self-organizing graphene flakes would have reflective surface backings (metals bond well with graphene so this is also a doddle allowed by physics), and would therefore form a nice reflecting surface to deflect the laser beam at the object about to be struck. If a few flakes are vaporized, others would be right behind them to reflect the beam.

So just as the blade strikes the surface of the target, the powerful laser switches on and the beam is bounced off the reflecting flakes onto the target, vaporizing it and cauterizing the ends of the severed blood vessels to avoid unnecessary mess that might cause a risk of slipping. The shape of the beam depends on the locations and angles of the reflecting surface flakes, and they could be in pretty much any shape to create any shape of beam needed, which could be anything from a sharp knife to a single point, severing an arm or drilling a nice neat hole through the heart. Obviously, style dictates that the point of the saber is used for a narrow beam and the edge is used as a knife, also useful for cutting bread or making toast (the latter uses transverse laser deflection at lower aggregate power density to char rather than vaporize the bread particles, and toast is an option selectable by a dial on the handle).

What about fights? When two of these blades hit each other there would be a variety of possible effects. Again, it would come down to personal style. There is no need to have any feel at all, the beams could simple go through each other, but where’s the fun in that? Far better that the flakes also carry high electric currents so they could create a nice flurry of sparks and the magnetic interactions between the sabers could also be very powerful. Again, self organisation would allow circuits to form to carry the currents at the right locations to deflect or disrupt the opponent’s saber. A galactic treaty would be needed to ensure that everyone fights by the rules and doesn’t cheat by having an ethereal saber that just goes right through the other one without any nice show. War without glory is nothing, and there can be no glory without a strong emotional investment and physical struggle mediated by magnetic interactions in the sabers.

This saber would have a very nice glow in any color you like, but not have a solid blade, so would look and feel very like the Star Wars saber (when you just want to touch it, the lasers would not activate to slice your fingers off, provided you have read the safety instructions and have the safety lock engaged). The blade could also grow elegantly from the hilt when it is activated, over a second or so, it would not just suddenly appear at full length. We need an on/off button for that bit, but that could simply be emotion or thought recognition so it turns on when you concentrate on The Force, or just feel it.

The power supply could be a battery or graphene capacitor bank of a couple of containers of nice chemicals if you want to build it before we can harness The Force and magic crystals.

A light saber that looks, feels and behaves just like the ones on Star Wars is therefore entirely feasible, consistent with physics, and could be built before 2050. It might use different techniques than I have described, but if no better techniques are invented, we could still do it the way I describe above. One way or another, we will have light sabers.


Driverless pod transport system

I badly documented my latest idea of an ultra-cheap transport system in I think I need another blog to separate out the idea from the background. Look at my previous blog for the appropriate pictures.

We’re seeing a lot of enthusiasm now for electric cars and in parallel, for self-driving cars. I support both of those, and I like the new Next system that is extremely close to my own ideas from 1987 when I first looked at cars from a performance engineer’s viewpoint and realized that self driving cars could drive millimeters apart, reducing drag and greatly reducing congestion. I estimated back then that they could improve road capacity by a factor of 5. Many others have since simulated such systems and the same factor of 5 has popped up a few times now.

Self-driving pods and electrically assisted bike lane

Self-driving pods and electrically assisted bike lane


Next have visualized the same idea nicely, but the world is more receptive now. for their nice video, although I’d envisage rather more pods in most areas, almost filling the entire road area.

I’ve lectured in vain many times to persuade authorities to divert investment away from 20th century rail system to roads using self driving cars. The UK’s HS2 system is no more than lipstick on a 20th century pig. Pig it remains, obsolete ages ago, though our idiotic government remains determined to build it anyway, wasting £70Bn even by charitable estimates. Systems similar to Next’s could replace HS2 and reduce journey times for everyone, not just those whose starting point and destination are very close to the terminals. I wish them well. But I think there is an even better solution, that is feasible in a similar time-frame, and I have no doubt they could pick it up and run with it. Or Tesla or Google or Apple or Toyota or any other car company.

My realization is that we don’t need self driving cars either. Take exactly the Next system, with its nicely trapezoidal pods that nest together. They will need a smooth road surface if they are to ride in contact or millimeters apart, or they will constantly bump into each other and create irritating vibration. Make them ride a centimeter or two apart and it will solve that.

Then start looking at each part of the system.

They each have a computer on board to drive the pod. You don’t need that, because everyone has a smart phone now which already has formidable computing power and is connected to the cloud, which has vast amounts more. Together, the entire system can be easily managed without any computers on board at all.

Similarly, much of the internal decor in cars is there to make it look pretty, offer interfaces, information or displays for passenger entertainment. All of that could easily be done by any half-decent augmented reality visor.

Then look at the power supply and engines. We should at the very least expect electric motors to replace fossil fuel engines. Most self-driving cars have expensive batteries, using scarce resources, and lithium batteries may catch fire or explode. So some systems in R&D now use the idea of super-capacitors instead. Furthermore, these could be recharged periodically as they drive over special mats on the road surface, so they could be smaller, lighter and cheaper. Even that is now being trialed. So these systems would already be better in almost every way to today’s transport.

However, we don’t even need the electric motors and super-capacitors. Instead we could update the ancient but well-proven idea of the linear induction motor and make factory-produced mats containing circuits that can be instructed to make steerable magnetic wells that pull the cars along, as well as navigate them correctly at every junction. Again, the management can all be done by the cloud plus smartphones, and the circuits can reconfigure on command as each pod passes over them. So they won’t need batteries, or super-capacitor banks, or engines or motors. They would just be pulled along by magnetic fields, with no moving parts (apart from the pods as a whole of course) to go wrong, and almost nothing needing expensive maintenance. Apart from wheels, suspension and brakes.

So the driverless pod would not need a built-in computer, it would not need an engine or motor, and not need a battery or super-capacitor. Already it would be vastly cheaper.

The last remaining moving parts can also be dispensed with. If the pod rides above a mat that can generate the magnetic fields to drag it along, why not let other magnetic fields suspend it above the ground? That would mean it doesn’t need suspension, or wheels. Conventional brakes could be dispensed with using a combination of magnetic fields for normal braking,  combined with a fallback of gravity and brake strips for emergency braking. Reducing the levitation field would create friction with the road surface and stop the vehicle very quickly, far more quickly than a conventional car can stop, only really limited by comfort limitations.

So my proposal is a system that would look and behave very similar to what Next have designed, but would not need engines, batteries, on-board computers or even wheels. My pods would be no more than simple boxes with comfy seats (or empty for freight transport) and a couple of strips on the bottom and might cost no more than $200 each. The road would have a factory-made mat laid on top for the magnetic well trains and levitation. Adapting a road to the system would be an overnight laying out of the mat and plugging it in to the electricity supply. In cold seasons, that electricity supply could also power on-board heating (but that would incur extra expense of course)


transport system

It won’t be long before such a system could be built. I can’t see any fundamental barriers to a prototype appearing next year if some entrepreneur were to try. It could make self driving car systems, even Next’s current proposals, redundant before they are implemented. If we were to change the direction of current plans to utilize the latest technology, rather than using ideas from 30 years ago, we could have a cheaper, better, more environmentally friendly system even faster. We could probably build such as system in every major city for what we are going to waste on HS2. Surely that is worth a try.


The future of nylon: ladder-free hosiery

Last week I outlined the design for a 3D printer that can print and project graphene filaments at 100m/s. That was designed to be worn on the wrist like Spiderman’s, but an industrial version could print faster. When I checked a few of the figures, I discovered that the spinnerets for making nylon stockings run at around the same speed. That means that graphene stockings could be made at around the same speed. My print head produced 140 denier graphene yarn but it made that from many finer filaments so basically any yarn thickness from a dozen carbon atoms right up to 140 denier would be feasible.

The huge difference is that a 140 denier graphene thread is strong enough to support a man at 2g acceleration. 10 denier stockings are made from yarn that breaks quite easily, but unless I’ve gone badly wrong on the back of my envelope, 10 denier graphene would have roughly 10kg (22lb)breaking strain. That’s 150 times stronger than nylon yarn of the same thickness.

If so, then that would mean that a graphene stocking would have incredible strength. A pair of 10 denier graphene stockings or tights (pantyhose) might last for years without laddering. That might not be good news for the nylon stocking industry, but I feel confident they would adapt easily to such potential.

Alternatively, much finer yarns could be made that would still have reasonable ladder resistance, so that would also affect the visual appearance and texture. They could be made so fine that the fibers are invisible even up close. People might not always want that, but the key message is that wear-resistant, ladder free hosiery could be made that has any gauge from 0.1 denier to 140 denier.

There is also a bonus that graphene is a superb conductor. That means that graphene fibers could be woven into nylon hosiery to add circuits. Those circuits might be to harvest radio energy, act as an aerial, power LEDS in the hosiery or change its colors or patterns. So even if it isn’t used for the whole garment, it might still have important uses in the garment as an addition to the weave.

There is yet another bonus. Graphene circuits could allow electrical supply to shape changing polymers that act rather like muscles, contracting when a voltage is applied across them, so that a future pair of tights could shape a leg far better, with tensions and pressures electronically adjusted over the leg to create the perfect shape. Graphene can make electronic muscles directly too, but in a more complex mechanism (e.g. using magnetic field generation and interaction, or capacitors and electrical attraction/repulsion).

The future for IT technicians

This blog accompanies the British Computer Society’s launch of RITTech, a new standard for IT technicians. For more info look at: and

It is a great time to be in IT. Companies are fragmenting and reconstructing and new business models are emerging every year. Everything is becoming smart, bringing IT to pole position in the sector race. Everyone has multiple mobile devices – smart phones, tablets, readers and laptops, even smart watches and wristbands. The opportunities to add electronic control are abundant, but they all need to be developed, software written and circuits fabricated and tested. Engineers have never had more core technologies to play with to create new products and services, and they rely on technicians to make it happen.

One of the most important things for anyone in a globalised world, where potential customers or employers will often never have met you or even seen you, is to be certificated. Having a respected industry body confirm that you have reached a given level of ability makes decisions  safer. Knowing that a person has the skills required to do the job takes away the biggest risk in employing them for a project. Global companies such as Microsoft offer such certification, but so can professional bodies such as the British Computer Society. The important factor is that the body is known, respected and their certification trusted.

Trust is absolutely key in a networked world. Anyone can pretend to be anyone, and can act across borders via the net from anywhere. Dangers lurk everywhere. People need to know they can trust appliances they use, the websites they visit. They need to be confident that their details will not end up in the hands of criminals, especially anything related to their finances. They also need to be confident that code won’t crash their machines or leave them open to hackers. Few people have the ability to look after all the IT themselves, so they rely on others to make it safe for them. They trust a corporate brand, so they trust their website, so that means that company has to be able to trust those who write it and maintain it to be able to do their work competently and reliably.

That is all getting more and more difficult in a miniaturizing world. The internet of things is already bringing us into the early stages of digital jewellery. From there, it is only a small step further before IT devices will often be dust sized, well below a millimetre, and then they could easily fit through the holes in an office machine, or sit on keys on a keyboard. Add that to security holes in a smart light bulb that nobody thought of as a security risk, but which opens a back door into a home LAN, and it becomes obvious just how tricky it will be to make things secure.

Security will remain a background problem no matter what is being built, but that doesn’t take away the excitement of making something new. Every wave of new core technology opens up new doors to new gadgets or network capability. Artificial intelligence also adds capability in parallel. A huge gap has opened over recent years between what has become possible and what has been done. There just aren’t enough engineers and technicians to do everything. That means it has never been easier to invent things, to find something exciting that nobody has done yet. That next big thing could be invented by you.

You might think it won’t be because your boss has you working on another project, but new tech opens up potential in every area. There is probably something right next to your project waiting to be discovered or developed. Showing creativity or innovative capability will fast track you to your next promotion and when your colleagues learn you have done something special, you will feel the warm glow of recognition too. Few things feel better than peer recognition. Nobody is too junior to come up with a new idea, or a new way of looking at something, or spotting a feature that would increase customer satisfaction without increasing cost. Some of my best ideas have happened in areas I have just started work in. If you’re new, you might not have all the finely honed skills of someone who’s been working in it for years, but you also don’t have their prejudices, you don’t know why you can’t do something, so you just do it anyway. The barriers they thought they knew about may have been rendered irrelevant by technology progress but their prejudice hasn’t kept up with change. You might be surprised how often that is the case.

In short, as a technician going for certification, you are laying down a solid foundation for secure and fruitful employment in exciting fields. That same desire to take control, push yourself to your limits and make life work for you will also make you exactly the sort of person that is likely to do something  special. A technician is an important person already, making dreams happen, but ahead lies a career full of opportunity for further development, excitement and fulfilment.

How to make a Spiderman-style graphene silk thrower for emergency services

I quite like Spiderman movies, and having the ability to fire a web at a distant object or villain has its appeal. Since he fires web from his forearm, it must be lightweight to withstand the recoil, and to fire enough to hold his weight while he swings, it would need to have extremely strong fibers. It is therefore pretty obvious that the material of choice when we build such a thing will be graphene, which is even stronger than spider silk (though I suppose a chemical ejection device making spider silk might work too). A thin graphene thread is sufficient to hold him as he swings so it could fit inside a manageable capsule.

So how to eject it?

One way I suggested for making graphene threads is to 3D print the graphene, using print nozzles made of carbon nanotubes and using a very high-speed modulation to spread the atoms at precise spacing so they emerge in the right physical patterns and attach appropriate positive or negative charge to each atom as they emerge from the nozzles so that they are thrown together to make them bond into graphene. This illustration tries to show the idea looking at the nozzles end on, but shows only a part of the array:printing graphene filamentsIt doesn’t show properly that the nozzles are at angles to each other and the atoms are ejected in precise phased patterns, but they need to be, since the atoms are too far apart to form graphene otherwise so they need to eject at the right speed in the right directions with the right charges at the right times and if all that is done correctly then a graphene filament would result. The nozzle arrangements, geometry and carbon atom sizes dictate that only narrow filaments of graphene can be produced by each nozzle, but as the threads from many nozzles are intertwined as they emerge from the spinneret, so a graphene thread would be produced made from many filaments. Nevertheless, it is possible to arrange carbon nanotubes in such a way and at the right angle, so provided we can get the high-speed modulation and spacing right, it ought to be feasible. Not easy, but possible. Then again, Spiderman isn’t real yet either.

The ejection device would therefore be a specially fabricated 3D print head maybe a square centimeter in area, backed by a capsule containing finely powdered graphite that could be vaporized to make the carbon atom stream through the nozzles. Some nice lasers might be good there, and some cool looking electronic add-ons to do the phasing and charging. You could make this into one heck of a cool gun.

How thick a thread do we need?

Assuming a 70kg (154lb) man and 2g acceleration during the swing, we need at least 150kg breaking strain to have a small safety margin, bearing in mind that if it breaks, you can fire a new thread. Steel can achieve that with 1.5mm thick wire, but graphene’s tensile strength is 300 times better than steel so 0.06mm is thick enough. 60 microns, or to put it another way, roughly 140 denier, although that is a very quick guess. That means roughly the same sort of graphene thread thickness is needed to support our Spiderman as the nylon used to make your backpack. It also means you could eject well over 10km of thread from a 200g capsule, plenty. Happy to revise my numbers if you have better ones. Google can be a pain!

How fast could the thread be ejected?

Let’s face it. If it can only manage 5cm/s, it is as much use as a chocolate flamethrower. Each bond in graphene is 1.4 angstroms long, so a graphene hexagon is about 0.2nm wide. We would want our graphene filament to eject at around 100m/s, about the speed of a crossbow bolt. 100m/s = 5 x 10^11 carbon atoms ejected per second from each nozzle, in staggered phasing. So, half a terahertz. Easy! That’s well within everyday electronics domains. Phew! If we can do better, we can shoot even faster.

We could therefore soon have a graphene filament ejection device that behaves much like Spiderman’s silk throwers. It needs some better engineers than me to build it, but there are plenty of them around.

Having such a device would be fun for sports, allowing climbers to climb vertical rock faces and overhangs quickly, or to make daring leaps and hope the device works to save them from certain death. It would also have military and police uses. It might even have uses in road accident prevention, yanking pedestrians away from danger or tethering cars instantly to slow them extra quickly. In fact, all the emergency services would have uses for such devices and it could reduce accidents and deaths. I feel confident that Spiderman would think of many more exciting uses too.

Producing graphene silk at 100m/s might also be pretty useful in just about every other manufacturing industry. With ultra-fine yarns with high strength produced at those speeds, it could revolutionize the fashion industry too.

Ultrasound scan bodysuit

You’ve seen ultrasound scans of pregnant women that show grainy pictures of the foetus inside so I won’t bother pasting one here and the appropriate ones are all copyrighted anyway. Medical imaging focuses on checking whether Baby is OK and reassuring the mum, but have they never heard of Instagram and Facebook? Duh! Sure, a mum-to-be can get a printout and hold it in front of her tummy, but it’s 2015!

The idea is that a woman could wear a bodysuit that houses an array of very low power ultrasonic transducers and detectors which that would allow a scan over a long period, and the bodysuit would also house a cute OLED display window to have a look inside. The transducers would be low power because in spite of ultrasound scans being a normal part of pregnancy today, there have been a few concerns about safety in the past, so even if a single scan is safe, having many of them every day might not be, so the lower the power the better, and the more transducers and receivers that are available, the better that picture could be. A periodic low power pulse from each transducer is what I’d imagine and the sensors would use the data from each pulse to improve the image, which would only change slowly over time – we’re not after heartbeat monitoring here, we’re looking for Instagram pics of Baby. State of the art imaging technology should then allow a nice 3D picture of the foetus to be built up over time. There is no hurry if the woman is wearing it for hours. Having got such an image, of course the proud mum will want it on her Instagram and Facebook pages, so obviously a web link should be in the bodysuit too, or at least a bluetooth link to Mum’s mobile, but she might also want it on a display built into the bodysuit so she can show off her baby in situ so to speak. If she doesn’t want the OLED display in the suit because maternity bodysuits look crap, she could wear a smartphone pouch belt and use that.

OK, back to work.

The future of make-up

I was digging through some old 2002 powerpoint slides for an article on active skin and stumbled across probably the worst illustration I have ever done, though in my defense, I was documenting a great many ideas that day and spent only a few minutes on it:

smart makeup

If a woman ever looks like this, and isn’t impersonating a bald Frenchman, she has more problems to worry about than her make-up. The pic does however manage to convey the basic principle, and that’s all that is needed for a technical description. The idea is that her face can be electronically demarked into various makeup regions and the makeup on those regions can therefore adopt the appropriate colour for that region. In the pic ‘nanosomes’ wasn’t a serious name, but a sarcastic take on the cosmetics industry which loves to take scientific sounding words and invent new ones that make their products sound much more high tech than they actually are. Nanotech could certainly play a role, but since the eye can’t discern features smaller than 0.1mm, it isn’t essential. This is no longer just an idea, companies are now working on development of smart makeup, and we already have prototype electronic tattoos, one of the layers I used for my active skin but again based on an earlier vision.

The original idea didn’t use electronics, but simply used self-organisation tech I’d designed in 1993 on an electronic DNA project. Either way would work, but the makeup would be different for each.

The electronic layer, if required, would most likely be printed onto the skin at a beauty salon, would be totally painless, last weeks and could take only a few minutes to print. It extends IoT to the face.

Both mechanisms could use makeup containing flat plates that create colour by diffraction the same way the scales on a butterfly does. That would make an excellent colour pallet. Beetles produce colour a different way and that would work too. Or we could copy squids or cuttlefish. Nature has given us many excellent start points for biomimetics, and indeed the self-organisation principles were stolen from nature too. Nature used hormone gradients to help your cells differentiate when you were an embryo. If nature can arrange the rich microscopic detail of every part of your face, then similar techniques can certainly work for a simple surface layer of make-up. Having the electronic underlay makes self organisation easier but it isn’t essential. There are many ways to implement self organisation in makeup and only some of them require any electronics at all, and some of those would use electronic particles embedded in the make-up rather than an underlay.

An electronic underlay can be useful to provide the energy for a transition too, and that allows the makeup to change colour on command. That means in principle that a woman could slap the makeup all over her face and touch a button on her digital mirror (which might simply be a tablet or smart phone) and the make-up would instantly change to be like the picture she selected. With suitable power availability, the make-up could be a full refresh rate video display, and we might see teenagers walking future streets wearing kaleidoscopic make-up that shows garish cartoon video expressions and animates their emoticons. More mature women might choose different appearances for different situations and they could be selected manually via an app or gesture or automatically by predetermined location settings.

Obviously, make-up is mostly used on the face, but once it becomes the basis of a smear-on computer display, it could be used on any part of the body as a full touch sensitive display area, e.g. the forearm.

Although some men already wear makeup, many more might use smart make-up as its techie nature makes it more acceptable.

The future of washing machines

Ultrasonic washing ball

Ultrasonic washing ball

For millennia, people washed clothes by stirring, hitting, squeezing and generally agitating them in rivers or buckets of water. The basic mechanism is to loosen dirt particles and use the water to wash them away or dissolve them.

Mostly, washing machines just automate the same process, agitating clothes in water, sometimes with detergent, to remove dirt from the fabric. Most use detergent to help free the dirt particles but more recently, some use ultrasound to create micro-cavitation bubbles and when they collapse, the shock waves help release the particles. That means the machines can clean at lower temperatures with little or no detergent.

It occurred to me that we don’t really need the machine to tumble the clothes. A ball about the size of a grapefruit could contain batteries and a set of ultrasonic transducers and could be simply chucked in a bucket with the clothes. It could create the bubbles and clean the clothes. Some basic engineering has to be done to make it work but it is entirely feasible.

One of the problems is that ultrasound doesn’t penetrate very far. To solve that, two mechanisms can be used in parallel. One is to let the ball roam around the clothes, and that could be done by changing its density by means of a swim bladder and using gravity to move it up and down, or maybe by adding a few simple paddles or cilia so it can move like a bacterium or by changing its shape so that as it moves up and down, it also moves sideways. The second mechanism is to use phased array ultrasonic transducers so that the beams can be steered and interfere constructively, thereby focusing energy and micro-cavitation generation around the bucket in a chosen pattern.

Making such a ball could be much cheaper than a full sized washing machine, making it ideal for developing countries. Transducers are cheap, and the software to drive them and steer the beams is easy enough and replicable free of charge once developed.

It would contain a rechargeable battery that could use a simple solar panel charging unit (which obviously could be used to generate power for other purposes too).

Such a device could bring cheap washing machine capability to millions of people who can’t afford a full sized washing machine or who are not connected to electricity supplies. It would save time, water and a great deal of drudgery at low expense.



The future of liberty

I was born in 1960. I had an enjoyable childhood, my friends and I doing all the sorts of things young boys did then – playing games, climbing trees, exploring, building hideouts, making dams, vandalizing derelict houses, making crop circles, playing with knives and matches and so on. I was free, and I enjoyed life to the full. I never did anyone any significant harm at all, and had a ball of a time until I discovered girls. Even then, it was only a slow and partial decline into the complexity and mixed emotions of adulthood.

In some ways I envy the kids of today with their access to the net and computers and high-tech, but I don’t envy them at all in terms of liberty. I don’t think the world is anything like as free as it was. Oppression lurks everywhere. Playgrounds are censored of anything remotely dangerous. Games are rapidly being censored of hard contact, and of competition. School lunch boxes are being checked to make sure they don’t contain sugary snacks. Salt, fat, and sugar levels in foods are all being reduced, entire food groups oppressed, everything in an increasing range of national restaurant or sandwich chains has to be Halal. Soon we’ll all have to live on lettuce.

It is almost impossible to buy a wide range of chemicals that used to be freely available, and even though I can understand why, it is still a reduction of freedom. Ditto sharp knives.

Lots of places are blocked off in case a determined kid could hurt themselves, lots of activities cancelled because of insurance and licensing issues, an indirect form of oppression perhaps but a loss of freedom certainly.

Everything online is monitored all the time, by numerous governments and large companies. Most physical activities are likely to be monitored by some CCTV or other. We’d never have dared to do much of what we did if CCTV had been everywhere back then. More importantly, even if a few things we did were technically outlawed, the worst the police would ever have done would be to threaten to tell our parents if we didn’t stop – we never did anything that bad.

Today, kids need to worry about getting a criminal record if they so much as make a nasty comment at another kid, in the playground or online or by text. They don’t have to burn the school down or beat other kids up to get in trouble now. Making a negative comment about someone else’s appearance or gender or sexuality or race or religion is quite enough, and that all adds up to quite a lot of rules for a young kid to keep in mind 24-7. I don’t think there is any exaggeration in saying that a 5-year-old today has to worry far more about their behavior at school than I did until I’d graduated from university.

As a director of my own company, I can write my blogs without any pressure from company brand-enforcers or personnel, and I don’t have to worry about appraisals. Theoretically, nobody tells me what to write. But I still have to self-censor just like everyone else. I have to be very careful how I phrase things if I am writing about any minority, I often have to avoid mentioning unfortunate facts or statistics that might later be considered by someone to put them in a negative light, and I steer well away from some topics altogether. I don’t need to list sensitive topics, you have to be careful around them just as much as I do.

As a kid, I was marginally aware of the existence of the police and the theoretical possibility of being caught if we did something too naughty. For me, it’s only occasionally irritating having to obey the law – I don’t actually want to commit crime anyway, so until recently it was only things like too low speed limits where the law itself was the real constraint to my freedom. Now the potential for overenthusiastic police to investigate any comment that might be deemed by anyone to be slightly offensive to anyone else means an oppression field exists around every keyboard. Orwell was right on all but dates.

It often seems that the official police are the least of our worries though. The real police are the social networks and the web. If you tweet something and it annoys some people, you will soon feel the wrath, even if it is a simple statement of fact or an innocent opinion. Even if it is entirely legal, if it falls into any of dozens of sensitive areas it might well jeopardize your next job, or the one after that, and it will likely stay there for ever. Or it might result in some busybody making a complaint to the police who do seem rather too politically correct and in spite of ‘the cuts’ seem to manage to find resources to police a wide range of things that were considered well outside the domain of the law until recently.

I’ve said it many times, but as people stopped believing in God, they didn’t stop being religious. Political correctness is simply one of the traits of 21st century piety. The very same people are politically correct today as were the holier-than-thou types looking down at everyone else in church a few decades ago. Now, the platform for gossip or petitions or many other means to undermine you is the net, but the potential audience is far bigger. The problem isn’t the religious nuts in a local church any more, it is a global church with multiple religions and a wide variety of religious nuts. If you tweet something, you may get retaliation from people anywhere in the world.

For me, the thought police are the biggest threat to liberty, and they threaten it globally. Government everywhere wants to close down any discussion that might cause tension between communities. Some even want to close down scientific debates such as on climate change. The UK, the USA, even Australia are all badly infected with the same libertyphobia, the same preference of oppression over liberty. Much of the media is highly complicit in wave after wave of censorship, even as they fight against other areas of censorship. Freedom of speech no longer exists, however much our leaders try to pretend they are protecting it.

Universities are following enthusiastically too. Several times recently speakers have been barred from universities because their message didn’t align with the political correctness there. It is shameful that institutions that sprung up to educate and debate and further knowledge are complicit in restricting and perverting it. It is even more worrying that it is often the student unions leading the closing down of freedom of speech. If you are only free to say one thing, you are not free at all.

Technology today is infinitely better than when I was a kid. In so many ways, the world is a far better place. On liberty, we have gone backwards.

I can draw only one conclusion: the future of liberty is a gilded cage.



An ultra-cheap future transport system.

transport system

Some of my followers might remember this idea I invented way back in 2005, and have blogged a few times since, such as in


The idea is simple enough: use a linear induction motor built into a rubber mat laid out on a bike lane to drag a metal plate attached to the bike front forks. The bike moves faster with less effort (though you can still put in as much effort as you want), and you get to the office less sweaty. Since your bike goes fast, the cars won’t need to endanger you by overtaking in unsuitable locations. The mat is laid out overnight and plugged into a nearby lamp post for electric supply. This was much more nicely illustrated by a proper illustrator in a report I just did with Hewden, the equipment hire firm:


I’ve since thought about using the same idea for the larger transport pods, which we imagined as self-driving vehicles in the report and picture.  There is no reason at all why a scaled-up version couldn’t be added to them too (just imagine them with a plate underneath to drag them along), then you don’t need the engine and once you go down that path of thinking, lots of other things start falling out. Read on.

Important note: no endorsement of any of this content by Hewden or any other company is implied. If you don’t like any of what follows, blame me and Futurizon Limited.

I think we may be about to see the biggest disruption of any industry. The transport industry is ripe for three waves of disruption. It knows all about the first two but seems to have totally missed the third, and yet it could be just a few years away. Every part of the industry will be strongly affected and some of it will be wiped out – whether it’s vehicle manufacture, servicing, fuel, spare parts, tires, brakes, or driving, it will change beyond recognition.

In the first wave, the internal combustion engine is starting slowly to give way to hybrids and all-electric vehicles, with talk of fuel cells, hydrogen, super-capacitors and so on. This wave is very well known and already well absorbed into every industry strategy. This week I helped promote the ‘go ultra low’ campaign. I am all in favor of using electricity instead of burning fuels wherever economically feasible, especially in city areas, even if the electricity comes from fossil fuel power stations. People should breathe clean air, not air full of exhaust gases and particulates.

The second and related wave is the push towards self-driving vehicles. Again, everyone that needs to probably already knows all they need to about it. They certainly have no excuse if it affects them and it still manages to catch them by surprise. Cars driven by AI coupled to sensors monitoring everything around the car can react in microseconds and talk to each other, so they can drive very close front and back and side by side so roads can hold 5-15 times more cars, all driving at a good speed. They can interleave automatically at junctions without even needing to slow down significantly instead of being stuck behind someone who is waiting for an invitation in triplicate to arrive signed by the Queen before they proceed. Self driving cars would not eliminate congestion, but they would very greatly reduce it, almost eliminate accidents, save pollution and resources and be far more socially inclusive than buses or trains. They have great potential to improve our lives in many ways, but obviously would make a lot of drivers redundant. They would also shift power from conventional car manufacturers to IT companies who are best placed to develop the intelligence and control systems. No surprises there at all, we read this stuff every day now.

However, we don’t even need self-driving cars. They are barely out of the lab, lawyers are still arguing over how insurance and liability for accidents should work, and already their end is in sight. Self-driving cars could be the next Betamax.

The third wave is driverless vehicles that don’t even need an engine, or batteries, or even supercapacitors, or the huge expenses for all the sensor equipment and onboard computers and all the other electronics. They don’t need much in the way of electronics or electrics at all. We might have the first buses in history that are simpler than a bus shelter.

This 3rd wave won’t even be electric vehicles!

Forgive my use of powerpoint graphics, but with generic vehicles, boxes make a good start point anyway, vehicle designers can design them any which way they like:


This wave will reduce the vehicle to little more than a moving box. It might have comfy seats and air conditioning added, but apart from that, it doesn’t need much else. Really it doesn’t. They could have wheels, and that would reduce electricity requirements somewhat, but then wheels would cost more and bring other issues, so they will be optional and we all know future cars are meant to hover anyway. If they do have wheels, they would still use the plates near the road surface just as the non-wheel versions. There is no need for brakes on the wheels if there is a long braking pad on the road surface for emergencies. One of my first ever engineering jobs was designing an electromagnetic braking system that pulled a brake pad onto another using magnetic field. If it worked in 1982, it will work in 2020.

The most basic version of such a vehicle would be literally an empty box with three pads on the base. It would be used for carrying goods. Two of the pads would levitate the vehicle, propel it, steer it and stop it. The third pad would be a high friction pad that would stop the vehicle very rapidly if necessary. That’s it. This kind of vehicle would only cost whatever it costs to make a thin plastic or carbon fiber box and stick two thin strips of metal on the base and a strip of brake pad. $200 is a reasonable estimate. For people transport, cost depends on the level of comfort needed. It won’t crash, so a minimum requirement is a plastic seat and a safety belt to stop you falling off, shaped to sit on the pads underneath and nest easily into the one in front for storage. Again, that could easily be mass-produced for $200.


Higher comfort versions could be made of course, where the passengers are fully enclosed, sound insulated and air conditioned, sitting on nice comfy leather seats on nice soft suspension. Even then, they still don’t need any engine or battery, or any electrics other than lighting, sound cancellation and air conditioning system. But there is nothing to stop car manufacturers continuing to make high luxury cabins if they want, there just might not be much of a market for them.

Lots of the electronics in modern cars is not really needed. We already have enough computing capability in our mobiles to do all our entertainment, navigation, location, comms between vehicles, all the IoT management. Your phone knows where it is, can get you all the media and comms you can eat, and can do the noise cancellation too. Decor is irrelevant once we have augmented reality – you can sit in a blank box and make it look as if you are in any place or any vehicle you want.

Propulsion doesn’t have to come from an engine, not even an electric motor. Decades ago the first linear induction transport system was built and now there are lots of trains using that mechanism, some travelling at very high speed. However, technology has moved on. We don’t need a huge rail for our boxes to sit on. It’s easy to suspend the box on strong magnetic fields and those fields can be produced and shaped easily, especially using graphene or superconductive materials, but perfectly adequately using conventional materials and strong permanent magnets. Position the plates on the base of the box in nicely shaped magnetic wells and they will stay there. The magnetic wells can be shaped as the vehicle goes along to direct it any way it needs to go. The passenger’s mobile knows where the passenger wants to go and can talk direct to the cloud based management system, which can control invisible ‘points’ in an invisible re-configurable ‘railway’ beneath the vehicle. If there is no passenger and only freight on board, the management system still knows what to do with each box and can navigate it correctly. So it is a travelling magnetic well drive. Steering the wells steers the cars or pods. It doesn’t have to use classic linear induction motors, it just needs to be able to move magnetic wells. Linear induction motors are one way of doing that, but anything that can shape a magnetic well for the pods to sit in, and make them travel along, will do. There are lots of ways to skin a cat, so they say.

A factory-produced mat can be laid out on a stretch of road overnight, plugged in to an electricity supply, and these vehicles could be carried on it the next day. Vehicles that need to slow down could have their kinetic energy recovered and transferred to others that need to accelerate. Total energy costs would be low.

All the benefits of self-driving cars would still hold. The vehicles can still be millimeters apart in each direction so could still reap all the congestion benefits, along with virtually zero drag. Not needing any engine, motor or battery or capacitor bank on board would greatly reduce the amount of resources needed to make a vehicle and the energy needed to propel it. Recognizing that almost all the electronics needed sits happily inside a mobile saves a lot more resources.

Grabbing a vehicle would be done by direct discussion between the mobile and city transport system. Any empty vehicle would simply pull over, you get in and get off at your destination. Cost could be low enough to absorb into normal city running costs. If vehicles are designed to nest into each other like supermarket trolleys, and if they really only cost about the same, they would require minimal storage space, liberating car parks and taxi ranks for other uses.

So our vehicles really could be just simple boxes with minimal additions for basic comfort or high luxury. On nice days, they could be open, on rainy days, you pull the hood over. In colder climes, there might be sides and doors.

Here’s a quick summary of the key points:


Internet-of-things is enabling the systems needed to track obstacles such as pedestrians, linking to ubiquitous sensors and cameras, so all the safety side is entirely feasible too without having to put it in the vehicle. Our mobiles and digital jewellery will work with lots of different kinds of security systems to ensure that pods don’t go anywhere without knowing who is or what is on board, preventing terrorists from filling them up with explosives and sending them to a target. Delivery pods would only open when properly authorised. Suspicious passengers or vehicles could be locked and routed automatically to safe inspection points.

I’m not going to build this, but someone will. If it’s you, buy me a beer when you get rich and make a donation to a homeless people’s charity. No new physics is required. As graphene becomes commercially available cheaply, as it will, it will become very cheap to put all the circuitry into cheap mats that can be laid out to do the work. Thieves won’t steal mats that only have carbon in them, whereas if they use lots of copper wiring, they might try. But understand that there is absolutely nothing to prevent someone starting development tomorrow and implementing this within a few years. This should be easier to build than self driving cars.

Reconfigurable circuits have been with us decades too, so rearranging the circuits to route each pod the right way at each junction is no problem. Electronic control systems too. A few bits of software need to be written, but then a simple box achieves exactly the same functionality as a self-driving car 100 times the cost.

So basically, conventional vehicles can be replaced by simpler and cheaper boxes. No engine, no fuel, no wheels, no suspension, no mechanical parts other than optional doors and sliding roofs, just comfy seats and life support systems. Almost all the frills via augmented reality and whatever else your future smartphones do. All the system management and control and data collection ditto.

In new cities, roads could be built with such a system in mind, with less street furniture and clutter. They would have clean air. Cheap and fast transport would encourage people to travel more, socialize more, live more, be happier. Cultural life would improve. Retrofitting it to existing cities would be easy too, just laying out factory-produced mats and plugging them into electric supply. With such ultra low costs, it would be the obvious choice for developing countries, helping to reduce CO2 production and demands on resources.

Lots of industries would be affected. We won’t need as much lithium of course, since these vehicles need no batteries. We won’t need as much steel, or aluminium, and we can recycle plastic to make the bodies and seats.

All the benefits of a self-driving car system at a tiny fraction of the price. What’s not to like?