Category Archives: architecture

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.


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?

2045: Constructing the future


Today is the day Marty Mc’Fly time traveled 30 years forwards to in ‘Back to the Future 2’. In recognition of that, equipment rental firm Hewden commissioned me to produce a report on what the world will look like in 2045, 30 years on from now. It considers construction technology as well as general changes in cities and buildings. The report is called 2045: Constructing the future and you can get a full copy from Here are a few of the highlights:

Report Highlights

High use of super-strong carbon-based materials, including ultra-high buildings such as spaceports up to 30km tall. Superlight materials will even enable decorative floating structures.


Greatly increased safety thanks to AI, robotics and total monitoring via drones

Half human, half machine workers will be common as exoskeletons allow workers to wear sophisticated hydraulic equipment.


Upskilled construction workers will enjoy better safety, better job satisfaction and better pay.

Augmented reality will be useful in construction and to allow cheap buildings to have elaborate appearance.

Smart makes buildings cheap – with tiny sensors, augmented reality, energy harvesting coatings, less wiring and no windows, buildings can become very cheap at the same time as becoming better.

A potential architectural nightmare

I read in the papers that Google’s boss has rejected ‘boring’ plans for their London HQ. Hooray! Larry Page says he wants something that will be worthy of standing 100 years. I don’t always agree with Google but I certainly approve on this occasion. Given their normal style choices for other buildings, I have every confidence that their new building will be gorgeous, but what if I’m wrong?

In spite of the best efforts of Prince Charles, London has become a truly 21st century city. The new tall buildings are gorgeous and awe-inspiring as they should be. Whether they will be here in 100 years I don’t much care, but they certainly show off what can be done today, rather than poorly mimicking what could be done in the 16th century.

I’ve always loved modern architecture since I was a child (I like some older styles too, especially Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia in Barcelona). Stainless steel and glass are simple materials but used well, they can make beautiful structures. Since the Lloyds building opened up the new era, many impressive buildings have appeared. Modern materials have very well-known physical properties and high manufacturing consistency, so can be used at their full engineering potential.

Materials technology is developing quickly and won’t slow down any time soon. Recently discovered materials such as graphene will dramatically improve what can be done. Reliable electronics will too. If you could be certain that a device will always perform properly even when there is a local power cut, and is immune to hacking, then ultra-fast electromagnetic lifts could result. You could be accelerated downwards at 2.5g and the lift could rotate and slow you down at 0.5g in the slowing phase, then you would feel a constant weight all the way down but would reach high speed on a long descent. Cables just wouldn’t be able to do such a thing when we get building that are many kilometers high.

Google could only build with materials that exist now or could be reliable enough for building use by construction time. They can’t use graphene tension members or plasma windows or things that won’t even be invented for decades. Whatever they do, the materials and techniques will not remain state of the art for long. That means there is even more importance in making something that looks impressive. Technology dates quickly, style lasts much longer. So for possibly the first time ever, I’d recommend going for impressive style over substance.

There is an alternative; to go for a design that is adaptable, that can change as technology permits. That is not without penalty though, because making something that has to be adaptive restricts the design options.

I discussed plasma glass in:

I don’t really know if it will be feasible, but it might be.

Carbon foam could be made less dense than air, or even helium for that matter, so could make buildings with sections that float (a bit like the city in the game Bioshock Infinite).

Dynamic magnetic levitation could allow features that hover or move about. Again, this would need ultra-reliable electronics or else things would be falling on people. Lightweight graphene or carbon nanotube composite panels would provide both structural strength and the means to conduct the electricity to make the magnetic fields.

Light emission will remain an important feature. We already see some superb uses of lighting, but as the technology to produce light continues to improve, we will see ever more interesting and powerful effects. LEDs and lasers dominate today, and holograms are starting to develop again, but none of these existed until half a century ago. Even futurologists can only talk about things that exist at least in concept already, but many of the things that will dominate architecture in 50-100 years have probably not even been thought of yet. Obviously, I can’t list them. However, with a base level assumption that we will have at the very least free-floating panels and holograms floating around the building, and very likely various plasma constructions too, the far future building will be potentially very visually stimulating.

It will therefore be hard for Google to make a building today that would hold its own against what we can build in 50 or 100 years. Hard, but not impossible. Some of the most impressive structures in the world were built hundreds or even thousands of years ago.

A lighter form of adaptability is to use augmented reality. Buildings could have avatars just as people can. This is where the Google dream building could potentially become an architectural nightmare if they make another glass-style error.

A building might emit a 3D digital aura designed by its owners, or the user might have one superimposed by a third-party digital architecture service, based on their own architectural preferences, or digital architectural overlays could be hijacked by marketers or state services as just another platform to advertise. Clearly, this form of adaptation cannot easily be guaranteed to stay in the control of the building owners.

On the other hand, this one is for Google. Google and advertising are well acquainted. Maybe they could use their entire building surface as a huge personalised augmented reality advertising banner. They will know by image search who all the passers-by are, will know all aspects of their lives, and can customize ads to their desires as they walk past.

So the nightmare for the new Google building is not that the building will be boring, but that it is invisible, replaced by a personalized building-sized advertisement.


Laser spirit level with marked line

Another day, another idea. It probably already exists but I couldn’t find one. If it isn’t already patented, feel free to develop it.

Spirit level

Home automation. A reality check.

Home automation is much in the news at the moment now that companies are making the chips-with-everything kit and the various apps.

Like 3D, home automation comes and goes. Superficially it is attractive, but the novelty wears thin quickly. It has been possible since the 1950s to automate a home. Bill Gates notably built a hugely expensive automated home 20 years ago. There are rarely any new ideas in the field, just a lot of recycling and minor tweaking.  Way back in 2000, I wrote what was even then just a recycling summary blog-type piece for my website bringing together a lot of already well-worn ideas. And yet it could easily have come from this years papers. Here it is, go to the end of the italicised text for my updating commentary:

Chips everywhere

 August 2000

 The chips-with-everything lifestyle is almost inevitable. Almost everything can be improved by adding some intelligence to it, and since the intelligence will be cheap to make, we will take advantage of this potential. In fact, smart ways of doing things are often cheaper than dumb ways, a smart door lock may be much cheaper than a complex key based lock. A chip is often cheaper than dumb electronics or electromechanics. However, electronics no longer has a monopoly of chip technology. Some new chips incorporate tiny electromechanical or electrochemical devices to do jobs that used to be done by more expensive electronics. Chips now have the ability to analyse chemicals, biological matter or information. They are at home processing both atoms and bits.

 These new families of chips have many possible uses, but since they are relatively new, most are probably still beyond our imagination. We already have seen the massive impact of chips that can do information processing. We have much less intuition regarding the impact in the physical world.

 Some have components that act as tiny pumps to allow drugs to be dispensed at exactly the right rate. Others have tiny mirrors that can control laser beams to make video displays. Gene chips have now been built that can identify the presence of many different genes, allowing applications from rapid identification to estimation of life expectancy for insurance reasons. (They are primarily being use to tell whether people have a genetic disorder so that their treatment can be determined correctly).

 It is easy to predict some of the uses such future chips might have around the home and office, especially when they become disposably cheap. Chips on fruit that respond to various gases may warn when the fruit is at its best and when it should be disposed of. Other foods might have electronic use-by dates that sound an alarm each time the cupboard or fridge is opened close to the end of their life. Other chips may detect the presence of moulds or harmful bacteria. Packaging chips may have embedded cooking instructions that communicate directly with the microwave, or may contain real-time recipes that appear on the kitchen terminal and tell the chef exactly what to do, and when. They might know what other foodstuffs are available in the kitchen, or whether they are in stock locally and at what price. Of course, these chips could also contain pricing and other information for use by the shops themselves, replacing bar codes and the like and allowing the customer just to put all the products in a smart trolley and walk out, debiting their account automatically. Chips on foods might react when the foods are in close proximity, warning the owner that there may be odour contamination, or that these two could be combined well to make a particularly pleasant dish. Cooking by numbers. In short, the kitchen could be a techno-utopia or nightmare depending on taste.

 Mechanical switches can already be replaced by simple sensors that switch on the lights when a hand is waved nearby, or when someone enters a room. In future, switches of all kinds may be rather more emotional, glowing, changing colour or shape, trying to escape, or making a noise when a hand gets near to make them easier or more fun to use. They may respond to gestures or voice commands, or eventually infer what they are to do from something they pick up in conversation. Intelligent emotional objects may become very commonplace. Many devices will act differently according to the person making the transaction. A security device will allow one person entry, while phoning the police when someone else calls if they are a known burglar. Others may receive a welcome message or be put in videophone contact with a resident, either in the house or away.

 It will be possible to burglar proof devices by registering them in a home. They could continue to work while they are near various other fixed devices, maybe in the walls, but won’t work when removed. Moving home would still be possible by broadcasting a digitally signed message to the chips. Air quality may be continuously analysed by chips, which would alert to dangers such as carbon monoxide, or excessive radiation, and these may also monitor for the presence of bacteria or viruses or just pollen. They may be integrated into a home health system which monitors our wellbeing on a variety of fronts, watching for stress, diseases, checking our blood pressure, fitness and so on. These can all be unobtrusively monitored. The ultimate nightmare might be that our fridge would refuse to let us have any chocolate until the chips in our trainers have confirmed that we have done our exercise for the day.

 Some chips in our home would be mobile, in robots, and would have a wide range of jobs from cleaning and tidying to looking after the plants. Sensors in the soil in a plant pot could tell the robot exactly how much water and food the plant needs. The plant may even be monitored by sensors on the stem or leaves. 

The global positioning system allows chips to know almost exactly where they are outside, and in-building positioning systems could allow positioning down to millimetres. Position dependent behaviour will therefore be commonplace. Similarly, events can be timed to the precision of atomic clock broadcasts. Response can be super-intelligent, adjusting appropriately for time, place, person, social circumstances, environmental conditions, anything that can be observed by any sort of sensor or predicted by any sort of algorithm. 

With this enormous versatility, it is very hard to think of anything where some sort of chip could not make an improvement. The ubiquity of the chip will depend on how fast costs fall and how valuable a task is, but we will eventually have chips with everything.

So that was what was pretty everyday thinking in the IT industry in 2000. The articles I’ve read recently mostly aren’t all that different.

What has changed since is that companies trying to progress it are adding new layers of value-skimming. In my view some at least are big steps backwards. Let’s look at a couple.

Networking the home is fine, but doing so so that you can remotely adjust the temperature across the network or run a bath from the office is utterly pointless. It adds the extra inconvenience of having to remember access details to an account, regularly updating security details, and having to recover when the company running it loses all your data to a hacker, all for virtually no benefit.

Monitoring what the user does and sending the data back to the supplier company so that they can use it for targeted ads is another huge step backwards. Advertising is already at the top of the list of things we already have quite enough. We need more resources, more food supply, more energy, more of a lot of stuff. More advertising we can do without. It adds costs to everything and wastes our time, without giving anything back.

If a company sells home automation stuff and wants to collect the data on how I use it, and sell that on to others directly or via advertising services, it will sit on their shelf. I will not buy it, and neither will most other people. Collecting the data may be very useful, but I want to keep it, and I don’t want others to have access to it. I want to pay once, and then own it outright with full and exclusive control and data access. I do not want to have to create any online accounts, not have to worry about network security or privacy, not have to download frequent software updates, not have any company nosing into my household and absolutely definitely no adverts.

Another is to migrate interfaces for things onto our smartphones or tablets. I have no objection to having that as an optional feature, but I want to retain a full physical switch or control. For several years in BT, I lived in an office with a light that was controlled by a remote control, with no other switch. The remote control had dozens of buttons, yet all it did was turn the light on or off. I don’t want to have to look for a remote control or my phone or tablet in order to turn on a light or adjust temperature. I would much prefer a traditional light switch and thermostat. If they communicate by radio, I don’t care, but they do need to be physically present in the same place all the time.

Automated lights that go on and off as people enter or leave a room are also a step backwards. I have fallen victim once to one in a work toilet. If you sit still for a couple of minutes, they switch the lights off. That really is not welcome in an internal toilet with no windows.

The traditional way of running a house is not so demanding that we need a lot of assistance anyway. It really isn’t. I only spend a few seconds every day turning lights on and off or adjusting temperature. It would take longer than that on average to maintain apps to do it automatically. As for saving energy by turning heating on and off all the time, I think that is over-valued as a feature too. The air in a house doesn’t take much heat and if the building cools down, it takes a lot to get it back up again. That actually makes more strain on a boiler than running at a relatively constant low output. If the boiler and pumps have to work harder more often, they are likely to last less time, and savings would be eradicated.

So, all in all, while I can certainly see merits in adding chips to all sorts of stuff, I think their merits in home automation is being grossly overstated in the current media enthusiasm, and the downside being far too much ignored. Yes you can, but most people won’t want to and those who do probably won’t want to do nearly as much as is being suggested, and even those won’t want all the pain of doing so via service providers adding unnecessary layers or misusing their data.

Will plasma be the new glass?

Now and again, everyone gets a chance to show the true depths of their ignorance, and I suspect this is my chance, but you know what? I don’t really care. I have some good ideas as well as dumb ones, and sometimes it is too hard to know which is which. I freely admit that my physics is very rusty. However….

Plasma is essentially a highly ionised gas; lots of ions and free electrons. It conducts electricity so is ideally suited to magnetic confinement. You make a current in it, and use magnetic field interaction with that current to hold it in place.It can also hold a decent charge overall, positive or negative. That means it interacts electrostatically as well as magnetically. Electromagnetics is all one big happy field anyway.

A strong magnetic field can be made that encompasses the plasma magnetically without it needing to be surrounded by a solid object. Let’s do a thought experiment.

Start off with a sealed ball and make a small hole in it, put an electric coil around the hole, send some current through it, and make a field around that hole to stop plasma escaping. Ditto the opposite side of the ball, so now you have a tube with plasma in it, albeit a fat tube with narrow ends. Gradually make the hole diameters bigger and bigger, and the tube shorter and less curvy. Eventually you will have more or less a fat disk of plasma. The relative dimensions of the disk will depend on the intensity and control of the magnetic field, the ionisation of the plasma and any currents you make in it.

With some good physics and engineering, adequate sensing and a decent control system, I reckon it should be possible to make reasonable sized disks of plasma. So, make two of them. Put the two disks reasonable close and face to face. Arrange them so that the electric currents in the plasmas run in different directions too. If they are both similarly charged overall they will repel electrostatically and their internal magnetic fields will also interact, but the managed applied magnetic fields could stop them deforming too much. Add more disks, and we have plasma plywood. Let’s call it plasma-ply for lack of a better word.

I can’t calculate how thin this plasma-ply could be made. I suspect that with future materials such as graphene and room temperature superconductors, future remote sensing and advanced computer control systems, they could be pretty damned good. If you try to deform one of these disks, it would resist, because the magnetic and electrical interactions would create force to keep it in place. We have another name for that. We call it a force field and we see them in every space opera. If the surrounding coils and other stuff is just a think ring, as you’d expect, you’d have a round window. Maybe a smallish window, but you could use a lot of the coils to make a big window in a honeycomb structure.

So we can bin the word plasma-ply and start using the words we already have. We will have force fields and plasma windows. Plasma will be the new glass, and an important 21st century building material.

And another new book: You Tomorrow, 2nd Edition

I wrote You Tomorrow two years ago. It was my first ebook, and pulled together a lot of material I’d written on the general future of life, with some gaps then filled in. I was quite happy with it as a book, but I could see I’d allowed quite a few typos to get into the final work, and a few other errors too.

However, two years is a long time, and I’ve thought about a lot of new areas in that time. So I decided a few months ago to do a second edition. I deleted a bit, rearranged it, and then added quite a lot. I also wrote the partner book, Total Sustainability. It includes a lot of my ideas on future business and capitalism, politics and society that don’t really belong in You Tomorrow.

So, now it’s out on sale on Amazon in paper, at £9.00 and in ebook form at £3.81 (guessing the right price to get a round number after VAT is added is beyond me. Did you know that paper books don’t have VAT added but ebooks do?)

And here’s a pretty picture:


3D printing the highest skyscraper? 600km tall structures may be feasible.

What would you do with a 600km high structure? That would be hundreds of times higher than the highest ever built so far. I think it is feasible. Here I will suggest super-light, super-strong building materials that can substitute for steel and concrete that can be grown up from the base using feasibly high pressures.

I recently proposed a biomimetic technique for printing graphene filaments to make carbon fur (- in this case, for my fictional carbon-obsessed super-heroine Carbon Girl. I am using the Carbon Trio as a nice fun way to illustrate a lot of genuine carbon-related concepts for both civil and military uses, since they could make a good story at some point. Don’t be put off by the fictional setting, the actual concepts are intended to be entirely feasible. Real science makes a better foundation for good science fiction. Anyway, this is the article on how to make carbon filaments, self-organised into fur, and hence her fur coat:)

Here is the only pic I’ve drawn so far of part of the filament print head face:

printing graphene filaments

Many print heads would be spread out biomimetically over a scalable area as sparsely or densely as needed, just like fur follicles. A strong foundation with this print head on top could feasibly form the base of a very tall vertical column. If the concept as described in the fur link is adapted slightly to print the filaments into a graphene foam medium, (obviously pushed through the space between the follicles that produce the filaments) a very lightweight foam structure with long binding filaments of graphene graphene foam would result, that would essentially grow from the ground up. This could be very strong both in compression and tension, like a very fine-grained reinforced concrete, but with a tiny fraction of the weight. Given the amazing strength of graphene, it could be strong enough for our target 600km. Graphene foam is described here:

Extruding the supporting columns of a skyscraper from the ground up by hydraulically growing reinforced graphene foam would certainly be a challenging project. The highest hydraulic pressures today are around 1400 bar, 1.427 tonnes per sq cm. However, the density of graphene foam with graphene filament reinforcement could be set at any required density from below that of helium (for graphene spheres of 0.014mm with vacuum inside), to that of solid carbon if the spheres are just solid particles with no vacuum core. I haven’t yet calculated the maximum size of hollow graphene spheres that would be able to resist production pressures of 1400 bar. That would determine the overall density of the material and hence the maximum height achievable. However, even solid carbon columns only weigh 227g per metre height per sq cm of cross-section, so even that pressure would allow 6.3km tall solid columns to be hydraulically extruded. Lower densities of foam would give potentially large multiples of that.

This concrete substitute would be nowhere near as strong as basic graphene, but has the advantage that it could be grown.

(The overall listed strength of solid graphene theoretically allows up to 600km tall, which would take you well into space, perfect for launching satellites or space missions such as asteroid mining. But that is almost irrelevant, since graphene will also permit construction of the space elevator, and that solves that problem far better still. Still, space elevators would be very costly so maybe there is a place for super-tall ground-supported structures.)

But let’s look again at the pressures and densities. I think we can do a lot better than 6km. My own proposal a while back suggests how 30km tall structures could be built using graphene tube composite columns structures. I did think we’d be able to grow those.

We’d need higher pressures to extrude higher than 6km if we extruding solid columns, but these tube-based columns with graphene filament reinforced graphene foam packing would have a far lower density. The print heads in the above diagram were designed to make fur filaments but I think it is possible (though I haven’t yet done it) to redesign the print heads so that they could print the tubular structures needed for our columns. Tricky, but probably possible. The internal column structures are based on what nature uses to make trees, so are also nicely biomimetic. If we can redesign the print heads, then printing low density columns using a composite of filament reinforced foam, in between graphene tubes should work fine, up to heights well above the 30km I originally suggested. An outer low pressure foam layer can be added as the column emerges. It doesn’t have to withstand any significant pressure so can be as light as helium and add the strength needed to prevent column buckling. With the right structure, perhaps the whole 600km can be achieved that way. Certainly the figures look OK superficially, and there’s no hurry. It’s certainly worth more detailed study.

Super-tall (30km) carbon structures (graphene and nanotube mesh)

I recently blogged about a 200km moon-based structure. Here is my original earth-based concept, which could now be enhanced by filling columns with graphene foam

How about a 30km tall building? Using multilayered columns using rolled up or rippled graphene and nanotubes, in various patterned cross sections, it should be possible to make strong threads, ribbons and membranes, interwoven to make columns and arrange them into an extremely tall pyramid.

Super-tall structures for science and tourism

Think of a structure like the wood and bark of a tree, with the many tubular fine structures. Engineering can take the ideas nature gives us and optimise them using synthetic materials. Graphene and carbon nanotube will become routing architectural materials in due course. Many mesh designs and composites will be possible, and layering these to make threads, columns, cross members with various micro-structures will enable extremely strong columns to be made. If the outer layer is coated to withstand vacuum, then it will be possible to make the columns strong enough to withstand atmospheric pressure, but with an overall density the same as the surrounding air or less. Pressure is of course less of an issue higher up, so higher parts of the columns can therefore be lighter still.

We should be able to make zero weight structures in lower atmosphere, and still have atmospheric buoyancy supporting some of the weight as altitude increases.  Once buoyancy fails, the structure will have to be supported by the structure below, limiting the final achievable height.  Optimising the structures to give just enough strength at the various heights, with optimised mesh structure and maximal use of buoyancy, will enable the tallest possible structures. Very tall structures indeed could be made.

So, think of making such a structure, with three columns in a triangular cross-section meeting at 43 degrees at the top (this is the optimal angle for the strongest A frame in terms of load-bearing to weight ratio, though that is a simplistic calculation that ignores buoyancy effects, so it ‘needs more work’.

Making a wild guess, 30km tall structures may be feasible, but that is just a wild guess and I would welcome comments from any civil engineers or graphene architects. These would not be ideal for habitation, since most of the strength in the structure would be to support the upper parts of the structure itself and whatever platform loading is needed. The idea may be perfect for pressurised platforms at the top for scientific research, environmental monitoring, telescopes, space launches, tourism and so on. The extreme difference in temperature may have energy production uses too.

Getting the first 30km off the ground without needing any rocket fuel would greatly reduce space development costs, not to mention carbon and high altitude water emissions.

A simple addition to this would be to add balloons to the columns at various points to add extra buoyancy. I dare not try to calculate how much higher this would permit, but I suspect not all that much more since even with balloons, they cannot give much extra lift once the atmosphere is too thin.