Category Archives: transport

Will urbanization continue or will we soon reach peak city?

For a long time, people have been moving from countryside into cities. The conventional futurist assumption is that this trend will continue, with many mega-cities, some with mega-buildings. I’ve consulted occasionally on future buildings and future cities from a technological angle, but I’ve never really challenged the assumption that urbanization will continue. It’s always good  to challenge our assumptions occasionally, as things can change quite rapidly.

There are forces in both directions. Let’s list those that support urbanisation first.

People are gregarious. They enjoy being with other people. They enjoy eating out and having coffees with friends. They like to go shopping. They enjoy cinemas and theatre and art galleries and museums. They still have workplaces. Many people want to live close to these facilities, where public transport is available or driving times are relatively short. There are exceptions of course, but these still generally apply.

Even though many people can and do work from home sometimes, most of them still go to work, where they actually meet colleagues, and this provides much-valued social contact, and in spite of recent social trends, still provides opportunities to meet new friends and partners. Similarly, they can and do talk to friends via social media or video calls, but still enjoy getting together for real.

Increasing population produces extra pressure on the environment, and governments often try to minimize it by restricting building on green field land. Developers are strongly encouraged to build on brown field sites as far as possible.

Now the case against.

Truly Immersive Interaction

Talking on the phone, even to a tiny video image, is less emotionally rich than being there with someone. It’s fine for chats in between physical meetings of course, but the need for richer interaction still requires ‘being there’. Augmented reality will soon bring headsets that provide high quality 3D life-sized images of the person, and some virtual reality kit will even allow analogs of physical interaction via smart gloves or body suits, making social comms a bit better. Further down the road, active skin will enable direct interaction with the peripheral nervous system to produce exactly the same nerve signals as an actual hug or handshake or kiss, while active contact lenses will provide the same resolution as your retina wherever you gaze. The long term is therefore communication which has the other person effectively right there with you, fully 3D, fully rendered to the capability of your eyes, so you won’t be able to tell they aren’t. If you shake hands or hug or kiss, you’ll feel it just the same as if they were there too. You will still know they are not actually there, so it will never be quite as emotionally rich as if they were, but it can get pretty close. Close enough perhaps that it won’t really matter to most people most of the time that it’s virtual.

In the same long term, many AIs will have highly convincing personalities, some will even have genuine emotions and be fully conscious. I blogged recently on how that might happen if you don’t believe it’s possible:

None of the technology required for this is far away, and I believe a large IT company could produce conscious machines with almost human-level AI within a couple of years of starting the project. It won’t happen until they do, but when one starts trying seriously to do it, it really won’t be long. That means that as well as getting rich emotional interaction from other humans via networks, we’ll also get lots from AI, either in our homes, or on the cloud, and some will be in robots in our homes too.

This adds up to a strong reduction in the need to live in a city for social reasons.

Going to cinemas, theatre, shopping etc will also all benefit from this truly immersive interaction. As well as that, activities that already take place in the home, such as gaming will also advance greatly into more emotionally and sensory intensive experiences, along with much enhanced virtual tourism and virtual world tourism, virtual clubbing & pubbing, which barely even exist yet but could become major activities in the future.

Socially inclusive self-driving cars

Some people have very little social interaction because they can’t drive and don’t live close to public transport stops. In some rural areas, buses may only pass a stop once a week. Our primitive 20th century public transport systems thus unforgivably exclude a great many people from social inclusion, even though the technology needed to solve that has existed for many years.  Leftist value systems that much prefer people who live in towns or close to frequent public transport over everyone else must take a lot of the blame for the current epidemic of loneliness. It is unreasonable to expect those value systems to be replaced by more humane and equitable ones any time soon, but thankfully self-driving cars will bypass politicians and bureaucrats and provide transport for everyone. The ‘little old lady’ who can’t walk half a mile to wait 20 minutes in freezing rain for an uncomfortable bus can instead just ask her AI to order a car and it will pick her up at her front door and take her to exactly where she wants to go, then do the same for her return home whenever she wants. Once private sector firms like Uber provide cheap self-driving cars, they will be quickly followed by other companies, and later by public transport providers. Redundant buses may finally become extinct, replaced by better socially inclusive transport, large fleets of self-driving or driverless vehicles. People will be able to live anywhere and still be involved in society. As attendance at social events improves, so they will become feasible even in small communities, so there will be less need to go into a town to find one. Even political involvement might increase. Loneliness will decline as social involvement increases, and we’ll see many other social problems decline too.

Distribution drones

We hear a lot about upcoming redundancy caused by AI, but far less about the upside. AI might mean someone is no longer needed in an office, but it also makes it easier to set up a company and run it, taking what used to be just a hobby and making it into a small business. Much of the everyday admin and logistics can be automated Many who would never describe themselves as entrepreneurs might soon be making things and selling them from home and this AI-enabled home commerce will bring in the craft society. One of the big problems is getting a product to the customer. Postal services and couriers are usually expensive and very likely to lose or damage items. Protecting objects from such damage may require much time and expense packing it. Even if objects are delivered, there may be potential fraud with no-payers. Instead of this antiquated inefficient and expensive system, drone delivery could collect an object and take it to a local customer with minimal hassle and expense. Block-chain enables smart contracts that can be created and managed by AI and can directly link delivery to payment, with fully verified interaction video if necessary. If one happens, the other happens. A customer might return a damaged object, but at least can’t keep it and deny receipt. Longer distance delivery can still use cheap drone pickup to take packages to local logistics centers in smart crates with fully block-chained g-force and location detectors that can prove exactly who damaged it and where. Drones could be of any size, and of course self-driving cars or pods can easily fill the role too if smaller autonomous drones are inappropriate.

Better 3D printing technology will help to accelerate the craft economy, making it easier to do crafts by upskilling people and filling in some of their skill gaps. Someone with visual creativity but low manual skill might benefit greatly from AI model creation and 3D printer manufacture, followed by further AI assistance in marketing, selling and distribution. 3D printing might also reduce the need to go to town to buy some things.

Less shopping in high street

This is already obvious. Online shopping will continue to become a more personalized and satisfying experience, smarter, with faster delivery and easier returns, while high street decline accelerates. Every new wave of technology makes online better, and high street stores seem unable or unwilling to compete, in spite of my wonderful ‘6s guide’:

Those that are more agile still suffer decline of shopper numbers as the big stores fail to attract them so even smart stores will find it harder to survive.

Improving agriculture

Farming technology has doubled the amount of food production per hectare in the last few decades. That may happen again by mid-century. Meanwhile, the trend is towards higher vegetable and lower meat consumption. Even with an increased population, less land will be needed to grow our food. As well as reducing the need to protect green belts, that will also allow some of our countryside to be put under better environmental stewardship programs, returning much of it to managed nature. What countryside we have will be healthier and prettier, and people will be drawn to it more.

Improving social engineering

Some objections to green-field building can be reduced by making better use of available land. Large numbers of new homes are needed and they will certainly need some green field to be used, but given the factors already listed above, a larger number of smaller communities might be better approach. Amazingly, in spite of decades of dating technology proving that people can be matched up easily using AI, there is still no obvious use of similar technology to establish new communities by blending together people who are likely to form effective communities. Surely it must be feasible to advertise a new community building program that wants certain kinds of people in it – even an Australian style points system might work sometimes. Unless sociologists have done nothing for the past decades, they must surely know what types of people work well together by now? If the right people live close to each other, social involvement will be high, loneliness low, health improved, care costs minimized, the need for longer distance travel reduced and environmental impact minimized. How hard can it be?

Improving building technology such as 3D printing and robotics will allow more rapid construction, so that when people are ready and willing to move, property suited to them can be available soon.

Lifestyle changes also mean that homes don’t need to be as big. A phone today does what used to need half a living room of technology and space. With wall-hung displays and augmented reality, decor can be partly virtual, and even a 450 sq ft apartment is fine as a starter place, half as big as was needed a few decades ago, and that could be 3D printed and kitted out in a few days.

Even demographic changes favor smaller communities. As wealth increases, people have smaller families, i.e fewer kids. That means fewer years doing the school run, so less travel, less need to be in a town. Smaller schools in smaller communities can still access specialist lessons via the net.

Increasing wealth also encourages and enables people to a higher quality of life. People who used to live in a crowded city street might prefer a more peaceful and spacious existence in a more rural setting and will increasingly be able to afford to move. Short term millennial frustrations with property prices won’t last, as typical 2.5% annual growth more than doubles wealth by 2050 (though automation and its assorted consequences will impact on the distribution of that wealth).

Off-grid technology

Whereas one of the main reasons to live in urban areas was easy access to telecomms, energy and water supply and sewerage infrastructure, all of these can now be achieved off-grid. Mobile networks provide even broadband access to networks. Solar or wind provide easy energy supply. Water can be harvested out of the air even in arid areas ( and human and pet waste can be used as biomass for energy supply too, leaving fertilizer as residue.

There are also huge reasons that people won’t want to live in cities, and they will also cause deurbansisation.

The biggest by far in the problem of epidemics. As antibiotic resistance increases, disease will be a bigger problem. We may find good antibiotics alternatives but we may not. If not, then we may see some large cities where disease runs rampant and kills hundreds of thousands of people, perhaps even millions. Many scientists have listed pandemics among their top ten threats facing humanity. Obviously, being in a large city will incur a higher risk of becoming a victim, so once one or two incidents have occurred, many people will look for options to leave cities everywhere. Linked to this is bioterrorism, where the disease is deliberate, perhaps created in a garden shed by someone who learned the craft in one of today’s bio-hacking clubs. Disease might be aimed at a particular race, gender or lifestyle group or it may simply be designed to be as contagious and lethal as possible to everyone.

I’m still not saying we won’t have lots of people living in cities. I am saying that more people will feel less need to live in cities and will instead be able to find a small community where they can be happier in the countryside. Consequently, many will move out of cities, back to more rural living in smaller, friendlier communities that improving technology makes even more effective.

Urbanization will slow down, and may well go into reverse. We may reach peak city soon.




Self-driving bicycles

I just saw a video of a Google self-driving bike on Linked-In. It is a 2017 April Fool prank, but that just means it is fake in this instance, it doesn’t mean it couldn’t be done in real life. It is fun to watch anyway.

In 2005 I invented a solution for pulling bikes along on linear induction motor bile lanes, pulling a metal plate attached (via a hinged rod to prevent accidents) to the front forks.

The original idea was simply that the bike would be pulled along, but it would still need a rider to balance it. However, with a fairly small modification, it could self balance. All it needs is to use plates on both sides, so that the magnetic force can be varied to pull one side more than the other. If the force is instantly variable, that could be used in a simple control system both to keep the bike vertical when going straight and to steer it round bends as required, as illustrated on the right of the diagram. Therefore the bike could be self-driving.

Self-driving bikes would be good for lazy riders who don’t even want the effort of steering, but their auto-routing capability would also help any rider who simply wants navigation service, and presumably some riders with disabilities that make balancing difficult, and of course the propulsion is potentially welcome for any cyclist who doesn’t want to arrive sweaty or who is tiring of a long hill. Best of all, the bikes could find their own way to a bike park when not needed, balancing the numbers of available bikes according to local demand at any time.


Interstellar travel: quantum ratchet drive

Introductory waffle & background state of the art bit

My last blog included a note on my Mars commute system, which can propel spacecraft with people in up to 600km/s. Unfortunately, although 1000 times faster than a bullet, that is still only 0.2% of light speed and it would take about 2000 years to get to our nearest star at that speed, so we need a better solution. Star Trek uses warp drive to go faster than light, and NASA’s Alcubierre drive is the best approximation we have to that so far:

but smarter people than me say it probably won’t work, and almost certainly won’t work any time soon:

If it does work, it will need to use negative energy extracted via the Casimir effect, and if that works, so will my own invention, the Space Anchor:

The Space Anchor would also allow space dogfights like you see in Star Wars. Unless you’re a pedant like me, you probably never think about how space fighters turn in the vacuum of space when you’re watching movies, but wings obviously won’t work well with no atmosphere, and you’d need a lot of fuel to eject out the back at high thrust to turn otherwise, but the space anchor actually locks on to a point in space-time and you can pivot around it to reverse direction without using fuel, thanks to conservation of angular momentum. Otherwise, the anchor drifts with ‘local’ space time expansion and contraction, which essentially creates relativity based ‘currents’ that can pull a spacecraft along at high speed. But enough about Space Anchors. Read my novel Space Anchor to see how much fun they could be.

Space anchors might not work, being only semi-firm sci-fi based at least partly on hypothetical physics. If they don’t work, and warp drive won’t work without using massive amounts of dark energy that I don’t believe exists either, then we’re left with solar sails, laser sails, and assorted ion drives. Solar sails won’t work well too far from a star. Lasers that can power a spacecraft well outside a star system sound expensive and unworkable and the light sails that capture the light mean this could only get to about 10% light speed. Ion drives work OK for modest speeds if you have an on-board power source and some stuff to thrust out the back to get Newtonian reaction. Fancy shaped resonant cavity thrusters try to cheat maths and physics to get a reaction by using special shapes of microwave chambers,

but I’d personally put these ‘Em-drives’ in the basket with cold fusion and perpetual motion machines. Sure, there have been experiments that supposedly show they work, but so do many experiments for cold fusion and perpetual motion machines, and we know those results are just experimental or interpretational errors. Of the existing techniques that don’t contradict known physics or rely on unverified and debatable hypotheses, the light sails are best and get 10% of light speed at high expense.

A few proposed thruster-based systems use particles collected from the not-quite-empty space as the fuel source and propellant. Again, if we stretch the Casimir effect theory to near breaking point, it may be possible to use virtual particles popping in and out of existence as propellant by allowing them to appear and thrusting them before they vanish, the quantum thruster drive. My own variant of this solution is to use Casimir combs with oscillating interleaving nano-teeth that separate virtual particles before they can annihilate to prolong that time enough to make it feasible. I frankly have no idea whether this would actually work.

Better still would be if we could use a form of propulsion that doesn’t need to throw matter backwards to get reactionary force forwards. If magical microwave chambers and warp drives are no use, how about this new idea of mine:

The Quantum Ratchet Drive

You can explore other theoretical interstellar drives via Google or Wikipedia, but you won’t find my latest idea there – the Quantum Ratchet Drive. I graduated in Theoretical Physics, but this drive is more in the Hypothetical Physics Department, along with my explanations for inflation, dark matter and novel states of matter. That doesn’t mean it is wrong or won’t work though, just that I can’t prove it will work yet. Anyway, faint heart ne’er won fair maid.

You have seen pics of trains that climb steep slopes using a rack and pinion system, effectively gear wheels on a toothed rail so that they don’t slip (not the ones that use a cable). I originally called my idea the quantum rack and pinion drive because it works in a similar way, but actually, the more I think about it, the more appropriate is the analogy with a ratchet, using a gear tooth as a sort of anchor to pull against to get the next little bit of progress. It relies on the fact that fields are quantized and any system will exist in one state and then move up or down to the next quantum state, it can’t stay in between. At this point I feel I need another 50 IQ points to grasp a very slippery idea, so be patient – this is an idea in early stages of development. I’m basically trying to harness the physics that causes particles to switch quantum states, looking at the process in which quantum states change, nature’s ‘snap to grid’ approach, to make a propulsion system out of it.

If we generate an external field that interacts with the field in a nearby microscopic region of space in front of our craft then as the total field approaches a particular quantum threshold, nature will drag that region to the closest quantum state, hopefully creating a tiny force that drags the system to that state. In essence, the local quantum structure becomes a grid onto which the craft can lock. At very tiny scales obviously, but if you add enough tiny distances you eventually get big ones.

But space doesn’t have a fixed grid does it? If we just generate any old field any which way in front of our craft, no progress will happen because nature will be quite happy to have those states in any location in space so no force of movement will be generated. HOWEVER… suppose space did have such a grid, and we could use interaction of the quantum states in the grid cells and our generated field. Then we could get what we want, a toothed rail with which our gearwheels can engage.

So we just need a system that assigns local quantum states to microscopic space regions and that is our rack, then we apply a field to our pinion that is not quite enough to become that state, but is closer than any other one. At some point, there will be a small thrust towards the next state so that it can reach a local minimum energy level. Those tiny thrusts would add up.

We could use any kind of field that our future tech can generate. Our craft would have two field emitters. One produces a nice tidy waveform that maps quantum states onto the space just in front of our craft. A second emitter produces a second field that creates an interaction so that the system wants to come to rest in a region set slightly ahead of the craft’s current position. It would be like a train laying a toothed track just in front of it as it goes along, always positioning the teeth so that the train will fall into the next location.

We could certainly produce EM fields, making a sort of stepper linear induction motor on a mat created by the ship itself. What about strong or weak nuclear forces? Even if stuck with EM, maybe we use rotating nuclei or rotating atoms or molecules, which would move like a microscopic stepper motors across our pre-quantized space grid. Tiny forces acting on individual protons or electrons adding up to macroscopic forces on our spacecraft. If we’re doing it with individual atoms or nuclear particles, the regions of space we impose the fields on would be just ahead of them, not  out in front of the spacecraft. If we’re using interacting EM fields,  then we’re relying on appropriate phasing and beam intensities to do the job.

As I said, early days. Needs work. Also needs a bigger brain. Intuitively this ought to work. It ought to be capable of up to light speed. The big question is where the energy comes from. It isn’t an impulse drive and doesn’t chuck matter out of a rocket nozzle, but it might collect small particles along the way to convert into energy. Or perhaps nature contributes the energy. If so, then this could get light speed travel without fuel and limited on-board energy supply. Just like gravity pulls a train down a hill, perhaps clever phase design could arrange the grid ahead to be always ‘downhill’ in which case this might turn out to be yet another vacuum energy drive. I honestly don’t know. I’m out of my depth, but intuition suggests this shows promise for someone smarter.


Advanced land, sea, air and space transport technologies

I’ll be speaking at the Advanced Engineering conference in Helsinki at the end of May. My topic will be potential solutions for future transport, covering land, sea, air and space. These are all areas where I’ve invented new approaches. In my 1987 BT life as a performance engineer, I studied the potential to increase road capacity by a factor of 5 by using driverless pod technology, mimicking the packet switching approach we were moving towards in telecomms. This is very different from the self-driving systems currently in fashion, because dumb pods would be routed by smart infrastructure rather than having their own AI/sensor systems, so the pods could be extremely cheap and packed very closely together to get a huge performance benefit, using up to 85% of the available space. We’re now seeing a few prototypes of such dumb pod systems being trialled.

It was also obvious even in the 1980s that the same approach could be used on rail, increasing capacity from today’s typical 0.4% occupancy to 80%+, an improvement factor of 200, and that the same pods could be used on rail and road, and that on rail, pods could be clumped together to make virtual trains so that they could mix with existing conventional trains during a long transition period to a more efficient system. In the early 2000s, we realised that pods could be powered by induction coils in the road surface and more recently, with the discovery of graphene, such graphene induction devices could be very advantageous over copper or aluminium ones due to deterrence of metal theft, and also that linear induction could be used to actually propel the pods and in due course even to levitate them, so that future pods wouldn’t even need engines or wheels, let alone AI and sensor systems on board.

We thus end up with the prospect of a far-future ground transport system that is 5-15 times road capacity and up to 200 times rail capacity and virtually free of accidents and congestion.

Advanced under-sea transport could adopt supercavitation technology that is already in use and likely to develop quickly in coming decades. Some sources suggest that it may even be possible to travel underwater more easily then through air. Again, if graphene is available in large quantity at reasonable cost, it would be possible to do away with the need for powerful engines on board, this time by tethering pods together with graphene string.

Above certain speeds, a blunt surface in front of each pod would create a bubble enclosing the entire pod, greatly reducing drag. Unlike Hyperloop style high-speed rail, tubes would not be required for these pods, but together, a continuous stream of many pods tethered together right across an ocean would make a high-capacity under-sea transport system. This would be also be more environmentally friendly, using only electricity at the ends.

Another property of graphene is that it can be used to make carbon foam that is lighter than helium. Such material could float high in the stratosphere well above air lanes. With the upper surface used for solar power collection, and the bottom surface used as a linear induction mat, it will be possible to make inter-continental air lines that can propel sleds hypersonically, connected by tethers to planes far below.

High altitude solar array to power IT and propel planes

As well as providing pollution-free hypersonic travel, these air lines could also double as low satellite platforms for comms and surveillance.

As well as land, sea and air travel, we are now seeing rapid development of the space industry, but currently, getting into orbit uses very expensive rockets that dump huge quantities of water vapour into the high atmosphere. A 2017 invention called the Pythagoras Sling solves the problems of expense and pollution. Two parachutes are deployed (by small rockets or balloons) into the very high atmosphere, attached to hoops through which a graphene tether is threaded, one end connected to a ground-based winch and the other to the payload. The large parachutes have high enough drag to act as temporary anchors while the tether is pulled, propelling the payload up to orbital speed via an arc that renders the final speed horizontal as obviously needed to achieve orbit.

With re-usable parts, relatively rapid redeployment and only electricity as power supply, the sling could reduce costs by a factor of 50-100 over current state of the art, greatly accelerating space development without the high altitude water vapour risking climate change effects.

The winch design for the Pythagoras Sling uses an ‘inverse rail gun’ electromagnetic puller to avoid massive centrifugal forces of a rotating drum. The inverse rail gun can be scaled up indefinitely, so also offers good potential for interplanetary travel. With Mars travel on the horizon, prospects of months journey times are not appealing, but a system using well-spaced motors pulling a graphene tether millions of km long is viable. A 40,000 ton graphene tether could be laid out in space in a line 6.7M km long, and using solar power, could propel a 2 Ton capsule at 5g up to an exit speed of 800km/s, reaching Mars in as little 5-12 days.

At the far end, a folded graphene net could intercept and slow the capsule at 5g  into a chosen orbit around Mars. While not prohibitively expensive, this system would be completely reusable and since it needs no fuel, would be a very clean and safe way of getting crew and materials to a Mars colony.


High speed transatlantic submarine train

In 1863, Jules Verne wrote about the idea of suspended transatlantic tunnels through which trains could be sent using air pressure. Pneumatic tube delivery was a fashionable idea then, and small scale pneumatic delivery systems were commonplace until the late 20th century – I remember a few shops using them to transport change around. In 1935, the film ‘The tunnel’ featured another high speed transatlantic tunnel, as did another film in 1972, ‘Tunnel through the deeps’. Futurists have often discussed high speed mass transit systems, often featuring maglev and vacuums (no, Elon Musk didn’t invent the idea, his Hyperloop is justifiably famous for resurfacing and developing this very old idea and is likely to see its final implementation).

Anyway, I have read quite a bit about supercavitation over the last years. First developed in 1960 as a military idea to send torpedoes at high speed, it was successfully implemented in 1972 and has since developed somewhat. Cavitation happens when a surface, such as a propeller blade, moves through water so fast that a cavity is left until the water has a chance to close back in. As it does, the resultant shock wave can damage the propeller surface and cause wear. In supercavitation, the cavity is deliberate, and the system designed so that the cavity encloses the entire projectile. In 2005, the first proposal for people transport emerged, DARPA’s Underwater Express Program, designed to transport small groups of Navy personnel at speeds of up to 100 knots. Around that time, a German supercavitating torpedo was reaching 250mph speeds.

More promising articles suggest that supersonic speeds are achievable under water, with less friction than going via air. Achieving the initial high speed and maintaining currently requires sophisticated propulsion mechanisms, but not for much longer. I believe the propulsion problem can be engineered away by pulling capsules with a strong tether. That would be utterly useless for a torpedo of course, but for a transport system would be absolutely fine.

Transatlantic traffic is quite high, and if a cheaper and more environmentally friendly system than air travel were available, it would undoubtedly increase. My idea is to use a long string of capsules attached to a long graphene cable, pulled in a continuous loop at very high speed. Capsules would be filled at stations, accelerated to speed and attached to the cable for their transaltlantic journey, then detached, decelerated and their passengers or freight unloaded. Graphene cable would be 200 times stronger than steel so making such a cable is feasible.

The big benefit of such a system is that no evacuated tube is needed. The cable and capsules would travel through the water directly. Avoiding the need for an expensive and complex  tube containing a vacuum, electromagnetic propulsion system and power supply would greatly reduce cost. All of the pulling force for a cable based system would be applied at the ends.

Graphene cable doesn’t yet exist, but it will one day. I doubt if current supercavitation research is up to the job either, but that’s quite normal for any novel engineering project. Engineers face new problems and solve them every day. By the time the cable is feasible, we will doubtless be more knowledgeable about supercavitation too. So while it’s a bit early to say it will definitely become reality, it is certainly not too early to start thinking about it. Some future Musk might well be able to pull it off.

2018 outlook: fragile

Futurists often consider wild cards – events that could happen, and would undoubtedly have high impacts if they do, but have either low certainty or low predictability of timing.  2018 comes with a larger basket of wildcards than we have seen for a long time. As well as wildcards, we are also seeing the intersection of several ongoing trends that are simultaneous reaching peaks, resulting in socio-political 100-year-waves. If I had to summarise 2018 in a single word, I’d pick ‘fragile’, ‘volatile’ and ‘combustible’ as my shortlist.

Some of these are very much in all our minds, such as possible nuclear war with North Korea, imminent collapse of bitcoin, another banking collapse, a building threat of cyberwar, cyberterrorism or bioterrorism, rogue AI or emergence issues, high instability in the Middle East, rising inter-generational conflict, resurgence of communism and decline of capitalism among the young, increasing conflicts within LGBTQ and feminist communities, collapse of the EU under combined pressures from many angles: economic stresses, unpredictable Brexit outcomes, increasing racial tensions resulting from immigration, severe polarization of left and right with the rise of extreme parties at both ends. All of these trends have strong tribal characteristics, and social media is the perfect platform for tribalism to grow and flourish.

Adding fuel to the building but still unlit bonfire are increasing tensions between the West and Russia, China and the Middle East. Background natural wildcards of major epidemics, asteroid strikes, solar storms, megavolcanoes, megatsumanis and ‘the big one’ earthquakes are still there waiting in the wings.

If all this wasn’t enough, society has never been less able to deal with problems. Our ‘snowflake’ generation can barely cope with a pea under the mattress without falling apart or throwing tantrums, so how we will cope as a society if anything serious happens such as a war or natural catastrophe is anyone’s guess. 1984-style social interaction doesn’t help.

If that still isn’t enough, we’re apparently running a little short on Ghandis, Mandelas, Lincolns and Churchills right now too. Juncker, Trump, Merkel and May are at the far end of the same scale on ability to inspire and bring everyone together.

Depressing stuff, but there are plenty of good things coming too. Augmented reality, more and better AI, voice interaction, space development, cryptocurrency development, better IoT, fantastic new materials, self-driving cars and ultra-high speed transport, robotics progress, physical and mental health breakthroughs, environmental stewardship improvements, and climate change moving to the back burner thanks to coming solar minimum.

If we are very lucky, none of the bad things will happen this year and will wait a while longer, but many of the good things will come along on time or early. If.

Yep, fragile it is.


Hull in 2050

I wrote a piece for KCOM on what we can expect to feature in the city by 2050.

KCOM illustration

Highlights and KCOM commentary at:

If you want my full article, they have allowed me to share it. Here is a pdf of my original article, but it’s just text – I can’t do nice graphics:


Hull 2050

They also have a great project called We Made Ourselves Over, set in 2097. Here’s one of their graphics from that:

Graphic from

Sky-lines – The Solar Powered Future of Air Travel

High altitude solar array to power IT and propel planes

High altitude solar array to power IT and propel planes

A zero carbon air travel solution. Well, most of the bits would be made of carbon materials, but it wouldn’t emit any CO2.

The pic says it all. A linear solar farm suspended in the high atmosphere to provide an IT platform for sensors, comms and other functions often accomplished by low orbit satellite. It would float up there thanks to being fixed to a graphene foam base layer that can be made lighter than helium (my previous invention, see which has since been prototyped and proven to be extremely resilient to high pressures too). Ideally, it would go all the way around the world, in various inclinations at different altitudes to provide routes to many places. Carbon materials are also incredibly strong so the line can be made as strong as can reasonably be required.

The flotation layer also supports a hypersonic linear induction motor that could provide direct propulsion to a hypersonic glider or to electric fans on a powered plane. Obviously this could also provide a means of making extremely low earth orbit satellites that continuously circumnavigate the ring.

I know you’re asking already how the planes get up there. There are a few solutions. Tethers could come all the way to ground level to airports, and electric engines would be used to get to height where the plane would pick up a sled-link.

Alternatively, stronger links to the ground would allow planes to be pulled up by sleds, though this would likely be less feasible.

Power levels? Well, the engines on a Boeing 777 generate about 8.25MW. A high altitude solar cell, above clouds could generate 300W per square metre. So a 777 equivalent plane needs 55km of panels if the line is just one metre wide. That means planes need to be at least that distance apart, but since that equates to around a minute, that is no barrier at all.

If you still doubt this, the Hyperloop was just a crazy idea a century ago too.

Future air travel

Now and then I get asked about future air travel, sometimes about planes, sometimes about the travel and tourism industry, sometimes climate change or luxury. There is already lots in the media about the future of the industry, such as NASA’s supersonic aircraft, e.g. or the latest business class space design concepts to cram in even more luxury, e.g. so I won’t waste time repeating stuff you can find on Google. Here are some things I haven’t seen yet instead:

Aircraft skin design – video panels

Aircraft skins are generally painted in carrier colors and logos, but a new development in luxury yachts might hint at aircraft skins that behave as video screens instead. The designs in

are meant to mimic reflections of the sea, since it is a yacht skin, but obviously higher resolution polymer displays on an aircraft could display anything at all. It is surprising give aircraft prices that this hasn’t already been done, at least for large panels. One possible reason is that the outer skin heats up a lot during flight. That might bar some types of panel being used, but some LEDs can function perfectly well at the sort of temperatures expected for civil aircraft.

Integration with self-driving cars – terminal-free flying

A decade or more ago, I suggested integrating self driving cars systems into rail, so that a long chain of self driving cars could form a train. Obviously Euro-tunnel already has actual trains carry cars, but what I meant was that the cars can tether to each other electronically and drive themselves, behaving as a train as a half way evolution point to fully replacing trains later with self driving pod systems. As each car reaches its local station, it would peel off and carry on the roads to the final destination. The other pods would close together to fill the gap, or expand gaps to allow other pods to join from that station. Previous blogs have detailed how such systems can be powered for city or countrywide use.

Stage 1

Such end-to-end self driving could work all the way to the aircraft too. To avoid crime and terrorism abuses, self-driving cars owned by large fleet management companies – which will be almost all of them in due course – will have to impose security checks on passengers. Think about it. If that were not so, any terrorist would be able to order a car with an app on an anonymous phone, fill it full of explosives, tell it where to go, and then watch as it does the suicide bombing run all by itself. Or a drug gang could use them for deliveries. If security is already imposed with proper identity checks, then it would be easy to arrange a safe area in the airport for a simple security check for explosives, guns etc, before the car resumes its trip all the way to an aircraft departure gate. System restrictions could prevent passengers leaving the car during the airport part of the journey except at authorized locations. The rest of the terminal would be superfluous.

Stage 2

Then it starts to get interesting. My guess is that the optimal design for these self-driving pods would be uniform sized cuboids. Then, congestion and air resistance can be minimized and passenger comfort optimized. It would then be possible to link lots of these pods together with their passengers and luggage still in them, and drive the whole lot into a large aircraft. They could be stacked in layers of course too (my own design of pods doesn’t even use wheels) to maximize cabin use. Aisles could be made to allow passengers out to visit loos or exercise.

Many people of my age will think of Thunderbird 2 at this point. And why not? Not such a bad idea. A huge box acting as a departure gate for dozens of small pods, ready for the aircraft to land, drop off its existing pod, refuel, pick up the new box of pods, and take off again. Even the refuel could be box-implemented, part of the box structure or a pod.

Stage 3

Naturally, airlines might decide that they know best how to provide best comfort to their passengers. So they might design their own fleets of special pods to pick up passengers from their homes and bring them all the way onto the aircraft, then all the way to final destination at the other end. That gives them a huge opportunity for adding luxury and branding or other market differentiation. Their fleets would mix on the roads with fleets from other companies.

Stage 4

However, it is hard to think of any other sector that is as adept by necessity at making the very most of the smallest spaces as airlines. Having started to use these advantages for self driving pods for their own air passengers, many of those passengers would be very happy to also buy the use of those same pods even when they are not flying anywhere, others would learn too, and very soon airlines could become a major fleet manager company for self-driving cars.

Balloon trips and cruises

Large balloons and airships are coming back into business. e.g.

Solid balloons will be likely too. I suggested using carbon foam in my sci-fi book Space Anchor, and my superheroes travel around at high speed in their huge carbon balloon, the Carballoon, rescuing people from burning buildings or other disasters, or dumping foam to capture escaping criminals. Since then, Google have also been playing with making lighter than air foams and presumably they will use them for Project Loon.

Lighter than air cities have been explored in the computer game Bioshock Infinite, floating islands in the films Avatar and Buck Rogers. There is certainly no shortage of imagination when it comes to making fun destinations floating in the air. So I think that once the materials become cheap enough, we will start to see this balloon industry really evolve into a major tourism sector where people spend days or weeks in the air. Even conventional balloon experiences such as safaris would be better if the burners and their noise scaring the animals are not needed. A solid balloon could manage fine with just a quiet fan.

Whatever the type of floating destination, or duration of short trip or cruise, of course you need to get to them, so that presents an obvious opportunity for the airline industry, but designing them, providing services, holiday packages, bookings and logistics are also territories where the airline industry might be in pole position, especially since space might still be at a premium.

Air fuel

Although there have already been various demonstrations of hydrogen planes and solar powered planes, I really do not think these are likely to become mainstream. One of the main objections to using conventional fuel is the CO2 emissions, but my readers will know I don’t believe we face a short term threat from CO2-induced climate change and in the mid term, ground use of fossil fuels will gradually decline or move towards shale gas, which produces far less CO2. With all the CO2 savings from ground use decline, there will be far less pressure on airlines to also reduce. Since it is too hard to economically deliver suitable energy density for aircraft use, it will be recognized as a special case that the overall CO2 budgets can easily sustain. The future airline industry will use air fuel not unlike today’s. Let’s consider the alternatives.

Solar is fine for the gossamer-light high altitude aircraft for surveillance of communications, but little use for passenger flight. Covering a plane upper with panels will simply not yield enough power. Large batteries could store enough energy for very short flights, but again not much use since planes can’t compete in short trips. Energy density isn’t good enough. Fuel cells are still the technology of the future and are unlikely to be suited to planes. It is easier to simply use the fuel direct to create thrust. Another red herring is hydrogen. Yes it can be done, but there is little advantage and lots of disadvantages. The output is water vapor, which sounds safe, but is actually a stronger greenhouse effect than CO2 and since aircraft fly high, it will stay in the atmosphere doing its warming far longer (for trans-polar flights it may even become stratospheric water vapor). So hydrogen is no panacea.

So, no change here then.


There have already been many instances of near collisions with drones. Many drones are very small, but some can carry significant payloads. If a drone carries a lump of solid metal, or an explosive device, it could easily do enough harm to a fast-flying aircraft to cause a crash. That makes drones a strong terrorist threat to aircraft. Even without the intent to harm, any village idiot could fly a drone near to a plane to get pictures and still cause problems.

Another threat that is becoming serious is lasers. Shone from the ground, a high powered hand-held laser could blind a pilot. shows the sort of thing you can already buy. $400 buys you 3.5W of blue light. Really cool stuff in the right hands, and the sort of gadget I’d love to own if I could trust myself to be responsible with it, (I did look straight into a laser beam at university, as you do when you’re a student) but not the sort of thing you want used deliberately against pilots.

These two threats are already very apparent, but put them together, and you have a modest drone bought anonymously fitted with a high powered laser (I don’t know whether identity checks are needed for the laser purchase, but I suspect plenty enough are already in circulation). A simple camera linked to a basic pattern recognition system would easily allow the drone to move to an optimal location and then target the laser into the aircraft cockpit and likely into the pilots’ eyes. This is not something that should be possible to build without lots of strict identity checks, but especially for the drones bit, the law is years behind where it ought to be. Lasers of this power also need to be classed as lethal weapons.

New business models

The latest startup fashions suggest someone will soon build a crowd-flying company. A bunch of people in one area wanting to fly to another zone could link electronically via such a company app, and hire a plane/self-driving pods/departure gate/pilot/crew and fly with very little inter-mediation. The main barrier is the strong regulation in the airline industry which is there for all sorts of good reasons, but that is not an impenetrable barrier, just a large one.







Powering electric vehicles in the city

Simple stuff today just to stop my brain seizing up, nothing terribly new.

Grid lock is usually a term often used to describe interlocking traffic jams. But think about a canal lock, used to separate different levels of canal. A grid lock could be used to manage the different levels of stored and kinetic energy within a transport grid, keeping it local as far as possible to avoid transmission losses, and transferring it between different parts of the grid when necessary.

Formula 1 racing cars have energy recovery systems that convert kinetic energy to stored electrical energy during braking – Kinetic Energy Recovery System (KERS). In principle, energy could be shared between members of a race team by transmitting it from one car to another instead of simply storing it on board. For a city-wide system, that makes even more sense. There will always be some vehicles coasting, some braking, some accelerating and some stopped. Storing the energy on board is fine, but requires large capacitor banks or batteries, and that adds very significant cost. If an electrical grid allowed the energy to be moved around between vehicles, each vehicle would only need much smaller storage so costs would fall.

I am very much in favor of powering electric vehicles by using inductive pads on the road surface to transmit energy via coils on the car underside as the vehicles pass over them.  Again, this means that vehicles can manage with small batteries or capacitor banks. Since these are otherwise a large part of the cost, it makes electric transport much more cost-effective. The coils on the road surface could be quite thin, making them unattractive to metal thieves, and perhaps ultimately could be made of graphene once that is cheap to produce.

Moving energy among the many coils only needs conventional electrical grid technology. Peer to peer electrical generation business models are developing too to sell energy between households without the energy companies taking the lion’s share. Electricity can even be packetised by writing an address and header with details of the sender account and the quantity of energy in the following packet. Since overall energy use will fluctuate somewhat, the infrastructure also needs some storage to hold local energy surpluses and feed them back into accelerating vehicles as required, and if demand is too low, to store energy in local batteries. If even that isn’t sufficient capacity, then the grid might open grid locks to overflow larger surpluses onto other regions of the city or onto the main grid. Usually however, there would be an inflow of energy from the main grid to power all the vehicles, so transmission in the reverse direction would be only occasional.

Such a system keeps most energy local, reducing transmission losses and simplifying signalling, whilst allowing local energy producers to be included and enabling storage for renewable energy. As one traffic stream slows, another can recycle that same energy to accelerate. It reduces the environmental demands of running a transport system, so has both cost and environmental benefits.