Category Archives: transport

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. https://t.co/PWpd2yVN0y or the latest business class space design concepts to cram in even more luxury, e.g. http://www.airlinereporter.com/2016/03/business-class-reimagined-etihad-airways-a380-business-studio-review/ 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

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/travel/travel_news/article-3475039/Moonstone-superyacht-LED-triangles-light-display.html

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. http://news.sky.com/story/1654409/worlds-largest-aircraft-set-for-uk-test-flight

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.

Threats

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.

http://www.wickedlasers.com/arctic 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.

 

 

The future of levitation

Futurologists are often asked about flying cars, and there already are one or two and one day there might be some, but they’ll probably only become as common as helicopters today. Levitating cars will be more common, and will hover just above the ground, like the landspeeders on Star Wars, or just above a lower layer of cars. I need to be careful here – hovercraft were supposed to be the future but they are hard to steer and to stop quickly and that is probably why they didn’t take over as some people expected. Levitating cars won’t work either if we can’t solve that problem.

Maglev trains have been around for decades. Levitating cars won’t use anti-gravity in my lifetime, so magnetic levitation is the only non-hovercraft means obvious. They don’t actually need metal roads to fly over, although that is one mechanism. It is possible to contain a cushion of plasma and ride on that. OK, it is a bit hovercrafty, since it uses a magnetic skirt to keep the plasma in place, but at least it won’t need big fans and drafts. The same technique could work for a skateboard too.

Once we have magnetic plasma levitation working properly, we can start making all sorts of floating objects. We’ll have lots of drones by then anyway, but drones could levitate using plasma instead of using rotor blades. With plasma levitation, compound objects can be formed using clusters of levitating component parts. This can be quieter and more elegant than messy air jets or rotors.

Magnetic levitation doesn’t have very many big advantages over using wheels, but it still seems futuristic, and sometimes that is reason enough to do it. More than almost anything else, levitating cars and skateboards would bring the unmistakable message that the future has arrived. So we may see the levitating robots and toys and transport that we have come to expect in sci-fi.

To do it, we need strong magnetic fields, but they can be produced by high electrical currents in graphene circuits. Plasma is easy enough to make too. Electron pipes could do that and could be readily applied as a coating to the underside of a car or any hard surface rather like paint. We can’t do that bit yet, but a couple of decades from now it may well be feasible. By then most new cars will be self-driving, and will drive very closely together, so the need to stop quickly or divert from a path can be more easily solved. One by one, the problems with making levitating vehicles will disappear and wheels may become obsolete. We still won’t have very many flying cars, but lots that float above the ground.

All in all, levitation has a future, just as we’ve been taught to expect by sci-fi.

 

Diesel – 4.4 times more deaths than by road accidents

In Dec 2010, the UK government released a report estimating that air pollution causes a ‘mortality burden’ of 340,000 years of life spread over an affected population of 200,000, equivalent to about 29,000 deaths each year in the UK, or a drop in average life expectancy across the whole population of 6 months. It also costs the NHS £27B per year. See:

http://webarchive.nationalarchives.gov.uk/20140505104658/http://www.comeap.org.uk/images/stories/Documents/Reports/COMEAP_Mortality_Effects_Press_Release.pdf

There is no more recent report as yet, although the figures in it refer to 2008.

Particulate matter (PM) is the worst offender and diesel engines are one of the main sources of PM, but they also emit some of the other offenders. COMEAP estimates that a quarter of PM-related deaths are caused by diesel engines, 7250 lives per year. Some of the PM comes from private vehicles. To save regeneration costs, some diesel drivers apparently remove the diesel particulate filters from their cars, which is illegal, and doing so would mean failing an MOT. See:

https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/263018/diesel-particulate-filters-guidance.pdf

The government encouraged people to go diesel by offering significant tax advantages. Road tax and company car tax are lower for diesels, resulting in more than half of new cars now being diesels. (https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/vehicle-licensing-statistics-2013) Almost all public buses and taxis and still many trains are diesel.

7250 lives per year caused by diesel vehicles is a lot, and let’s remember that was an estimate based on 2008 particulates. There are many more diesels on our roads now than then (https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/301636/veh0203.xls shows the number of diesel cars licensed has increased from 7163 to 10,064), but fuel efficiency has also improved in that period so total fuel use hasn’t increased much, only from 8788 to 9197 thousand tons of diesel. So the result isn’t as bad as it could have been and the proportionately scaled figure for 2012 would be 7587 deaths from diesel emissions. In 2013 there were only 1730 road deaths so 4.4 times as many people were killed by diesel emissions than road accidents.

I thought it would be interesting to compare deaths from just buses to those in road accidents, since buses are thought of by many as some sort of panacea whereas some of us see them as filthy environmental monsters. The proportion of diesel used by buses has fallen from 17% to 13.7% between 2008 and 2012. (I couldn’t find figures for the numbers of taxis, also officially included in public transport, since the fuel usage stats lump all cars together, but then I’ve never understood why taxis should be listed as public transport anyway.)

17% of the 7250 figure for 2008 gives 1232 deaths from public transport diesel emissions compared to 2538 road deaths that year, roughly half as many. However, for 2012, 13.7% of 7587 is 1039 deaths from public transport diesel emissions compared to 1754 people killed in road accidents in 2012.  That ratio has grown from 48.5% to 59% in just 4 years. Buses may use less fuel than cars but they certainly aren’t saints.

So, headline result: 60% as many people are killed by diesel emissions from buses as in road accidents, but altogether, 4.4 times as many people die due to diesel. The government is very noisy when it comes to reducing road deaths, but it should look at the far bigger gains that would be made by reducing diesel use. Perhaps it is time that the deaths arising from diesel emissions should be added to the road deaths figures. At least then there might be some better action against it.

As I wrote in a recent blog

(https://timeguide.wordpress.com/2014/07/18/road-deaths-v-hospital-hygiene/)

more still could be saved by just slightly improving the NHS. The £27B per year health costs saved by getting rid of diesel might go some way to doing both.

As a final observation, diesel was encouraged so much because it should help to reduce CO2 emissions, seen as a major contributor to global warming. In the last year or two, the sensitivity to CO2 emissions has been observed to be lower than originally thought. However, another major contribution to warming is the black carbon PM, noted especially for its contribution to melting glaciers by making them darker, also arising in large part from diesel. The efforts to reduce one contributor have increased another. Diesel doesn’t even solve the problem it was aimed at, but still causes others.

Drone Delivery: Technical feasibility does not guarantee market success

One of my first ever futurology articles explained why Digital Compact Cassette wouldn’t succeed in the marketplace and I was proved right. It should have been obvious from the outset that it wouldn’t fly well, but it was still designed, manufactured and shipped to a few customers.

Decades on, I had a good laugh yesterday reading about the Amazon drone delivery service. Yes, you can buy drones; yes, they can carry packages, and yes, you can make them gently place a package on someone’s doorstep. No, it won’t work in the marketplace. I was asked by the BBC Radio 4 to explain on air, but the BBC is far more worried about audio quality than content quality and I could only do the interview from home, so they decided not to use me after all (not entirely fair – I didn’t check who they actually used and it might have been someone far better).

Anyway, here’s what I would have said:

The benefits are obvious. Many of the dangers are also obvious, and Amazon isn’t a company I normally associate with stupidity, so they can’t really be planning to go all the way. Therefore, this must be a simple PR stunt, and the media shouldn’t be such easy prey for free advertising.

Very many packages are delivered to homes and offices every day. If even a small percentage were drone-delivered, the skies will be full of drones. Amazon would only control some of them. There would be mid-air collisions between drones, between drones and kites and balloons, with new wind turbines, model aeroplanes and helicopters, even with real emergency helicopters. Drones with spinning blades would be dropping out of the sky frequently, injuring people, damaging houses and gardens, onto roads, causing accidents. People would die.

Drones are not silent. A lot of drones would make a lot of extra ambient noise in an environment where noise pollution is already too high. They are also visible, creating another nuisance visual disturbance.

Kids are mischievous. Some adults are mischievous, some criminal, some nosey, some terrorists. I can’t help wonder what the life expectancy of a drone would be if it is delivering to a housing estate full of kids like the one I was. If I was still a kid, I’d be donning a mask (don’t want Amazon giving my photo to the police) and catching them, making nets to bring them down and stringing wires between buildings on their normal routes, throwing stones at them, shooting them with bows and arrows, Nerf guns, water pistols, flying other toy drones into their paths. I’d be tying all sorts of other things onto them for their ongoing journey. I’d be having a lot of fun on the black market with all the intercepted goods too.

If I were a terrorist, and if drones were becoming common delivery tools, I’d buy some and put Amazon labels on them, or if I’m short of cash, I’d hijack a few, pay kids pocket money to capture them, and after suitable mods, start using them to deliver very nasty packages precisely onto doorsteps or spray lethal concoctions into the air above specific locations.

If I were just criminal, I’d make use of the abundance of drones to make my own less conspicuous, so that I could case homes for burglaries, spy on businesses with cameras and intercept their wireless signals, check that an area is free of police, or get interesting videos for my voyeur websites. Maybe I’d add a blinding laser into them to attack any police coming into the scene of my crime, giving valuable extra time without giving my location away.

There are also social implications: jobs in Amazon, delivery and logistics companies would trade against drone manufacturing and management. Neighbours might fall out if a house frequently gets noisy deliveries from a drone while people are entering and leaving an adjacent door or relaxing in the garden, or their kids are playing innocently in the front garden as a drone lands very close by. Drone delivery would be especially problematic when doorways are close together, as they often are in cities.

Drones are good fun as toys and for hobbies, in low numbers. They are also useful for some utility and emergency service tasks, under supervision. They are really not a good solution for home delivery, even if technically it can be done. Amazon knows that as well as I do, and this whole thing can only be a publicity stunt. And if it is, well, I don’t mind, I had a lot of fun with it anyway.

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

http://www.amazon.co.uk/You-Tomorrow-humanity-belongings-surroundings/dp/1491278269/ in paper, at £9.00 and

http://www.amazon.co.uk/You-Tomorrow-Ian-Pearson-ebook/dp/B00G8DLB24 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:

You_Tomorrow_Cover_for_Kindle

Could wind farms and HS2 destroy the environment?

Remember when chaos theory arrived. We were bombarded with analogies to help us understand it, such as the butterfly effect, whereby a butterfly flapping its wings in a distant rain forest creates micro-turbulence that minutely affects some tiny variable in a very non-linear system, resulting in a hurricane forming somewhere later.

Imagine sticking up a wind turbine, and compare that to a butterfly. It is a fair bit bigger. A big turbine extracts up to 3MW of power from the passing wind, and a large wind farm may have hundreds of them. If weather is so chaotic in its nature that a butterfly can affect it, a massive deployment of numerous large wind farms certainly can.

Aerial wind farms are being explored a lot now too, using kites. I’ve proposed a few novel designs for wind energy extractors myself during idle time. It is very easy. In my sci-fi book Space Anchor I even described a feasible solution for harvesting energy from tornadoes and hurricanes, reducing their damage and getting lots of free energy.

But it isn’t free if the cost is such great interference with wind strength that the paths of the winds are affected, their ability to transfer water vapour from one region to another. We are already having an impact and it will increase as deployment volume grows. We don’t have the means to estimate the effects of siphoning of such energy. As has recently been shown, 99% of climate models have greatly overestimated the warming due to CO2. They simply don’t work. They don’t model the environment accurately, or even quite accurately.

In the arctic, last year the ice declined enormously, this year it grew back. Researchers found that heat added to river systems by mineral and oil exploration could have been important contributor to the excessive melt. It is human-originated but nothing to do with CO2, and it doesn’t appear in any of the climate models. If they’re right, it’s a good example of how we can interfere with local climate unintentionally, and also how we won’t usually get any warning from climate modelling community who seem obsessed with ignoring any variable that doesn’t link to CO2. The climate is certainly changing, just not at all in the ways they keep telling us it will, because the models leave out many of the important factors and the equations are wrong.

So how can we expect to be told the likely effects of wind farms? The simple answer is that we can’t. At best, we can hope to get some estimates of change in a few specific wind zones. Furthermore, due to extreme politicization of the whole field of energy production and climate change, any models that suggest harmful effects are highly likely to be blocked from reporting, or their results tweaked and airbrushed and generally sanitized beyond recognition. The Scottish wind farms have already been shown to increase CO2 emissions due to the effects they have on the peat bogs on which most of them are built but we still see push for more of the same, even knowing that on the only issue they are meant to help with, CO2 emissions, they make things worse.

The UK government seems to enjoy throwing money away just when we need it most. The HS2 rail link will waste between £50Bn and £75Bn depending who you believe. Wind farms are already adding hundreds per year to the energy bills of the poor, pushing them deeper into poverty. The Green Deal fiasco has wasted a tiny amount by comparison, but is another example of extreme government incompetence when it comes to protecting the environment. As part of EU environmental policies, blocking and delaying shale gas development across Europe has led to massive imports of coal from the USA, increasing EU CO2 emissions while USA emissions have tumbled. You just couldn’t do a worse job of protecting the environment.

So far it seems, almost all government attempts to protect the environment have made it worse. Building even more wind farms will likely add to the problems even further.

Looking at HS2, it is very hard indeed not to compare this enormously expensive project to build a fairly high speed conventional railway between two cities to the Hyperloop system in California recently proposed by Elon Musk. That would deliver a 600mph rail system at a tiny fraction of the cost of HS2. Sure, there are some engineering problems with the systems as initially proposed, but nothing that can’t be solved as far as I can see. If we have £50Bn to spend, we could build links between most of our major cities, instead of diverting even more into London. Instead of a few thousand rich people benefiting a little bit, everyone could. We could build a 21st century rail system instead of just building more of a 20th century one. A system like that would have high capacity between all the major places, diverting many cars off the roads, reducing congestion, acting as a core of a proper self-driven pod based system, reaping enormous environmental benefits as well as improvement of lives. HS2 is totally pants by comparison with what we could get with the same outlay, for the economy, the environment and for quality of life. Siphoning off 50 to 75Bn from the economy for HS2 will delay development of far better and more environmentally friendly means of mass transport. Compared to the right solution, HS2 will damage the economy and the environment enormously.

Wind farms and HS2 will become monuments to the magnitude of stupidity of people in power when they are driven to leave a personal legacy at other people’s expense without having the systems engineering skills to understand what they’re doing.

 

 

The future is magnetic

‘It works by using magnets’ has been a description of many a perpetual motion machine. Magnets bring out the nutter in people. But they are incredibly useful, and I say that as someone who thinks ‘incredibly’ is used far too often these days.

Magnets are very good fun as toys but you need to be a bit careful with them. I have had a few accidents with them, the most recent playing with magnetic ferro-fluid, which I can vouch makes a real mess of your hands for several days. I also have some levitation toys that are extremely good fun.

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/technology/news/10235261/Inside-the-Hyperloop-the-pneumatic-travel-system-faster-than-the-speed-of-sound.html describes a futuristic high speed rail system. Well, it isn’t all that futuristic, the idea is 100 years old. But it hasn’t been built yet so it is still in the future, and is at least 10 times better than the UK’s pathetic high speed rail proposal which only floats at all if you use extremely misleading figures about costs and benefits. That is worth a small fraction if what is claimed and like all government projects will cost three times as much as claimed.

I am a big believer in magnetic train propulsion, and levitation, not least because they are proven tech. Putting the system in a tube and using rail gun tech will reduce drag enormously and allow far higher speeds. Remember, in free air, drag goes with the square of velocity and power is drag x velocity. In a tube, air can move at the same speed as the train, so drag can be reduced to almost nothing. So with low friction thanks to levitation and low drag thanks to the tube, supersonic speeds are doable. Other groups have suggested vacuum tubes, but that is not as sensible thanks to increased engineering difficulty, with big cost and safety issues.

I proposed a linear induction bike lane several years back which of course is a sort of magnetic propulsion. Nobody has built that yet.  The Car in my recent sci-fi book levitates magnetically on a plasma cushion. That sounds futuristic but it was proven in principle in 1964 and is easily feasible with 2092 technology. The lift to the heroes’ base is magnetic, some of their weapons are magnetic, their pet drone orb thing and their holographic disks all rely on magnetic levitation based on plasma. I even invented magnetic carbon muscles for my heroes’ suits. They would use tiny graphene coils in a folded structure in the material to achieve strong contraction and super strength at low cost. One of the social problems they had to contend with was use of smart electronic drugs in conjunction with deep brain magnetic stimulation.

There is a lot of pseudo science that gives magnets a bad name though. Stuff like magnetic bracelets that some people wear who really ought to know better, that allegedly align the iron in your blood, and somehow it doesn’t immediately go back to random as soon as it has passed by, or magnetic descalers that align the water molecules or something, or the fuel treatment magnets that magically add lots of extra energy to your petrol. These are the stuff of nonsense. So are all things that claim perpetual motion.

But cars, trains and bikes, yep, they can all be made magnetic very usefully indeed. And carbon muscle fabric. And all sort of levitation systems. The future is magnetic, even if a lot of nutters say the same thing.

Free-floating AI battle drone orbs (or making Glyph from Mass Effect)

I have spent many hours playing various editions of Mass Effect, from EA Games. It is one of my favourites and has clearly benefited from some highly creative minds. They had to invent a wide range of fictional technology along with technical explanations in the detail for how they are meant to work. Some is just artistic redesign of very common sci-fi ideas, but they have added a huge amount of their own too. Sci-fi and real engineering have always had a strong mutual cross-fertilisation. I have lectured sometimes on science fact v sci-fi, to show that what we eventually achieve is sometimes far better than the sci-fi version (Exhibit A – the rubbish voice synthesisers and storage devices use on Star Trek, TOS).

Glyph

Liara talking to her assistant Glyph.Picture Credit: social.bioware.com

In Mass Effect, lots of floating holographic style orbs float around all over the place for various military or assistant purposes. They aren’t confined to a fixed holographic projection system. Disruptor and battle drones are common, and  a few home/lab/office assistants such as Glyph, who is Liara’s friendly PA, not a battle drone. These aren’t just dumb holograms, they can carry small devices and do stuff. The idea of a floating sphere may have been inspired by Halo’s, but the Mass Effect ones look more holographic and generally nicer. (Think Apple v Microsoft). Battle drones are highly topical now, but current technology uses wings and helicopters. The drones in sci-fi like Mass Effect and Halo are just free-floating ethereal orbs. That’s what I am talking about now. They aren’t in the distant future. They will be here quite soon.

I recently wrote on how to make force field and floating cars or hover-boards.

https://timeguide.wordpress.com/2013/06/21/how-to-actually-make-a-star-wars-landspeeder-or-a-back-to-the-future-hoverboard/

Briefly, they work by creating a thick cushion of magnetically confined plasma under the vehicle that can be used to keep it well off the ground, a bit like a hovercraft without a skirt or fans. Using layers of confined plasma could also be used to make relatively weak force fields. A key claim of the idea is that you can coat a firm surface with a packed array of steerable electron pipes to make the plasma, and a potentially reconfigurable and self organising circuit to produce the confinement field. No moving parts, and the coating would simply produce a lifting or propulsion force according to its area.

This is all very easy to imagine for objects with a relatively flat base like cars and hover-boards, but I later realised that the force field bit could be used to suspend additional components, and if they also have a power source, they can add locally to that field. The ability to sense their exact relative positions and instantaneously adjust the local fields to maintain or achieve their desired position so dynamic self-organisation would allow just about any shape  and dynamics to be achieved and maintained. So basically, if you break the levitation bit up, each piece could still work fine. I love self organisation, and biomimetics generally. I wrote my first paper on hormonal self-organisation over 20 years ago to show how networks or telephone exchanges could self organise, and have used it in many designs since. With a few pieces generating external air flow, the objects could wander around. Cunning design using multiple components could therefore be used to make orbs that float and wander around too, even with the inspired moving plates that Mass Effect uses for its drones. It could also be very lightweight and translucent, just like Glyph. Regular readers will not be surprised if I recommend some of these components should be made of graphene, because it can be used to make wonderful things. It is light, strong, an excellent electrical and thermal conductor, a perfect platform for electronics, can be used to make super-capacitors and so on. Glyph could use a combination of moving physical plates, and use some to add some holographic projection – to make it look pretty. So, part physical and part hologram then.

Plates used in the structure can dynamically attract or repel each other and use tethers, or use confined plasma cushions. They can create air jets in any direction. They would have a small load-bearing capability. Since graphene foam is potentially lighter than helium

https://timeguide.wordpress.com/2013/01/05/could-graphene-foam-be-a-future-helium-substitute/

it could be added into structures to reduce forces needed. So, we’re not looking at orbs that can carry heavy equipment here, but carrying processing, sensing, storage and comms would be easy. Obviously they could therefore include whatever state of the art artificial intelligence has got to, either on-board, distributed, or via the cloud. Beyond that, it is hard to imagine a small orb carrying more than a few hundred grammes. Nevertheless, it could carry enough equipment to make it very useful indeed for very many purposes. These drones could work pretty much anywhere. Space would be tricky but not that tricky, the drones would just have to carry a little fuel.

But let’s get right to the point. The primary market for this isn’t the home or lab or office, it is the battlefield. Battle drones are being regulated as I type, but that doesn’t mean they won’t be developed. My generation grew up with the nuclear arms race. Millennials will grow up with the drone arms race. And that if anything is a lot scarier. The battle drones on Mass Effect are fairly easy to kill. Real ones won’t.

a Mass Effect combat droneMass Effect combat drone, picture credit: masseffect.wikia.com

If these cute little floating drone things are taken out of the office and converted to military uses they could do pretty much all the stuff they do in sci-fi. They could have lots of local energy storage using super-caps, so they could easily carry self-organising lightweight  lasers or electrical shock weaponry too, or carry steerable mirrors to direct beams from remote lasers, and high definition 3D cameras and other sensing for reconnaissance. The interesting thing here is that self organisation of potentially redundant components would allow a free roaming battle drone that would be highly resistant to attack. You could shoot it for ages with laser or bullets and it would keep coming. Disruption of its fields by electrical weapons would make it collapse temporarily, but it would just get up and reassemble as soon as you stop firing. With its intelligence potentially local cloud based, you could make a small battalion of these that could only be properly killed by totally frazzling them all. They would be potentially lethal individually but almost irresistible as a team. Super-capacitors could be recharged frequently using companion drones to relay power from the rear line. A mist of spare components could make ready replacements for any that are destroyed. Self-orientation and use of free-space optics for comms make wiring and circuit boards redundant, and sub-millimetre chips 100m away would be quite hard to hit.

Well I’m scared. If you’re not, I didn’t explain it properly.

How to actually make a Star Wars Landspeeder or a Back to the future hoverboard.

Star Wars (all trademarks acknowledged, but I’ll immediately remove them on request from the studios) made me a bit annoyed in the first opening seconds, when I heard the spaceship coming through space, but I did quite like their land-speeder though and I’d like to have one. Like most futurists, I get asked about flying cars every week.

Let’s dispose of pedantry first. Flying cars do exist. Some are basically vertical take off planes without the wings, using directed air jets to stay afloat and move. I guess you could use a derivative of that to make a kind of land-speeder. The hovercraft is also a bit Landspeedery, but works differently. Hovercraft are OK, but a Landspeeder floats higher off the ground and without the skirt so it it’s no hovercraft. Well, we’ll see.

This morning, well, in the middle of the night, I had an idea, as you do. Usually, ideas I have in bed tend to be total rubbish when inspected in the hard light of day. But this morning I had 3, two great, one not so great, so I can write about that one for free – the others I’ll keep for now. The less great idea is how to make a Star Wars Landspeeder or Marty McFly’s hover board from Back to the Future. Both would be almost silent, with no need for messy skirts, fans, or noisy ducted air jet engines, and could looks like the ones in the films. Or you could employ a designer and make one that looks nice.

Patrick Kiger reliably informs me that you can’t do that.

http://blogs.discovery.com/inscider/2013/04/a-real-version-of-marty-mcflys-hoverboard.html

Nice article, good fun, and states more or less the current line on tech. I just beg to differ with its conclusions.

Conventional wisdom says that if it isn’t using noisy ducted air jets or hovercraft skirts, it probably has to be magnetic, as the landspeeder is meant to be anyway, so needs a special metal track. It couldn’t work on a pavement or side-walk. The article above nicely points out that you can’t use magnetic effects to levitate above concrete or asphalt. Or else it has to use anti-gravity and we don’t know how to do that yet.

Well, I pointed out a good while ago with my linear induction bicycle lane idea that you could use a McFly style hoverboard on it. My daughter’s friends were teasing me about futurists and hoverboards – that’s why.

https://timeguide.wordpress.com/2013/01/30/hover-boards/

That would work. It would be totally silent. However, the landspeeder didn’t stay on a linear induction mat laid just under the entire desert surface, did it? That would just be silly. If you had a linear induction mat laid under the entire desert surface, you’d put some sort of horse shoes on your camel and it could just glide everywhere at high speed. You wouldn’t need the landspeeder. (Getting off the track a bit here.)

So, time to explain my idea, and it isn’t anti-gravity:

You can use magnetic levitation to produce a landspeeder or hoverboard that would work on a sidewalk, pavement, road, or even a desert surface. Not water, not the way McFly did anyway. You could also make the hover tanks and everything else that silently hovers near the ground in sci-fi films. And force fields.

But… sand, asphalt and concrete aren’t made of metal.

Graphene is a really good conductor. Expensive still, but give it a few years and it’ll be everywhere. It is a superb material. With graphene, you can make thin tubes, bigger than carbon nanotubes but still small bore. You could use those to make coils around electron pipes, maybe even the pipes themselves. Electron pipes are particle guides along which you can send any kind of charged particles at high speed, keeping them confined using strong magnetic fields, produced by the coils around the pipe, a mini particle accelerator. I originally invented electron pipes as a high bandwidth (at least 10^22bit/s) upgrade for optical fibre, but they have other uses too such as on-chip interconnect, 3d biomimetic microprinting for things like graphene tubes, space elevator rope and others. In this case, they have two uses.

First you’d use a covering of the pipes on the vehicle underside to inject a strong charge flux into the air beneath the hoverboard (if you’re a sci-fi nut, you could store the energy to do this in a supercapacitor and if you’re really twisted you might even call it a flux capacitor, since it will be used in the system to make this electron flux). The result is a highly charged mass of air. Plasma. So what?

Well, you’d also use some rings of these tubes around the periphery of the vehicle to create a very strong wall of magnetic field beneath the vehicle edge. This would keep the charged air from just diffusing. In addition, you’d direct some of them downwards to create a flow of charged air that would act to repel the air inside, further keeping it confined to a higher depth, or altitude, so you could hover quite a distance off the ground.

As a quick but important aside, you should be able to use it for making layered force fields too, (using layers of separated and repelling layers of charged air. They should resist small forces trying to bend them and would certainly disrupt any currents trying to get through. But maybe they would not be mechanically strong ones. So, not strong enough to stop bullets, but enough to stop or severely disrupt charges from basic plasma weaponry, but there aren’t many of them yet so that isn’t much of a benefit. Anyway… back to the future.

Having done this, you’ll hopefully have a cushion of highly charged air under your vehicle, confined within its circumference, and some basic vents could make up for any small losses. I am guessing this air is probably highly conductive, so it could be used to generate both magnetic and electrostatic forces with the fields produced by al those coils and pipes in the vehicle.

So now, you’d basically have a high-tech, silent electromagnetic hovercraft without a skirt to hold the air in, floating above pretty much any reasonably solid surface, that doesn’t even have to be smooth. It wouldn’t even make very much draft so you wouldn’t be sitting in a dust cloud.

Propulsion would be by using a layer of electron pipes around the edge of the vehicle to thrust particles in any direction, so providing an impulse, reaction and hence movement. The forward-facing and side facing pipes would suck in air to strip the charge off with which to feed the charged air underneath. Remember that little air would be escaping so this would still be silent. Think of the surface as a flat sheet that pushes ionised air through quite fast using purely electromagnetic force.

Plan B would be to use the cover of electron pipes on the underside to create a strong downward air flow that would be smoothed and diffused by pipes doing the side cushion bit. Neither would be visible and spoil the appearance, and smooth flow could still be pretty quiet. I prefer plan A. It’s just neater.

There would be a little noise from the air turbulence created as the air flow for propulsion mixes with other air, but with a totally silent source of the air flow. So basically you’d hear some wind but not much else.

Production of the electron pipes is nicely biomimetic. Packing them closely together in the right pattern (basically the pattern they’d assume naturally if you just picked them up) and feeding carbon atoms with the right charge through them at the right intervals could let you 3D print a continuous sheet of graphene or carbon nanotube. Biomimetic since the tube would grow from the base continuously just like grass. You could even produce an extremely tall skyscraper that way. (I used to say 30km as the limit for this, but more recent figures for graphene strength suggest that might be far too conservative and structures up to 600km may be theoretically possible, but that would need a lot cleverer engineering and certainly couldn’t grow the same way).

Could it work. Yes, I think so. I haven’t built a prototype but intuitively it should be feasible. Back to the Future Part 1 takes Marty to Oct 21, 2015. If we really wanted, a really good lab could just about make most and maybe all of this capability by then. On the other hand, Star Wars is set very far away and very long ago, so we’re a bit late for that one.