The Future of Transit: The Solar-Powered Jetliner

skywhale1Solar-powered airplanes have already proven feasible, but only in the sense of single-seat, turboprop powered plane.s When it comes to a long-range, commercial jet aircraft, the field remains pretty sparse so far. But thanks to a Spanish designer, and some unconventional thinking, “whale planes” that are eco-friendly and combine the convenience of air travel with the luxury of a cruise ship might soon be a reality.

Oscar Viñals, from Barcelona, envisioned the “AWWA Sky Whale” concept plane as a mixture of today’s current designs and future concepts that don’t yet exist. The end result is like an Airbus A380, but with considerable expansion and designed to be powered by micro solar panels and four large hybrid electric engines that would rotate to ease takeoff and landing.

skywhale_specsIn addition to reducing noise and pollutants, it would also significantly reduce fuel burned during what is currently one of the least green modes of getting to a destination. Despite the introduction of more fuel-efficient and less polluting turbofan and turboprop engines, the rapid growth of air travel in recent years has contributed to increasing CO2 emissions in the upper atmosphere.

In fact, in the European Union alone, greenhouse gas emissions from aviation increased by a total of 87% between 1990 and 2006. In 2005, global aviation contributed roughly 5% to the overall “radiative forcing” effect that our annual emissions of CO2 have on Global Warning, but the added effects of water vapor and the disruption to cirrus cloud formations also enhances this role to a varying degree.

skywhale4One of the reasons aviation’s role in Climate Change is overlooked is because the focus tends to be on urban infrastructure and automobiles, which account for the vast majority of carbon emissions. But given the current trend of increasing travel, international economic development, and growth in tourist industries, aviation is likely to get a bigger slice of that pie down the road and clearer methods need to be devised.

Hence the concept for the Sky Whale, which Viñals imagines would come with other futuristic components . These include a self-healing skin with adaptable opacity, active wings that change shape as needed, and ceramic and fiber composite materials. He even has a plan for the plane to break apart on an emergency landing, with the wings separating from the fuselage to limit damage to the passenger compartment.

skywhale3The three-story aircraft, which could accomodate 755 passengers, would have a wingspan and height greater than any of today’s biggest carriers – 88 meters in comparison to the 80 meters on an Airbus A380-900 – making it the largest commercial aircraft in existence. However, the combination of active wings (which would also reduce drag) and the hybrid-electric systems would render it the most fuel efficient.

Another thing that Viñals imagines would make it into the design is virtual reality windows – aka. display glass that allows people to go online, watch movies, and experience in-flight entertainment simply by looking outside. Can’t imagine why this would be necessary, as the range of personal devices people are likely to have by this time ought to be entertainment enough. And failing that, the view should be enough to inspire!

skywhale5Naturally, much of this technology – particularly the healing smartskin – is still many years away. But judging by the reaction to his designs, there is definitely some hunger for innovation in how we fly. Given the range of ideas for mass transit (like the Hyperloop, podcars, etc.) and personal transit (robot cars, robotaxis), it’s only a matter of time before the way we fly becomes smarter, sleeker, and cleaner.

Sources: fastcoexist.com, cnn.com, gov.uk, europa.eu

The Future of Transit: (More) Robotaxis and Podcars!

Robotaxi_2getthereIn the course of the past century, science fiction has provided us with many interesting visions of what the future of transportation will look like. And whereas not long ago, many of these seemed like hopeless fantasy – such as the failure of flying cars or robotic automated vehicles to become a reality by 2000  – recent years and developments have seen reality slowly catching up.

Case in point, last year, the European company named “2GetThere” installed a small fleet of automated podcars (aka. robotaxis) in the eco-friendly community of Masdar City. Similarly, the town of San Jose began work on the Personal Rapid Transit System – a series of on-call, point to point transit cars designed to replace the town’s system of taxis and buses, providing an environmentally friendly alternative to traditional mass transit.

London_podcarAnd most recently, the town of Milton Keynes – a sleepy city north of London – that is planning on conducting a podcar system trial run by 2015. Similar to the system at Heathrow Airport, which uses 21 on-call podcars on a  4 km (2.5 mile) stretch of track, the system will consist of a series of pods that will be able to carry two passengers, plus baggage, from the town’s train station to its downtown offices and the shopping district.

Milton Keynes’ plans is much more ambitious, calling for a fleet of 100 vehicles that will travel with far ore independently, albeit in a designated lane with curbs. The trial will assess safety and how people (and animals) react to them. The pods travel at up to 19 km/h (12 mph) and will contain GPS, cameras, and sensors to ensure they don’t crash into anything.

robotaxiAnd if all goes well, the system will be adopted by 2017 and residents will pay little more than a bus fare ($3.20) to travel in automated luxury. Purpose-built in the 1960s, Milton Keynes has an unusual grid layout that makes it an ideal testing ground for a plan that other British cities are seriously considering. Given the dual issues of congestion and pollution in British cities, a system of robotaxis seems like the perfect solution.

In fact, such a solution is ideal when it comes to all major cities around the world. The state of robotics, automation, centralized grids, and the reduced impact electrical transit has compared to gasoline-powered cars and buses, we could be looking at a world where every major city has its own system of robotaxis in the near future.

And I imagine a massive grid of Hyperoops lines will be connecting every major city… The future is likely to be mighty cool! In the meantime, enjoy this video of Heathrow’s podcar system in action:


Sources:
fastcoexist.com, heathrowairport.com

The Water Discus: Dubai’s Submersible Hotel

underwater-hotelLeave it to Dubai to come up with something even more weird and adventurous in terms of architecture. Were it not enough that they already boast the tallest skyscraper (the Burj Khalifa) and the tallest, most-luxurious hotel (the Burj Arab) in the world, now they are attempting to build the world’s largest underwater hotel. Appropriately named the Water Discus, this new hotel promises “submersible luxury” to its clientele, just as soon as its completed.

The plan for the hotel – which was designed by Polish firm Deep Ocean Technology – involved two tiers of accommodations. The first consists of a series of futuristic looking discs suspended above the water, while the second involves a submersible section that is capable of submerging to a depth of 10 meters (33 feet) below sea level.

This lower section will contain the most expensive rooms in the hotel, as well as a diving area and a bar. It’s also intended to give those staying there an extended gander of what aquatic life looks like on the sea floor. Further to that, guests will be able to rent underwater vehicles that they can operate remotely, giving them a chance to explore and get a close up look at aquatic life, while still being able to luxuriate in the comfort of their rooms.

What’s more, the Swiss firm that owns the patents for Deep Ocean Technology also indicated that the hotel will also serve as an environmentally conscious research center as well as a tourism hub. As Bogan Gutkowski, the president of said Swiss firm, told World Architecture News:

“We would like to create here in the UAE the International Environmental Program and Center of the Underwater World Protection — with Water Discus Hotel as a laboratory tool for ocean and sea environment protection and research.”

And here we see another trend at work in the UAE, which is the blending of modern architecture with ecological and environmental research. This is perhaps best exemplified by Masdar City, the world’s first zero-emission planned urban environment. Who knows? With the construction of this hotel, they may just start working towards an eco-friendly underwater community. These days, just about anything seems possible in Dubai!

And just in case you’re curious, click here to check out the website for Deep Ocean Technology (aka. DOT) which discusses the proposed hotel. Don’t expect to be able to afford tickets, but I’m sure there’s plenty of interesting info to be had.

Source: Wired.com

The Future is Here: Robotaxis and Podcars!

2010 Zagato 2getthere Podcar

Fans of Total Recall may recall the Johnnycab, a robot taxi service that helped Arny get to where he was going and flee his armed assailants. Well, as it turns out, personal automated podcars (aka. robotaxis) are not a thing of the future anymore. Yes, as it turns out, Masdar City in the United Arab Emirates has a taxi service that consists of a small fleet of autonomous taxis which run entirely on electricity.

Invented by a European company named “2GetThere”, the service accommodates somewhere in the vicinity of 25,000 people per month. As part of the growing project to create a self-sustaining city that runs on clean, renewable energy, these rails are consistent with the city’s ethos and are expected to pave the way for clean mass transit. Best of all, the 2GetThere models don’t have weird-looking animatronic robot busts sitting in the front seat to creep you out and provide needless comic relief!

But of course, the UAE is not the only place where robotaxis can be found, nor is 2GetThere the only company investing in this revolutionary technology. In San Jose, the so-called “Capital of Silicon Valley”, similar efforts are being made to create clean, sustainable transportation. In this case, it takes the form of the Personal Rapid Transit System; or as it is more widely known, Podcars.

The system involves a series of on-call, point to point transit cars which move about on main lines and intermediate stations to find the quickest route to a destination. Under normal conditions, this means of transit has been shown to be faster than other forms of mass transit or automobile. The “matrix”, or looped layout structure of the network, allows for high-volume and is also expected to lessen the burden on conventional transit systems.

Granted, both networks are in their infancy, but both the science and the planning behind them is sound and expected to take off in the near future. Much like mag lev and light rail train systems, they are part of a growing Eco-friendly attitude towards city planning and mass transportation which is anticipated to become the mainstay of urban development and renewal in the 21st century.

And of course, Google and other companies are also hard at work trying to bring us other designs and concepts. Amongst them are true self-driving cars, the kinds that may very well involve robot drivers. But in all likelihood, these will take the form of truly “smart” cars – i.e. the kind that can guide themselves, pick optimal routes, and avoid accidents and traffic congestion. Sad to think that the days of driving might actually be coming to an end. But hey, at least we might save the planet in the process!