Aerospace Travel: Los Angeles to Tokyo in One Hour

spaceshiptwo_flightGiven my busy schedule of late, some stories have been sitting in my stack for some time and I haven’t been able to write about them. But one’s like this are too cool to pass up, so here’s a belated acknowledgement. It seems that Virgin Galactic, having now demonstrated its ability to conduct aerospace tourism, has decided to enter into phase two of its plans for the future: aerospace travel!

In the scenario they are proposing, their planes would fly customers from Los Angeles to Tokyo, and the transit would take one hour. The takeoff system would be similar to the midair launch the company uses now with the SpaceShipTwo. Basically, a large plane flies the spacecraft off the ground, drops it in midair, a hybrid rocket engine ignites, and the spacecraft ascends into lower orbit.

spaceshiptwo-2nd-flight-2A system like this would allow patrons to fly from the West Coast to Japan in an hour, or from the United Kingdom to Australia in two hours. This is according to statements made by Virgin Galactic’s CEO, George Whitesides, back in September at a company event at New York City’s Museum of Natural History:

You can imagine a SpaceShipThree or a SpaceShipFour going outside the atmosphere, then coming back down outside an urban area and landing. We don’t have to accept the status quo. We can imagine a vehicle using liquid oxygen or liquid hydrogen to get us across the Pacific in an hour. You could do that.

For those following Branson’s exploits, this announcement should come as no surprise. For years, he has been attempting to create a supersonic airline of his own. But when a paradigm-shifting idea like “point-to-point suborbital space transportation” becomes possible, he began to sets his sights a little higher (so to speak).

Spaceshiptwo-580x256Naturally, there are a few things that need to be worked out and tested before that’s possible, but it’s entirely within the realm of possibility. In fact, the European Space Agency has been researching the idea and claimed that SpaceShipOne and SpaceShipTwo are the most promising space launch mechanisms they’ve seen to date.

Naturally, there is the nagging question of cost. If aerospace travel does become feasible, who exactly will be able to afford it? So far, Virgin Galactic’s suborbital spaceflight have attracted hundreds of customers, but at a cost of $250,000 per head. It seems unlikely that these same people would pay a quarter of a million dollars just to travel halfway around the world. And some experts maintain that the industry will fail strictly because of the costs involved.

space-trip-klmDerek Webber, is one such person. As the executive director of Spaceport Associates, he wrote a paper in 2008 that explored the idea:

Credible market studies have not been done, or at least published. The optimum technical design has not been established. The ground infrastructure is not in place… Price levels are uncertain. It is not even clear whether such flights are best characterized as tourism or as transportation; whether the passengers would be primarily tourists or business persons on urgent trips.

Nevertheless, these doubts are doing nothing to stem the flow of investment and research being made by aerospace organizations and companies. For years, KLM Royal Dutch Airlines – the national air carrier of the Netherlands – has been developing a rocket-powered sub-orbital craft of its own. California-based XCOR Aerospace also has the Lynx – a hypersonic plane that could fly between New York and Tokyo in just 90 minutes.

XCORReaction Engines Limited is also developing the Skylon hypersonic engine for commercial spacecraft, much in the same way that Boeing and NASA are  developing the X-37B space plane. While these efforts are aimed at creating reusable spacecraft that could deploy satellites and deliver crew and supplies into orbit, they are also laying the groundwork for commercial transportation that takes people into orbit.

Meanwhile, DARPA and the US Marine Corps have been working on developing their own point-to-point rockets for delivering supplies and people for roughly a decade now and the Federal Aviation Administration’s 2010 report noted that:

[the] potential for the rapid global transport of passengers and the fast distribution of goods and services make point-to-point transportation an attractive space technology concept worth exploiting.

So while a price breakdown may be lacking, and the expected costs limiting, the technology is still in its infancy and it seems likely that the future of transportation lies in space. Beyond rapid transit and space tourism, it may very well be how airlines ferry people to and from their destinations in the not-too-distant future.

Source: motherboard.vice.com

The Future is Here: Google X’s Delivery Drones

google-x-project-wing-prototypesThere are drones for aerial reconnaissance, drones for domestic surveillance, and drones for raining hell, death and destruction down on enemy combatants. But drones for making personal deliveries? That’s a relatively new one. But it is a not-too-surprising part of an age where unmanned aerial vehicles are becoming more frequent and used for just about every commercial applications imaginable.

After working on secret for quite some time, Google’s secretive projects lab (Google X) recently unveiled its drone-based delivery system called Project Wing. On the surface, the project doesn’t look much different from Amazon’s Prime Air aut0nomous quadcopter delivery service. However, on closer inspection, Project Wing appears to be much more ambitious, and with more far-reaching goals.

Amazon-Google-780x400The original concept behind Project Wing — which has been in development for more than two years — was to deliver defibrillators to heart attack sufferers within two minutes. But after running into issues trying to integrate its tech with the US’s existing 911 and emergency services systems, the focus shifted to the much more general problem of same-day deliveries, disaster relief, and delivering to places that same- and next-day couriers might not reach.

For their first test flights, the Google team traveled to Australia to conduct deliveries of dog food to a farmer in Queensland. All 31 of Project Wing’s full-scale test flights have been conducted in Australia, which has a more permissive “remotely piloted aircraft” (i.e. domestic drones) policy than the US. There’s no word on when Project Wing might be commercialized, but it is estimated that it will be at least a couple of years.

google-drones-290814While most work in small-scale autonomous drones and remotely piloted aircraft generally revolves around quadcopters, Google X instead opted for a tail-sitter design. Basically, the Project Wing aircraft takes off and lands on its tail, but cruises horizontally like a normal plane. This method of vertical-takeoff-and-landing (VTOL) was trialed in some early aircraft designs, but thrust vectoring was ultimately deemed more practical for manned flight.

The Project Wing aircraft has four electric motors, a wingspan of around 1.5m (five feet), and weighs just under 8.6 kg (19 pounds). Fully loaded, the drones apparently weigh about 10 kg (22 pounds) and are outfitted with the usual set of radios and sensors to allow for autonomous flight. But there’s also a camera, which can be used by a remote pilot to ensure that the aircraft drops its package in a sensible location.

google-project-wing-delivery-drone-640x353As you can see from the video below, the packages are dropped from altitude, using a winch and fishing line. Early in the project, Google found that people wanted to collect packages directly from the drone, which was impractical when the engines were running. The air-drop solution is much more graceful, and also allows the drone to stay away from a large variety of low-altitude obstacles (humans, dogs, cars, telephone lines, trees…)

This is another major different with Amazon Prime Air’s drones, which carry their package on the drone’s undercarriage and land in order to make the delivery. And while their octocopters do have slightly better range – 1.6 km (1 mile), compared to Project Wing’s 800 meters (half a mile) – Google is confident its delivery system is safer. And they may be right, since its not quite clear how small children and animals will react to a landing object with spinning rotors!

Google-Wing-3For the moment, Google has no specific goal in mind, but the intent appears to be on the development for a full-scale same-day delivery service that can transport anything that meets the weight requirements. As Astro Teller, director of Google X labs, said in an interview with The Atlantic:

Throughout history there have been a series of innovations that have each taken a huge chunk out of the friction of moving things around. FedEx overnight delivery has absolutely changed the world again. We’re starting to see same-day service actually change the world. Why would we think that the next 10x — being able to get something in just a minute or two — wouldn’t change the world?

Nevertheless, both projects are still years away from realization, as both have to content with FAA regulations and all the red tape that come with it. Still, it would not be farfetched to assume that by the 2020’s, we could be living in a world where drones are a regular feature, performing everything from traffic monitoring and aerial reconnaissance to package delivery.

And be sure to check out these videos from CNET and Amazon, showing both Project Wing and Prime Air in action:

 

 


Sources:
extremetech.com
, zdnet.com, mashable.com

News From Space: SpaceX Booster Explodes in Flight

spacex-falcon-9-octaweb-640x427Last week, during a test flight in McGregor Texas, a new space SpaceX Falcon 9 Reusable Development Vehicle 1 (F9R Dev 1) exploded in midair. This three-engine variant of the F9 is the latest in SpaceX’s arsenal of vertical takeoff, vertical landing (VTVL) rockets designed to allow for easy recovery and reuse. Previously, Grasshopper had only used a single Merlin rocket engine; but for this test, a three-engine version of the vehicle was being used.

The F9R Dev 1 is a second-generation test vehicle rocket based on the SpaceX Grasshopper. Built as part of SpaceX’s program to develop a fully reusable launcher system and spacecraft with all components capable of a powered landing, the F9R has lighter, retractable landing legs and is 50 percent longer than the Grasshopper. It made its first flight last April and is capable of flight operations up to 3,000 m (10,000 ft).

https://i1.wp.com/www.extremetech.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/08/exploding-spacex-rocket-grasshopper-f9r-640x357.jpgThis marks the first major failure for SpaceX’s commercial space launch program, and in a statement, SpaceX says the initiated its self-destruct sequence automatically after detecting an anomaly. Nearby residents saw the fireball and local television station KXXV caught the incident on video. From the footage (seen below), the new test rocket is seen going up, turning 90 degrees to horizontal, and then detonating with a rather neat fireball.

Mercifully, no one was harmed (including the local livestock). Following the incident, Elon Musk tweeted that the vehicle “auto-terminated,” but there were no injuries or near-injuries, and that “Rockets are tricky …” SpaceX also released the following statement saying:

Earlier today, in McGregor, Texas, SpaceX conducted a test flight of a three engine version of the F9R test vehicle (successor to Grasshopper). During the flight, an anomaly was detected in the vehicle and the flight termination system automatically terminated the mission.

Throughout the test and subsequent flight termination, the vehicle remained in the designated flight area. There were no injuries or near injuries. An FAA representative was present at all times.

With research and development projects, detecting vehicle anomalies during the testing is the purpose of the program. Today’s test was particularly complex, pushing the limits of the vehicle further than any previous test. As is our practice, the company will be reviewing the flight record details to learn more about the performance of the vehicle prior to our next test.

SpaceX will provide another update when the flight data has been fully analyzed.

spacex-falcon-9-rocket-largeIn short, SpaceX was attempting something new and exciting and it didn’t quite go as planned. And although it cost them millions of dollars, rocket scientists know from experience that a controlled detonation in the air is far better than an uncontrolled one on the ground. Should a rocket lose control and crash into the Earth, it will detonate all of its unspent fuel and can cause extensive damage and loss of life.

At this point it’s impossible to say what kind of anomaly was experienced by the rocket, but SpaceX is poring over the gigabytes of flight telemetry data to try and find out what went wrong. In the meantime, space enthusiasts are hoping people will remember that mishaps are part of the development process, and that we’ve come very far since the early days of NASA and Project Mercury, where mistakes and deaths were far more common.

And if SpaceX wants to create the world’s first reusable space launch system, and crack the cheap, commercial space travel market wide open, there are going to be a few fireballs along the way. But as long as it’s just the test launches that explode, we should count our blessings. And in the meantime, be sure to check out the footage obtained by KXXV of the failed test flight:


Sources:
extremetech.com, gizmodo.com

Fears of a Police-Drone State

UAVsIn a decision which has been decried by countless community activists and civil rights leaders, the Alameda  County Sheriff’s Department announced plans last month to deploy up to two small, lightweight drones to assist in police surveillance. Despite resistance from the community, the town seems poised to join many other cities in using UAV’s for domestic security, effectively steam-rolling over concerns over privacy and “Big Brother” government.

As it stands, several police agencies across the US are currently using drones, including the Miami-Dade Police Department and the Texas Department of Public Safety. Until recently, the Seattle Police Department also employed a two-drone fleet, but grounded them amidst growing concerns over privacy and a recent government report, which warned that drone use could become even more commonplace.

california_dronesBefore anyone gets too worried, rest assured that the drones in question are a far cry from the UAV’s currently conducting armed missions overseas. Unlike the Predator and Reaper drones that carry multiple Hellfire missiles and can level entire villages, these drones are relatively benign, weighing only a few pounds and relying on a series of propellers to keep them aloft. But of course, the potential for harm resides in their ability to monitor, not to kill…

UAV_scoutConcerns over domestic drone surveillance reached a sort of climax  last February after federal lawmakers signed the Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 into law. Among other things, the act required the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to accelerate drone flights in U.S. airspace. In response, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) warned that the act would allow drone use to become commonplace in the US.

In accordance with that law, drones, known in the report as “unmanned aerial systems,” are currently limited in the United States to law enforcement activities, search and rescue, forensic photography, monitoring or fighting forest fires, border security, weather research, scientific data collection and even hobbies. However, the law calls for expansion so drones can be used for commercial, utility and public  uses.

UAV_dom1Naturally, the FAA feels that the new law doesn’t take into account several key problems – notably concerns surrounding privacy, security and even GPS jamming and spoofing. In short, they pointed out that despite drone’s on-board navigation and detection system that allow them to avoid crashes, said systems could cause complications if and when drones share airspace with private aircraft.

Among other things, the FAA recommended that drone GPS systems undergo encryption so they would be resistant to jamming and hacking, which is apparently a danger in non-military unencrypted drones. They also advised that the government set up secure operation centers for unmanned drones, and recommended that the government formulate privacy protections to head off potential “abuses”.

UAV_domObviously, the FAA’s report and public concern struck a note. Just last month, federal lawmakers introduced legislation regulating state and federal government use of unmanned drones in the United States. This legislation prohibits drones from being armed, and would demand that agencies register drones and adopt privacy polices. What’s more, the proposal would allow drones to be used only in criminal matters, in which warrants would be required.

Once again, it appears that the Obama administration is willing to step in where public concerns over developing technology are concerned. Recall the instruction signed by Defense Secretary Ashton Carter back in December of last year designed to limit the development of autonomous aerial drones? Well here too, instructions have been given, but the general sense of worry is far from alleviated.

X-47BIt puts me in mind of a prediction Arthur C. Clarke made shortly before he died in 2008. He predicted that despite concerns over “Big Brother”-type monitoring, that digital surveillance would be adopted by every city within the civilized world, until such time that crime was virtually eliminated. Much like many predictions he made, this one proved a little optimistic and futurist for some of his fans (including this one!).

As it stands, the use of remote machines to monitor our world is an ongoing and growing concern, and the debate will hardly be decided so easily. In the end, we all just have to ask if we really want to live in a post-privacy state, what the costs of living in that kind of world will be, and whether or not it will truly mean the emergence of dystopian scenarios, as envisioned by George Orwell and others.

Source: Wired.com, (2)