The Future of Naval Warfare: Supersonic Submarines

Chinese_subsResearchers in China are reporting that they’ve taken a big step towards creating a truly revolutionary submarine. For years, the nation has been dedicated to the expansion of the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) Submarine Force. That latest announcement in this plan is the intended development of supersonic submarines. And if feasible, it could a sub to travel from Shanghai to San Francisco a distance of about 9650 km (6,000 miles) – in just 100 minutes.

The research behind this proposed development comes from the Harbin Institute of Technology’s Complex Flow and Heat Transfer Lab, where researchers are applying a concept known as supercavitation. Originally conceived by the Soviets in the ’60s to create high-speed torpedoes, the Harbin researchers are looking to take things to the next level by applying it to a much larger sea-faring vessel.

https://i2.wp.com/www.extremetech.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/08/supercavitation-diagram.jpgAs is commonly known, objects moving through water have a harder time than those moving through air. While automobiles are only able to travel so fast before succumbing to wind resistance (aka. drag), surface ships and submarines must content with fluid-dynamics, which are much more tricky. Compared to air, water is far more dense and viscous, which means more energy is required to get up to a certain speed.

Even the most modern and advanced nuclear submarine cannot travel much faster than 40 knots (74 kph/46 mph), and the same applies to torpedoes. Higher speeds are possible, but would require so much power to make it impractical. That’s where supercavitation comes into play, a technique devised with the explicit purpose of creating high-speed torpedoes during the Cold War.

Shkval_headThis technique gets around the drag of water by creating a bubble of gas for the object to travel through. In the hands of the Soviet’s, the research resulted in the Shkval torpedo, which uses a special nose cone to create the supercavitation envelope that allows it to travel through the water at speeds of up to 200 knots (370 kph/230 mph) – much, much faster than the standard torpedoes fielded by the US.

The only other countries with supercavitational weapons are Iran – which most likely reverse-engineered the Russian Shkval – and Germany, the creators of the Superkavitierender Unterwasserlaufkörper (“supercavitating underwater running body”). The US is researching its own supercavitational torpedo, but there’s very little public information available. Meanwhile, China is not only looking to create supercavitating torpedoes, but an underwater vessel.

supercavitational-torpedo-techUnlike previous designs, which had to be launched at speeds of 95 km (60 mph) to create a supercavitation bubble, the method described by the Harbin researchers uses a “special liquid membrane” to reduce friction at low speeds. This liquid is showered over the object to replenish the membrane as it’s worn off by the passage of water, and once the object gets up to speed, it would theoretically use the same nose-cone technique to achieve supercavitation.

In theory, supercavitation could allow for speeds up to the speed of sound — which underwater is 5343 kph (3,320 mph) – which would allow a sub to go from Shanghai to San Francisco in well under two hours. For any nation with a nuclear arsenal – i.e. China, Russia, France, the UK, the US – the ability to deploy nuclear missile subs speedily around the world is certainly desirable.

https://i2.wp.com/grupocaos2007.brinkster.net/supercav2/BancoPruebMini.JPGBut of course, there are some challenges posed by the concept and any ship that is equipped to run on it. For one, it is very difficult to steer a supercavitating vessel and conventional methods (like rudders) don’t work without water contact. Second, developing an underwater engine that’s capable of high velocity over long distances is very difficult. Jet engines do not work underwater and generally, rockets only have enough fuel to burn for a few minutes.

Nuclear power might be a possibility as far as supersonic submarines go, but that’s strictly academic at this point. Li Fengchen, a professor at the Harbin Institute, says their technology isn’t limited to military use. While supersonic submarines and torpedoes are at top of the list, the same technology could also boost civilian transport, or even boost the speed of swimmers. As Li put it:

If a swimsuit can create and hold many tiny bubbles in water, it can significantly reduce the water drag; swimming in water could be as effortless as flying in the sky.

https://storiesbywilliams.files.wordpress.com/2014/09/e1095-chinese_submarine.jpgAs always with such advanced (and potentially weaponized) technology, it’s hard to say how far away it is from real-world application. Given that this is primarily a military research project within China, one can expect that it will remain shrouded in secrecy until it is ready. And if civilian researchers are making good progress, then it’s a fairly safe bet that the military is even further along.

While the future of transit is already exciting – what with hyperloops, aerospace travel, robotaxis and robot cars – the idea that people could travel under the waves as fast as on they could on the Concorde is pretty cool! At the same time, the idea that subs equipped with nuclear missiles could reach our shores within two hours is pretty scary. But futuristic military technology has never been known to inspire warm and fuzzy feelings, has it?

Sources: extremetech.com, scmp.com

The Future is Here: Google’s New Self-Driving Car

google-new-self-driving-car-prototype-640x352Google has just unveiled its very first, built-from-scratch-in-Detroit, self-driving electric robot car. The culmination of years worth of research and development, the Google vehicle is undoubtedly cuter in appearance than other EV cars – like the Tesla Model S or Toyota Prius. In fact, it looks more like a Little Tikes plastic car, right down to smiley face on the front end. This is no doubt the result of clever marketing and an attempt to reduce apprehension towards the safety or long-term effects of autonomous vehicles.

The battery-powered electric vehicle has as a stop-go button, but no steering wheel or pedals. It also comes with some serious expensive hardware – radar, lidar, and 360-degree cameras – that are mounted in a tripod on the roof. This is to ensure good sightlines around the vehicle, and at the moment, Google hasn’t found a way to integrate them seamlessly into the car’s chassis. This is the long term plan, but at the moment, the robotic tripod remains.

google-self-driving-car-prototype-concept-artAs the concept art above shows, the eventual goal appears to be to to build the computer vision and ranging hardware into a slightly less obtrusive rooftop beacon. In terms of production, Google’s short-term plan is to build around 200 of these cars over the next year, with road testing probably restricted to California for the next year or two. These first prototypes are mostly made of plastic with battery/electric propulsion limited to a max speed of 25 mph (40 kph).

Instead of an engine or “frunk,” there’s a foam bulkhead at the front of the car to protect the passengers. There’s just a couple of seats in the interior, and some great big windows so passengers can enjoy the view while they ride in automated comfort. In a blog post on their website, Google expressed that their stated goal is in “improving road safety and transforming mobility for millions of people.” Driverless cars could definitely revolutionize travel for people who can’t currently drive.

google_robotcar_mapImproving road safety is a little more ambiguous, though. It’s generally agreed that if all cars on the road were autonomous, there could be some massive gains in safety and efficiency, both in terms of fuel usage and being able to squeeze more cars onto the roads. In the lead-up to that scenario, though, there are all sorts of questions about how to effectively integrate a range of manual, semi- and fully self-driving vehicles on the same roadways.

Plus, there are the inevitable questions of practicality and exigent circumstances. For starters, having no other controls in the car but a stop-go button may sound simplified and creative, but it creates problems. What’s a driver to do when they need to move the car just a few feet? What happens when a tight parking situation is taking place and the car has to be slowly moved to negotiate it? Will Google’s software allow for temporary double parking, or off-road driving for a concert or party? google_robotca

Can you choose which parking spot the car will use, to leave the better/closer parking spots for someone with special needs (i.e. the elderly or physically disabled)? How will these cars handle the issue of “right of way” when it comes to pedestrians and other drivers? Plus, is it even sensible to promote a system that will eventually make it easier to put more cars onto the road? Mass transit is considered the best option for a cleaner, less cluttered future. Could this be a reason not to develop such ideas as the Hyperloop and other high-speed maglev trains?

All good questions, and ones which will no doubt have to be addressed as time goes on and production becomes more meaningful. In the meantime, there are no shortage of people who are interested in the concept and hoping to see where it will go. Also, there’s plenty of people willing to take a test drive in the new robotic car. You can check out the results of these in the video below. In the meantime, try not to be too creeped out if you see a car with a robotic tripod on top and a very disengaged passenger in the front seat!


Sources:
extremetech.com, scientificamerican.com

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 Transport: High-Speed MagLev’s

hyperloopThis past summer, Elon Musk once again impressed the world with his futuristic design for a high-speed transit tube that could take passengers from Los Angeles and San Francisco in just 30 minutes. It’s known as the Hyperloop, a “fifth form” of transportation that would utilize linear electric motors, solar panels, and air cushions to achieve speeds of up to 1290 kilometers per hour (800 mph).

Unfortunately, Musk also indicated that with his current, busy schedule, it would be many years before a working demonstration could be produced. What’s more, he was unclear on what role, if any, he would play in its creation. The project was unveiled as an open-source venture, and he called upon business investors to take up the role of making it happen.

hyperloop1However, some investors have come forward to do just that. Gathering around the entrepreneurial collaboration platform known as JumpStartFund, these enthusiasts have come together to create a corporation that will see Musk’s concept through to development. This is no small task, seeing as how the price-tag (according to Musk) would be between 6 and 10 billion dollars.

JumpStartFund launched on August 22, and aims to give entrepreneurs a network through which to both seek funding and support as well as crowdsource the idea and collaborate with others to refine it. The Hyperloop concept, put up on the site by the JumpStart team, became the platform’s flagship project within its first week of launch.

hyperloop2Dirk Ahlborn, CEO and co-founder of JumpStartFund, said in an interview back in September:

We want to be the ones that actually make things happen. So of course we need to create a corporation. Whoever decides to dedicate more time to this than just logging onto the platform deserves to be part of this company.

Because Ahlborn and his co-founders have connections with SpaceX, they were able to talk over the idea with the company’s president, Gwynne Shotwell, and get the green light to feature it on the platform. Joining them are engineers Marco Villa and Patricia Galloway, who worked for SpaceX and the US National Science Board respectively and even held directorial and vice chair positions.

hyperloop3JumpStartFund is also accepting applications from members of the site to work full-time on the Hyperloop project in exchange for equity in the company. Ahlborn has also indicated that even naming the company will be a crowdsourced effort:

We want to find a way to give everyone the ability to be a part of this project. The whole concept is always going to be on the platform. Everything is going to be very transparent, and we intend to reserve a percent of future revenues for people that work with us on the platform.

And the Hyperloop is hardly alone when it comes to the future of mass transit. On the opposite side of the US, along the Northeast Corridor, The Northeast Maglev (TNEM) company is looking to create a superconducting magnetic railway that could take passengers from New York to Washington D.C. in 60 minutes, and from Baltimore to D.C. is just 15.

scmaglev-rendering-marylandAt present, this American company – which is backed by a Japanese government bank – is testing a maglev route in Japan that runs from Nagoya to Tokyo in Japan and is planned to be completed by 2027. In the US, their efforts are aimed at replacing the nation’s aging transit infrastructure, which is unable to cope with modern demand.

As Northeast Maglev CEO and chairman Wayne Rogers said in a recent interview with Co.Exist:

What’s happening is we’re operating on 1940s and 1950s infrastructure and drowning in congestion. This isn’t pie-in-the-sky technology. This is something that you could fly to Tokyo, sit on a train, and actually ride a train that goes 311 miles per hour.

Much like the Hyperloop, the train would run on a bed of air, levitated by a series of electromagnetic coils located on the track. While similar magnetic levitation projects along the corridor have been considered in the past, they repeatedly failed due to curves that would slow down the transit process, and passengers projections were consistently too low.

scmaglev-rendering-new-jersey-high-trafficThe current maglev project plans on using tunnels to bypass the curves, and train ridership is at an all-time high. However, the realization of the project will still require significant funds. As Rogers himself projects, the first leg of the route – from D.C. to Baltimore – will cost some $10 billion. As such, the company imagines it will require some additional federal support.

The company does have some high-profile support working in its favor, though. Its advisory board includes two former transportation secretaries, former majority leader Tom Daschle, Under Armour CEO Kevin Plank, former Northwest Airlines CEO Doug Steenland, and George Pataki, Christine Todd Whitman, and Ed Rendell – the former governors of New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania.

scmaglev-rendering-washington-stationAnd ultimately, Rogers and his company are hopeful, citing recent changes and the enthusiasm garnered by the Hyperloop project:

[T]he concept is different, the sponsorship is different, the routing is different, and the technology is different. I think one of the things [the Hyperloop] has done – without commenting on the feasibility of the Hyperloop or not – is it’s brought people’s attention to the problem and brings America back to the things it’s good at, which is thinking big things and implementing cutting-edge technologies on terrific projects.

Who knows? In a few decades times, we could be looking at a world where high-speed maglev trains crisscross every continent, carrying people between all major cities faster than jet planes, and at a fraction of the cost. Meanwhile, intercontinental transit could be taking the form of aerospace travel, jets that fly into the lower atmosphere at hypersonic speeds. It’s important to dream big!

And in the meantime, enjoy this promotional video from The Northeast Maglev company:


Sources: news.cnet.com, fastcoexist.com

News from SpaceX: More Tests and the Coming Launch

spaceX_elonmuskElon Musk just can’t get enough of the spotlight lately! But that’s the price you pay for being a billionaire, innovator, genius-type person! And barely a week after announcing his idea for the Hyperloop high-speed train, it now seems that SpaceX is once again making the news, thanks to its latest test of the Grasshopper reusable rocket system as well as their planned launch of the Falcon Heavy rocket.

For those unfamiliar with the Grasshopper, this is a proposed reusable rocket system that Musk and SpaceX created with the hopes of bringing the costs associated with space launches down considerably. Since September 2012, the rocket has been put through successive tests, reaching higher and higher altitudes and safely making it back to the ground.

grasshopper_lateraldivertIn this latest test, the rocket successfully performed a “lateral divert test”. In all previous tests, the rocket lifted off vertically from a launch pad and then used its Merlin-1D engine to ease itself back down to the pad. However, in actual launch situations, the rocket wont simply be traveling up and down. When it comes time to land, a considerable amount of lateral steering will be necessary to line it back up with the launch site.

This is what the test, which took place on Tuesday, August 13th, amounted to. It began with the Grasshopper reaching its previously-achieved altitude of 250 meters, but then continued with the rocket moving an additional 100 m (328 ft) to one side. It was subsequently still able to land safely back at the center of the launch pad, compensating for its lateral diversion.

According to SpaceX: “The test demonstrated the vehicle’s ability to perform more aggressive steering maneuvers than have been attempted in previous flights.” What’s more, it places the company that much closer to the realization of a truly reusable rocket system, something which will drastically cut costs for future space missions.

And of course, they were sure to catch the entire test on video:


But equally important for this rising company that seeks to privatize space travel was the announcement that they have are moving ahead with plans to launch their Falcon Heavy rocket system by late 2013 or early 2014. At present, the Falcon is the most power rocket system in the world, overshadowed only by the now retired – but soon to be reserviced – Saturn V booster that put the Apollo astronauts into space and on the Moon.

spaceX-falcon9As Musk himself said of the rocket:

Falcon Heavy will carry more payload to orbit or escape velocity than any vehicle in history, apart from the Saturn V moon rocket, which was decommissioned after the Apollo program. This opens a new world of capability for both government and commercial space missions.

Fully loaded, the Falcon Heavy will be able to carry payloads of 53 metric tons (117,000 pounds or 53,070 kg) into orbit, and is made up of two engine stages. The first stage consists of a Falcon 9 rocket, with a nine-engine cores, followed by two additional nine-engine cores attached to either side. In addition, the Merlin engines have been upgraded to handle the additional weight, and are being tested at SpaceX’s facility in McGregor, Texas.

flacon-heavy-3At liftoff the 69.2m (227 ft) long Falcon Heavy will generate 3.8 million pounds of thrust, which is equivalent to the thrust of fifteen Boeing 747’s taking off at the same time. SpaceX claims that this gives the Falcon Heavy more than twice the performance of the next most powerful vehicle – the Delta IV Heavy operated by the Boeing-Lockheed Martin joint venture United Launch Alliance.

SpaceX also says that with more than twice the payload of the Delta IV but at one third the cost, the Falcon Heavy sets a new world record in terms of economy at approximately US$1,000 per pound to orbit. This is in keeping with Musk’s promise to bring the associated costs of space travel and exploration down, hopefully one day to his goal of $500 per pound.

 

spaceX_solararrayWith the ability to carry satellites or interplanetary spacecraft to orbit, SpaceX is offering the Falcon Heavy on the commercial market for US$80–$125 million, which compares to the $435 million per launch the U.S. Air Force has budgeted for four launches in 2012. So in effect, Musk’s company is offering a money-saving alternative to both the public and private sector.

For those fascinated by the long-term potential of space travel, this is certainly exciting news. By cutting the costs of placing satellites, supplies and people in orbit, many things are being made feasible that were previously impossible. This includes conducting more research in orbit, the ability to create space-based solar arrays (a very cool solution to our current power problems and the limitations of Earth-based solar power) and perhaps even begin work on a Moon settlement.

solar_system1Beyond that, there are the growing possibilities of commercial space travel, space tourism, and even setting our sights father afield with manned missions to the Moon, prospecting missions to the asteroid belt, and surveying probes to Jupiter’s Moons and to the very edge of the Solar System. Possibly even beyond…

Exciting times we live in, when the impossible is slowly becoming possible!

Sources: gizmag.com, (2), spacex.com

 

The Future of Transit: Elon Musk’s Hyperloop

hyperloopThe high-speed transit tube. It’s been a staple of science fiction for many years. Remember the tubes cars in Logan’s Run, the elevators in the Jetsons, or the tubes that shoot people around New New York in Futurama? Much like flying cars, they are a feature of a futuristic society that people have been waiting on. And thanks to Elon Musk, it might finally be coming true.

Yes, the same man that brought us the Tesla electric car, PayPal, and SpaceX is now working on a design for a high-speed transit system that works the same way as the pneumatic tube. In a series of statements and documents released yesterday, the billionaire entrepreneur unveiled his concept for a tube that could whisk passengers between Los Angeles and San Francisco in just 30 minutes – half the time it takes an airplane.

hyperloop1In the newly released documents, Musk outlined the basic design, which would consist of a low-pressure steel tube that houses capsules which move back and forth. The aluminum capsules (or pods) would have skis on the bottom containing holes that pump out air, creating an air cushion. They would be propelled forward with magnets found on the skis as well as an electromagnetic pulse generated by a series of electric motors.

Linear electric motors placed at each destination would slow the pods down by absorbing their kinetic energy. That energy would then be put back into battery packs and used to accelerate the next pods, or stored for future use. Solar panels on top of the tubes would also provide energy. The pods, which have room for 28 people each, could leave every 30 seconds – transporting up to 7.4 million people on each route (SF to LA or vice versa).

hyperloop2At 1290 kilometers per hour (800 mph) the above ground Hyperloop system would be dramatically faster than a bullet train or even an airplane. Alongside boats, planes, trains and automobiles, Musk claims that the train would constitute a “fifth form” of transportation. And of course, safety would be paramount, with each pod being spaced apart by 8 km (5 miles), and the system would have an emergency brake.

The system would also be designed to deal with seismic shifts, which are common in California. In order to mitigate earthquake risk, the system would be built on pylons (the tube wouldn’t be rigidly fixed at any point). Adjustable lateral and vertical dampers would be placed inside the pylons to “absorb the small length changes between pylons due to thermal changes, as well as long form subtle height changes.”

hyperloop3What’s more, Musk was sure to play up the comfort value of the ride:

Once you’re traveling the speed you wouldn’t notice the speed at all. It would be really smooth, like you’re riding on a cushion of air. Maximum G-force of about half a G, comparable to what you might feel in an airplane but far less than what you would feel in a rollercoaster. Really quiet.

Musk estimates that price tag per ride would be $20 per person, making the Hyperloop more reasonably priced than train, plane, or automobile. The whole project would cost an estimated $6 billion if it contained “people-only pods,” but would be priced at $10 billion if it had pods for both people and cars.

As it stands, its not entirely clear when the Hyperloop would be up and running. What’s more, its unclear what tole Musk would play in its creation. Since he is currently occupied with developing things like a nationwide Supercharger network for Tesla and launching satellites with SpaceX, he thinks it could be three to four years before a demo could be finished. As for a full system that would run from LA to San Francisco, that could take between seven to ten.

hyperloop4In any event, the concept is open-source, and Musk is calling on inventors, engineers and investors to get involved. Given that it is a rather elegant solution to the problem of transit, such an idea is not likely to remain idle for too long. Originally inspired by the sad state of $70 billion California’s high-speed rail initiative, the Hyperloop could easily prove to be another transportation initiative that is never completed. At the same time, it might prove to be a “leapfrog maneuver”, bypassing lightrail completely and ushering in something better.

It might sound like a fantasy, but Musk has a reputation for making the impossible a reality. What’s more, engineers from both Tesla and SpaceX have been working on the concept for close to a year and some are now dedicated to it full-time. And given that nations like China, India, Russia and the EU are in need of expanded transit systems, don’t be surprised if we see something similar emerging overseas.

And be sure to enjoy this video of the concept, courtesy of Elon Musk and CBC news:


Sources: cbc.ca, fastcoexist.com