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 Future is Here: The Copenhagen Wheel

copenhagen_wheelFans of the cable show Weeds ought to instantly recognize this invention. It was featured as a product invented by one of the characters while living (predictably) in Copenhagen. In addition, it was the subject of news stories, articles, design awards, and a whole lot of public interest. People wanted to get their hands on it, and for obvious reasons.

It’s known as the Copenhagen Wheel, a device invented by MIT SENSEable City Lab back in 2009 to electrify the bicycle. Since that time, engineers at MIT have been working to refine it in preparation for the day when it would be commercially available. And that time has come, as a new company called Superpedestrian announced that it has invested $2.1 million in venture capital to make the device available to the public.

copenhagen_wheel1Superpedestrian founder Assaf Biderman, who is also the SENSEable City lab associate director and one of the creators of the wheel, along with lab director Carlo Ratti, had this to say:

The project touched an exposed nerve somehow. Aside from news coverage and design awards, people were wanting it. Over 14,000 people emailed saying ‘I want to buy it, sell it, make it for you.

Three years after inventing it, Biderman finally decided that it was time to spin off a company to make it happen. MIT filed all the relevant patents, and Superpedestrian acquired exclusive licenses to the Copenhagen Wheel technology. And by late November, they plan to launch the wheel to the public for the very first time.

copenhagen_wheel2And though the much of the facts are being carefully guarded in preparation for the release, some details are already known. For example, the wheel can be fitted to almost any bike, is controlled by sensors in the peddles, and has a power assist feature that doesn’t require any work on the part of the rider. And according to Biderman, its range “will cover the average suburban commute, about 15 miles to and from work and back home.”

On top of that, a regenerative braking system stores energy for later use in a lithium battery. The wheel also comes with an app that allows users to control special features from their smartphone. These include being able to lock and unlock the bike, select motor assistance, and get real-time data about road conditions. An open-source platform called The Superpedestrian SDK also exists to allow developers to make on their own apps.

smartwheelrotatingInterestingly enough,the Copenhagen Wheel also has a rival, who’s appearance on the market seems nothing short of conspiratorial. Its competitor, the FlyKly Smart Wheel, a device which has raised over $150,000 on Kickstarter so far. It is extremely similar to the Copenhagen Wheel in most respects, from its electrical assistance to the fact that it can be integrated via smartphone.

According to Biderman, the appearance of the Smart Wheel is just a coincidence, though it is similar to their product. And her company really doesn’t have to worry about competition, since the Copenhagen Wheel has years of brand recognition and MIT name behind it. In terms of the the target audience, Biderman says that they are looking at targeting city dwellers as well as cyclists:

If you’re an urbanite, you can use it to move all around, and go as far as the edges of most cities with this quite easily. You overcome topographical challenges like hills. The point is to attract more people to cycling.

Though no indication has been given how much an individual unit will cost, it is expected to have a price point that’s competitive with today’s e-bikes.

copenhagen_wheel3The FlyKly Smart Wheel, by comparison, can be pre-ordered for $550 apiece. In total, that campaign has raised $301,867 (their original goal was $100,000) since opening on Oct. 16th. As a result, they have been able to reach their first “stretch goal” of producing a 20″ wheel. If they can reach $500,000 before the campaign closes on Nov. 25th, they will be able to deliver on their other goals: a motor brake and a glow in the dark casing.

For some time, designers and engineers have been trying to find ways to make alternative transportation both effective and attractive. Between these designs and a slew of others that will undoubtedly follow, it looks like e-bicycling may be set to fill that void. Combined with electric cars, self-driving cars, hydrogen cars, robotaxis, podcars, and high speed trains, we could be looking at the revolution in transit that we’ve been waiting for.

Sources: fastcoexist.com(2), kickstarter.com

Robots Meet the Fashion Industry

robot_fashionRobotics has come a long way in recent years. Why, just take a look at NASA’s X1 Robotic exoskeleton, the Robonaut, robotaxis and podcars, the mind-controlled EMT robot suit, Stompy the giant robot, Kenshiro and Roboy, and the 3D printed android. I suppose it was only a matter of time before the world of fashion looked at this burgeoning marketplace and said “me too!”

And here are just some of the first attempts to merge the two worlds: First up there’s the robot mannequin, a means of making window shopping more fun for consumers. Known as the MarionetteBot, this automaton has already made several appearances in shops in Japan and can expected to be making debut appearances across Asia, in North America and the EU soon enough!

Check out the video below to see the robot in action. Designed by the Japanese robotics company United Arrows, the mannequin uses a Kinect to capture and help analyze the movements of a person while a motor moves a total of 16 wires to match the person’s pose. Though it is not yet fast or limber enough to perfectly mimic the moves of a person, the technology shows promise, and has provided many a window-shopper with plenty of entertainment!


And next up, there’s the equally impressive FitBot, a shape-shifting mannequin that is capable of emulating thousands of body types. Designed by the British virtual shopping company Fits.Me, the FitBot is designed to help take some of the guesswork out of online shopping, where a good 25% of purchases are regularly returned because they were apparently the wrong size.

But with the FitBots, along with a virtual fitting room, customers will be able to see right away what the clothes will look like on them. The only downside is you will have to know your exact measurements, because that’s what the software will use to adjust the bot’s body. Click here to visit the company’s website and see how the virtual fitting room works, and be sure to check out there video below:


What does the future hold for the fashion industry and high-tech? Well, already customers are able to see what they look like using Augmented Reality technology displays, and can get pictures thanks to tablet and mobile phone apps that can present them with the image before making a purchase. Not only does it take a lot of the legwork out of the process, its much more sanitary as far as trying on clothes is concerned. And in a world where clothing can be printed on site, it would be downright necessary.

The "magic mirror"
The “magic mirror”

But in the case of online shopping, its likely to take the form of a Kinect device in your computer, which scans your body and lets you know what size to get. How cool/lazy would that be? Oh, and as for those AR displays that put you in the clothes you want? They should come with a disclaimer: Objects in mirror are less attractive than they appear!

Source: en.akihabaranews.com, technabob.com

Shogun Tango

Welcome to the future of racing! Here we have a new conceptual movie, the product of director Christopher and modeler Greg Desantis, which features high-tech racers blasting across the California flats. The purpose of the fictitious race, which is known as the Bonneville Classic 5000 (but as Shogun Tango amongst its participants), is all about testing the most powerful vehicles in the world.

One look and I think you’ll agree, the look of the video is pretty damn spectacular. You got racing hovercars, monitoring satellites, and what appear to be called “jump gates”. Sound like any futuristic video games you’ve played lately? According to Greg, the team “made the movie in our spare time over about a year. A few people have asked if it is a viral for Virgin, it’s not. We just thought the film would be cooler with real logos, than with fake or generic logos.”

Check out the video below, or go to shoguntango.com.

Source: IO9

Masdar City

Imagine a city that runs entirely on solar energy and other renewable energy source. A city that generates entirely no carbon and no waste, with mass transit that relies on electronic, computer-controlled pod cars. That is the concept behind Masdar City, a planned urban environment located 17 km south-east of the capital of the United Arab Emirates (Abu Dhabi).

Designed by the British architectural firm Foster and Partners, and with the majority of the seed capital coming from the government of Abu Dhabi, Masdar is a blueprint for future cities based on sustainability, clean energy, and the latest and best in manufacturing, recycling and waste management technology. On top of that, it will contain some of the most advanced facilities in the world, dedicated to science, commerce and eduction.

In essence, it is the answer of what to do about rapidly advancing technology, urban growth, and development in the developing world. Point of interest include:

Masdar Institute:
Wouldn’t you know it? At the heart of a city based on sustainability and clean energy is an institute dedicated to the furtherance of these very things. Known as the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology (MIST), this research-oriented university was developed in conjunction with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and focuses on the development of alternative energy, sustainability, and the environment.

In addition, its facilities use 70% less electricity and potable water than normal buildings of similar size and is fitted with a metering system that constantly observes power consumption. It’s full range of programs include Chemical Engineering, Mechanical Engineering, Material Science and Engineering, Engineering Systems and Management, Water and Environmental Engineering, Computing & Information Science, Electrical Power Engineering and Microsystems.

Renewable Energy:
In addition to its planned 40 to 60 megawatt solar power plant, which will power further construction projects, with additional solar panels to  be placed on rooftops, for a total output of 130 megawatts. In addition, wind farms will be established outside the city’s perimeter capable of producing up to 20 megawatts, and the city intends to utilise geothermal energy as well.In addition, Masdar plans to host the world’s largest hydrogen power plant, a major breakthrough in terms of clean energy!

Water Management:
When it comes to water consumption, that too will be handled in an environmentally-friendly way that also utilizes solar energy. At the hear of this plan lies a solar-powered desalination plant. Approximately 80 percent of the water used will be recycled and waste greywater will be reused for crop irrigation and other purposes.

Waste Management:
As already noted, the city will also attempt to reduce waste to zero. Biological waste will be used to create nutrient-rich soil and fertiliser, and plans exist to incinerate it for the sake of generating additional power. Industrial waste, such as plastics and metals, will be recycled or re-purposed for other uses. The exterior wood used throughout the city is Palmwood, a sustainable hardwood-substitute developed by Pacific Green using plantation coconut palms that no longer bear fruit.

Transportation:
Initially, the planners for Masdar considered banning the use of automobiles altogether, focusing instead on mass transit and personal rapid transit (PRT) systems, with existing road and railways connecting to other locations outside the city. This systems utilize a series of podcars, designed by the company 2getthere, contains 10 passenger and 3 freight vehicles and serves 2 passenger and 3 freight stations connected by 1.2 kilometers of one-way track.

The cars travel at an average of 20km/h (12mph), trips take about 2 and a half minutes and are presently free of charge. Last year, a system of 10 Mitsubishi i-MiEV electric cars was deployed as part of a one-year pilot to test a point-to-point transportation solution for the city to complement the PRT and the freight rapid transit (FRT).

Summary:
Given the mounting environmental crisis this planet faces, cities like Masdar may very well be the solution to future urban planning and expansion. But of course, as an incurable sci-fi geek, I also consider cities like this to be a handy blueprint for the day when it comes time to plan extra-solar and even exoplanet settlements. Not only are they effective at curbing our carbon footprint and environmental impact, they are also a  good way to start over fresh on a new world!

Related links:
Masdar Institute (http://www.masdar.ac.ae/)
Masdar City (http://www.masdar.ae/en/home/index.aspx)

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!