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

Warning Signs from the Future

future-signs-02From bioenhancements becoming the norm, to people constantly wired into augmented reality; from synthetic organs to synthetic meat; driverless taxis to holograms and robot helpers – the future is likely to be an interesting-looking place. That’s the subject in a new Tumblr called Signs from the Near Future, where designer Fernando Barbella explores what signage will look like when we have to absorb all of these innovations into human culture.

Taking its cue from what eager startups and scientists predict, Barbella’s collection of photos looks a few decades into the future where dramatic, sci-fi inspired innovations have become everyday things. These include things like drones becoming a regular thing, driverless taxis (aka. robotaxis) and synthetic meat becoming available, high-tech classrooms servicing the post-humans amongst us, and enhancements and implants becoming so common they need to be regulated and monitored.

future-signs-01Barbella says that the project was inspired by articles he’s read on topics like nanomedicine, autonomous cars, and 3-D food printing, as well as classic books (Neuromancer, Fahrenheit 51), movies (Blade Runner, Gattaca), music (Rage Against The Machine), and TV shows (Fringe, Black Mirror). The designer chose to focus on signs because he figures that we’ll need a little guidance to speed up our learning curves with new technology. As he put it during an interview via email:

New materials, mashups between living organisms and nanotechnologies, improved capabilities for formerly ‘dumb’ and inanimate things . . . There’s lots of awesome things going on around us! And the fact is all these things are going to cease being just ‘projects’ to became part of our reality at any time soon. On the other hand, I chose to express these thing by signs deployed in ordinary places, featuring instructions and warnings because I feel that as we increasingly depend on technology, we will probably have less space for individual judgment to make decisions.

future-signs-07Some of the signs – including one thanking drivers for choosing to ride on a solar panel highway – can be traced back to specific news articles or announcements. The solar highway sign was inspired by a solar roadways crowdfunding campaign, which has so far raised over $2 million to build solar road panels. However, rather than focus on the buzz and how cool and modern such a development would be, Barbella chose to focus on what such a thing would look like.

At the same time, he wanted the pictures to serve as a sort of cautionary tale about the ups and down of the future. As he put it:

I feel that as we increasingly depend on technology, we will probably have less space for individual judgment to make decisions. …I’ve sticked to a more ‘mundane’ point of view, imagining that the people or authorities of any given county would be probably quite grateful for having the chance of transforming all that traffic into energy.

future-signs-03He says he wants his signs to not just depict that momentum and progress, but to reflect the potentially disturbing aspects of those advances as well. Beyond that, Barbella sees an interesting dynamic in the public’s push and pull against what new technology allows us to do. Though the technology grants people access to information and other cultures, it also poses issues of privacy and ethics that hold that back. As a result, privacy concerns are thus featured in the collection in a number of ways.

This includes warning people about “oversharing” via social media, how images snapped using contact display lenses will be shared in real-time with authorities, or how certain neighorhoods are drone patrolled. His images offer a look at why those issues are certain to keep coming — and at the same time, why many will ultimately fall aside. Barbella also stated that has more future signs in the queue, but he says that he’ll stop the moment they start to feel forced.

future-signs-05You have to admit, it does capture the sense of awe and wonder – not to mention fear and anxiety – of what our likely future promises. And as the saying goes, “a picture is worth a thousands words”. In this case, those words present a future that has one foot in the fantastical and another in the fearful, but in such a way that it seems entirely frank and straighforward. But that does seem to be the way the future works, doesn’t it? Somehow, it doesn’t seem like science fiction once it becomes a regular part of “mundane” reality.

To see more of his photos, head on over to his Tumblr account.

Sources: fastcoexist.com, theverge.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 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