It’s straight out of 1950s science fiction: an entire country connected by food-transporting pipelines, sending baked beans and smoked kippers sailing between London and Liverpool at 60 miles per hour. And it’s arguably more sensible than what we’re already doing.
In the United Kingdom, 8 percent of all carbon dioxide mixed into the atmosphere comes from the diesel gas used to move around food trucks. That’s a ton of unnecessary pollution, particularly when you consider one estimate suggests only a small percentage of that gas is actually needed to move the food if things were run efficiently. That’s where Foodtubes enters the picture.
The brainchild of a British team of academics, engineers, and project planners, Foodtubes calls for the creation of high-speed food pipelines throughout the UK. Each major city and center food production would be linked with a pipeline, and the cities would also have their own internal pipelines to get the food to various different neighborhoods.
The food would sail along in small capsules at upwards of 60 miles per hour. As many as 900,000 capsules could be in circulation in the nearly 2,000 miles of pressurized pipe, all of which would be controlled by smart grids that would keep food from crashing into each other. To give some semblance of order, the capsules would generally be organized into little trains of about 300 linked capsules, each spaced about a meter apart.
Rarely in our visions of the future do people have to make long landings, or fly on commercial jet liners. Seems like they’ve always advanced past that.
Here in the present, we don’t seem to be making much headway in really crazy transportation breakthroughs — not much sign of beaming or stargates — but some scientists are considering some novel ways to improve air travel by copying our friends the birds.
OK, maybe “friends” is a little strong for describing our relationship to the last living dinosaurs, but nonetheless, with the ability to hover, stop on a dime, and fly with impressive energy efficiency, birds offer researchers a great deal of inspiration for improving aircraft.
At the 63rd Annual Meeting of the APS Division of Fluid Dynamics in Long Beach, Calif. Last weekend, Geoffrey Spedding of the University of Southern California and Joachim Huyssen of Northwestern University in South Africa presented research offering a more birdlike wing and tail design that could reduce drag and therefore improve efficiency.
Today the US Department of Defense announced that they would be collaborating with Carnegie Mellon University to develop an autonomous copilot for DARPA’s upcoming “helicopter jeep” project. Yes, the military is developing a helicopter jeep.
The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has awarded a 17-month, $988,000 contract to Carnegie Mellon’s Robotics Institute to develop an autonomous flight system for the Transformer (TX) Program, which is exploring the feasibility of a military ground vehicle that could transform into a vertical-take-off-and-landing (VTOL) air vehicle.
The self-driving car was achieved–13 years ago. As part of the National Automated Highway Consortium, a team of engineers and scientists had a platoon of eight cars motor down a stretch Interstate-15 in San Diego, driver free and safe.
So what happened? Computers are faster, cars are safer–but we’re not seeing any self-driving cars, as envisioned in sci-fi from Knight Rider to Minority Report. “It was too expensive,” said Mohan Trivedi, a University of California-San Diego professor who specializes in intelligent cars. The cars required highway lined with sensors and magnets to guide the cars, massively increasing the cost of building roads. So the project died.
But not the dream of better cars. Trivedi chaired the IEEE Intelligent Vehicles Symposium last month, and he said science realized that maybe we don’t want to cede control of our cars. “We have a connection with our vehicles we don’t want to give up,” he said.
Instead, smart car research is focused on how cars can better assist their human drivers. There were some pretty cool concepts on display at the conference:
Intuitively, there just shouldn’t be any way for something wind-powered to move directly downwind faster than the wind itself. It’s impossible: Release a balloon, and the wind blows the balloon as fast as the wind is moving, and that’s as fast as any wind-powered object can go, before the wind. Sure, sailboats can win a race against the balloon by moving diagonally across the wind, but moving in a straight line down a 10 kph wind, and the balloon moves at 10 kph. End of story.
Or, start of story.
Rick Cavallaro and John Borton have built a cart that moves 2.86 times the speed of the wind, moving straight downwind. That may seem impossible, but after a year of tinkering and some financial assistance from Google and Joby Energy, they did it. Don’t believe me? Check out the video. Keep a weather eye out for the green flag at 0:35. Notice how it’s blowing the exact opposite direction of the orange wind socks on the cart? That’s because the cart is going faster than the wind.
How is it possible?
Maybe it’s because nanoFET sounds like Boba Fett, but the name just screams “science fiction” to me. The device is still in very early stages of development, but it could theoretically propel spaceships into the vicinity of light speed. And getting close to light speed means going to other solar systems, and THAT means a science fiction-like reality. So work with me here.
If a nanoparticle field emission thruster (the aforementioned NanoFET) has been a subject of investigation for University of Michigan electrical engineer Brian Gilchrist for several years now. Gilchrist, joined by a team of scientists, has published and presented papers (pdf) at conferences (pdf) around the country, trying to show the theory of how electronically charged nanotubes could enable a spaceship to achieve astonishing speeds.
Today we present a very special installment of the Codex Futurius, Science Not Fiction’s look at the big scientific ideas in sci-fi: Kevin Grazier—JPL physicist and friend of SNF—gives an insider’s peek at the workings of and discussion around the Orion antimatter drive used to propel the Phaeton starship in Ron D. Moore’s recent TV movie, Virtuality. Grazier was a science adviser for the movie (which was intended to be the pilot for an ongoing show), so he was right in the middle of these discussions. The screenshot further down in this post shows the actual spreadsheet used in the production to see what stars would be reachable with the Orion drive. Without further ado, here’s some sci in your sci-fi:
DISCOVER: What kind of realistic technology could we use to get to nearby stars? Which stars would be feasibly reachable by such technologies?
Kevin Grazier: It’s a saying plastered on T-shirts and bumper stickers—the kind sold at both science-fiction conventions and physics departments nationwide:
186,000 miles per second:
It’s not just a good idea, it’s the law.
The speed of light, of all electromagnetic energy, in a vacuum is the ultimate speed limit in the universe. Nothing that has mass or carries information can travel faster.
This universal speed limit is a direct fallout from Albert Einstein’s special theory of relativity. Special relativity implies that the speed of light in a vacuum is a universal constant, but values that we tend to think of as constant in our daily experience—mass, length, and the rate of the passage of time—are not. Depending upon the relative velocity of two observers, these values will “adjust” so that both observers see the speed of light as a constant. Two observers travelling at high speeds relative to each other will find themselves in strong disagreement about measurements like the length of each other’s spacecraft and the rate of the passage of time.
Another consequence of special relativity is that, as an object travels increasingly faster, it behaves as if it has increasingly more mass. Therefore the amount of thrust it takes for an incremental change in velocity (known in the space program as a delta-V) is vastly greater at high speeds than at low. This effect is also highly nonlinear: It takes almost an order of magnitude more thrust to accelerate from .9c (nine-tenths of the speed of light) to .99c than it does to accelerate from .5c to .7c. An object travelling at the speed of light would act as if it had an infinite amount of mass and it would, therefore, require an infinite amount of energy (read: an infinite amount of thrust/fuel) to attain it.
This is, of course, a shame for civilizations (like ours) who want to explore planetary systems around other stars first hand. The distances involved are, well, astronomical. Just within the Solar System, it typically takes NASA probes 6 months to a year to reach Mars; it took Cassini 6 years, 9 months to reach Saturn. The (currently) fastest object created by humankind, the Voyager 1 spacecraft, will take 40,000 years, give or take a few thousand years, before it makes its closest encounter with its first star: AC+79 3888—currently located in the constellation Ursa Minor. At that speed few Time Lords, and even fewer humans, would survive the journey to even “nearby” star systems.
In this installment of Science Not Fiction’s Codex Futurius project, we pose the question:
I want to have a teleporter in my story. How would one work?
The good news is that a working teleportation device already exists. The bad news is that it won’t work for you if you happen to be bigger than a rubidium atom—but scientists are toiling away to fix that. As physicist Michio Kaku noted last year in DISCOVER, we could be teleporting things as big as a virus within a few decades, which means we would be ready teleport a person around the 23rd century, just in time for the predicted construction date of Captain Kirk’s Enterprise.
Ever since Knight Rider had it’s reboot a couple of weeks ago, we’ve been watching KITT grow into himself as an independent entity. This week he chafed at taking orders from Michael Knight, and the pair had two pretty hilarious spats. But late in the episode, KITT showed off his new autonomy by disobeying orders and taking control of another vehicle. In this instance, Michael had been arrested by a Drug Enforcement Agency agent, and was on his way to jail. KITT hacked into the agent’s car’s “RoamStar” satellite system to take over the controls of the car and drive it in such a way that Michael was able to escape.
If your primary method of thwarting criminals is a hyper-intelligent car, that car really needs to be bullet proof or else your career will be short. But if your hyper-intelligent car is also super fast and high-performance, you don’t want to install heavy armor panels that destroys that performance. The current version of Knight Rider solves this problem with some nanotech magic, but the original relied on a special bullet-resistant coating, the formulation of which was the source of some of the best episodes they ever aired (The Goliath episodes, for those conversant).