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Gliders, Gondolas, and Gravity

Gravity keeps us land-bound, most of the time. But there are two transportation technologies that worth with rather than against gravity: cable-cars, which use the weight of anything they are carrying downhill to help lift anything they are carrying uphill; and gliders/parachutes, which mainly travel downhill. The use of cable-cars is limited, however, by their low carrying capacity (relative to trains, trucks, or ships), while the use of gliders and parachutes are limited by danger and imprecision and by the fact that they must still fight gravity in order to get aloft in the first place.

New technologies may overcome these limitations, at least to a certain extent. In the case of cable-cars, there low capacity can become less of a problem as a result of automating loading/unloading/warehousing and automous trucks/cars. With these autonomous sytems in place, a cable car sysyem could run 24-7 (cable-cars are very quiet, so they are not annoying to run at night), with autonomous trucks being autonomously unloaded at the entrance of the cable-car, and then autonomously unloaded and re-loaded onto another autonomous truck at the exit of the cable-car. Similarly, with autonomous cars (or busses), a passenger could disembark his or her car to get on a cable-car, then have another automous car waiting for him or her at the other side.

Autonomous capabilities are even more useful to cargo-carrying gliders or parachutes (or gliders dropping precision parachutes), helping to overcome the limitations of danger and of imprecision. The US military has been making great strides in this area in recent years in Afghanistan, with systems like JPADS (joint precision airdrop system) and research into gliders.

Of course, these systems must still use aircraft get airborne in the first place, which is not sustainable from either an economic or environmental standpoint. This is where things get interesting: what if instead of gliders being released from aircraft, they were instead released from high-elevation cable-car stations? In a mountainous or archipelagic region, this could allow cargo to be transported during times when roads or ships are temporarily out of service as a result of snowfall, flash flooding, avalanches, earthquakes, low tides, etc. They might even be usable by human passengers, to travel to or from an island that lacks an accessible port, or to reach an island on windy days without facing sea-sickness.

Cable-cars might similarly be able to work well with cargo (or passenger) drones in general. They could serve as a sort of ferry for drones. By flying up to land on a cable-car, drones could reduce their energy expendtures, recharge their batteries, and, as a result, reduce their battery sizes.

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Everyone for Tennis?

These days, one way to sniff out a potential idea is to see if it passes the Boomer-Roomba test: if it is something that will benefit from Baby Boomers becoming senior citizens, and from the growing use of robots, you might be on to something.

One such idea, I suspect, is tennis — and also, perhaps, tennis’s more octagenarian-friendly sibling sports like badminton, pickleball, and ping pong.

Of course, tennis is already beloved around the globe, and played by young and old alike. But, the number of people playing it on a regular basis has typically been limited by at least one of the following factors:

— people participated in other sports/fitness activities instead

— people were busy with jobs or chores or raising children

— people had no tennis court easily accessible (or at least, not one that was not in use most of the time)

 
This last factor is particularly true for people in poorer countries; that is to say, for most people in the world. Tennis is a finnicky sport, compared to other sports like basketball, football, running, or even baseball, cricket, or road hockey. You can, for example, play basketball on a sloped driveway in front of your house, or on the road in front of your house. You can play football (soccer) in your backyard, or in a park, or in a parking lot with a surface that has been made uneven by years of being driven on. Tennis, in contrast, requires a far more level surface, and a much larger surface. Even, for example, when compared to playing full-court basketball, a tennis court can require about five times more floor space per player (if you are playing singles tennis):

Tennis courts’ size also makes tennis difficult to play indoors (indoor tennis bubble buildings notwithstanding), when compared to sports like basketball or, even more, when compared to indoor fitness gyms. (Tennis courts are even difficult to provide shade for, in comparison to, for instance, playing 3-on-3 basketball). This puts sports like tennis at a disadvantage, particularly in areas where weather gets hot, cold, or rainy—again, areas in which most people in the world live.

Anyway, back to the Boomeroomba test:

Boomers — tennis (and badminton, pickleball, etc, etc.) is more seniors-friendly than most other sports. Many Boomers (including Chinese Boomers, who are a decade or two younger than those in the West) still participate in sports like downhill skiing, long-distance cycling, or pickup basketball, but may stop or at least cut down on these sports as they age in years ahead.

Robots — robots may impact tennis in a number of ways. First, as robots are often meant as   time-saving devices, and potentially as job-stealing devices, they may leave much more time for people to do things like play tennis. Second, robots may free up large amounts of commercial land, whether outdoors in parking lots or ndoors in malls or warehouses, as a result of technologies like autonomous vertical warehousing, autonomous delivery to consumers of goods bought online, or autonomous vehicles in general reducing the need for huge parking lots and making it easier for people to travel longer distances. Third, roomba-like robots can be ball boys.

tennis-inside-aventura.jpg

Small Tennis Court in Aventura Mall

So, tennis passes the test. Of course, so too might other sports — swimming, for example, or golf, or cross-country skiing or snow-shoeing, might also become common as a result of aging Boomers and of robots freeing up time and land. Moreso than tennis, however, those may be limited by their expense in many places.

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Travel by Hibernacula

vampire

With autonomous driving, cargo could be transported by very small vehicles. Very small vehicles could use very small tunnels. Given the expense of tunnelling, very small tunnels could be much cheaper to build than larger tunnels. This could be useful in urban areas, to avoid road traffic, allow cargo to be transported late at night without creating too much noise, and use an electrified system (rail, cable, or trolley) rather than use relatively heavy and bulky batteries or internal combustion engines. It could also allow autonomous vehicles to avoid (or reduce) sharing the road with human-driven vehicles, and could allow for autonomous driving without requiring expensive systems like Lidar and without having to deal with technical challenges like snow.

Such tunnels would also facilitate the use of shortcuts, whether within cities (e.g. to pass under a highway or river valley) or to cross natural barriers in order to reach cities. This would be especially useful if the price of oil (and/or the price of energy in general) were to increase. Cargo often takes a lot of energy to transport, but by using shortcuts you reduce the total travel distance required. Plus, by transporting more goods at night, you can benefit from power prices often being much cheaper at night.

If these tunnels are going to be built, the next obvious question becomes “could humans travel in them too?” This question has already become popular, of course, with Elon Musk’s “hyperloop” concept and Boring Company being the most obvious example.

Obviously, though, there are challenges to transporting humans when compared to cargo. First, there are safety concerns. Second, there is comfort: plans like Hyperloop assume that people don’t want to travel around lying on their backs, which means that tunnels to transport people would have to be bigger (and thus more expensive) than those used to transport cargo. Third, there is speed. Plans like Hyperloop assume that humans want to get from one place to another quickly. But with increased speed comes increased safety and comfort concerns and, given that the safe/comfortable distance between vehicles tends to increase at a rate that is the square of the vehicles’ speed (so, going twice as fast can result in moving half as many people). Speed also tends to reduce fuel-efficiency, given air resistance and surface friction. Finally, speed tends to reduce accessibility: since more accelerating and decelerating is needed with more speed, the number of entrance and exit points to the tunnel may decrease. (Roads, for example, have many more access points than highways).

But what if we do away with the assumptions that human travellers need speed, and that human travellers are unwilling to lie on their backs within a narrow tunnel? What if, like Dracula in hibernacula, people could sleep while travelling at very slow, steady speeds in a comfy capsule capable of using narrow tunnels? If by travelling slowly the vehicle could avoid decelerating and accelerating, then the human within it would not (in theory) even be able to know that he or she was moving, and so might be able to get a very good night’s sleep. At a speed of 100 km per hour, the passenger could travel 800 km in 8 hours, to cross a natural barrier via a traffic-free, shortcut route, then wake up the next morning at their urban destination. During the day, assuming that passengers would not want to spend more than an hour or two lying down in a capsule, the system could then transport more cargo long distances, and people shorter distances, crossing  under natural barriers while taking a power nap.

 

 

 

 

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Call for Submissions: “Robots & _______”

Hey all, I’ve never tried this before, but I’d like to try crowdsourcing the content on this site a bit. Specifically, I’m looking for peoples’ articles that have the title “Robots & ______”.

So far, we’ve got three articles on the topic:

Robots & NHL Expansion
Robots & the Middle East

Robots & Ontario’s Minimum Wage

Ideally, I’d like people to send in more of their own articles (any word count you want!), so I can put all of them together to create a series on how robots might impact various aspects of our world.

I look forward to reading your ideas — thanks y’all!

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