Archive for the ‘Transport’ Category

Having no pilot will soon be less risky than having a pilot

March 28, 2014

The cockpit of the future will have one pilot and a dog. The pilot is there to watch the systems and make sure everything is operating correctly. The dog is there to bite the pilot if he tries to touch anything.

Much of the speculation about the MH370 disappearance is about the role of the pilots in whatever transpired. But whether they were heroes or villains or under duress or on a suicide trip, they achieved the changes in the flight path by reprogramming the on-board, flight computer.

For a commercial flight all the pre-flight instrument checks and the programming and the reprogramming where necessary, can be accomplished in advance or remotely. The role of the pilot nowadays seems most intense during taxiing on the ground and at take-off. Thereafter he does not need to play much part. He is still – it is thought – indispensable if an emergency situation were to arise. But even that perception is only true for unforeseen emergencies. For all situations which can be foreseen and then are pre-defined emergencies, the automatic controls would react faster and with more certainty than any human intervention. I am not sure if control systems are already sufficiently sophisticated to cope with all situations on the ground. But even here it is human error which is the main cause of incidents. Collisions on the ground are usually due to some incompetence on the part of pilots or of the ground traffic control.

But it is just a matter of time and we are getting close to the point where the risks of having a pilot will outweigh the risks of not having a pilot!

For military attacks and even for surveillance we are already at the point where pilotless craft pose less risk – for the attacker – than manned aircraft. Drones for military and civil applications are proliferating. In modern fighter jets, the pilot’s survival now limits some of the design and performance parameters of the aircraft. Altitude, speed, maneuverability, rate of climb, g-forces are all constrained by what the pilot can survive. Of course some new risks would be introduced with pilotless, commercial aircraft. With aircraft under remote control, hijacking would become a matter of hacking into the flight computer. On the other hand, the possibility of in-flight hijacking by a passenger would be eliminated. Drunken or suicidal pilots would pose no risk – but computers “drunk” on contaminated code might constitute a new risk. The risk with unmanned cargo aircraft would then be just the possibility of crashing into inhabited areas. Unforeseen emergencies remain an unknown unknown. But even here, the solution will lie with how “smart” the control computers can be made. My car can already correct for a skid faster than I can. It can park in a tight spot neater than I can. Some more “smartness” and automation will also be required in the air traffic control systems. The security and integrity of communications to on-board computers and how and when over-rides will be permitted will pose their challenges.

Driverless cars are coming. I would guess that in 20 years the road infrastructure will allow the majority of cars being sold to be driverless. There are developments in the infrastructure of airports and air traffic control systems which will be necessary and there will be a psychological barrier to overcome, but pilotless commercial aircraft will also – I think – start flying within 20 years. Cargo planes probably first  – before passengers are ready to take the plunge.

Airbus future

Airbus future

Related: Future by Airbus

Androids will dream of this electric “J”

November 22, 2013
Android on a Kawasaki J

Android on a Kawasaki J

It will never go into production.

It’s electric (note the artistic and symbolic flashes of green), but they are sticking to a NiMH battery rather than a lithium-ion fire hazard.

It’s what some androids will dream of instead of electric sheep.

It’s the Kawasaki J-concept motor cycle being displayed at the 2013 Tokyo Motor Show.

DigitalTrends: The Kawasaki J technically has three wheels, but in Sport Mode the two front wheels are pushed together, and the entire machine hunkers down to lower the center of gravity. In Comfort Mode, the stance is raised and the front wheels separate, giving the ride a more upright position that is, well, more comfortable.

Instead of handlebars, steering is accomplished with two levers, one attached to each of the front wheels. It’s a decidedly Steampunk mechanism, compared to the bike’s Cyberpunk styling.

In three-wheeled Comfort Mode, the J concept looks like a scooter used by mall cops in the futuristic Grid city from Tron. In maximum-attack Sport Mode, it looks completely otherworldly.

Powering the Kawasaki J is an electric motor hooked to a nickel-metal hydride (NiMH) battery pack. The packaging advantages of an electric powertrain were probably needed to accomplish the J’s transformation stunt. Note that it doesn’t use the lithium-ion batteries that are found in most electric cars and plug-in hybrids.

The Kawasaki J looks awesome on the show stand, and it won’t be going anywhere else. Kawasaki has no plans to put it into production. That’s just as well; it’ll save owners from having to try to explain it to their neighbors.

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