A while ago I’ve written in this blog about flying cars, and how we should start seeing them in our sky en masse towards 2035. It’s always nice to check on such forecasts and see how they’re progressing along and are reinforced by recent events. So here’s an update, composed of two recent news from April: one of them is basically an eye candy, while the other could be a serious indicator that flying cars are afoot (pun fully intended).
The Eye Candy
Let’s open with the pretty and shiny stuff. It turns out an aerial innovator has just flown his own invention, the Flyboard Air, a whooping distance of 2,252 meters. He basically smashed through the old record of 275 meters, going at a height of 30 meters above water, at a top speed of around 70 km/h. That’s an impressive achievement!
Unfortunately, it doesn’t mean anything for a future of flying cars.
The main reason for my lack of enthusiasm is that the hoverboard is powered by jet fuel – A1 kerosene carried on the user’s back. As long as flying cars are powered by conventional fossil fuels, they won’t find their way into common use. Flying simply takes too much energy, and fossil fuels are too expensive and harmful to the environment to be used to power such wasteful activity. The only flying cars that have a chance to succeed are ones that operate on electricity, and that’s only if we assume that electricity is about to become abundant due to the exponential rise in solar energy use.
So this is probably just another pretty invention, but when such inventions appear on the market one after the other, one starts to see a trend. You can’t ignore the fact that aerial drones capable of carrying a human passenger begin to appear more and more on the news. Will all these innovations lead to an actual flying taxi service? Only if the two conditions I specified in the original post about flying cars come true: they need to be electric, and they need to be autonomous so that you don’t have an expensive (and prone to mistakes) human pilot.
The Flying Taxis of the Future
In the last two months, exciting things have happened for e-volo: the manufacturer of the world’s first certified Multicopter (i.e. a helicopter with multiple rotors).
The Multicopter has received a permit to fly from the German authorities in February 2016. The certified Multicopter’s first manned flight took place at the end of March, and ended with absolutely no issues. The pilot controlled the vehicle easily with a single joystick, and the Multicopter was stable and autonomous enough to retain its position automatically even when the pilot released his hand from the joystick.
The vehicle can reach a speed of up to 100 km/h, with 18 rotors powered by nine independent batteries, and a 450 kg take-off weight. The large number of rotors and batteries means that even if one of them fails, the Multicopter can still stay high in the air. Since the Multicopter relies on electric motors, it is one of the top candidates in the race to become the world’s first air taxi.
Which is exactly what e-volo, the company behind the Multicopter, is trying to do.
According to ASM International, e-volo is looking to create a new market of air taxi services. In the short term, they plan to use the personal vehicles on certain predetermined routes, where there will be no chance for collision. In the medium term, however, they are already thinking about providing the vehicles with autonomous capabilities, so that they will be able to go any way the passenger chooses. The passenger will pick the destination, and the AI will make sure that the air taxi brings him there safely.
There are encouraging indicators that air taxi services will indeed become reality by 2035, but the obstacles are still out there. We still need to develop more reliable personal aircrafts with improved autonomous functions. Also, electric flying vehicles will still require an abundance of energy for mass-scale use, and such energy will have to come from an abundant source: the Sun. That means we’ll have to keep an eye for developments in solar energy harvesting as well. Luckily, solar energy is moving forward at an exponential rate.
So, if everything comes together just right, I still stand by my original forecast: flying taxis by 2035 it is!
It all began in a horribly innocent fashion, as such things often do. The Center for Middle East Studies in Brown University, near my home, has held a “public discussion” about the futures of Palestinians in Israel. Naturally, as a Israeli living in the States, I’m still very much interested in this area, so I took a look at the panelist list and discovered immediately they all came from the same background and with the same point of view: Israel was the colonialist oppressor and that was pretty much all there was to it in their view.
Quite frankly, this seemed bizarre to me: how can you have a discussion about the future of a people in a region, without understanding the complexities of their geopolitical situation? How can you talk about the future in a war-torn region like the Middle East, when nobody speaks about security issues, or provides the state of mind of the Israeli citizens or government? In short, how can you have a discussion when all the panelists say exactly the same thing?
So I decided to do something about it, and therein lies my downfall.
I am the proud co-founder of TeleBuddy – a robotics services start-up company that operates telepresence robots worldwide. If you want to reach somewhere far away – Israel, California, or even China – we can place a robot there so that instead of wasting time and health flying, you can just log into the robot and be there immediately. We mainly use Double Robotics‘ robots, and since I had one free for use, I immediately thought we could use the robots to bring a representative of the Israeli point of view to the panel – in a robotic body.
Things began moving in a blur from that point. I obtained permission from Prof. Beshara Doumani, who organized the panel, to bring a robot to the place. StandWithUs – an organization that disseminates information about Israel in the United States – has graciously agreed to send a representative by the name of Shahar Azani to log into the robot, and so it happened that I came to the event with possibly the first ever robotic-diplomat.
Things went very well in the event itself. While my robotic friend was not allowed to speak from the stage, he talked with people in the venue before the event began, and had plenty of fun. Some of the people in the event seemed excited about the robot. Others were reluctant to approach him, so he talked with other people instead. The entire thing was very civil, as other participants in the panel later remarked. I really thought we found a good use for the robot, and even suggested to the organizers that next time they could use TeleBuddy’s robots to ‘teleport’ a different representative – maybe a Palestinian – to their event. I went home happily, feeling I made just a little bit of a difference in the world and contributed to an actual discussion between the two sides in a conflict.
A few days later, Open Hillel published a statement about the event, as follows –
“In a dystopian twist, the latest development in the attack on open discourse by right-wing pro-Israel groups appears to be the use of robots to police academic discourse. At a March 3, 2016 event about Palestinian citizens of Israel sponsored by Middle East Studies at Brown University, a robot attended and accosted students. The robot used an iPad to display a man from StandWithUs, which receives funding from Israel’s government.
Before the event began, students say, the robot approached students and harassed them about why they were attending the event. Students declined to engage with this bizarre form of intimidation and ignored the robot. At the event itself, the robot and the StandWithUs affiliate remained in the back. During the question and answer session, the man briefly left the robot’s side to ask a question.
It is not yet known whether this was the first use of a robot to monitor Israel-Palestine discourse on campus. … Open Hillel opposes the attempts of groups like StandWithUs to monitor students and faculty. As a student-led grassroots campaign supported by young alumni, professors, and rabbis, Open Hillel rejects any attempt to stifle or target student or faculty activists. The use of robots for purposes of surveillance endangers the ability of students and faculty to learn and discuss this issue. We call upon outside groups such as StandWithUs to conduct themselves in accordance with the academic principles of open discourse and debate.”
I later met accidentally with some of the students who were in the event, and asked them why they believed the robot was used for surveillance, or to harass students. In return, they accused me of being a spy for the Israeli government. Why? Obviously, because I operated a “surveillance drone” on American soil. That’s perfect circular logic.
There are lessons aplenty to be obtained from this bizarre incident, but the one that strikes me in particular is that you can’t easily ignore existing cultural sentiments and paradigms without taking a hit in the process. The robot was obviously not a surveillance drone, or meant for surveillance of any kind, but Open Hillel managed to rebrand it by relying on fears that have deep-roots in the American public. They did it to promote their own goals of getting some PR, and they did it so skillfully that I can’t help but applaud them for it. Quite frankly, I wish their PR guys were working for me.
That said, there are issues here that need to be dealt with if telepresence robots ever want to become part of critical discussions. The fear that the robot may be recording or taking pictures in an event is justified – a tech-savvy person controlling the robot could certainly find a way to do that. However, I can’t help but feel that there are less-clever ways to accomplish that, such as using one’s smartphone, or the covert Memoto Lifelogging camera. If you fear being recorded on public, you should know that telepresence robots are probably the least of your concerns.
The honest truth is that this is a brand new field for everyone involved. How should robots behave at conferences? Nobody knows. How should they talk with human beings at panels or public events? Nobody can tell yet. How can we make human beings feel more comfortable when they are in the same perimeter with a suit-wearing robot that can potentially record everything it sees? Nobody has any clue whatsoever.
These issues should be taken into consideration in any venture to involve robots in the public sphere.
It seems to me that we need some kind of a standard, to be developed in a collaboration between ethicists, social scientists and roboticists, which will ensure a high level of data encryption for telepresence robots and an assurance that any data collected by the robot will be deleted on the spot.
We need, in short, to develop proper robotic etiquette.
And if we fail to do that, then it shouldn’t really surprise anyone when telepresence robots are branded as “surveillance drones” used by Zionist spies.
Whenever a futurist talks about the future and lays out all the dazzling wealth technological advancements hold in store for us, there is one question that is always asked by the audience.
“Where is that flying car you promised me?”
Well, we may be drawing near to a future of flying cars. While the road to that future may still be long and arduous, I’m willing to forecast that in twenty years from now we will have flying cars for use by civilians – but only if three technological and societal conditions will be fulfilled by that time.
In order to understand these conditions, let us first examine briefly the history of flying cars, and understand the reasons behind their absence in the present.
Flying Cars from the Past
Surprising as it may be, the concept of flying cars has been around far longer than the Back to the Future trilogy. Henry Ford himself had produced in 1926 a rudimentary and experimental ‘flying car’, although really it was more of a mini-airplane for the average American consumer. Despite the excitement from the public, the idea crashed and burned in two years, together with the prototype and its test pilot.
Since the 1920s, it seems like innovators and inventors came up with flying cars almost once a decade. You can see pictures of some of these cars in Popular Mechanics’ gallery. Some crashed and burned, in the tradition set by Ford. Others managed to soar sky high. None actually made it to mass production, for two main reasons:
Extremely wasteful: flying cars are extremely wasteful in terms of fuel consumption. Their energy efficiency is abysmal when compared to that of high-altitude and high-speed airplanes.
Extremely unsafe: let’s be honest for a moment, OK? You give people cars that can drive in what is essentially a one-dimensional road, and what do they do? They make traffic accidents. What do you think would happen if you gave everyone the ability to drive a car in three dimensions? Crash, crash and burn all over again. For flying cars to become widely used in society, everyone needs to take flying lessons. Good luck with that.
These two limitations together made sure that flying cars to the masses were left a fantasy – and still largely are. In fact, I would go as far as saying that any new concept or prototype of a flying car that does not take these challenges into account, is only presented to the public as a ‘flying car’ as a publicity stunt.
But now, things are beginning to change, because of three trends that together will provide answers to the main barriers standing in the way of flying cars.
The Three Trends that will Enable Flying Cars
There are three trends that, combined, will enable the use of flying cars by the public within twenty years.
First Trend: Massive Improvement in Aerial Drones Capabilities
If you visit your city’s playgrounds, you may find children there having fun flying drones around. The drones they’re using – which often cost less than $200 – would’ve considered highly sophisticated weapons of war just twenty years ago, and would’ve been sold by arms manufactures at prices in the order of millions of dollars.
Dr. Peter Diamandis, innovator, billionaire and futurist, has written in 2014 about the massive improvement in capabilities of aerial drones. Briefly, current-day drones are a product of exponential improvement in computing elements (inertial measurement units), communications (GPS receivers and system), and even sensors (digital cameras). All of the above – at their current sizes and prices – would not have been available even ten years ago.
Aerial drones are important for many reasons, not least because they may yet serve as the basis for a flying car. Innovators, makers and even firms today are beginning to strap together several drones, and turn them into a flying platform that can carry individuals around.
The most striking example of this kind comes from a Canadian inventor who has recently flown 275 meters on a drone platform he has basically fashioned in his garage.
Another, a more cumbersome version of Human-Transportation Drones (Let’s call them HTD from now on, shall we?) was demonstrated this week at the Las Vegas Convention Center. It is essentially a tiny helicopter with four double-propellers attached, much like a large drone. It has place for just one traveler, and can fly up to 23 minutes according to the manufacturers. Most importantly, the Ehang 184 as it’s called is supposed to be autonomous, which brings us straight to the next trend: the rise of machine intelligence.
Second Trend: Machine Intelligence and Flying Cars
There can be little question that drones will keep on improving in their capabilities. We will improve our understanding of the science and technology behind aerial drones, and develop more efficient tools for aerial travel, including some that will carry people around. But will these tools be available for mass-use?
This is where the safety barrier comes into the picture. You can’t let the ordinary Joe Shmoe control a vehicle like the Ehang 184, or even a light-weight drone platform. Not without teaching them how to fly the thing, which would take a long time to practice, lots of money, and will sharply limit the number of potential users.
This is where machine intelligence comes into the picture.
Autonomous control is virtually a must for publicly usable HTDs. Luckily, machine intelligence is making leaps and bounds forward, with autonomous (driverless) cars travelling the roads even today. If such autonomous systems can function for cars on the roads, why not do the same for drones in the air?
As things currently stand, all aerial drones will have to be controlled at least partly-autonomously, in order to prevent collisions with other drones. NASA is planning a “Traffic Management Convention” for drones, which could include tens of thousands of drones – and much more than that, if the need arises. The next logical step, therefore, is to include future HTDs into this future system, thus taking the control out of the pilot’s hands and transferring it completely to the vehicle and the system controlling it.
If the said system for managing aerial traffic becomes a reality, and assuming that drones capabilities are advanced enough to provide human transportation services, then autonomous HTDs for mass use will not be far behind.
The two last trends have covered the second barrier of inherent unsafety. The third trend I will present now deals with the first barrier of inefficient and wasteful use of energy.
Third Trend: Solar Energy
All small drones rely on electricity to function. Even a larger drone like the Ehang 184 that could be used for human transport, is powered by electricity, and can fly for 23 minutes before requiring a recharge. While 23 minutes may not sound like a lot of time, it’s more than enough for people to ‘hop’ from one side of most cities to the other, as long as there isn’t aerial congestion.
Of course, that’s the situation today. But batteries keep on improving. Elon Musk claims that by 2017, Tesla’s electric cars will have a 600 mile range on a single charge, for example. As batteries improve further, HTDs will be able to stay in the air for even longer periods of time, despite being powered by electricity alone. The adherence to electricity is important since in twenty years from now it is highly likely that we’ll have much cheaper electric energy coming directly from the sun.
Support for this argument comes from the exponential decline in the costs associated with producing and utilizing solar energy. Forty years ago, it would’ve cost about $75 to produce one watt of solar energy. Today the cost is less than a single dollar per watt. And as prices go down, the number of solar panels installation soars sky-high, roughly doubling itself every two years. Worldwide solar capacity in 2014 has been 53 times higher than in 2005.
If the rising trend of solar energy does not grind to a halt sometime in the next decade, then we will obtain much of our electric energy from the sun. We won’t have usable passenger solar airplanes – these need high-energy jet fuel to operate – but we will have solar panels pretty much everywhere: covering the sides and top of every building, and quite possibly every car as well. Buildings would both consume and produce energy. Much of the unneeded energy would be saved in batteries, or almost instantaneously diverted via the smart grid to other spots in the city where it’ll be needed.
If that is the face of the future – and the trends support this view – then HTDs could be an optimal way of transportation in the city of the future. Aerial drones could be deployed on tops of houses and skyscrapers, where they will be constantly charged by solar panels until they need to take a passenger to another house. Such a leap would only take 10-15 minutes, followed by a recharging period of 30 minutes or so. The entire system would operate autonomously – without human control or interference – and be powered by the sun.
Conclusions and Forecast for the Future
When can we expect this system to be deployed? Obviously it’s difficult to be certain about the future, particularly in cases where technological trends meet with societal, legal and political barriers to entry. Current culture will find it difficult to accept autonomous vehicles, and Big Fossil Fuel firms are still trying to pretend solar energy isn’t here to stay.
All the same, it seems that HTDs are already rearing their heads, with several inventors working separately to produce them. Their attempts are still extremely hesitant, but every attempt demonstrates the potential in HTDs and their viability for human transportation. I would therefore expect that in the next five years we will see demonstrations of HTDs (not for public use yet) that can carry individuals to a distance of at least one mile, and can be fully charged within one hour by solar panels alone. That is the easy forecast to make.
The more difficult forecast involves the use of autonomous aerial drones, the assimilation of HTDs into an overarching system that controls all the drones in a shared aerial space, and a mass-deployment of HTDs in a city. Each of these achievements needs to be made separately in order to fulfill the larger vision of a flying car to the masses. I am going to take a wild guess here, and suggest that if no Hindenburg-like disaster happens, then we’ll see real flying cars in our cities in twenty years from now – by the year 2035. It is likely that these HTDs will only be able to carry a single individual, and will probably be used more as a ‘flying taxi’ service between buildings to individual businessmen than a full-blown family flying car.
And then, finally, when people ask me where their flying car is, I will be able to provide a simple answer: “It’s parked on the roof.”