Hyperloops, Flygskam, Pepper Robots, and Much More
The seasons are turning and the warmer spring days have all but melted away the last bits of winter, sending the ski equipment and puffy jackets into a peaceful slumber in the dark recesses of our closets. As the old saying goes (which I just might have made up), when one holiday is over, it’s time to plan another one, this time probably a bit further away than the Giant Mountains or the Alps. Being that it is 2020, it’s time to explore and dream about the new adventures the coming decade has to offer and the ones we can take advantage of right now. Although we still have to wait before we sit in hydrogen-powered self-piloted planes, technology has always been around to make travelling faster, cosier, and less stressful.
Smartphones are the best example. Travelling around the world with them makes a huge difference. I experienced it firsthand when I arrived for work in Beijing in 2014 with my beloved five-years-old-and-still-going-strong Nokia C5-00 dumbphone. Surprisingly, almost no one in the Chinese capital spoke English, including taxi drivers whose vocabulary only contained the vital question “T2, T3?” That does not mean which Terminator sequel you prefer, but whether you’re going to airport terminal 2 or 3.
移动翻译 and flygskam
After hanging around with expats for a few weeks, I bought my first smartphone, a Sony Xperia Z3, and downloaded all the Chinese apps I could handle. I checked if I needed a breathing mask with Air Quality China, planned my travels with Ctrip, shared my real-time location with friends through WeChat, and called a taxi with a few taps on DiDi Dache.
Whenever I needed to translate Chinese signs, I aimed my phone camera at them and turned on Pleco OCR to see the English translation. Furthermore, many translator apps can now do direct speech-to-speech pretty well and turn your “hello” into “你好” in a wink.
Even though smartphones facilitate many things on the spot, first you need to transverse hundreds or thousands of kilometres. If you like flying, but feel the Swedish flygskam (flight shame because of aeroplanes’ high carbon emission), the global air industry has some good news for you.
Tiptoeing cat noise levels
Just as modern football jerseys have shed buttons and collars and evolved into modern V-neck designs, aircraft are following suit. The airline KLM came up with an all-wing plane design, Flying-V, which has no torso because luggage, fuel, and passengers are occupying the widened wings. Apart from the cool aesthetics, the new design promises fuel savings of 20% compared to an Airbus A350 carrying the same number of passengers. While some experts warn that people toward the back of the aircraft might experience an unwanted rollercoaster ride when the plane turns, climate change isn’t going away by itself.
Meanwhile, NASA stepped in and announced its all-electric plane, Maxwell, a few months ago, with flight research centre project manager Brent Cobleigh stating that they want to fly the aeroplane later this year. The propeller plane with 14 electric motors should be able to reach a maximum operational altitude of 4.2 kilometres (about one-third the height at which commercial airlines operate) and aims to set government standards for safety, energy efficiency, and noise levels.
Speaking of noise levels, remember Concorde? No one likes to be grounded for long and we are happy that supersonic commercial flights are making a comeback. NASA is currently constructing X-59 QueSST, the goal of which is to make supersonic flight possible without producing the ear-splitting “sonic boom.”
QueSST stands for Quiet Supersonic Technology, which uses shape and configuration changes to manipulate the shockwaves coming off an airplane travelling at supersonic speed in order to reduce noise. But do not assume the engineers involved in this project have found a way to reduce the noise to tiptoeing cat levels. The aircraft’s maiden flight is planned for next year.
Planes in space
When it comes to ingenuity, the UK Space Agency (NASA’s British counterpart) certainly does not want to be left behind. They are developing a synergetic air-breathing rocket engine (SABRE) that uses a combination of hydrogen and oxygen as fuel. Engineers have already successfully tested the engine in simulated Mach 3.3 conditions (3.3 times faster than the speed of sound, 4,075 km/h) which is more than 50% faster than Concorde’s cruising speed.
The major challenge facing the SABRE engine is the mess created by high-speed airflow. Tying yourself to a plane flying at supersonic speed sounds like something only Tom Cruise would survive. At such speed, the air will probably tear your flesh off, so no poking your head out of the windows while onboard SABRE planes.
Though engines are much less susceptible to being torn apart by high-speed winds, you have to deal with the aerodynamic heating. That’s why most asteroids burn up in Earth’s atmosphere. At Mach 3.3, engineers had to tame temperatures of 420°C. Last October, they tested their HTX precooler technology at Mach 5 and managed to cool the hot air of over 1,000°C to ambient temperatures in one-twentieth of a second. That’s a totally new dimension of barbecue safety.
The engine should be able to power the plane up to the hypersonic speed of Mach 5.4 for commercial travel in Earth’s atmosphere. That’s just one hour from London to New York or four hours to Sydney. While you are imagining this incredible speed, we might add that when travelling at sufficient altitude, the plane can transition to full rocket mode, combining the fuel with a small supply of oxygen, reaching Mach 25 (30,870 km/h) and saying hello to space. Test flights will commence this summer, with commercial flights planned for the 2030s.
Real-life Czechoslovak Futurama
Space travel is a topic in itself and national space agencies, including NASA in the US and Roscosmos in Russia, promise to bring tourists to space this year or the next. If they have a spare million dollars, that is. But very soon, you might also be enjoying supersonic speed without ever boarding an aircraft.
In 2012, Elon Musk mentioned his hyperloop, the concept of a passenger capsule travelling through an evacuated tube, and thanks to the open-source nature of the project, many joined in and sped up its development.
This gave rise to competition as well. US companies Virgin Hyperloop One and Hyperloop Transportation Technologies (HTT) both publicly stated they want to construct a fully operational hyperloop system by 2021. The latter even signed a memorandum of cooperation with the Slovak Ministry of Economy in 2016. However, the shining promise of hyperlooping Bratislava with Vienna and Budapest disappeared after two years due to the lack of a suitable location for the project.
You don’t have to blink back tears, though. HTT signed a similar memorandum in Brno agreeing to run a feasibility study for deploying this project in the Czech Republic. Travelling from the South Moravian city to Prague in just 20 minutes is a beautiful fantasy, but the hilly landscape, changes in temperature throughout the year, and the populated area through which the hyperloop should pass might prove to be too much of an obstacle. Nonetheless, I am not giving up on the dream of a real-life Futurama in our country, and Brno seems more than willing to give it a go.
Back to the present
Testing all these fancy new modes of transport sounds lovely, but they probably won’t impact your travelling experience in the very near future. What might, on the other hand, is facial recognition. Several airports in China, the USA, the UK, and a number of other countries are currently testing this to speed up security checks.
Hotels are poised to catch up very soon, with Marriott in China being the frontrunner. The hotel giant partnered with Alibaba to roll out facial-recognition check-in kiosks at fifty of its locations. Just scan your Chinese ID, take a photo, and input your contact details on the self-help machine, which will dispense your room key cards. This should trim down the average check-in time from three minutes to 30 seconds.
Furthermore, anyone can try Alibaba’s futuristic FlyZoo hotel in Hangzhou. There, you can use your face for taking the elevator or unlocking your room door.
But that’s already old news. Mastercard rolled out its Identity Check Mobile, better known as “Selfie Pay,” in Europe in 2016 and in the rest of the world in 2017. Even Tinder introduced photo verification that compares your selfie to your profile picture this January. While you’re raising your security eyebrows and pondering about the Minority Tindereport world, we’ll go back to the futuristic robot-staffed FlyZoo hotel.
Every hotel room there has a smart assistant device. If you order food or drinks to your room, a robot comes to your door. You enter a verification code you received on your phone and the one-metre Alibaba robot opens its drawer where your order awaits. The same applies to ordering food in the hotel restaurant. At the bar, you are served by a large robotic arm that can make 20 different cocktails. There are very few human staff that take care of general operations such as housekeeping.
Airports are becoming a robot domain as well. Prague Airport has been testing autonomous cleaning robots for several months, and deployed everyone’s favourite humanoid robot, Pepper, at Terminal 2 in October 2018. We bet some of you have already taken a selfie with this 130-cm-tall helper.
Pepper has become a robotic star thanks to his cute design, his ability to provide basic information about your trip, speaking both Czech and English, and adapting his communication according to your emotions. Not only can you find this little robot at airports all around the world, but also in hotels, such as Hotel Pyramida in Prague 6, or retail locations like the T-Mobile store in Chodov.
Choosing your reality
The last thing on the list is virtual reality (VR). Although Google has ditched its Daydream View VR platform and open-sourced its Cardboard, many travel agencies and tourist resorts jumped at the immersive experience concept like hungry tigers. If you have ever tried Google Earth VR or even browsed through Google Street View to get a better picture of the place you were staying, you’ll know what we are talking about. Why would you look through photos when you can put on a headset and get a virtual tour?
And it’s not just the hotel itself. You can check out the surrounding attractions too. Just imagine, you’re planning a trip to Paris, so pop a headset on and teleport yourself to the top of the Eiffel Tower. Or perhaps you’d like to take a dive with sea turtles along the coral reefs of the Hamilton Islands before committing to booking.
While we can acknowledge the mesmerising possibilities offered by modern technologies, it is important to be mindful of how deeply intertwined we can allow them to be with our everyday lives. Sometimes it is better to disconnect and go somewhere without a mobile signal, where the loudest sound around is the crackling of the fireplace. Our country’s forests and mountain ranges contain many cosy cottages which are only a few hours away by train. So hop on and switch your devices to flight mode. Hashtags can wait.