A futuristic ship that brings commercial space taxis one step closer to reality, unveiled last night (May 29), is the latest pioneering idea from inventor and SpaceX founder Elon Musk.
The spacecraft, called Dragon V2, is designed to launch into low Earth orbit and send astronauts to the International Space Station, replacing the pricey ships used in the past. The Dragon V2′s sleek design has a retooled heat shield that will withstand multiple re-entries, unlike the disposable vehicles used now. The spacecraft also has retractable legs that allow it to land and take off vertically.
“You’ll be able to land anywhere on Earth with the accuracy of a helicopter,” Musk said at a news conference held at the SpaceX headquarters in Hawthorne, california, last night. [See images of the New Dragon Spaceship]
The ship is designed to land, be quickly refueled with propellant and launch again. It also would support up to seven astronauts in space for several days, which could make commercial manned missions more feasible.
The Dragon V2 is just one of many futuristic ideas that Musk has dreamed up. From the Hyperloop transportation system to the Tesla Model S, here are some of the innovator’s most visionary — and riskiest — ideas.
The precursor to Dragon V2, Dragon V1, launched its maiden flight in 2010. At the time, only three countries had built spaceships that could enter low Earth orbit. But Musk envisioned a space taxi that was affordable to more than just the ultrawealthy. He poured much of his fortune into founding SpaceX in 2002 to spur commercial spaceflight. The smaller Dragon capsule is less powerful than the latest version and cannot support human passengers, but it has been used to transport cargo to the International Space Station since 2012, at a fraction of the cost of other craft.
Still, Musk wasn’t happy that the first version of the Dragon, like conventional launch vehicles, landed using parachutes and would be discarded after delivering supplies.
“As long as we continue to throw away rockets and spacecraft, we will never have true access to space — it will always be incredibly expensive,” Musk said at the news conference.
In 2013, Musk unveiled an idea that he claimed would revolutionize rapid transit. The superspeedy Hyperloop, a sleek pod, would shoot passengers from San Francisco to Los Angeles inside a low-pressure tube on a cushion of air, like an air-hockey puck. The capsules would travel at just under the speed of sound, or 760 mph (1,223 km/h), and would depart San Francisco (or Los Angeles) every few minutes. The trip, which now takes more than 6 hours by car, would take about 30 minutes on the Hyperloop. [See Images of the Hyperloop Transportation Concept]
Musk claimed the whole concept could be built for less than the $70 billion that the proposed high-speed train line for the region would cost, but not everyone is convinced that the Hyperloop concept is workable. Because of the incredible speeds reached, the track would have to be incredibly straight to keep slowing friction forces at a minimum. And even if the technical challenges could be overcome, it’s not clear whether the costs could be made up by demand for the service, experts have said.
Musk has also been instrumental in developing high-end electric vehicles at his company, Tesla, named after the brilliant inventor Nikola Tesla. The company has developed luxury sedans and sports cars, and plans to unveil a cheaper, $30,000 so-called Bluestar model electric car sometime in the future. The company is also building a series of charging stations throughout the country in hopes of making the car more feasible. Musk has said his goal is to create energy-efficient, sleek cars that are fast, sexy and greenhouse-gas-emissions free. Lowering the price tag on these cars will require a complete reinvention of the battery technology inside, and so far, the company hasn’t made a profit.
In October 2013, Musk unveiled an idea straight out of a James Bond film: a submarine car. Musk apparently bought the Bond prop, used in “The Spy Who Loved Me,” at auction and planned to turn it into an actual car — a transformable one, that is, according to news reports. The idea is to press a button and have the car, which would be equipped with a Tesla electric powertrain, convert completely into an underwater vehicle, according to CNN. So far, there’s been no word on when or whether this idea will leave the dock.
One of Musk’s more fantastical ideas is a hyperspeed jet that would travel faster than sound and would take off and land vertically, like a rocket. The inventor mused about the rapid transport system in a video chat in August 2013. Still, lots of people have dreamed up similarly outlandish ideas, and it’s not clear whether Musk has any plans to pursue this one more wholeheartedly.
Transistors are tiny switches that can be triggered by electric signals. They are the basic building blocks of microchips, and roughly define the difference between electric and electronic devices. They permeate so many facets of our daily lives, in everything from milk cartons to laptops, illustrating just how useful they are.
A traditional mechanical switch either enables or disables the flow of electricity by physically connecting (or disconnecting) two ends of wire. In a transistor, a signal tells the device to either conduct or insulate, thereby enabling or disabling the flow of electricity. This property of acting like an insulator in some circumstances and like a conductor in others is unique to a special class of materials known as “semiconductors.” Before we delve into the secret of how this behavior works and how it is harnessed, let’s gain some understanding of why this triggering ability is so important.
The first signal-triggered switches were relays. A relay uses an electromagnet to flip a magnetic switch. Here we see two styles of relay: one where a signal turns the switch on; the other where a signal turns the switch off:
To understand how signal-triggered switches enable computation, first imagine a battery with two switches and a light. There’s two ways we can hook these up. In series, both switches need to be on for the light to turn on. This is called “Boolean AND” behavior:
In parallel, either or both switches need to be on for the light to turn on. This is called “Boolean OR” behavior:
What if we want the light to turn on if either switch is on, but off if both switches or on? Such behavior is called “Boolean XOR” for “eXclusive OR.” Unlike AND and OR, it is impossibleto achieve XOR behavior using on/off switches … that is, unless we have some means of triggering a switch with a signal from another switch. Here’s a relay circuit that performs XOR behavior:
Understanding that XOR behavior is what enables us to “carry the 10″ when doing addition, it becomes clear why signal-triggered switches are so vital to computation. Similar circuits can be constructed for all sorts of calculations, including addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, conversion between binary (base 2) and decimal (base 10), and so on. The only limit to our computing power is how many signal-triggered switches we can use. All calculators and computers achieve their mystical power through this method.
Through looping signals backwards, certain kinds of memory are made possible by signal-triggered switches as well. While this method of information storage has taken a back seat to magnetic and optical media, it is still important to some modern computer operations such as cache.
While relays have been used since the discovery of the electromagnet in 1824 — particularly by the 1837 invention of the telegraph — they would not be used for computation until the 20th century. Notable relay computers included the Z1 through Z3 (1938-1941) and the Harvard Marks I and II (1944 and 1947). The problem with relays is that their electromagnets consume a lot of power, and all that wasted energy turns into heat. For this, relay computers need extensive cooling. On top of that, relays have moving parts, so they are prone to breaking.
The successor to the relay was the vacuum tube. Rather than relying on a magnetic switch, these tubes relied on the “thermionic effect” and resembled dim light bulbs. Vacuum tubes were developed in parallel with light bulbs throughout the 19th century and were first used in an amplifying circuit in 1906. While absent of moving parts, their filaments only worked so long before burning out, and their sealed-glass construction was prone to other means of failure.
Understanding how a vacuum tube amplifies is as simple as understanding that a speaker is no more than piece of fabric that moves back and forth depending on whether the wires behind it are on or off. We can use a low-power signal to operate a very large speaker if we feed the signal into a signal-triggered switch. Because vacuum tubes work so much more quickly than relays, they can keep up with the on/off frequencies used in human speech and music.
The first programmable computer to use vacuum tubes was the 1943 Colossus, built to crack codes during world War II. It had over 17,000 tubes. Later, the 1946 ENIAC became the first electronic computer capable of solving a large class of numerical problems, also having around 17,000 tubes. On average, a tube failed every two days and took 15 minutes to find and replace.
Transistors (portmanteaux of “transmitter” and “resistor”) rely on a quirk of quantum mechanics known as an “electron hole.” A hole is the lack of an electron at a spot where one could exist in semiconducting material. By introducing an electric signal to a transistor, electric fields are created that force holes and electrons to swap places. This allows regions of the transistor that normally insulate to conduct (or vice versa). All transistors rely on this property, but different types of transistor harness it through different means.
The first “point-contact” transistor appeared in 1947 thanks to the work of John Bardeen, Walter Brattain and William Shockley. Keep in mind, the electron was only discovered in 1878 and Max Planck’s first quantum hypothesis was only made in 1900. On top of this, high-quality semiconductor materials only became available in the 1940s.
Point-contact transistors were soon replaced by “bipolar junction” transistors (BJTs) and “field effect” transistors (FETs). Both BJTs and FETs rely on a practice known as “doping.” Doping silicon with boron creates a material that has an abundance of electron holes known as “P-type” silicon. Likewise, doping silicon with phosphorus creates a material with an abundance of electrons known as “N-type” silicon. A BJT is made from three alternating layers of silicon types, thus has either a “PNP” or “NPN” configuration. An FET is made by etching two wells of one type of silicon into a channel of the other, thus has either an “n-channel” or “p-channel” configuration. PNP transistors and n-channel transistors function similarly to “signal turns switch on” relays and tubes; likewise NPN transistors and p-channel transistors function similarly to “signal turns switch off” relays and tubes.
Transistors were far more study than vacuum tubes; so much so that no technology has yet to surpass them; they are still used today.
The first transistor computer was built in 1953 by the University of Manchester using 200 point-contact transistors, much in the style of earlier relay and vacuum-tube computers. This style of wiring individual transistors soon fell out of practice, thanks to the fact that BJTs and FETs can be manufactured in integrated circuits (ICs). This means a single block of crystalline silicon can be treated in special ways to grow the multiple transistors with the wiring already in place.
The first IC was constructed in 1971. Since that year, transistors have gotten smaller and smaller such that the amount fit into an IC has doubled roughly every two years, a trend dubbed as “Moore’s Law.” In the time between then and now, computers have permeated virtually aspect of modern life. ICs manufactured in 2013 (specifically central processors for computers) contain roughly 2 billion transistors that are each 22 nanometers in size. Moore’s law will finally come to an end once transistors cannot be made any smaller. It is projected this point will be reached once transistors reach a size of approximately 5nm around the year 2020.
The flight habits of birds, bats and insects could inspire new designs of flying robots, say scientists who are using nature as a guide for developing innovative drone technologies.
As part of a broad investigation of bioinspired flight control, 14 different research teams are stealing ideas from nature to make novel improvements to the capabilities of drones.
“Whether this is avoiding obstacles, picking up and delivering items, or improving the takeoff and landing on tricky surfaces, it is hoped the solutions can lead to the deployment of drones in complex urban environments in a number of different ways,” officials from the Institute of Physics (IOP) in the United Kingdom said in a statement. [5 Surprising Ways Drones Could Be Used in the Future]
These technologies, IOP added, could be used for a variety of purposes, ranging from “military surveillance and search-and-rescue efforts to flying camera phones and reliable courier services. For this, drones need exquisite flight control.”
As part of this initiative, a group of researchers from Hungary used an algorithm to fly nine quadcopter drones as the machines followed a moving car. Anther group at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, built a tiny drone — roughly the size of a 1-cent coin — that was capable of flying and hovering in midair.
But because a sudden gust of wind could blow the tiniest of flying robots off course, researchers recently studied how hawk moths cope with windy conditions, and how they regain control after particularly strong gusts. The researchers came from the University of north Carolina at Chapel Hill, the University of california and Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.
Researchers from Sherbrooke University in Quebec, Canada, and Stanford University drew inspiration from flying squirrels, flying snakes and flying fish to design a “jumpglider.” This drone mimics the aerodynamic mechanisms and “jumping ranges” these creatures use to avoid predators. The glider is shaped like an airplane, but also has a spring-based mechanical foot to propel the robot into the air. The researchers say the jumpglider could be used for search and rescue missions, because it is able to maneuver around rough terrain and obstacles.
Over the past week, the U.S. Air Force stationed two unarmed Global Hawk drones at Misawa Air Base in northern Japan. The first drone touched down on May 24, Air Force officials said in a statement.
The drones will be used to gather intelligence data on nuclear sites in the notoriously reclusive country of North Korea, where 24 million people live sealed off from the rest of the world, reported the Associated Press. The Global Hawks also will likely monitor chinese naval operations.
The two drones are expected to remain in Japan until October, after which they will return to an American military base on the island of Guam in the western Pacific ocean, according to Air Force officials. Lt. Gen. Sam Angelella, commander of U.S. Forces Japan, refused to discuss specific details of the clandestine drone operations in the Pacific, but said the Global Hawk’s “capabilities are well known,” reported the AP.
Global Hawk drones can fly at altitudes of more than 60,000 feet (18,300 meters), and are considered the Air Force’s most advanced surveillance vehicles. The long-distance drones also boast impressive aerial endurance, and can perform flights that last more than 28 hours.
The planes are equipped with a range of instruments, including infrared sensors and satellite communication systems. The robotic flyers, which can provide near real-time imagery, are capable of surveying 40,000 square miles (103,000 square kilometers) of ground in one day.
A Global Hawk drone was previously used in the region to assist with disaster relief efforts in the wake of the 9.0-magnitude Tohoku earthquake and subsequent tsunami that devastated northeastern Japan in 2011
“The Global Hawk was requested to support relief efforts within 48 hours of the disaster, prompting crews to prepare and launch aircraft only nine hours after official notification,” Air Force officials said in a statement.
The drone flew over the Tohoku region and identified open roads and emergency landing zones for first responders. The plane’s long-range and infrared cameras snapped more than 3,000 images of the earthquake- and tsunami-ravaged area.
NASA uses a version of the Global Hawk drones to peer inside hurricanes and tropical storms. The unmanned aircraft help scientists study the life cycles of extreme weather events, and enable researchers to develop more accurate models of these storms.