World’s First EVTOL Airport Will Land This November

We have to admit that flying cars still sound pretty cool. But if we’re ever going to get this idea off the ground, there’s a truckload of harsh realities that must be faced head-on. The most obvious and pressing issue might seem to be the lack of flying cars, but that’s not really a problem. Air taxis are already in the works from companies like Airbus, Rolls-Royce, and Cadillac, who premiered theirs at CES this year.

Where we’re going, we don’t need roads. But we do need infrastructure to support this growing category of air traffic that includes shipping drones that are already in flight. Say no more, because by November 2021, the first airport built especially for flying cars is slated to be operational in England.

Image via Hyundai

British startup Urban Air Port is building their flagship eVTOL hub smack dab in the center of Coventry, UK, a city once known as Britain’s Detroit due to the dozens of automobile makers who have called it home. They’re calling this grounded flying saucer-looking thing Air One, and they are building it in partnership with Hyundai thanks to a £1.2 million ($1.65M) grant from the British government. Hyundai are developing their own eVTOL which they are planning to release in 2028.

Starting in November 2021, this temporary, pop-up eVTOL hub will used to give live demonstrations that show the viability of these electric air vehicles for transporting both passengers and goods on a regular basis, as well as in heightened response to natural disasters. The hubs themselves will be small — 60% smaller than a heliport, which is their closest living cousin. They require no runway, and can be powered completely off-grid if necessary. Urban Air Port expects to be able to stand up one of these facilities in a matter of days, which makes them ideal for getting supplies into disaster-stricken areas of the world.

Even though the overall footprint will be smaller, these hubs will still need parking lots, bus stops, and other support for ground transportation. Fortunately, this is a whole-future endeavor and the hub is designed to be harmonious with other sustainable modes of electric transport. We’re picturing an EV charger in every parking space, all of which are shaded beneath a roof covered with responsive solar panels. Oh, and there’s a really nice bus stop.

If You Build It, They Will Come

On the one hand, it totally makes sense to start building these hubs. Again, you have to start somewhere, and I know I would feel a lot better about getting into an air taxi after a bit of front-row education. Like Urban Air Port founder Ricky Sandhu says in the video below, cars need roads, trains need rails, and planes need airports. And they all need places for parking, embarking, and disembarking. Air taxis and shipping drones need places for people and goods to load in and load out of them. From the looks of it, these hubs are more than just storage and a launch pad; they’re more akin to, well, small urban airports or helipads with amenities like couches and restrooms and maybe a vending with masks and sanitizer.

On the other hand, we still have a global pandemic going on that has changed the way we work, shop, and do just about everything. There’s barely anyone using regular airplanes these days. We have to wonder how much use these near-future air taxis would get, what with way fewer people actually going to a job, and no drive-through coffee options in the sky as of yet.

Urban-Air is planning to build 200 of these hubs across the UK and abroad within the next five years. We’re excited to see where project this goes — how many hubs end up getting built, and where. NASA thinks the Urban Air Mobility market could be worth a lot in the States, but cites the current lack of infrastructure as a major barrier. Don’t tell that to Archer Aviation, a California start-up that plans to launch a fleet of air taxis as early as 2024.

Should I Use Wheels Or Tracks?

When it comes to dominating offroad performance, many people’s first thought is of tracked vehicles. Bulldozers, tanks and excavators all use treads, and manage to get around in difficult terrain without breaking a sweat. Today, we’re exploring just what makes tracked vehicles so capable, as well as their weaknesses.

It’s All About Ground Pressure

The various parts of a tank’s propulsion system.

Let’s first look at how tank tracks work. There are a huge variety of designs, with differences depending on application. Different trends have been followed over time, and designs for military use in combat differ from those used for low-speed construction machines, for example. But by looking at a basic tank track design, we can understand the basic theory. On tanks, the track or tread itself is usually made up of individual steel links that are connected together with hinges, though other machines may use rubber tracks instead. The tracks are wrapped around one or more drive wheels, often cogged, which directly pull on the track. On the bottom of the vehicle are the road wheels, which ride on top of the track where it lies on the ground.  The weight of the vehicle is carried through the road wheels and passed on to the tread, spreading out the load across a broader area. Outside of this, the track system may also have one or more idler wheels used to keep the track taught, as well as return rollers to guide the track back around without touching the road wheels.

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Increasing The Resolution Of The Electrical Grid

As a society in the USA and other parts of the world, we don’t give much thought to the twisting vines of civilization that entangle our skies and snake beneath our streets. The humming electrical lines on long poles that string our nations together are simply just there. Ever-present and immutable. We expect to flick the switch and power to come on. We only notice the electrical grid when something goes wrong and there is a seemingly myriad number of ways for things to go wrong. Lighting strikes, trees falling on lines, fires, or even too many people trying to crank on the A/C can all cause rolling blackouts. Or as we found out this month, cold weather can take down generation systems that have not been weatherized.

We often hear the electrical grid described as aging and strained. As we look to the future and at the ever-growing pressure on the infrastructure we take for granted, what does the future of the electrical grid look like? Can we move past blackouts and high voltage lines that criss-cross the country?

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Paul Taylor Opened The Lines Of Telecommunication For The Hearing-Impaired

These days, nearly everyone communicates through some kind of keyboard, whether they are texting, emailing, or posting on various internet discussion forums. Talking over the phone is almost outmoded at this point. But only a few decades ago, the telephone was king of real-time communication. It was and still is a great invention, but unfortunately the technology left the hearing and speaking-impaired communities on an island of silence.

Paul and an early TDD. Image via Rochester Institute of Technology

Engineer and professor Paul Taylor was born deaf in 1939, long before cochlear implants or the existence of laws that called for testing and early identification of hearing impairment in infants. At the age of three, his mother sent him by train to St. Louis to live at a boarding school called the Central Institute for the Deaf (CID).

Here, he was outfitted with a primitive hearing aid and learned to read lips, speak, and use American sign language. At the time, this was the standard plan for deaf and hearing-impaired children — to attend such a school for a decade or so and graduate with the social and academic tools they needed to succeed in public high schools and universities.

After college, Paul became an engineer and in his free time, a champion for the deaf community. He was a pioneer of Telecommunications Devices for the Deaf, better known as TDD or TTY equipment in the US. Later in life, he helped write legislation that became part of the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act.

Paul was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 2017 and died in January of 2021 at the age of 81. He always believed that the more access a deaf person had to technology, the better their life would be, and spent much of his life trying to use technology to improve the deaf experience.

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Flapping Wings And The Science Of How Bees Can Fly

Jerry Seinfeld launched his career with Bee Movie, an insect-themed animated feature that took the world by storm in 2007. It posed the quandary – that supposedly, according to all known laws of aviation, bees should not be able to fly. Despite this, the bee flies anyway, because bees don’t care what humans think is impossible.

The quote isn’t easily attributed to anyone in particular, but is a cautionary tale about making the wrong assumptions in an engineering context. Yes, if you model a bee using the same maths as an airliner, of course you’ll find that it shouldn’t be able to fly. Its tiny wings can’t possibly generate enough lift to get its body off the ground. But that’s because the assumption is an erroneous one – because bees don’t fly in the same way planes do. Bees flap their wings. But that’s just the beginning. The truth is altogether more complex and interesting! Continue reading “Flapping Wings And The Science Of How Bees Can Fly”

A Brief History Of Optical Communication

We live in the information age where access to the internet is considered a fundamental human right. Exercising this right does largely rely on the technological advances made in optical communication. Using light to send information has a long history: from ancient Greece, through Claude Chappe’s semaphore towers and Alexander Graham Bell’s photophone, to fiber optic networks and future satellite internet constellations currently developed by tech giants.

Let’s dive a little bit deeper into the technologies that were used to spread information with the help of light throughout history. Continue reading “A Brief History Of Optical Communication”

James West Began 40 Years At Bell Labs With World-Changing Microphone Tech

I’d be surprised if you weren’t sitting within fifty feet of one of James Edward Maceo West’s most well-known inventions — the electret microphone. Although MEMS microphones have seen a dramatic rise as smartphone technology progresses, electret microphones still sit atop the throne of low-cost and high-performance when it comes to capturing audio. What’s surprising about this world-changing invention is that the collaboration with co-inventor Gerhard Sessler began while James West was still at university, with the final version of the electret springing to life at Bell Labs just four years after his graduation.

A Hacker’s Upbringing

James’ approach to learning sounds very familiar: “If I had a screwdriver and a pair of pliers, anything that could be opened was in danger. I had this need to know what was inside.” He mentions a compulsive need to understand how things work, and an inability to move on until he has unlocked that knowledge. Born in 1931, an early brush with mains voltage started him on his journey.

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