Faster Sailboats

I may never have been on a sailboat in my life, but I am fascinated by the physics behind their operation. They must operate simultaneously in two mediums, as both an airfoil and a hydrofoil. Plus, they are probably one of the “greenest” vehicles ever conceived.

Which makes you wonder why we don’t use them more.

Not only are they dependent on the weather, but they are also considerably slower than an airplane. I’ve been thinking about how to make them faster, and my inspiration came from a book about airplanes – The Deltoid Pumpkin Seed by John McPhee. This book documents, in popular language, the experiences of a group of entrepreneurs and engineers to build a hybrid airplane/airship (the Aereon) that would have a small engine and use helium to improve its lift characteristics.

Why not do the same thing with a sailboat? Especially since most of the drag comes from the “wetted hull”, it would make sense to lift the hull out of the water as much as possible and leave only the keel submerged. Ship designers have been doing this for years with cleaver hull designs intended to lift themselves out of the water as they get up to speed, but the Aereon design suggests another way – helium.

What seems to make sense to me would be to build a trimaran and fill the outriggers with helium.

Cold Fusion

A friend of mine recently bent my ear for an evening over cold fusion. It struck me as pseudo-science, but not wanted to be prejudiced, I spent some time with a web browser looking into it.

Though I still have a hard time believing some of these claims, I have to admit that this technology shows promise.

The Coulomb barrier that must be overcome to fuse two protons is about 5 MeV – not something you’d expect at room temperature, but well within the range of a standard particle accelerator. The problem is the minute cross section of the nucleus – protons with enough energy to fuse are far more likely to be scattered away from each other unless they are precisely aligned in a head-on collision.

That’s where the cold fusion claims start to get interesting. All of the cold fusion reports that I read involved palladium as a catalyst. Now palladium has the unusual property that it can absorb significant quantities of hydrogen. There doesn’t seem to be a consensus on exactly how this works, but one explanation is that the hydrogen nuclei can move fairly freely within the palladium crystal mesh. Now if I wanted to line something up at atomic dimensions, a crystal would be the obvious choice, and if I wanted to line something up while its moving, then I would want a crystal that allowed my particle mobility. So palladium seems like an obvious choice to line up moving protons to precisely collide them.

Continue reading “Cold Fusion”

Smart Cars

Roughly 40,000 Americans die every year in automobile accidents. Thousands more are maimed and injured. Many of these accidents are not caused by alcohol, speed, or reckless driving, but by simple driver error. For example, even if drunk driving were totally eliminated, cutting car fatalities roughly in half, automobile accidents would still be the leading cause of accidental death in this country.

Let me illustrate this point by personal example. My two most serious car accidents both occured while I was stone cold sober. One accident happened because I was tired and fell asleep at the wheel. Fortunately, it was just after dawn, there were few cars on the highway, and though my car spun out of control at around 60 mph, it didn’t flip over and came to a stop in a drainage ditch without hitting anything or anyone. In the second accident, I was making a left turn at a traffic light with a green arrow. An elderly gentleman ran the opposing stop light and broadsided me. Though I was not at fault, I can honestly say that if I’d bothered to look around, I’d have seen the other car and been able to stop in time. Instead, I was coming home from work, doing the same thing I did every other day at 5 PM, probably more concerned about finding a decent song on the radio, so when the light turned green, I just hit the gas and went.

Automobiles are simply dangerous. Air bags, lower speed limits, and mandatory seatbelt laws have reduced the fatalities but do not offer any ultimate solutions. Undoubtedly, drivers need to constantly remind themselves how dangerous this everyday activity is, and reduce distractions such as fatigue, intoxication, and car phones. Operating an automobile requires long periods of boring, repetitive work, interrupted rarely by unannounced moments requiring instant, intensive concentration. Humans by nature are not well suited to this kind of task, but it’s just the kind of thing computers excel at, so to significantly reduce automobile fatalities, computerizing the operation of cars has to be seriously considered.

Proposals for computerized automobiles have been around for some time. TRW prepared an story imagining the possibility of a computerized automobile system by 2012. In 1997, a modified stretch of California’s Interstate 15 served as the testbed for a series of demonstrations with automated cars and buses. The U.S. Department of Transportation has an Intelligent Transportation Systems Joint Program Office that coordinates many of these efforts. The Intelligent Transportation Society of America (ITS America) organizes conferences, maintains a website, and publishes a regular newsletter. Unfortunately, the goal is still distant, and many current ITS efforts are focused on programs such as more sophisticated traffic signals and alleviating congestion with automatic toll collection. The DOT-funded National Automated Highway Systems Consortium, which oversaw the I-15 tests and intended to develop a prototype system by 2002, has been terminated.

The highway in California was modified by placing magnetics in the roadway, which the vehicles then followed. Much important work has also been done on vehicles operating on unmodified roadways. CMU’s Robotics Institute developed a series of vehicles (the Navlabs) which drove from Pittsburg, PA to San Diego, CA under computer control for 98% of the trip. Navlab would make an excellent starting point for a smart car of the future, since CMU has already developed a controller system to operate the car, a standard API for operating the controller, and a simulation environment for testing new controller programs.

Some look to large corporations like GM or Toyota to design the smart car of the future. Others expect the initiative to come from the U.S. federal government. According to the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Intelligent Vehicle Initiative Governance Structure, the Enabling R&D group is only open to “vehicle OEMs with a World Manufacturer Identifier… and will require contribution of substantial financial resources” As a free software aficionado, I’d rather see a initiative to build an open, co-operative system in which governments, large companies, small organizations, and individuals can all contribute. The ability of the Internet community to develop complex, open source software systems, such as Linux, demonstrates the feasibility of using the Internet as a basis for collaboration.

To minimize the infrastructure requirements, the system would have to interoperate with ordinary cars on unmodified highways, basically Navlab’s approach to the problem. Much of the hardware required to support an automated car is already available:

Computer platform. The modern laptop computer seems well-suited to support a future smart car. It offers ample processing power and disk space, can operate off 12 VDC power, and is well standardized. PCMCIA cards provide a convenient and standard hardware interface. Slight modifications, such as a detached display to be placed on the dashboard, wouldn’t be difficult to implement.

Radiolocation. GPS (Global Positioning System) can’t provide enough accuracy to locate a car within a lane, but can locate a car within a dozen meters or so. Furthermore, GPS technology is mature, readily available at low cost, and easily integrated with existing computer technology. For example, Premier Electronics markets the SatNav GPS Receiver, a PCMCIA GPS receiver.

Communications. For long range communications, cellular telephones and cellular modems are expensive, but well understood and widely deployed. Upon locating itself with GPS, the car’s computer could dial into a server and download a database for the surrounding area. For short range communications, between nearby vehicles and traffic signals, the IEEE 802.11 wireless LAN standard is newer, but available as off-the-shelf, unlicensed products that work well within roughly a hundred meters.

Video capture. Small video cameras are commonly connected to video capture cards, providing a ready base for visual sensor systems. Navlab’s No Hands Across America demonstration relied heavily on their video-based RALPH system to follow highway markings. PCMCIA video capture cards can be connected to off-the-shelf miniature CCD cameras to provide a readily available video capability.

Radar. No really adequate automobile-based radar system exists today. Advances in microstrip fabrication technology, such as the ready, cheap availability of dielectric resonant oscillators, allows gigahertz-wavelength devices to be fabricated on a conventional PC board. It should now be possible to mass produce a low cost (sub $500) radar system to mount on an automobile and scan for other cars and pedestrians within a hundred meters. If you don’t believe this, check out my essay Guardian Alert: How it works for a description of a simple radar system and an outline of how it could be adapted for vehicular use.

Vehicle control. The development of Linux would have been impossible without the IBM PC – a standard, widely available hardware platform that software designers across the planet had ready access to. Likewise, to build an open source smart car, a standard software API needs to be developed for issuing commands like “drive forward at 20 mph”, “right turn 10 degrees”, “stop”. At least one model hardware implementation needs to be made readily available in kit form, probably using a USB serial interface, and simple enough that an average auto mechanic could install it on an automatic transmission car.

The most important thing now is to collect together the available technology, publish it on a website, and launch a collaborative effort to synergize the talents of the Internet community. An open-source version of CMU’s Navlab would make an excellent start.

Personal Robotics

We stand today at the culmination of the industrial revolution. For the last four centuries, rapid advances in science have fueled industrial society. In the twentieth century, industrialization found perhaps its greatest expression in Henry Ford’s assembly line. Mass production affects almost every facet of modern life. Our food is mass produced in meat plants, commercial bakeries, and canaries. Our clothing is shipped by the ton from factories in China and Taiwan. Certainly all the amenities of our lives – our stereos, TVs, and microwave ovens – roll off assembly lines by the truck load.

Yet we’ve paid a price for industrialization. Our entire society has become a giant assembly line. Each factory’s small assembly line is but one piece in a larger assembly line, interconnected by trucks and trains. Oil refineries feed chemical plants feeding ceramics factories feeding automobile plants. Most seriously of all, the individual has been reduced to a cog, and money is the oil that lubricates the machine. Introduce too much friction, and you’re removed, discarded, and replaced. Pop music reverberates with themes of alienation and depression. In the U.S., almost as many people kill themselves every year as die from automobile accidents. People feel overwhelmed by a mass society dominated by big business and cold economics.

These problems aren’t just the “way the world is”, either. They’re the way our world is; they’re the nature of our industrial civilization. Other civilizations granted more autonomy to the individual. American Indians raised their children to be self-sufficient by teaching them how to recognize wild edibles, how to build bows and arrows from saplings and sinew, how to fashion tepees from animal hides. By the time they were twenty, young Indians could literally walk out into the woods and take care of themselves. In feudal Europe, people may have been more dependent than the early Americans, but society was predominately rural, and the small towns that dotted the landscape were largely self-sufficient. I’m not suggesting we go back to living by bow and arrow, but by studying the nature of other civilizations, we can better understand the advantages and shortcomings of our own.

Over the course of the industrial revolution, many have noted these problems. The socialist solution was complete centralization in the hands of government, either voluntarily (the Utopian Socialists) or violently (the Communists). “Blow up the factories!” was the Luddite cry, and the transcendentalists urged us to return to nature. A few decades ago in this country, many people looked to a government welfare system that latter collapsed in a mass of red ink and red tape. In fact, for one reason or another, all these solutions failed. We may read Thoreau’s poetry, but few of us are ready to move to a pond and live in a log cabin.

Today, we’re presented with another solution, that hopefully will fare better than its predecessors. It goes by the name of post-industrialism, and is commonly associated with our computer technology. What is post-industrialism, and how can it solve our problems? Let me illustrate with an example.

Consider an author, who writes a book and then desires to publish it. In the industrial model, a printing factory is needed to mass produce the book. In fact, several factories are needed. The printing presses require paper, which is made in a paper mill (factory); inks, solvents and glues, made in chemical plants (factories); and an elaborate transportation system of trains, planes, and trucks to transport the raw materials to the presses and the finished books to distributors. Several hundred or even a few thousand people may be required, directly and indirectly, just to get a single book published. Of course, the only way to justify this much effort is to produce not just one book, but millions, the so-called “economics of scale”. Most authors are therefore dependent on a publisher, who is unlikely to go to all this trouble unless he thinks the author’s book can turn a profit. This is the industrial model.

In the post-industrial model, the author writes the book using a computer, prepares it in electronic form, and uploads it to a web site. Now anyone with an Internet connection can read the book. No factories required. The author is no longer dependent on a publisher, is much freer in what he can write, and has achieved a real degree of liberation. Economics of scale have been replaced with an economics of information, letting one individual reach an entire planet.

Of course, this is no panacea. For starters, the author is dependent on a new kind of infrastructure – the data network used to deliver the bits and bytes, and its routers, switches, and servers, all of which, incidentally, are still made in factories. The world may be going post-industrial, but is still heavily industrialized.

Furthermore, while the Internet may liberate the author, it’s hard to see how you can download a stereo, a bed, or a car. Yet consider how a car gets built, at least in Japan’s robot-dominated plants. The robots are operated by computers, which are controlled by software, which can be downloaded across a data network, even if the cars can’t be. The cars can’t be transported across fiber optics, but the “smarts” that drive their construction can be.

Robots are today where computers were 25 years ago. They’re huge, hulking machines that sit on factory floors, consume massive resources and can only be afforded by large corporations and governments. A former president of IBM once remarked that he foresaw a world market for five computers. Then came the PC revolution of the 1980s, when computers came out of the basements and landed on the desktops. So we’re on the verge of a “PR” revolution today – a Personal Robotics revolution, which will bring the robots off the factory floor and put them in our homes and on our desktops.

Ultimately, you might have small robots to perform tasks like cooking breakfast, larger robots that could construct a stereo or repair a microwave oven, and really big robots, perhaps one or two in a town, that could build an automobile. Specialized robots could perform tasks such as micro chip fabrication or casting industrial ceramics. The software needed to performs all of these tasks could be downloaded via data networks. Just as an author can write a book today, and with a few keystrokes make it available to the world, so tomorrow an engineer could design a better mousetrap and then “ship” it in a second to be replicated by robots in every time zone. Gardening robots could raise our food, letting us feed ourselves without being dependent on Safeway, and giving us the freedom Thoreau dreamed of, while our machines handle the hoes.

The combination of personal computers and personal robots offer an awesome potential to break down the assembly line and put the means of production into the hands of the individual. However, the computer industry has sadly demonstrated its ability to centralize and control technology through copyright restrictions and secret source code. Instead of downloading a motorcycle repair program with a few clicks, you may be presented with a e-commerce form requesting your credit card number first.

Fortunately, the free software community has demonstrated that determined individuals, through sacrifice and hard work, can build open systems to replace and improve on proprietary ones. Free software developers need to take the lead in advancing this new robotic technology, preventing it from becoming another weapon to control people’s lives, and instead fulfilling the promise of post-industrialism to liberate mankind from the assembly line.

How do we get there from here? Much of robotic hardware technology is commonly available today. Video capture cards, which can give a computer “eyes” when connected to a video camera, have been on the market for several years. While arms and grabber hands might not be as common, the mechanics behind their construction is fairly simple and well understood. Here’s a short list of major milestones:

  1. Standard robot manipulator arm. Just as a PC hardware standard was needed before Linux could be written, a standard robot arm is needed to facilitate cooperation between software developers. Arm must be able to perform a set of benchmark tasks under direct manual control. Mechanical design and construction details published on-line.
  2. Record-and-playback programming interface. Robot arm can repeat programmed tasks. Able to deal with slight variations in position and orientation of objects.
  3. Specialized robot work cells. Tasks such as micro chip fabrication will require specialized support hardware such as vacuum chambers. Other specialized tasks include chemical processing, and fabrication of plastics and ceramics. Other specialized work cells will be developed as needed to achieve later milestones.
  4. Self-replication. Robot arm can build a working duplicate of itself using specialized work cells. A major milestone, comparable to a compiler being able to compile itself.
  5. Work cell replication. Robot arm can build all specialized work cells needed for its self-replication.
  6. Computer replication. Robot arm can build a computer capable of controlling it.

Having achieved these milestones, we’ll have constructed a robotic system able to duplicate both itself and the computer needed to control it. Further refinement of this technology will allow ever simpler raw materials to be input into the construction process. A robot capable of building a duplicate of itself will no doubt be sophisticated enough to be used for many other tasks, and provide a starting point for tasks it’s yet incapable of doing.

Science fiction writers have imagined such possibilities for decades, just as they once imagined men flying to the moon. If the Apollo space program is any indication, we may only be waiting for a Jack Kennedy to lead us forward.