Tech Update (April 2018)

Andy Cormack gives us the heads up on what’s on the horizon in hardware and technology, giving you the lowdown on the next big thing.  

In April’s update, Andy looks at some literally lunatic ideas for 4G on the Moon no less, putting the brakes on Hyperloop, hotels in space and  robot bees. It almost feels like the 1960s again.  Read on…


Audi, Vodafone, and Nokia plan Lunar Mobile Phone Network

While 5G is on the horizon, some companies have their heads set firmly beyond the clouds as Audi, Vodafone, and Nokia are partnering on a project to implement a 4G network on the Moon, one that may come to at least partial fruition at some point next year.

Vodafone began the project, later choosing Nokia – more specifically Nokia Bell Labs –  to partner up with for the hardware side. This 4G infrastructure will then allow Audi to hit the ground running with its Audi Lunar Quattro, their lunar rover project they’d been working on for the Google Lunar XPRIZE, by allowing a pair of these rovers to communicate wirelessly via a base station. Then, using already active satellites, Part Time Scientists, the company positioned as mission organiser, will have the capability to live stream collected data and HD video from the Moon to viewers on Earth.

The Google Lunar XPRIZE is a space competition organised by the X Prize Foundation and sponsored by Google, its goal: “Landing a robot on the surface of the Moon, traveling 500 meters over the lunar surface, and sending images and data back to the Earth.” And the prize for the winner is $20 million, no small chump change that’s for sure. Unfortunately, despite numerous extensions, the X Prize Foundation announced on the 23rd January 2018 that “No team would be able to make a launch attempt to reach the Moon by the deadline, and the $30 million in prize money will go unclaimed.”

That hasn’t deterred Part Time Scientists and the aforementioned others however, as they seem eager to follow through with their plan anyway, shooting for a 2019 result. The required networking equipment is to be launched on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, which has been designed to be so small and lightweight that Nokia claims it will weigh less than one kilogram in total.

Here’s hoping this is one of the pieces we need for a whole new jump to reignite the excitement and interest in space exploration and the potential for further exploration and use of the Moon.

SpaceX’s Hyperloop team set sights on high-speed acceleration and braking records

The Hyperloop project, one of the many forward-thinking spinning plates for the ever prolific Elon Musk, recently had a news update via Musk’s twitter feed, stating “Upgraded SpaceX/Tesla Hyperloop pod speed test soon. Will try to reach half speed of sound (and brake) within ~1.2km”, with him even following up by saying, “This is kinda nutty for such a short distance, so could easily end up being shredded metal, but exciting either way.”

Musk’s refreshingly open, honest, and relentless nature to push the boundaries have been among his key strengths as an entrepreneur, and there are no signs of that wavering in the slightest any time soon, this latest announcement being a case in point.

‘Nutty’ this new speed test may indeed be, with the attempt’s goal to go from standing still, to reaching half the speed of sound (roughly 383 mph), and then coming to a complete stop once again in just 1.2km (which is roughly three quarters of a mile) is no small feat of engineering. The physics involved and the power requirements will be no joke, with the pod being put under significant stress in order to accomplish this test. Musk himself is even quoted as saying “[the pod] could easily end up being shredded metal”, yet he’s still tenaciously there pushing those boundaries of what is possible.

Since Musk “open sourced” the technology underpinning Hyperloop, in a similar fashion to how he treated Tesla’s electric car tech, there have already been a handful of other companies jumping on board to take a stab at it, with the Virgin Hyperloop One having achieved a result of standing to 192 mph, and back to standing, in just 440 metres which equates to just over a quarter of a mile. If Musk’s Hyperloop test aims to double that test’s speed result over triple the distance, it’s going to take some incredible work.

The forces being exerted on the pod travelling at those speeds along with the temperatures generated, especially when braking, are significantly larger than Virgin’s test. The sheer amount of power required in order to accelerate the pod to those speeds alone will likely be over triple that of the previous record’s 2.3 megawatts, potentially reaching or exceeding 10 megawatts of power draw.

While there has yet to be an exact date set for the test, as with most of these things it will come down to a “when it’s done” approach while the team feverishly works on it, The Boring Company, humorously named tunnel infrastructure company that Musk created to develop the tunnels for Hyperloop use, has been working on a tunnel in Maryland that will likely see potential use as part of a Hyperloop system that spans Washington D.C. to New York, with the end goal to have pods reach speeds approaching 800 mph, that will shuttle passengers between the two in under 30 minutes.

$10 million trips to luxury space hotels coming In 2021 and beyond

While you’ll need pretty deep pockets to afford it, some companies are moving forward on the development of luxury space hotels in the attempt to bring tourism to space.

Orion Span, a startup company based out of Houston Texas, unveiled their plans for a luxury space hotel at the recent Space 2.0 summit in San Jose California. The modular “Aurora Station” hotel will orbit 200 miles above the Earth and is hoped to launch in late 2021 with its first guests arriving the year after.

Holding up to six customers at a time and two crew, and measuring roughly 10 metres long and 4 metres wide, it’s about the same size as a private jet. The premise, and selling point, here is about having the ‘authentic’ experience of being an astronaut; Orion Span’s CEO Frank Bunger explains. “We’re not selling a ‘hey let’s go to the beach’ equivalent in space. We’re selling the experience of being an astronaut. You reckon that there are people who are willing to pay to have that experience.”

The hoops to jump through in order to end up staying in one of these space hotels doesn’t end with the $10 million buy in either. Customers will need to go through three months of training, which is unsurprising considering the dangers of space itself. This training will include courses on basic spaceflight, orbital mechanics, and pressurised environments in space before proceeding to contingency training in Houston, with the company having streamlined the process so heavily that it’s saying it has “Taken what was historically a 24-month training regimen to prepare travellers to visit a space station and streamlined it to three months, at a fraction of the cost.”

Despite a relatively small living space for a hotel, and the required three months of training before even getting up there, the hotel itself is still described as luxury, with private suites for two and the “Most number of windows created for spaceflight.”

Will these hotels be a feasible long-term business? Will they even be ready to go to market by the time of their ambitiously speedy launch date? It remains to be seen. However you look at it though, it’s certainly going to be a unique experience.

NASA developing Electronic Bees to explore Mars

A blog post on NASA’s website at the end of March has announced that they have provided initial funding to a group of researchers based out of the University of Alabama in Huntsville, to design and produce Electronic Bees, dubbed “Marsbees”, to aid in the exploration of Mars.

According to the blog, “The objective of the proposed work is to increase the set of possible exploration and science missions on Mars by investigating the feasibility of flapping wing aerospace architectures in a Martian environment.”

The size of these Marsbees will be not dissimilar to that of real world bees, at least the bodies will; the wingspan will be considerably larger to allow for the differences between Mars’ atmosphere and Earth’s.

The bees will have a rover as a base station, sort of like a mini aircraft carrier for a squadron of aircraft.

The post continues to elaborate: “The proposed architecture consists of a Mars rover that serves as a mobile base and a swarm of Marsbees”…”the Marsbees are integrated with sensors and wireless communication devices. The mobile base can act as a recharging station and main communication center. The swarm of Marsbee can significantly enhance the Mars exploration mission with the following benefits:

i). Facilitating reconfigurable sensor networks;
ii). Creation of resilient systems;
iii). Sample or data collection using single or collaborative Marsbees.”

The real key feature to this ‘swarm’ is that there is an incredible amount of redundancy built into the system. If any single bee were to malfunction, the swarm as a whole will carry on mostly unaffected, bringing a much needed boost in reliability to the system considering how much can, and will, go wrong on a lengthy trip to another planet.

The university’s team won’t be the only ones developing this technology either. Their role is specifically that of data modelling and analysis to optimise the bees for the atmospheric conditions of Mars. Meanwhile a team based in Japan will be handling the physical development and testing of the bees.

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Tech Update – March 2017

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