Weekly Roundup, Friday 10 April 2015

A futuristic new airplane concept (see article below)
A futuristic new airplane concept (see article below)

Good morning

First things first.  We had a cancellation on our Scotland’s Islands and Highlands tour this June.  A single gentleman is now no longer able to come with us due to some medical issues arising.

We can transfer over his place on the tour to another single person and his misfortune can be your good fortune.  The normal single price is $3475; you can have it for $2475.  This is for a single room entirely for yourself, with no sharing with another person.

Please let me know asap if you’d like to take this steal of a deal.  Here’s the main page about the tour; the first person to get payment in can have this place.

Today is the day that Apple’s new watches go on display and available for pre-order.  They can’t be received for two more weeks, but they are now supposed to be on display in most of their stores.  Some reviewers have been able to try out, for several days, samples of the watch, and surprisingly, most have been disappointed, complaining not just about short battery life but also very slow load times to activate apps.

That latter complaint, only able to be determined after some ‘real world’ usage, is astonishing – we all knew about the short battery life, but there’d been an expectation that the apps on the watch would be really truly slick and sophisticated.  Instead, they’re apparently slow and clunky.

And now, please continue reading for :

  • The Wrong Way to Automate Airplanes
  • A New Approach to Very Long Range Flights?
  • Airline Subsidies :  Is the Pot Calling the Kettle Black?
  • Echoes of MH 370
  • Amazon Attacks Fake Reviewers
  • Autonomous Car Progress Continues to Accelerate
  • And Lastly This Week….

The Wrong Way to Automate Airplanes

As readers know, I’m keen to make airplanes and air travel much safer than it already is – by allowing airplanes to be fully self-piloting.  More accidents – both fatal and not – are caused by the presence of pilots doing the wrong things than are prevented by the presence of pilots ‘saving the day’.

This interesting article reveals one of the industry secrets airline pilots prefer to obscure and hide.  A typical Boeing 777 pilot spends just seven minutes manually flying their plane on a typical flight (which probably lasts seven hours or longer).  Airbus pilots spend only 3.5 minutes actually flying their planes.

What the article doesn’t point out is that even these 3.5 – 7 short minutes of ‘real’ pilot flying are probably unnecessary, and are more examples of pilots ‘flying for fun’ than out of necessity.  Although many pilots will stare you in the eyes and swear on a stack of bibles that it is impossible, the truth is that many modern planes can already be flown (and indeed are being flown) from the start of their take-off roll to the end of their landing roll, totally automatically.

The article reports on a strange hybrid approach to automation that would have a semi-humanoid robot sit in a pilot’s seat and with robotic type arms and legs operate the plane’s controls, automatically.  Presumably anxious passengers would prefer to see a robot sitting where the pilot used to be than they would seeing a fully empty flight deck (or no flight deck at all).

But this is an unnecessarily complex approach to automation.  The mechanical robot merely adds another step in an otherwise short chain and a new opportunity for things to go wrong.  This requires having one computer tell another computer what is happening, have that second computer decide how to respond, and then take its computer decisions and translate them into mechanical actions which the first computer will then translate back into computer commands.  Why not just have the first computer see what is happening, decide what to do, then do it, all with no moving parts and fewer moving electrons, too?

A New Approach to Very Long Range Flights?

The longer a flight is, the more costly it becomes in per-mile fuel costs.  There’s a vicious circle at work – a plane that flies further has to carry more fuel, and because it has more fuel on board, it needs to load still more fuel to provide the energy to take off and carry the extra fuel to burn later on.

This situation is made worse because each extra pound of fuel the plane carries usually means the plane has to carry one pound less of payload – fewer passengers and their bags and less commercial freight.  So the plane ends up carrying fewer passengers than normal and burning more fuel than normal – a double loss-making proposition.

One could also argue that after a 15 – 18 hour flight, we’re all desperate to get off the plane for a break, even if we then get onto a second one to complete our journey.  In theory, the longest flights (ie halfway around the world) would take about 22 – 24 hours.  On the other hand, it would save the time it takes to stage in to an airport, land, taxi, unload, refuel, reload, taxi and take-off again – easily an hour, and more likely two for this interruption, and airlines could plan a more direct route instead of typically flying two legs of a triangle so as to include a stop at a ‘friendly’ strategic hub airport.

The military have a solution, both for short range fighters or longer range bombers and reconnaissance planes – in-air refueling.  Why couldn’t this same technology be used for passenger planes?  This could revolutionize the economics of long distance flights, and also save us traveling and transit time.

That question – which is not a new question at all – sometimes gets asked with varying attempts at answering it.  There’s an EU funded research project being carried out in the Netherlands which suggests in-air refueling would make it possible to reduce fuel consumption by between 11% and 23%, and their approach to some of the typical objections raised has been to fancifully explore some futuristic solutions to present day problems (see picture above).  They’ve an interesting website and some artist impressions of some of the radically different designs of planes and flying tankers that would optimize this concept, and if you find it all a bit impenetrably scientific, there’s a reasonably fair layman’s summary of it here.

If you’re wondering why the industry is not excitedly rushing to implement the concept, there’s a fairly overwhelming summary of present and past problems on this site.  Some points raised are fair, like the need to have flights arrive closely on time at rendezvous points with tankers, but even that isn’t an unsolveable problem – the tanker planes can of course fly to meet a flight that is early or late and to coordinate rendezvous points and then paths traveled while refueling to allow for the most efficient set of compromises for all the flights a tanker is refueling in a single mission.  And if a flight is late departing its original airport, it probably has five or more hours of planning lead time to let the tanker know that and for things to be optimized, with a worst case scenario meaning instead of a nonstop flight and refueling, the plane instead has to stop somewhere en route.

So I see this as a potential positive development, and noting the airlines’ excitement at fuel efficiency boosts of even 2% or 3% (such as are typically provided by winglets) it would seem this is an idea that should be given more study.

Airline Subsidies :  Is the Pot Calling the Kettle Black?

The US airlines have been complaining to Congress about being forced to compete with airlines like Emirates and Etihad.  They say this is unfair, because these other airlines have been subsidized by their respective governments, and enjoy low or zero cost financing, preferential access to their main hubs, and various other things too.

Indeed, it seems a bunch of US airline executives got together over a too-many martini lunch, did some fanciful figuring on the back of a napkin, and came up with a claim that these nasty naughty airlines have received $42 billion in aid from their governments.  Therefore, obviously, they should be banned from flying to the US – although apparently the same carriers have no objection to airlines like Alitalia, also the beneficiary of major government largesse.  Indeed Alitalia is a partner with Delta in the Sky Team alliance, and to make it all the more incestuous, also has as a major shareholder Etihad, which makes one wonder how Delta can simultaneously be in effect partnered with Etihad and also complaining about it.

Now we all vaguely know that our government handed out some billions of dollars in aid after 9/11 to our airlines, but of course, that shouldn’t be thought of as a subsidy, we are told, and even if it was, it is still being dwarfed by the much greater amounts allegedly paid to the Gulf carriers (and, by the way, the Gulf airlines strenuously deny they have received subsidies in any such amounts).

But, did you know that there is an official US Government research paper, prepared in 1999, which established that up until 1998, the US airlines had benefitted to the tune of $155 billion from direct and indirect US government subsidies?  No, you wouldn’t know that, because the US Congressional Research Service report was quietly hushed up and never officially published.  But WikiLeaks stumbled across the report and released it in 2009, although it was more or less lost in the torrent of other more contentious information that they were also releasing.

So, how about this.  The US airlines are up in arms about an alleged but far from proven claim that the Gulf carriers may have received in the order of $42 billion in subsidies.  But the US airlines, themselves, have benefitted to an almost four times greater extent!

By their own logic, not only should the Gulf carriers be forbidden from flying to/from the US, but so too should our own American carriers.

When this was pointed out to the US airlines, their response was to say that what happened ‘way back in the past’ is irrelevant, and all that matters is the period subsequent to 1999.

It would indeed be interesting to know how much further subsidy has flowed from our government to our airlines since 1999, but it is also interesting to know about the $155 billion up until then.  And, oh yes, that money, which goes back in part all the way to the dawn of civil aviation in 1918, is expressed in historical dollars, not in inflation adjusted present day equivalent dollars.  If that adjustment were to be made, it seems fair to say that in present day terms our government has funded closer to half a trillion dollars to our airlines, compared to maybe (and more likely, maybe not) less than one tenth of that to the new Gulf carriers that are beating our tired old airlines into a pulp on every route they fly.

Details here.

Talking of the Gulf carriers, news comes this week of Emirates’ latest expansion into the US.  From 1 September it will be operating a daily 777 service between Dubai and Orlando.  Orlando becomes the tenth US city now with Emirates flights.

Echoes of MH 370

It is now one year, one month and two days since the mysterious disappearance of MH 370.  It remains as much a mystery now as it ever has been, and the intense searching has yet to locate anything.

Or, has it?  Here’s an article that ‘reads the tea-leaves’ of the current search actions and wonders if the authorities might be studying an area more closely due to a possible indication of the plane’s presence in that region.  The article also raises an interesting point on how ‘what really happened’ to the plane might be deduced from what is recovered on passenger phones in the wreckage.

On the other hand, some people continue to maintain the plane did not fly south as it is now generally believed to have done.  Here’s an article that repeats some earlier suggestions that the plane was seen by islanders on a tiny island, about 500 miles southwest of the southern tip of India.  That’s a very long way from the theoretical path that most people believe the plane flew.

There is one interesting thing in the article though which gives it further credibility – reference to a detected ‘high energy sound’ (like a plane might make upon crashing) which is thought to have occurred not far from this location in the Maldive Islands.

Amazon Attacks Fake Reviewers

User review sites of all types continue to be plagued with fake reviews – with the problem being part a problem of fake too-positive reviews, but also a problem of vengeful and unfair negative reviews too.

There is an industry, particularly in some third world countries, where people will write fake reviews and earn quite a good living doing so, as a result of payments either direct from the product suppliers, or alternatively via a shadowy network of middle men.  These middle men promise suppliers ‘genuine reviews from credible reviewers’ and their review contractors build up quite lengthy profiles, so it is harder for other visitors and the sites themselves to recognize them as fakes.

The problem extends also to Amazon.  Amazon came up with a clever idea – showing which reviews were from people who actually bought the product directly from Amazon, with the expectation that if someone bought the product from Amazon, they were more likely to be a genuine person rather than a fake reviewer.

But even that has now been circumvented.  However, in a small piece of good news, one of the offending middle men is based in the US, so Amazon has, quite sensibly, filed a lawsuit against them.  We wish them the best of legal good fortune.  Details here.

Autonomous Car Progress Continues to Accelerate

The test Audi has now safely completed its 3400 mile drive from San Francisco to New York.  There were a few – a very few – occasions when the human ‘driver’ took over, and during the course of the drive, the test instrumentation accumulated a stunning 3 terabytes of data which is now being analyzed and used to enhance the self driving capabilities of the car for the future.  A basic version of the system will start appearing in new Audis in about two years.

More details here.

In related news, both Toyota and Nissan have announced new automation capabilities, with some capabilities appearing on models later this year and more enhanced capabilities next year.  Amazingly, the cost of these enhancements is minimal and is available (or included) on even their most basic model cars.

BMW is also bringing out ‘Active Assist’ that goes most of the way to making it close to impossible for its cars to hit other objects.

Perhaps in response to these other innovations, Tesla quietly dropped the price of its automation package from $4250 down to $2500 (a package announced last year, and now for sale, but without the necessary software yet released that allows the hardware to actually do what it is claimed to do!), and also replaced its poorly selling model S60 with a longer range S70 model, at the same price as the former S60.  That still doesn’t make either the S70 or S85 a value/bargain car, and my article on the economics of electric cars, published last week, remains equally valid now.

But it goes partway to answering a mystery – with battery prices dropping about 8% a year at present, and the battery cost representing something like half the total car cost, why is it that Tesla cars haven’t got any ‘better’ in terms of range or less expensive in the three years they’ve been for sale.  Hopefully the upgrade of the S60 to the S70 means the S85 model might soon be replaced with, perhaps, a S100, with a range approaching 350 miles and at no more cost than current S85 models.

Talking about batteries, here’s another of those ‘once every few months’ type articles about the next great breakthrough in rechargeable battery technology.  Like most of the others, this new technology, being developed at Stanford, offers low cost, fast recharge, and the ability to be recharged many thousands of times without losing its capacity.  But, and again like all the others, there are also some problems.  Invariably, it is a new technology on the cusp of being commercialized but not expected to appear in commercial use for a vague number of years to come.  And then, oh yes, there’s another thing, too.  In the case of this latest product, it suffers a lack of energy density.  Current lithium batteries can store up to five times as much electricity per pound of battery.

That’s a big problem that would see an aluminum battery weigh up to almost two tons more than a current lithium-ion battery pack in a Tesla, and while it might be optimized in the future, don’t go expecting any of these new aluminum based batteries in your cars or electronics any time soon.  Details here.

Here’s an article which suggests that all new ‘normal’ cars will be electric by the year 2030.  My guess – it won’t take that long.  We’re already getting close to price parity as between gas powered and electric powered cars.  As I was saying to my daughter on the way to school yesterday morning – she will probably never need to learn to drive and never have to pump gas.

And Lastly This Week….

I love gadgets and particularly travel gadgets that offer new and innovative ways to travel better and lighter.  But I’m not sure you’ll find any of the ten items on this interesting list of crazy travel accessories in my travel bag.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels.






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