editorial opinion

Tech revolutions and implications for
transportation and society

Where will all these trends and developments lead us?


MIT's 180-pax "double-bubble" D8 is among the designs presented in Apr 2010 for NASA's Fundamental Aeronautics Program, which invited studies into advanced commercial aircraft that could enter service in the 2030–35 timeframe.

• Tele-everything means far less physical travel.
• With telemanufacturing, etc, there will be much less freight tonnage. We are developing ways to use substitute materials. Also, distributed energy generation will increase, including perhaps via low-energy nuclear reactions (LENR).
• Development of an all-electron/photon triply-redundant ATC/nav/automatic ops system will enable auto­nomous UAS to operate in controlled airspace and a new $1-trillion-a-year market in personal air vehicles—ie, UASs carrying pax.
• Use of robotic delivery vehicles on land, at sea and in the air.
• Use of physical testing, including wind tunnel testing, will be greatly reduced.
• Performance of transportation vehicles will be greatly improved by means of mod-sim.

Beyond the current IT/bio/nano age lies the virtual age, which is rapidly becoming a reality. And it should be noted that these developments are all playing out in the context of 2 other major human-engendered societal changes.

The debt situation is dire and is expected to result in major increases in taxes, inflation rates and interest rates. These in turn will accelerate ongoing reductions in standards of living (SOL), which had grown inflated due to debt over recent decades. Perhaps the next bubble to burst is the SOL bubble. Obviously, the unemployment situation is also contributing to a decline in SOL.

Then there is the crashing ecosystem—and not just climate change. With the current human population and the way we are currently living, we are short 40% (or more) of a planet, and the ecosystem is crashing due to human pressures.

As Asians in their billions increase their SOL to Western standards—which they are doing on the order of 9% annual growth—we will be short around 3 planets and be forced to decrease our SOL to what Earth's ecosystem can support.

This, of course, is classic Malthusian theory, which we have staved off via technology improvements until recently. Population control, ecosystem-engendered SOL reductions and a shift in econometrics from growth to sustainability may all be required.

There are several technologies that could mitigate or delay some of the impacts on the ecosystem—such as growing food and biomass/biofuels on wastelands using seawater irrigation and the massive potential capacity of halophytes ("salt plants").

But this is tactical rather than long-term strategic thinking. Overall, SOL will continue to decline going forward due to ecosystem strictures, debt issues and employment changes. It is not clear whether society will exhibit the requisite foresight and courage to address these many issues successfully.

Dennis Bushnell is chief scientist at the NASA Langley Research Center, where he is responsible for technical oversight and advanced program formulation. His major technical expertise includes flow physics and control, drag reduction and advanced configuration aeronautics. Bushnell is a fellow of AIAA, ASME and the Royal Aeronautical Society and a member of the National Academy of Engineering.


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