Airborne urban mobility

Pop.Up_copyright Italdesign 2

At the Airbus PhD workshop that I attended a couple of weeks ago [see my post entitled Making Engineering Work for Society on September 13th 2017], Axel Flaig, Head of Airbus Research and Technology, gave us an excellent opening presentation describing their vision for the future.  Besides their vision for the next generation of passenger aircraft with reductions in CO2, NOx and noise emissions of 75%, 90% and 65% respectively against 2000 levels by 2050, they are also looking at urban air mobility.  We have 55 megacities [cities with a population of more than 10 million] and it is expected that this will increase to 93 by 2035 [see my post entitled ‘Hurrying Feet in Crowded Camps’ on August 16th, 2017].  These megacities are characterized by congestion and time-wasted moving around them; so, Airbus is working on designs for intra-city transport that takes us off the roads and into the air.  Perhaps the most exciting is the electric Pop.up concept that is being developed with Italdesign.  But, Airbus are beyond concepts: they have a demonstrator single-seater, self-pilot vehicle, the Vahana that will fly in 2017 and a multi-passenger demonstrator scheduled to fly in 2018.

Soon, we will have to look left, right and up before we cross the road, or maybe nobody will walk anywhere – though that would be bad news for creative thinking [see my post on ‘Gone Walking’ on 19th April 2017], amongst other things!


Image from http://www.airbus.com/newsroom/press-releases/en/2017/03/ITALDESIGN-AND-AIRBUS-UNVEIL-POPUP.html where there is also a video.


Hurrying feet in crowded camps

Five years ago I wrote about the potential ‘Population Crunch‘ [September 15th, 2012] that could lead to a large increase in the size and number of cities – perhaps upto 1500 new cities emerging over the next few decades as the global population rises from 7.6 billion to 9.8 billion by 2050 [see UN revised report, 2017].  It is a significant challenge to provide an acceptable quality of life to the citizens of these new cities as well as existing ones.  People have been concerned about the density of population in cities and its impact on individuals for more than a century.  In 1910, W.H. Hudson in ‘A Shepherd’s Life’ [Penguin Books, 1910] wrote, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, about London: ‘Some over-populated planet in our system discovered a way to relieve itself by discharging its superfluous millions on our globe – a pale people with hurrying feet and eager, restless minds, who live apart in monstrous, crowded camps, like wood ants that go not out to forage for themselves’  Nothing seems to have changed!

Engineers sustain society

Tim Butterfield receiving his prize from Incorporation of Hammermen Deacon Professor David Harrison

Tim Butterfield receiving his prize from Incorporation of Hammermen Deacon Professor David Harrison

A few weeks ago I wrote about tag-lines for promoting engineering [see post entitled ‘Life takes engineering‘ on April 22nd, 2015]. A young undergraduate student, Tim Butterfield from the University of Sheffield has produced possibly the best one that I have come across: ‘Engineers sustain society’ in his outstanding video made to complement his awarding winning essay on the subject ‘Can engineers make a beneficial contribution to society?’ It won first prize at the 20th Anniversary Student Awards of the UK Engineering Professors’ Council last month.

Prince Philip wrote on almost the same subject earlier this year in the New Scientist. He said that ‘engineering has made a greater positive difference to human life than almost any other human endeavour’.  I don’t think that’s an exaggeration but then I am biased. So, ‘engineers sustain society’ is a good paraphrase.

Now watch Tim’s short video.

Sounds of the city

cornerRegular readers of this blog will know that I spent a relaxing day painting railings a few weeks ago [see post entitled ‘Engineering archaeology‘ on July 23rd, 2014].  A day or so later, I went out with my pail of whitewash to paint the walls of the light-well that the railings protect.  ‘The summer world was bright and fresh, and brimming with life’ but unlike Tom Sawyer I was not looking for Jim to do my white-washing for me.  I was looking forward to another therapeutic session painting the walls at the front of our house.  It was an interesting standing in the light-well facing the wall, un-noticed by most passers-by.  We live on a city street close to tourist attractions and there is a constant stream of coaches and taxis stopping to drop-off and pick-up tourists. I have written about the noise insulation in our house before [see Noise Transfer on April 13th, 2013] which means that we don’t notice the constant growl of diesel engines outside but I did while I was painting.  However, there were other sounds in the city.  The voices of pedestrians  deep in conversation as they passed by on the pavement just above my head.  I recognised Chinese, French, Italian and English but there were many different languages that I didn’t recognise.  There were young children asking parents questions as they walked down the street.  For a while I could hear cathedral bells.  When there was a pause in the traffic then it was possible to hear the cooing of pigeons, a neighbour’s radio or television and an ever-present idling diesel engine which I discovered was an ice-cream van dispensing a constant trickle of black soot and an occasional ice-cream.  It is curious that as a society we tolerant high levels of noise pollution at tourist attractions, especially ones that are meant to be places of calm and contemplation. Most tourists are, almost by definition, on holiday seeking relaxation and a lowering of stress levels – how much more pleasant would it be to glide to your destination in a silent electric coach or taxi?

We have the technology to provide such a service [see Are electric cars back? on May 28th, 2014]. Yes, it requires some investment by tour operators and taxi firms in hybrid or electric vehicles and by the city council in re-charging facilities. Induction charging stations at tourist attractions would allow vehicles to recharge while dropping off and picking up passengers. The technology is available and has been used by buses in Genoa and Turin for more than a decade.  So a little bit a regulatory pressure and investment from city councils acting together could create a calmer, quieter and cleaner environment for everyone.

Can we look forward to solar-powered ice-cream vans?

Sources: Thank you to Richard for reminding me about Tom Sawyer.

Year of Air: 2013

I mentioned some time ago (Noise Transfer on 3rd April, 2013) that we are privileged to have magnificent views of the river and hills beyond from our city centre house.  From the back bedroom window you can just about see the sea and we are certainly aware of it in most days due to the almost constant sea breeze (or gale).  So despite living in a city centre we are not amongst the 95 percent of EU city dwellers who are exposed to fine particles levels that exceed WHO guidelines.  However, the EU levels are well below those in Beijing that are 300 times the guidelines and probably comparable to those in London during the Great Smog of 1952 that caused cows to choke to death and contributed to the death of about 3000 people.  London has come a long way in the intervening 60 years with current levels of fine particles at about half the WHO guideline, which is 25 micrograms per cubic metre, whereas Beijing has recorded levels of 400. it has been estimated that 13,000 people die prematurely in the UK due to combustion related pollution compared to 1.2 million in China

In my post entitled ‘Extraordinary Technical Intelligence’ on 10th April, 2013 I wrote about the process of urbanisation and industrialisation that has been seen repeatedly across the world.  The progress of this process in a region can also be measured in the levels and type of pollution being generated.  The West has been where China is now, and where India and Africa are likely to go next.  Air pollution on this scale effects the neighbours of the polluter so we have an incentive to help alleviate the problem.  We should also feel a moral obligation because much of the pollution is associated with factories producing goods that we buy and probably don’t repair or recycle at the end their useful life [see ‘Old is Beautiful’ posted on May 1st, 2013] .  If we drew the system boundaries more appropriately then the pollution generated during the manufacture of these goods is as much our responsibility as the manufacturer’s [see my post on 19th December, 2012 about ‘Drawing Boundaries’].

This is the Year of Air, maybe it should have been called the Year of Clean Air to make it absolutely clear what it is all about, i.e. giving everyone on the planet the chance to live and breathe clean air!

BTW, a fine particle is one of diameter less than 2.5 microns or 1/30th diameter of one of your hairs.  One my PhD students is working on tracking nano-particles about a hundred times smaller as they interact with biological structures such as human cells, but that’s another story [see last week’s post].


‘Under a Cloud’ by Pilita Clark in the Financial Times, July 13/14, 2013 [ http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/83ef4b78-eae5-11e2-9fcc-00144feabdc0.html#axzz2cgRhFXMs ].

Yim SHL and Barrett SRH. Public Health Impacts of Combustion Emissions in the United Kingdom. Environmental Science and Technology, 2012, 46 (8), pp 4291–4296.

‘Air Pollution Linked to 1.2 Million Premature Deaths in China’ by Edward Wong in the New York Times on April 1, 2013 http://www.nytimes.com/2013/04/02/world/asia/air-pollution-linked-to-1-2-million-deaths-in-china.html?_r=0

Silva, R.A., et al., 2013, Global premature mortality due to anthropogenic outdoor air pollution and the contribution of past climate change, Environmental Research Letters, 8:034005. http://iopscience.iop.org/1748-9326/8/3/034005/pdf/1748-9326_8_3_034005.pdf