Thinking Out Loud

Man, by virtue of evolution, is programmed to learn by swapping tales around the campfire. Welcome to my fire.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Shoot Me To Chicago - Evolution Of Air Travel?

As a variation on rail gun technology, perhaps its time to change how airliners begin their flights. Perhaps its time to "shoot" them into their cruising altitude.

Fuel costs are putting airlines on the brink of failure. Rising costs, passed onto the flying public, leave airlines with but two advantages over other transportation. One is safety, for air travel remains the safest mode of travel when measured in passenger miles. The other is speed, an advantage that increases with the distance of any particular trip.

Safety is put at risk by airline attempts to reduce fuel consumption and overall costs. For an airline, this is a risky business decision. For passengers, it could be deadly.

Speed is put at risk with reduced flights and fuller aircraft. The time advantage of air travel is not simply a flight time question. For passengers, travel time begins when they head to the airport and ends when they arrive at a destination. Wait times created by fewer flights and higher congestion at terminals reduce the speed advantage of flying, especially on shorter trips.

Fuel consumption per mile is greatest from takeoff to cruising altitude. This again makes the shorter trips those with the highest cost to airlines. It seems that this is the area with the greatest potential for innovation.

Adapting current commercial aircraft to use a rail gun for take offs might be a viable approach. The rail guns would occupy a portion of the runways, perhaps one of the edges. The rail guns would provide the initial thrust required to place the aircraft at cruising altitude. The cruise segment and landing segments would remain under powered flight.

This adaption would be a logical extension of the catapult launch used on aircraft carriers. Having both a larger potential length and an electric versus steam drive, the rail gun should be viable for this purpose.

Of course, this is only a first generation approach that retains the existing airline fleet.

A second generation approach might take a glider approach for the cruise segment of the trip. We already have an example of this with the Space Shuttle, now about to be retired. Despite the two catastrophes, the program has worked well as a glider once it was in the atmosphere.

A third generation approach might be hybrid between air and ground transportation. Imagine a transportation network using ballistic technology. A rail gun launches the passenger shell, aimed at a very specific target. That target is a destination rail. The kinetic energy of the shell is converted back into electricity, serving as brake. The passenger shell, slowed down to a safe ground transportation speed, then rides a rail system to final points within a city.

Alternatively, the shell enters another stage of rail gun launch to shoot over another segment as air travel. It continues to be shot in a series of hops as it crosses a countryside to its final destination.

The dare devils doing motorcycle jumps have demonstrated that the landing is possible even without a vehicle designed for such activity. The accuracy of long range ballistics have demonstrated the computations required for to hit a specific target. Combining vehicle design and computer and network management makes this concept well within current technical capabilities.

All three generations provide certain advantages. First, the amount of fuel consumed is reduced. Second, the noise pollution associated with commercial flight is reduced. Third, the amount of land required for transportation needs either remains static or is reduced versus other long haul transportation technology in use today. Fourth, second and third generation approaches might be optimized for trip speed. Fifth, second and third generation approaches would open up "air" traffic to more locations serving smaller communities and even specific end destinations.

After business in Chicago, shoot me to Circus Circus in Las Vegas to celebrate a successful trip!

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