Imagineering. Where is travel going?

By the end of this year there may be the first driverless cars on our roads.  Not science fiction, but science fact.  We already have unmanned planes in our skies – drones.  How soon will these be combine to become the 21st century norm?

Imagine a vehicle that you can drive a few miles from home to your local runway.  Log in your destination and relinquish control to the auto pilot, which communicates with all other such vehicles in that area – a bit like being in a race using your games console and others in the room/online.

You sit back and relax as you automatically join the queue for take off.  You’re informed of your arrival time according to auto-route planning.  Maybe you are in a hurry and are willing to pay a premium to queue-jump and route-jump.

Either way the vehicle automatically converts from road to air mode, does fuel and other pre-flight checks and you take off.

Motorway repairs no longer delay you.  The preceding train can’t break down and cause a hold up.   You’re meeting in person, and travel times are probably comparable to current short-haul flights.

You land at the arrival runway – probably dedicated to arrivals – and convert back to road mode for onward travel to your destination.

No luggage to transfer, and no border checks so long as you’re still within the EU/Schengen area.

Could this happen, and happen safely?  The ‘soft’ engineering and political structures are very close.  The hard engineering has a little way to go.  But 100 years ago powered flight was only just starting, and barely 30 years later the world was getting excited as passenger travel took off post WW2.

If this vision appeals to the masses, then technically it could happen, and sooner than you might expect!

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Water for Derby homes and businesses

Last Sunday, 22nd March, one of the largest water mains feeding Derby – a 30 inch main under Mansfield Road by Chester Green burst.  Flooding was dramatic, as pictures from Derby Telegraph show.

The major repairs on Mansfield Road in Little Chester

The major repairs on Mansfield Road in Little Chester.

This is one of the main supplies into Derby, feeding from the Little Eaton water treatment works.  The pipe is old – 30 inch pipes are no longer a standard size which makes getting a replacement section and fittings more difficult.  The repair has been on-going all week, so how has the waater supply network coped?

If water was delivered across Derby through a simple branching nework like a tree and its branches, this would be like chopping through the trunk.  Many people would be left without a water supply.  Luckily this is not the case.  Water pipes form a linked network under the city’s roads, with several supplies from different directions.  The main ones here are from the landmark water tower beyond Mackworth and the more hidden reservoir at Constable Drive, in Littleover as well as from ? in the east and ? in the south of the city.

By closing valves to isolate the broken pipe, and opening others to allow more water to flow from other areas of the network, Severn Trent have been able to keep people across Derby supplied with water – so far.

The next water tanker reversing into position to offload at Constable Drive.

The next water tanker reversing into position to offload at Constable Drive.

The water use from Constable Drive and Mackworth is obviously much higher than usual.  So much so that the supplies feeding these reservoirs are insufficient.  Using their usual routes they can not be filled up as fast as water is wanted.  Severn Trent has therefore been tankering water across Derby, pumping water into these reservoirs to increase the water supply from them.  Even so water supply pressures have been low, as complaint incidents logged on their website indicate – ironically close to the reservoir in Littleover – near the top of the hill!

This morning I phoned Severn Trent as their live updates map doesn’t mention the incident in Chester Green at all.  However, their helpful switchboard team had been briefed, and warned that water supplies in Derby are becoming more critical.  Low pressure is likely to be a problem to more people later today.  But as members of the public we’re not even being asked to help by not wasting water.

The repair Severn Trent hoped to make last night unfortunately failed, but generally their technical teams seem to be managing the situation well.  A major supply incident has made barely a ripple in the lives of most of Derby.

But for me, this is also an opportunity for people to be reminded about how smoothly our basic services like water supply work, day in day out.  It helps us to appreciate what we have, not take it for granted.  If that includes using a little less water for a few days while the repair is completed, we should.  That way no one will be left without an essential supply.

More pictures and background at:

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Trusting in a dog’s eyes and judgement…

I had a delightful reminder of my teenage years this weekend with an encounter with a guide dog and his handler, Andy.

I grew up seeing guide dogs training on the streets of Leamington Spa where I lived as a teenager.  And I was privileged to know one well.  Mumfy was my mother’s friend’s dog.

My mother’s friend, Phyllis, had had guide dogs most of her life.  Blind from the age of three, she had not let her blindness be a disability, living a very full life and now retired she was often out and about with her guide dog.

Talking with Phyllis I realised that her picture of our town, Leamington Spa, was defined by the regular routes she walked.  She could not take ‘short cuts’ from her learned routes, as these were invisible to her.  This revelation inspired a teenage project – building a tactile map of the town which I gave to the Guide Dogs Association to help orientate the many blind people who visited to be trained with their dogs.

Andy explains what Delphi and I will do.

Andy explains what Delphi and I will do.

This weekend, nearly 40 years on, I was reminded of that project by meeting someone who’d used my map when he had first started working for the Guide Dogs for the Blind in his 20s. Andy, accompanied by his outreach dog, Delphi, had a stall in the exhibition area at the Liberal Democrat Conference in Liverpool.

And here it was that I had an opportunity to briefly feel a little of the trust that blind people daily place in their dogs as they are guided safely through the invisible, or near-invisible world around them.

With my blindfold on, Andy was great at helping me understand how blind people experience the world differently.  I became very aware of my feet – my only sure contact with the world around me, though the buzz of chatter told me I was not alone.  Walking, guided by Andy, what worried me most?  My concern was walking into something.  For others it might be tripping, or being left, abandoned.  I remembered how, when guiding Phyllis on the few occasions when she didn’t have her dog, she liked to be left with something by her – a wall, chair or other firm object.

Being led by Delphi through the exhibition.

Being led by Delphi through the exhibition.

And then I was guided by Delphi, the demonstration dog.  Andy gave him responsibility for me by taking him round behind me and into his working position on my left.  I held the handle of his harness gently and off we went, among the crowds in the exhibition.

He judged the space needed for both of us, as a driver knows the space needed for his vehicle when driving.  When the way was not clear, he stopped, waiting for an opportunity to continue on.   My concentration was entirely on the harness handle in my hand, holding it gently, feeling the changing pressure to know when I could safely move on or should stop.  It was actually quite an effort to also listen to Andy who was always nearby.

If I were to lose my sight, I can understand how having such a wonderfully trained dog could open up the world.  The handle in one’s hand, and a flank gently by one’s leg gave such a wider connection with the world than that just through the soles of one’s feet.

Looking confident?

Looking confident?

Leading me was second nature to Delphi and I wish now that I’d asked more about how he was trained; trained to judge those distances, to assess for danger and take evasive action, to be patient and so responsible for his human.

A great experience.  Thank you Andy and Delphi.



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A common solution for renewable energy storage and aviation fuel?

Today I was pleased to discuss a common solution for energy storage in the electricity industry and sustainable fuel for the aviation industry.  I hope that this common interest will speed the research and development to make it reality.

I’ve been concerned for a while that as the percentage of electricity generated from renewables – wind, solar, tidal and so on – increases, it will be more and more important to have good energy storage.  At present UK electricity comes mostly from coal, gas and nuclear.  Gas is most flexible, with generating plant being able to be turned on and off in just a few tens of minutes or sometimes less.  Nuclear is least flexible, with slow variation in power generation being more practical than turning them ‘off’.

There have already been times when the sun has been shining and the wind blowing and together with the base load generation, such as nuclear, there has been more power than the electricity grid needed.  To be fair this problem can arise in just parts of the grid because generation and usage is not evenly balanced, but the result is the same.  Either generation must be stopped – such as by shutting down wind turbines, or power needs to be shed.  Ideally this would mean taking power out for storage but it could just be lost in some other way.

Until we have good power storage systems, we’ll find that it is not worth installing sufficient renewable generating capacity to cover all our needs on calm overcast days because the new extra capacity won’t be needed often enough.  So what is the solution to stop being dependent on coal and gas?

Better energy storage – and more responsive loads.

More responsive loads is a story of its own, and doesn’t related to aviation, so I’m not considering it here.  So storage…

We do some storage now. Dinorwig pump storage system in Wales is one of the most effective and best known.  With two reservoirs, one at the top and one at the bottom of the hill, Dinorwig can quickly generate extra electricity when needed by allowing the water to run down through its turbines – and when there is excess electricity the water can be pumped back up ready to be used again.

We need many more systems that can do this load balancing, and they need to be able to be installed anywhere, not just where there are places with conveniently paired reservoirs.

There are several solutions being explored, including flywheels, heat storage (domestic storage heaters are a simple example of this), batteries and more.  But one I would really like to make progress is combining carbon dioxide and water to form more complex hydrocarbons.

One company which is doing something like this already is Air Fuel Synthesis.  They have a plant in the North East using electricity to make synthetic methanol-based alternatives to petrol and diesel.  If this is used not for burning, but for a chemical feedstock to make long-lasting materials, we could even use this system as a way of extracting carbon dioxide from the air – directly combating climate change.

This sort of process is one of the ways that Sustainable Aviation thinks that air travel can stop being such an environmentally damaging activity.

Alternative sources of fuel for aeroplanes is just one aspect of aviation that this industry lobby group is promoting.  It is also concerned about air pollution, noise and even ground affects of air travel like how people travel to airports.

The recent leaflet from Sustainable Aviation summarising their suggested route to sustainable fuels.

The recent leaflet from Sustainable Aviation summarising their suggested route to sustainable fuels.

At present Sustainable Aviation has identified three alternative sources of aviation fuel coming from biomass, from gasification of waste and forming new fuel in ways similar to that described above.  There are demonstration scale plants somewhere in the world for all of these.

But for me, the most important is the third as this helps do three things. It can take surplus electrical energy and turn it into easily stored chemical energy.  It can extract carbon dioxide from the atmosphere helping neutralise climate change, and it enables aircraft to fly without being dependent on fossil fuels.

The Government is currently recruiting for a new technology and innovation ‘Catapult’ centre specialising in energy systems.  This is one area I hope that it will help take forward and make it a commercial reality soon.  This would enable more renewable generating capacity to be installed and the UK to reduce its imports of coal, oil and gas.  And if we are ahead of the game with research and development we’ll be able to sell the products and technologies across the globe.

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