All posts by Kate Malczewski

Dawn of sky highways: The maglev-powered future of city travel


A network of maglev-powered pods running on a monorail-like system is being touted as the future of city travel. We ask what this could mean for public transportation.

A new high-speed network of two-passenger vehicles called skyTran is positioning itself as the next generation of public transportation, and with its Jetsons-like design, it is easy to see why. The network of vehicles magnetically levitates beneath horizontal tracks in the sky; a design that can only be described as futuristic.

skyTran, which has been developing its system in partnership with NASA, promises low costs, little-to-no environmental impact and no waiting or crowding during commutes. These benefits sound great, but how are they possible?


The vehicles on the elevated skyTran tracks move through magnetic levitation (maglev) propulsion, which releases little-to-no pollution into the surrounding environment. A minimal amount of outside power is needed to kickstart the vehicles into motion, which can be provided by sustainable sources such as solar power.

Both the tracks and vehicles of skyTran are made from inexpensive aluminium with a streamlined design that is easy to mass-produce.

skyTran creators say that the low cost of construction will pay for itself with the high volume of passengers it will receive.


Urban travel freedom

Once a skyTran network is constructed, it will allow passengers to travel quickly and efficiently. Order a vehicle on your smartphone or laptop, meet it at the station of your choice and go straight to your destination without stopping for other passengers to get on and off.

“Imagine going from JFK to Midtown Manhattan in five minutes. During rush hour! And now imagine doing that in your own private vehicle—a vehicle so quiet you’ll have to look out the window to realize you are in motion,” skyTran Chairman and CEO Jerry Sanders wrote in an update on the technology.


Though most cars fit one or two people, skyTran’s computer-controlled system means that cars can be programmed to stay together so that large families or groups of friends can travel all at once without worrying about getting separated.

Likewise, you can order two vehicles if you need a place to put your bags after a day of shopping or if you are carrying luggage.


The future of city travel?

In June, skyTran announced that the company Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) in Lod, Israel will be the first community to use the skyTran system. Once it is built, people on IAI’s corporate campus will be able to travel on the network and give feedback so that skyTran can refine their system before commercial tracks are built in Tel Aviv and other locations throughout the world.

skyTran is an exciting development in public transportation, but it will not be easy to change the tide from bus, train and underground systems.


skyTran could end up as a common means of travel for the wealthy, similar to calling a taxi to take you directly to your destination, depending on the cost per ride.

However, if fare is relatively cheap, skyTran could become the primary means of travel not just within your city, but across states and countries, as well.

 Images courtesy of skyTran.

Space Pizza and Robotic Gardens: Producing food in orbit


When we think of space food in the future, perhaps we will imagine a freshly baked pizza topped with vegetables grown on a spaceship replacing the powders and tubes of paste that astronauts consumed in the past.

New advancements in food technology could make zero gravity grub as healthy and delicious as any Earth-cooked meal, thanks to initiatives such as NASA’s Advanced Food Technology Program, which explores how 3D printing could be used to prepare fresh meals for astronauts.

All food for long-term deep space explorations must be pre-packaged and have a shelf life of 15 years or more, as refrigeration and freezing are not available. In addition, meals must be quick and easy to prepare since astronauts will rarely have time to cook.

3D printed food could meet all these requirements. The method dehydrates nutrient-filled ingredients into long-lasting powders that are mixed by a 3D printer with water or oil to rehydrate, and then cooked by the machine for a wholesome meal.

NASA has partnered with Texas-based Systems and Materials Research Consultancy to make 3D printed space food a reality – and they are already seeing results.

The company has developed a 3D printer that assembles a pizza layer by layer, baking and heating it as it goes along, for a meal that is ready in minutes. While the machine prototype needs further development before it is tested in space, it has the potential to greatly improve astronauts’ meals, as well as to deliver 3D printed foods to us here on Earth.


The space veg patch

NASA’s other food technology project involves fresh ingredients – so fresh that they are harvested aboard the spacecraft.

The agency has asked university students to come up with solutions for growing edible plants in space, and a team from the University of Colorado Boulder has proposed a promising plan for robotic gardening.

Their project, titled Plants Anywhere: Plants Growing in Free Habitat Spaces, places plants in small hydroponic growth chambers, called SmartPots, which use computers and sensors to keep track of each plant’s development. These SmartPots communicate the conditions of their plants to a remotely operated gardening rover (ROGR), which moves around the cabin responding to the system’s commands for water or other needs.

The ROGR robots can also harvest the fruit and vegetables. If an astronaut wants to make a salad, for instance, the growing system determines the plant with the best, ripest vegetables and tells the robot to collect them.

Solutions for Earth and Mars

Beyond growing food for long space journeys, the robotic gardening project could offer insight into how we would grow food for a colony on other planets, such as Mars, since the hydroponic chambers would allow plants to flourish in treacherous environments.

Astronauts need to eat nutrient-filled meals to sustain their energy and brainpower on arduous missions. If such a meal also delivers the flavours and textures of home comforts such as cooked-to-order pizza or a perfectly fresh salad, it will no doubt also boost their morale and emotional well-being on long space missions.

It seems that NASA’s space food research is making that happen with methods that have exciting implications for everyone back on Earth, too – whether we are 3D printing our breakfast or planning a visit to a colony on Mars.

Images courtesy of NASA.