What if airplanes never flew again? Five innovations that would flourish


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This week the UK airspace was closed for six days due to the Eyjafjallajökull volcano. That may not seem like much. However, it disrupted many lives and business trips (including one of mine) and led to excited caller to BBC Radio to declare, “I saw a plane today!” when the airspace re-opened. This led me to ask, “What would happen if airplanes could never fly again?”

A lot of economists have already sounded off on how this would affect trade. This is very a short-term view. As “necessity is the mother of invention,” I would prefer to focus on how this would affect innovation. Five technology areas stand out:

1. Death of paper for business transactions

For two decades we have been talking about moving from paper to electronic records for management of everything from official documents and records to electronic signatures to collection of drug discovery data. However, paper is still everywhere. (A solicitor recently told me that computers are increasing use of paper, as UK law requires a paper copy of all legal documents.)

Without airplanes the concept of “next-day mail” would be gone. We would no longer be able to “FedEx” contracts back and forth to each other for signature (something often done for everything from employment to business contracts). This would force people to make a decision: either slow down business or move to electronic records. Money would drive the shift to use of electronic paper (laws would follow the money incentive).

However, it would not be the same way we do it today: scan a PDF and email it. We would get real, easy-to-use electronic records management with legally binding biometric signatures. This would not be expensive technology, it would be a service that your local post office, UPS, FedEx and DHL would provide (to compensate for their loss of “next-day mail” revenue). Companies like Amazon would also likely accelerate Kindle and competing technologies (for people who just cannot wait for that book).

2. Move to commodity telepresence

Without airplanes we really would no longer be able to fly to meetings, conferences and collaborative work sessions. We would have two choices: co-located with everyone with whom we work or actually use remote collaboration technology. Our world is too global to go back to co-location.

However, today’s collaboration technology is too far from a real face-to-face experience to let us stop travelling. There is new telepresence technology; however, it is too expensive for everyday use.

This need would drive something that looks like the virtual reality units you see on TV, but acts more like telepresence. You would put on glasses, a microphone and ear bugs and plug them into your computer to virtually attend conferences, meetings, etc. You would use your mouse to point to things to change (imagine lots of mouse pointers on a screen as once). You would also have the same visual quality that you have in person. Finally, all of this would be available for a small monthly fee.

3. Telemedicine would become routine

Today if you get sick or injured and need a specialist to operate on you, you get on an airplane and visit his or her offices. Without airplanes, this would no longer be possible. The answer would be telemedicine.

This IS different from telepresence in many ways. You would still go to your local doctor’s office. However, you would be diagnosed remotely, perhaps by a distributed team of specialists. You would then go to your local hospital, where the team would operate on you by robotically operated equipment. Transactionally, the process would be the same (whereas in commodity telepresence the transactions would change). What would be different is removal of the travel.

This innovation would benefit those most who cannot travel easily today, such as soldiers on battlefields and people living in remote and rural locations. These benefits would be so profound that one would almost wish we were forced to innovate them sooner.

4. Development of high-temperature superconductors

Virtual placeholders for travel and shipping can meet many needs (and make us Greener). However, sometimes we will need to get places far away. Often we will want to do this without taking a long “road trip” or ocean cruise. We will need high-speed rail and boat transit.

To get true high-speed rail we will need magnetic-levitated (MAGLEV) rail technology. For high-speed sea travel (I am visualising a high-speed submarine—it may sound odd, but it is all driven by Navier-Stokes equations) you would need magneto-hydro-dynamic (MHD) drive technology. Both of these would be much more powerful and cost-effective if we had high-temperature superconductors.

The loss of air travel would likely create a large enough economic incentive to pursue high-speed rail and sea travel. This in turn, would fund research hand development into magnetism, leading to break-through in high-temperate superconductivity.

Commercialisation of space travel

High-speed rail and sea travel will work for the general public. However it will still not be fast enough for special circumstances required by heads of state, the military and even billionaire chief executives. They will want to fly places.

This will require commercialisation in threes areas space travel: lower cost propulsion, re-usable vehicles that feel more like airplanes, and the ability to land these without “splashing down” in the ocean. We are already seeing forays in this area; look at Spaceship One and Virgin Galactic. This is technology that operates like a plane, but does not breathe air (and would not be affected by volcanic ash).

Loss of airplanes would lead to an explosion in this market, driving much competition. Perhaps we would see something like the scene from Kubrick’s 2001, when Dr. Floyd takes a commercial flight to the Moon (although it would not be on Eastern).

However, airplanes are flying again (all of my colleagues will be back in the office next week). Hopefully we will still find a way to make these innovations happen. Each of them would make the world a more interesting place.

Author’s Note: I currently lead commercialisation and operations for Cmed Technology, a company that provides cloud-based electronic data management solutions to aid drug discovery. I have previously worked with many of these technologies in past work at Amgen, AOL, Lockheed Martin and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Jim Haughwout
Jim Haughwout (pronounced "how-it") is passionate about creating technology that improves how people live and work. He is the Chief Technology Architect at Savi Technology and a General Partner at Oulixeus Consulting. His work has been featured by Network World, ZDNet, Social Media Today, the IBM Press, CIO Magazine, Fast Company, GigaOm and more.


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