Sometimes I can't help but feel like I'm witnessing the real-world arrival of The Jetsons, a science fiction cartoon I watched with an embarrassing amount of regularity as a kid.
In my lifetime, huge leaps forward have been made with computers, robots, the Internet, smartphones, digital cameras, tablets, MP3 players, electric cars, monorails, renewable energy sources, and other Space Age-type products that seemed light years away when I was young. Now, there's yet another high-tech wonder to swoon over: the Personal Rapid Transit (PRT) system.
Talk of this has been around for some time, but it's leaving the fantasy realm this summer and becoming a tangible transportation mode at, of all places, England's Heathrow Airport. ULTra PRT of Bristol, England, recently opened and will operate the world's first commercial PRT at the busy airport. Twenty-two futuristic-looking electric autopilot pods — with room for four people and their luggage — will shuttle 800 passengers a day back and forth from parking lots to the British Airways Terminal 5, according to reports and airport information.
The pods measure 3.7 meters long, 1.47 meters wide, and 1.8 meters tall. They can reach a maximum speed of 40 kilometers per hour (25mph). Here are photos and videos of the vehicle, along with some more specs from ULTra:
- ULTra vehicles use a laser sensor system to guide the vehicles on the guideway and in the stations.
- Vehicles are in constant wireless communication with the control centre but can navigate fully autonomously if communications is disrupted.
- Vehicles are charged via electrical contacts at station berths or at offline waiting points. Power is currently stored in lead-acid batteries, which allow for rapid charging (up to 150 amps) and are easily recyclable.
- The vehicles are designed to be upgradable to future energy-storage technologies such as hydrogen fuel cells, ultracapacitors, flywheels, and different battery chemistries.
They're not likely to replace (nor have they been designed to replace) cars, trains, buses, monorails, or other road infrastructure anytime soon. However, similar projects are on the drawing board, with a fair number of them being planned within a stone's throw of Silicon Valley. According to ULTra, planners are reviewing PRT systems in several California locations, including Alameda, Cupertino, Mountain View, San Jose, and Santa Cruz. There are also reviews taking place in North Carolina, New York, Oregon, Virginia, and Alberta. In many cases, the plans would use the vehicles to link transportation hubs, parking lots, university campuses, and key commercial or downtown centers.
What does this mean for high-tech engineers and supply chain managers? The future is now, and the future of urban planning and transportation alternatives will bring with it a need for any number of electronic components and high-tech planning and management expertise. Surely, too, OEM competition will increase if and when PRT becomes a familiar household phrase (like Rosie the Robot or video phones), and qualified suppliers could make or break any of these initiatives.
Tell me if and how you've been involved in any of these futuristic-style projects, either with up-and-coming transportation systems or other urban sci-fi proposals, and how supply chain expertise has been or will be valuable.