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10 Emerging Technologies

Of the numerous technologies now in gestation at companies and universities, we have chosen 10 that we think will make particularly big splashes. They range from bacterial factories to silicon photonics to quantum wires and any one of them could change your world.


Airborne Networks

Quantum Wires

Silicon Photonics

Metabolomics

Magnetic-Resonance Force Microscopy

Universal Memory

Bacterial Factories

Enviromatics

Cell-Phone Viruses

Biomechatronics

Of the numerous technologies now in gestation at companies and universities, we have chosen 10 that we think will make particularly big splashes. They're raw, but they'll transform the Internet, computing, medicine, energy, nanotechnology, and more.

Airborne Networks
AVIATION An Internet in the sky could let planes fly safely without ground controllers. By David Talbot

Of the numerous technologies now in gestation at companies and universities, we have chosen 10 that we think will make particularly big splashes. They're raw, but they'll transform the Internet, computing, medicine, energy, nanotechnology, and more.

The technology that underpins the air traffic control system hasn't changed much in a half-century. Planes still depend on elaborate ground-based radar systems, plus thousands of people who watch blips on screens and issue verbal instructions, for takeoffs, landings, and course changes. The system is expensive, hard to scale up, and prone to delays when storms strike.

An entirely different approach is possible. Each plane could continually transmit its identity, precise location, speed, and heading to other planes in the sky via an airborne network. Software would then take over, coördinating the system by issuing instructions to pilots on how to stay separated, optimize routes, avoid bad weather, and execute precise landings in poor visibility.

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In the near term, such technology could save travelers time and might reduce fuel consumption. Long term, it could revolutionize air travel by enabling more planes to fill the sky without the addition of infrastructure and staff. Vastly greater numbers of small planes could zip in and out of thousands of small airfields (there are 5,400 in the U.S. alone), even those with no radar at all. "The biggest holdback to the number of airplanes that can be in the sky is that air traffic controllers are separating aircraft by hand," says Sally Johnson, an aerospace engineer at NASA's Langley Research Center. "Until you get away from that paradigm, we are at the limits of what you can do."

As a practical matter, airborne networks that rely on software and cockpit computers rather than humans to issue instructions are still decades away. But in June, NASA plans to demonstrate a prototype of such an automated system at a small airport in Danville, VA. A computer at a ground station near the airport will receive data from multiple planes and give the pilots their initial holding fixes, then tell them what planes they're following and where to go if they miss their approaches. In the planes, cockpit displays will show pilots where the other planes are, and a computer will give them instructions that guide their trajectories.

Future systems might go further: planes would communicate not just via a computer on the ground (or via satellite) but directly with each other, relaying information from other planes in an Internet-like fashion. This radical advance in airborne networking could come from research funded by the Pentagon -- the midwife of today's terrestrial Internet. The vision is that not only navigational data but information about targets, real-time intelligence, and bombing results would flow freely among manned and unmanned military planes, to vehicles on the ground, and up and down chains of command. "There is a terrestrial backbone of hardwired connections, and there will be a space backbone between satellites. What we are talking about adding, for aircraft, is an equivalent third backbone in the sky," says Dave Kenyon, division chief of the Technical Architectures Division at the U.S. Air Force Electronic Systems Center in Bedford, MA.

The U.S. Air Force is beginning to define the architecture of an airborne network and hopes to begin actively developing and testing the network itself between 2008 and 2012, Kenyon says. Taken together, the military research and the related air traffic control research into airborne communications networks could change how we travel in the decades to come.

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