Planes, trains, automobiles and — autonomous passenger drones? When it comes to new travel technologies, the past 20 years have brought us a fascinating list of innovations that are constantly changing how we live and move through the world. From increasingly secure border crossings to real-time language tools and breakthroughs in space travel, here are five of the most recent inventions that will further enhance our mobility and fuel deeper exploration:
Breaking down language barriers
Communication is one of the most powerful ways to connect with people around the world, but language barriers can be frustrating. In recent years, tech giants like Microsoft and Google have set out to improve real-time translation with neural machine translation (NMT). While early machine translations spit out awkward and sometimes nonsensical results, NMT provides far more accurate interpretations. A type of natural language processing, NMT uses artificial neural networks (modeled after the human brain) to understand context, meaning and relationships, and then predict the most likely sequence of words. NMT is most accurate for text translations, but it’s quickly becoming a helpful, reliable tool for real-time conversations across different languages.
Swift and secure border crossings
Over the past two decades, biometric technology has vastly improved the border-crossing experience for travelers. Using unique physiological identifiers (such as fingerprints, iris scans and facial recognition), governments, airports and airlines can now seamlessly and accurately verify travelers’ identities in just seconds. Dubai International Airport, for instance, has introduced contactless Smart Gates, which use facial and iris recognition to allow visa-on-arrival passengers to check-in, clear immigration and board their flights – all without presenting a passport or boarding pass. Not only do such automated gates provide a better travel experience, but they also ensure better security by verifying travelers’ identities.
Paving the way for wireless in-road charging
Electric vehicle (EV) technology has evolved by leaps and bounds in the past few decades. Still, slow-charging batteries and a shortage of charging stations in some places have hindered widespread adoption. Wireless in-road charging, which gradually powers EVs as they move along a route, could be an elegant solution. Essentially, coils embedded in roads generate an electromagnetic field while a receiver pad under the car transfers power to the battery. In Europe, countries like Norway, Germany, Italy and Sweden are currently piloting the technology, and if successful, it could catalyze global adoption.
Launching the next generation of reusable rockets
Imagine this scenario: Every time an airline operates a route, it must purchase a new aircraft. At the end of the flight, the airline discards the plane instead of reusing it. That may sound wasteful, costly and unnecessary, yet it’s exactly what happens after each space mission. When launching satellites and shuttles into orbit, the aeronautics industry has long deployed single-use rockets that eventually end up at the bottom of the ocean.
Flying reusable rockets could save aerospace companies millions, as well as democratize access to space, improve research, enhance earth imaging capabilities, and lead to the mind-blowing potential of space tourism. In 2017, SpaceX successfully launched a reused Falcon 9 rocket booster, marking a significant milestone for the industry. In addition, French satellite launch company Arianespace has been developing a reusable rocket called “Adeline”, which it hopes to launch in 2025.
Passenger drones prepare for takeoff
From discovering avalanche survivors to delivering urgent supplies during a flood, drones – or crewless aerial vehicles – have already changed our approach to disaster relief. And now, they could also change the way people move and travel. Passenger drones, also known as “vertical takeoff and landing” (VTOL) vehicles, can carry one to five people at a time and operate without a runway. Looking down the pipeline, they could replace taxis and provide a more affordable alternative to private jets. The wheels are already in motion: Several companies have tested VTOL concepts, including EHang’s autonomous quadcopter passenger drone, which aspires to usher in a new era of urban air mobility.