Infrastructure Renaissance

Capitalistic Democracy and Return On Investment (ROI)

The US now consumes over 20% of the world’s energy while carrying only 5% of the global population. Tempering these statistics with the fact that America generates over 20% of the gross international product does little to hide the obvious and appalling inefficiency in our use of resources. Clearly, American infrastructure cannot be adopted universally.

In fairness to ourselves, it’s important to understand that the foundation for US economic development was laid at a time when concepts such as global warming and “tipping points” were not even in the minds of fiction writers. And so capitalism, democracy and short-term return-on-investment policies championed the day for well over fifty years.

The convenience of automotive transportation was wildly endorsed while the true cost to society was cloaked in subsidies and avoidance of responsible life-cycle accounting. While climate change began to catch the eye of the average Joe a few years ago, it was only the recent collapse of the housing market that sounded the air raid sirens. In its wake are thousands of huge houses built to minimum building codes going into foreclosure. It is not inconceivable that many of these homes will remain empty indefinitely, a legacy to a bygone era of profligate consumption.

Alternative Infrastructure

The widespread attraction of the type of community described above is easy to characterize; large, relatively economical homes with good curb appeal, judicious use of cul-de-sacs, nearby parks and small yards that are easy to maintain. Some communities are built out with multi-family dwellings that appear similar to individual houses, which adds improved energy utilization to the list of features. And of course that longtime symbol of status and freedom, the automobile, can be seen in just about everyone’s driveway.

Let us now recast these communities in a way that maximizes comfort, convenience and security of the residents while minimizing their average carbon footprint. In a throwback to the pre-auto era when towns were built along railroads, we envision pioneering communities based on telerobotic and self-configuring technologies being constructed near rail lines using X-TRACS. Installing ultra-light rail directly above existing rail lines (and elevated alongside existing streets for the route connecting the community to the rail line) will provide bi-directional automated transport of materials to each and every space within the conceptual communities. The transfer of objects between vehicles and buildings, as one of many wide-ranging and economical services available to occupants, will be available through the use of mobile telerobots.

Passenger vehicles will be able to ride the rail network in addition to being driven on streets, a consequence of hard-surfaced flanges incorporated into their wheel design. All vehicles using the rail network will conform to a strict aerodynamic form factor to ensure slipstreaming occurs during platooning (literal bumper-to-bumper driving) at speeds up to 150 mph. Vehicles authorized and capable of using the transportation system are likely to be similar in design to General Motors “skateboard” concept wherein all drive components are carried in a very low profile chassis. This will allow for passenger cabins or freight pods to be swapped on and off each chassis as needed.

Funded and maintained as part of each community, fleets of vehicles will be security monitored, routinely power-washed and available for use as needed using a credit card or biometrics such as fingerprint scanning. The vehicles, composed largely of composite materials, will be functionally optimized to maximize their economic life cycle and will incorporate advanced self-diagnostics that will be queried for maintenance status by the rail system before access is granted.

ROI (Return-on-Investment) and Subsidies

Society would benefit if home delivery of groceries via truck were to displace the millions of individual shopping trips made by car each week. Some of the obstacles that have kept this from happening are subjectivity in the quality of produce, the need to coordinate reception of deliveries and, obviously, home delivery costs being higher than doing it yourself. Flexible, bidirectional mass transport of materials, critical to the ultimate efficiency of societal infrastructure, also suffers from an inverse relation of product selection to final, delivered cost.

In other words, it’s one thing to go back to the days of the milkman and quite another to deliver dozens of combinations of shampoo brand and container size to individual homes. This issue can be at least partly dealt with by installing centralized dispensing stations at key locations in the communities. Reusable bulk product containers will be off-loaded from the delivery vehicle and tapped by telerobots to fill individual or family-size containers according to a master schedule.

This regimen will keep the transport vehicles moving while minimizing the amount of product kept at each residence (for industrial processes this is similar to reducing “work-in-process” and warehoused inventory which ties up capital). Methods can also be developed for vehicles to drop off or pick up packages without slowing down.

Before concluding this section with thoughts on why and how alternative infrastructure might need subsidization let’s briefly consider a few return-on-investment highlights intrinsically associated with high-efficiency community living.

Telerobots will be used to manufacture, assemble and maintain all aspects of self-configuring infrastructure. ‘Bots used to finish out living and work spaces and to serve inhabitants will come in both wheeled and overhead trolley flavors. Floor-based telerobots will offer versatile mobility and serve unstructured and outdoor spaces while trolleyed units will be the workhorses, capable of moving heavy loads and retracting upward out of pedestrian traffic to move at high speed between work locations.

Shared and privately-owned telerobots will be used extensively as mobile video-based telecommunication portals. With the added manipulation capability the benefits to using telerobots for security, entertainment, education, domestic work, home and institutional health care and industrial applications are nearly limitless.

Energy Efficiency
Multi-dwelling structures share walls thereby requiring less energy to heat and cool compared to standalone buildings. The construction technology known as insulated concrete forms (ICFs) can be coupled with the concept of post-tensioning to create super strong beams and super-insulated draft-free stressed-skin panels. Innovative fastening and gasketing methods exist to enable repurposing these construction elements with only minor energy investment as compared to convention cycles of demolition and rebuilding used today.

The prevalence of cost-effective telerobotic services will make possible a number of innovative energy conserving capabilities:

  • Automatic placement of insulated panels over exterior windows at night or in unoccupied spaces.
  • Heating and cooling dampers may be individually set according to room occupancy without needing individual actuators, control units and communication systems.
  • Use of battery operated appliances and fixtures serviced autonomously could eliminate much in-wall wiring, one benefit being reduced interruptions in the insulation of exterior walls.

Source Reduction
As mentioned earlier, the combination of telerobots and the automated transportation network paves the way for materials and products to move from manufacturing to user sites in reusable containers. Recycling will be largely eliminated and such services as telerobotically-enabled install, uninstall and reallocation of subcomponents of home electronics and appliances will become widely available. Pragmatic composting systems may finally be discreetly integrated within our homes. Sharing of items ranging from art to clothing will become common and we should also see much greater use of hand-me-downs once it’s as convenient to donate to Good Will as it is to donate to landfill.

Telerobots will gain skills that could eventually obsolete dishwashers, washing machines and dryers eliminating the carbon footprint associated with the manufacture of these major appliances. Community stores of tools could easily be distributed and tracked, providing homeowners with further savings due to source reduction.

It would not be long before fast food franchises will find a way to make their menu offerings deliverable through reusable containers. Higher end restaurants will likely follow, possibly delivering covered plates, silverware and even the candles. In fact, new opportunities to establish restaurants without dining facilities will emerge. In the extreme case of culinary innovation, it is possible that chefs will operate telerobotically at special events and, one day perhaps not too far off, market their recipes for internet download and robotic replication.

Flexible Spaces
Improved utilization of indoor and outdoor spaces represents a significant benefit of telerobotic self-configuring communities. Residential spaces feel much larger with higher ceilings. Most homes in the $400,000 and up range are now built with 9-foot ceilings, at least on the first floor. Taller spaces and trolleyed telerobots are a natural fit as the machines will easily be able to access high-mounted cabinets and storage areas. While the interior décor of such telerobotically-enabled spaces needs to be shaken out it stands to reason that a net reduction in floorspace will appeal to some percentage of homeowners (less cost to purchase, reduced utility expenses, easier cleaning, etc.).

With interior wiring being taken out of most or all of the walls as discussed earlier, the use of movable walls might become more widely used. And for residents opting to use telerobotic services, entire floorplans might be automatically configured to suit different times of the day. The ‘bot might flip up the Murphy bed, compress the bedroom wall and fold-out the compact breakfast nook while you are taking a shower. Similarly, several walls might be moved and furniture shuffled to create a space suitable for the impromptu dinner party—all while you’re on your way home from work.

Outdoor spaces will also gain flexibility in self-configuring communities. Within the by-laws of a given community, it will be possible to economically add temporary or permanent square footage to a residence. Adding floors may be done by jacking up a roof structure and filling in below or by erecting a tension structure (i.e. a tent) and reworking the structure underneath. Tension structures will also be routinely used in conjunction with temporary floors built over yards or communal green spaces for special events such as wedding receptions.

Self-configuring communities will incorporate dynamic disaster preparedness and recovery capabilities. As outlined above, window infill panels used for energy conservation can be designed to withstand forces far beyond that of windows. They’ll be robotically emplaced in a fraction of the time that it takes to “board up” using a hammer. The spacing of structural members in floor, walls and ceilings may be varied to accommodate regionally-specific risks such as earthquakes. Entire communities will be able to be quickly evacuated yet retain unprecedented protection against vandalism, trespassing and theft through remote surveillance and security force interventions. The use of telerobotics will enable communities to share routine and emergency hospital and first-responder resources.

During the pioneering phase of self-configuring communities substantial subsidies will be required. Investing in this type of infrastructure will create construction jobs that are, interestingly, not based on manual labor. By and large, self-configuring systems will fabricate, transport and erect structures autonomously. While the premise is that the elevated ultra-light rails will be built over existing roads and rail lines (which will minimize difficulties in placing foundation pads) there will be an ongoing need for human participation. In the early phases of implementation there will be a high percentage of tasks needing remote human attention. Over time, teleoperation will give way to autonomy resulting in workers being retrained and reallocated to other aspects of developing telerobotically-enabled communities. A vast majority of this work will be able to be performed by anyone of average mechanical aptitude.

While subsidies are unavoidable in the beginning, life cycle accounting will begin to show a net gain in societal efficiency and economic growth as the communities proliferate. A few examples include:

  • Railroads run through cities; rail operators may elect to perpetually lease their rights-of-way to developers at highly competitive rates. Construction of medium-rise (6–8 stories) residences, shops, hotels and even manufacturing facilities directly above or adjacent to existing stations and stops will provide additional ridership, allowing for a reduction in railroad subsidies. Of course, the construction techniques for these facilities will need to accommodate the noise and vibration of the trains based on proximity.
  • As self-configuring communities increase in numbers there will be a correlating reduction in traffic and associated wear and tear on existing streets and highways. The maintenance of the elevated light-rail will be highly automated while repairs and expansion will be performed without interrupting traffic flow.
  • As telerobotic systems evolve there will be an exponential increase in the number of complex tasks performed autonomously. Increasingly it will be financially possible for manufacturing jobs sent offshore to return to American soil. There will be many classes of products that can be produced literally anywhere within the self-configuring infrastructure. Residential and industrial zones will intermingle reducing the need to transport people, raw materials and finished goods.

Tapping the Resources of Space

Within the next couple decades commercial methods for manufacturing solar cells in space are likely to be developed and refined. It is within the realm of engineering to consider large-scale mining of silicon on the moon and converting it into photovoltaic panels. While NASA and others have explored this concept over the past 25 years or so, the plans usually include beaming the sun’s energy captured by extremely large arrays of solar cells to Earth using microwaves. If the cost of photovoltaic cells produced in space, however, turns out to be a small fraction of those produced terrestrially there may be a better option.

An alternative plan might be to deliver completed photovoltaic panels to Earth using relatively simple atmospheric reentry vehicles. Installing the panels as an awning system over X-TRACS rail lines would provide a geographically-distributed power generating system capable of feeding power directly to transportation rails, residential areas and commercial spaces. Batteries carried by the electric vehicles using the rail transportation network could be used to deliver power to less trafficked areas, the net effect being to reduce the double-digit percentage of energy lost during long-distance transmission of electricity.