Autonomous Planes

automated plane

A prototype drawing of what one of these automated planes would look like.

If aviation is to break out of its niche and become a ubiquitous mode of transport, then autonomous technology in the air and on the ground is necessary.  Whether it’s easy-to-fly personal airplanes, air taxis or single-pilot commuter transports, aviation needs to go beyond automation in order to ensure wider public use of aircraft.  Aviation enthusiasts look ahead to the day that air transport is “democratized”, where a mix of personal, air-taxi and other “thin-haul” air vehicles provide “on-demand” mobility for communities over distances of 50-500 miles.  However, he acknowledges that there are technological, regulatory and societal challenges to this vision, such as airspace control, usability, safety, noise and enabling robust daily operations in all weathers.

One example is the Hopper electric vertical-takeoff-and-landing (VTOL) regional public transport concept that Stanford University and NASA developed.  The baseline vehicle is a 30-passenger tandem-rotor helicopter with battery-electric, fuel-cell or hybrid-electric propulsion.  The Hopper is designed for extreme short-haul flights as an alternative to road and rail transport in congested areas.  Electric propulsion is heavier, but energy usage is much lower than for turboshaft-powered aircraft.  Stanford has conducted simulations of Hopper operations in the San Francisco Bay, where the population density and geography combine to make difficult commutes.  The simulations have looked at network operations carrying up to 30,000 passengers every day, which would mean hundreds of Hopper vehicles making thousands of flights between dozens of vertiports connected to road and rail links.  With three major airports in the area, this would inevitably raise airspace management issues.

Simulations reveal that dynamic flightpath routing based on the time of day could help reduce potential conflicts with the background air traffic and limit controller workload by avoiding heavily-used airspace.  However, enabling a Hopper-style public transport network would require a high level of automation, both on the ground and in the air.  The vehicle would be single-pilot, with later potential for fully autonomous operation.  Vertiport operation, including charging/changing batteries, would be automated.  Flying and VTOL are energy-intensive transportation modes for relatively short distances, yet still represent a potential way to bypass the congestion that comes with urban surface-transportation.  Near-term battery technology could make such short-range vehicles feasible within 10 years if airspace and infrastructure challenges can be overcome.

The wealthier of the Bay Area’s tech industry commuters are the main target for Joby Aviation’s S2 electric VTOL two-seater.  The design, set to be available within a few years, has 12 electrically driven propellers on the wing and tail that tilt for VTOL and fold in cruise to provide efficiency, redundancy and reduced noise.  Point-to-point, it’s five times faster than a car and twice as fast as a Robinson R22 two-seat helicopter, and uses five times less energy than a car and 10 times less than a helicopter.  On-demand aviation could also be effective in Los Angeles, where around 233,000 commuters travel 200 miles or more every day to and from work.  The best place to start, however, would be to apply autonomy and electric propulsion to general aviation to improve safety, reduce noise and overcome shortcomings in efficiency, emissions, ride quality, robustness and operating costs.

Attacks in Kenya

Members of al Shabaab ride in a pick-up truck outside Somalia's capital Mogadishu

Members of al-Shabaab riding in a pickup truck in Somalia.

Earlier this week, at least 18 people have been killed in new attacks in Kenya’s coastal county of Lamu, the same area where 60 were massacred last month.  A spokesman for Somalia’s al-Qaeda-linked al-Shabaab rebels claims responsibility for the attack.  According to the Red Cross, nine people died and one was missing around Gamba, and four people were killed in Hindi, located near Lamu island.  The attacks occurred late on Saturday night.  Police say that unidentified gunmen torched several houses and attacked the Gamba police station, freeing a suspect held in connection with the previous month’s attacks.

An AFP reporter in Hindi says that all of the dead were men, apart from a teenage boy who was shot as he tried to run away.  The attackers left messages scribbled in Swahili and broken English on a blackboard taken from a school.  One such message read, “You invade Muslim country and you want to stay in peace”.  Local Elizabeth Opindo said that she spoke to the attackers, who set fire to her home but left her alive, claiming that they did not kill women.  There were about 10 attackers, who spoke a mix of English, Swahili and Somali, all common languages in Kenya.  They claimed to be attacking because the lands of Muslims were being taken.  In a statement issued hours after the violence.

Al-Shabaab’s military spokesman, Abdulaziz Abu Musab, says that the attackers were able to safely return to their base, having just killed 10 people.  They also claimed responsibility for last month’s attack at Mpeketoni, which they insisted was in retaliation for Kenya’s military presence in Somalia as part of the African Union force supporting the country’s fragile and internationally-backed government.  Survivors of the Mpeketoni massacre and a similar attack the next night nearby reported that gunmen speaking Somali and carrying al-Shabaab flags killed non-Muslims and said that their actions were revenge for Kenya’s presence in Somalia.  While Kenya’s President, Uhuru Kenyatta, denied al-Shabaab’s involvement in the attacks, it seems interesting that the attacks were focused on Mpeketoni, since the town is a mainly Christian settlement in the mostly Muslim coastal region.

The Police have arrested alleged separatists from the Mombasa Republican Council, which campaigns for independence of Kenya’s coastal region, as well as the governor of Lamu county, who is an opposition politician.  This unrest has hurt Kenya’s tourism industry, which is a key foreign currency earner and a massive employer for the country, since this is typically one of the busiest times of the year for tourism.  Lamu Island itself is a well-known tourist destination, and its ancient architecture is listed as a Unesco World Heritage site.

Violence in Ukraine Escalates


Militants operating in Donetsk

While there had been plenty of drama in Ukraine earlier in the year, it looked like things had died down.  While there had been conflicts between the Ukrainian Army and pro-Russian rebels, they were somewhat farcical; angry civilians blocked army tanks, and rebels were constantly capturing army units.  The two sides declared a ceasefire, and the conflict’s intensity seemed to abate.  Last week, however, the Ukrainian government discontinued its ceasefire with the rebels, and marched into the east.  Now, it seems like the Ukrainian army is finally earning itself some victories.

This past weekend on Saturday, Ukraine retook Slovyansk and Kramatorsk, which had been under the control of pro-Russian rebels for weeks.  The next day, the Ukrainian army took control of Druzhkova and Artyomovsk.  They seem to be closing in on the strategic cities of Lugansk and Donestk, which remain under rebel control.  According to Ukrainian officials, their forces are encircling Donetsk, the capital of a self-declared pro-Russian republic, ahead of what could be a major turning point in the crisis.  The looming confrontation has been religiously chronicled on social media, which gives viewers an up-close and personal view of the military buildup.  YouTube is filled with videos of rockets and tanks.  As the Ukrainian Army continues its advance on Donetsk, rebels are working to stall the army’s advancement.  On Sunday, three of the bridges on the way into Donetsk were blown up.  Eyewitness reports describe men dressed in camouflage, frequently associated with the pro-Russian rebels, leaving the scene after a bridge explosion in an outlying village.

A video posted on Sunday shows Dymytro Yaros, the leader of the right-wing Ukrainian nationalist group Right Sector, giving a pep talk to members of his group.  After the fighting in the east began, many Right Sector members joined the Ukrainian National Guard, which has in turn supported the Ukrainian army in its offensive.  However, it’s not clear if Right Sector was actually that all important to the recent Ukrainian successes.  In the video, Yarosh speaks with a group of armed men with Right Sector patches sewn onto their uniforms.  He discusses the lack of ammunition that he and his team were given, and adds that they will be used as a reconnaissance force in the upcoming operation.  The Ukrainian army is also fighting rebels in Lugansk, and the Russian news agency ITAR-TASS reported that rebels from the self-proclaimed “Lugansk People’s Republic” are currently exchanging fire with Ukrainian forces outside the city.

Rick Perry Confronts Obama

City and State to Issue Proclamations to Texas Motor SpeedwayIn a bold move, Texas Governor Rick Perry has declined an official White House offer to greet President Obama when he lands at Austin’s airport tomorrow.  Perry, who has been an open critic of Obama’s policy for handling the US-Mexico border, wrote to the President asking for a more “substantive meeting”.  In the letter, Perry claims that a “quick handshake” on the tarmac of Austin’s airport won’t allow for a meaningful discussion about the crisis occurring on the US-Mexico border.  Rather, he would like to have a sit-down with the President while he’s in Texas for a two-day trip to attend Democratic fundraisers in Dallas and Austin.  Yesterday, White House press secretary Josh Earnest downplayed criticism that Obama would be raising money instead of visiting the border, claiming that the President isn’t worried about the “optics” of the trip.

White House senior adviser Valerie Jarrett apparently responded to Perry’s letter, inviting the Governor to a roundtable discussion on the border issue with local officials and faith leaders.  Back in 2012, Perry attempted to run for President, although he never got very far in the primaries.  However, there’s been talk of him giving it another run in the upcoming 2016 Presidential Election.  In the buildup to this, Perry has criticised the Obama Administration due to the recent influx of children trying to enter the US illegally along the border.  On Sunday, Perry claimed that Obama isn’t “personally invested” in solving the issue, accusing him of not caring whether or not America’s southern border is secure.  White House press secretary Josh Earnest says that the Governor is simply “playing politics”, and that he should rather work to support significant immigration reform.  While the Democratic and Republican parties disagree on how immigration should be handled, both sides agree that it needs to be reformed dramatically.  Even if Obama and the Democrats probably disagree on how it should be reformed, it seems obvious that they would benefit from a discussion with Rick Perry, the Governor of a state that sees so much illegal immigration.

Celebrating D-Day

Beaches of Normandy

The quiet and scenic beaches of Normandy, which some 70 years earlier were the site of one of the most important battles of World War II.

Tomorrow is an historic day, as it marks the 70th anniversary of the D-Day invasion, when the US-led Allied forces stormed the beaches of Normandy.  This was the start of an invasion that helped bring down Nazi Germany.  While you might have heard about it from older family members, in history class, “Saving Private Ryan” or “Band of Brothers”, but it takes a good visual prompt so you can begin to understand what happened on that fateful day.  I recently came across an article that discusses some ways for Americans can celebrate and honor this important and historic day, where so many American soldiers fought and died to protect the free world.

In France, the Basse-Normandie Region will be hosting an official 70th anniversary series of events and ceremonies, which include such activities as parachute drops, a walk that retraces the steps of soldiers, fireworks displays, a screening of the Tom Brokaw-narrated IMAX film “D-Day Normandy 1944”, wreath-laying ceremonies and a sound and light show.  Over the course of the year, hundreds of other events shall be occurring throughout Basse-Normandie.  If you would like to visit the area with a guide, plenty of companies are offering D-Day tours throughout the year.  You can choose an historic tour, or maybe something like a hiking or biking trip to see the beaches and countryside of Normandy.

Stephen Ambrose, who wrote “Band of Brothers” and founded the National D-Day Museum, started his own tour company that offers trips to all of the places he wrote about.  In September, history buffs can partake in Ambrose’s personally-designed “D-Day to the Rhine” tour, based on thorough research and hundreds of interviews with World War II veterans, while accompanied by a war veteran.  Historic Hotels of America has partnered with National Trust Tours for a series of tours, such as a September D-Day tour.  Led by a World War II historian, you’ll be taken to the less-visited landmarks associated with the invasion, such as the house where Eisenhower decided to carry out the invasion, Churchill’s Cabinet war rooms and a chateau where the BBC broadcast its reports.

Various different travel companies, such as Ciclismo Classico, Discover France and Wilderness Travel all offer fantastic options for those who want to get in a little workout while learning about the history of the area.  On Ciclismo Classico’s Normandy bike tour and Discover France’s “Brittany to Normandy” bike tour, you can pedal through the beautiful hills and coast of the Norman countryside.  Both tours also include stops at key D-Day sites and memorials, and offer plenty of delicious French food.  Wilderness Travel does hiking tours of Normandy and Brittany, pairing you with an historian as you walk the high cliffs of Normandy, which are still pockmarked with shell holes and German bunkers.  Travelers spend a day exploring historic areas, such as the rows of crosses and clifftop lawns at the American cemetery at Colleville-Sur-Mer.  While D-Day is the primary focus of this tour, it also focuses on food and the general region of the history, which dates back some 6,000 years.

However, these aren’t the only options.  You can also see the region by boat with Tauck through two different river cruises, “Rendezvous on the Seine” and “Cruising the Seine Plus Versailles, Paris & London”.  Both cruises will visit the D-Day beaches in Normandy and the American Cemetery and Memorial at Colleville-sur-Mer, as well as stops in other French hotspots as Paris, Rouen and Giverny.  Other special D-Day Normandy tours throughout the year include “Memorials of War: Normandy & Paris” and “World War I and World War II Battlefields”.  Les Manoirs Hotel in Tourgéville, located near the Normandy beaches, has a special package for two.  The quaint, 57-room hotel offers three nights accommodations, two dinners at its on-site 1899 restaurant, a private tour guide of the D-Day beaches and American war cemetery, admission to the D-Day museum and two spa treatments.

If a trip to France is out of your budget, that’s totally fine, since there are endless ways to celebrate in America.  At the Warbird Air Museum at the Valiant Air Command in Titusville, FL, you can climb on board and fly on the “TiCo Belle”, which was not only at the D-Day invasion, but also participated in other historic events, such as the Berlin Airlift.  Flights are available on the third Saturday of every month.  The National D-Day Memorial in Bedford, VA is hosting a series of events tomorrow, such as a wreath-laying ceremony by D-Day units, a parade, a USO Show, a parachute jump and a flyover by a P-51 and C-47.  At the Tennessee Aquarium IMAX 3D in Chattanooga, you can see the “D-Day Normandy 1944” movie, in addition to military displays and rare artifacts used during the invasion.  Over 25 different IMAX theaters, ranging from Maine to Washington State, will also be screening the movie.

The Success of VistaJets


The luxurious inside of a VistaJet.

Warren Buffett once quipped that, considering how unprofitable commercial airlines have proven,  investors in aviation should have shot Orville Wright at Kitty Hawk in the early 1900s.  However, there might be somebody who can prove this famous quip wrong.  Thomas Flohr, owner of the company VistaJet, is not a mass consumer airline by any stretch of the imagination, with prices starting at around $9,500 for just an hour of flight time.  However, VistaJet has been able to make profits in each of the ten years since it first opened, a notable achievement in such a highly volatile industry.  VistaJet claims that it’s the world’s fastest growing private aviation company in a market that includes NetJets, Buffett’s own private jets investment.  Last year, VistaJet placed what they claim is the biggest order in business aviation history: a $7.8 billion agreement with Bombardier for 56 aircraft options of a further 86.  VistaJet currently employs 500 people.  Headquartered in Zurich, it has bases in London, Frankfurt, Beijing, Moscow, Lagos, Dublin, Hong Kong, Malta and New York.  Altogether, it has 42 planes, all painted silver with a red stripe.  The company doesn’t issue detailed turnover or profits figures, but he says that turnover increased 27 percent just last year, after VistaJet flew 27,000 passengers on 11,000 flights to 137 countries.

Flohr first entered the private airline business due to frustration due to lack of an available product that was simple and physically available on a consistent basis.  He didn’t feel that whatever was available in the marketplace was worth the price.  Flohr had used private jets in the past, and saw the business opportunity that they offered.  While you could be in three different cities in one day, Flohr was frustrated that he never knew what he was paying for until he arrived at the airport.  He tried to join the fractional aircraft trend, but never received a satisfactory answer on what the share in a plane would be worth at the end of the agreement.  While you were paying $30,000 for a flight, you were drinking cheap coffee out of a styrofoam cup, or getting cheese platters on plastic trays.  So, at the end of 2003, he purchased his first plane and started hiring it out when he wasn’t using it.  Soon, a second plane followed.  After hiring some analysts, Flohr learned that it was a non-industrialized industry, with no consistent product or simple business model.

Against the logic of the industry, Flohr decided that his planes wouldn’t have a home base.  Instead, they’re maintained at 40 Bombardier service centers around the world.  Pilots who fly VistaJet are required to take commercial flights back, as all VistaJet flights are one-way.  A lot of people were surprised by this choice, thinking that he didn’t understand how the industry worked.  But Flohr kept asking questions, and wanted to disrupt and ultimately change the industry.  In many ways, Flohr had excellent timing; globalization was starting, and emerging markets were demonstrating growth.  The company expanded rapidly, and every airplane Flohr took delivery of was immediately fully booked.  VistaJet had extremely simple contracts, and the product that he offered was consistent on a global basis.  Five years after its founding, VistaJet purchased the Skyjet International fractional ownership business of Bombardier, which allowed it to cover all global markets, with the exception of the US.  After the arrival of the financial crisis, Flohr reduced prices and deferred delivery of some of the planes.  Despite this hiccup, VistaJet still grew revenues by 16pc in 2009.  What was key about the success of VistaJet was that it was  in an emerging market that continued to grow.  Nobody else in the business was in an emerging markets, and a lot of the smaller charter operations disappeared.

Nigerian Schoolgirls

Boko Haram

A group of Boko Haram members, their faces hidden behind camouflage.

Since a group of over 300 Nigerian Christian schoolgirls were captured by the militant Islamic group Boko Haram, the whole world has been watching to see what happens next.  A recent video released by the group shows more than 100 of these schoolgirls, all dressed in traditional Islamic garb, praying to Allah, as well as the group’s leader, Abubakar Shekau.  The leader is apparently in negotiations with the government, and claims that he will hold the girls until imprisoned militants are freed.

Three of the girls in the group are seen speaking in the video; all of them claim that they are now Muslim.  In the video, Shekau claimed that he has “liberated” the girls, and that they converted to Islam, although the nature of this conversion remains debatable.  The majority of the abducted girls are believed to be Christians, although there are a few Muslims among them.  The video was received today by the Associated Press, and came through channels that have previously provided messages from Shekau.  It’s the first sighting of these girls since they were taken nearly a month ago from their school in Northern Nigeria.  Even though more than 50 of the girls escaped their captors and are now safe, the fate of 276 others remains unknown.

The search for the schoolgirls has centered on the Sambisa forest.  Nigerian troops are aided by American, British and French advisers, while Chad, Cameroon and Niger are contributing satellite imagery.  Over the weekend, Israel offered to assist in the search.  The Nigerian government has apparently made “indirect contact” with the terrorists; Nigeria has refused to pay for the girls’ release, believing that the sale of human beings is a “crime against humanity”.  People from around the world have been critical of Nigeria’s handling of the situation; according to Amnesty International, Nigerian security forces were aware that a group of Boko Haram fighters were approaching the school a few hours before the kidnapping occurred, but nonetheless did nothing.

Boko Haram, whose name roughly equates to “Western education is forbidden”, has killed some 1,500 people in Nigeria so far this year.  They have been waging an insurgency across Nigeria for the past five years.  The search for the girls was made difficult thanks to the lack of information on the girls’ whereabouts; there is speculation that they have been split into four groups, and some are believed to have been taken across Nigeria’s border.  In an effort to stop searchers from finding the girls, militants have probably laid booby traps and land mines.  In the past week, two bridges that cross Nigeria’s borders with Chad and Cameroon have been destroyed as well.

Most Expensive Countries to Visit

The tourist visa can be a real problem for a travel and aviation enthusiast like myself.  Luckily, a lot of countries don’t require a tourist visa from American citizens, but there are still quite a few that do.  These can range between $15 in Vietnam to $275 in Nigeria.  I recently came across an article that talks about the world’s most expensive tourist visas for Americans.  These are just the cost for American tourists, and often times they don’t include other costs such as the additional “reciprocity fee”, which is especially common in South American countries.  I thought I would include pictures of and snippets about some of these countries, since while it’s horrible that they charge so much to get in, they still are beautiful places with so much to offer.

Atacama Desert

The Atacama Desert of Chile.

For an American to enter Chile, they have to pay $160 for a visa.  This does not include the reciprocity fee.  A tiny country on the southwestern coast of South America, it’s very easy to overlook its existence.  Nonetheless, this mountain nation has plenty to offer.  The Andes of Chile are home to some of the largest volcanoes in the world, many of which are still active.  It is also home to the driest region in the world, the Atacama Desert.  The longest dry spell in recorded history occurred here, when it didn’t rain for 40 years.

Paraguay was first founded by Spanish Jesuit missionaries as a Jesuit mission state.  Duelling is still legal in Paraguay, on condition that both duellers are registered blood donors and that there is still a medical staff on hand.  The country is also home to many natural wonders, such as the 275+ individual cascades within the Iguacu Falls, which are twice the width of Niagara Falls and even taller as well.  However, to visit this South American Country, a visa for an American costs $160.


Peterhof Palace, the former home of the Russian Tsars.

When I traveled to Russia, I remember the visa form I had to fill out, that asked me such bizarre questions as “have you ever been involved in a terrorist organization?” and “do you have any special skills (such as bomb making)?”.  In addition, a tourist visa to travel to Russia currently costs $173.  But in my opinion, it’s worth it.  Russia, despite its grim reputation and heightened tensions with the US in recent years, is home to amazing art and architecture, particularly in St. Petersburg.

Mokele Mbembe

An artist’s renditioning of the Mokele Mbembe.

The vast rainforests and swamps of the Democratic Republic of the Congo make one feel like they’re entering the Age of Dinosaurs.  Indeed, remote Congolese tribes have spoken to explorers about mythical creatures that match the description of well-known dinosaurs; the most famous of these is the Mokele Mbembe, a cryptid whose description matches that of a brontosaurus.  While many have dismissed reports of such creatures as myths, considering the vast expanse of unexplored jungle, it’s totally plausible that these living dinosaurs still exist, yet have yet to be discovered.  Unfortunately, if you’re up for a bit of dinosaur exploration, it’s going to cost you; visas for The Democratic Republic of the Congo costs $200, and the area is known to be particularly unsafe for foreigners.

When it comes to tourism, Nigeria is a developing country, so the $275 tourist visa doesn’t seem worth the price.  However, the country’s stellar rainforests make it well worth it.  There are 8 national parks in the country, which feature animals such as elephants, lions, waterbucks, buffalos, hippopotami, baboons, monkeys and birds.  Nigeria is also home to the behemoth Abuja National Mosque, and the Institute of African Studies in Ibadan, which holds remarkable prehistoric bronze carvings and statues.  Ibadan also houses the first skyscraper in Africa, the Cocoa House, which gives viewers a panoramic view of the Ibadan skyline.

Buenos Aires

The multicolored houses of Buenos Aires.

Buenos Aires, the capital of Argentina, is hailed as the “Paris of Latin America”, and for good reason; the historic city is known throughout the world for its beauty, culture, exciting nightlife and delicious (and cheap) steaks.  The city is a popular place for college students to study abroad.  While the visa fee to enter isn’t terribly high, it’s the $160 reciprocity fee that gets you.