Science fiction often leans on the most fanciful modern technologies to predict the future, which makes for compelling, if not prophetic storytelling. Let's take a look at five promising technologies with a keen eye on practicality.
Few burgeoning technologies have suffered as great a public stigma as aerial drones, mainly due to their role in military and surveillance operations. The FAA has projected that up to 30,000 domestic drones could be flying over the U.S. by 2020. You’d have to be crazy not to be somewhat alarmed by that figure.
But drones aren't just those soulless, robotic leviathans firing missiles in military operations—they're also consumer-friendly “quadcopters” and prop planes capable of amazing feats. They can dart and weave, pitch and yaw, and with ever-improving onboard computers they can accomplish tasks virtually impossible for humans.
Consider some of the more utilitarian uses of commercial drones: domestic shipping; aid transport; supply delivery; monitoring of oil spills and wildfires; crop dusting and other farming processes; disaster relief; field reporting; construction; cartography; search-and-rescue operations; wildlife observation; film production. Just watch this impressive demonstration to get a feel for how incredible this technology is:
Of course, there are plenty of nefarious possibilities for this technology. Most signs point to a heavily regulated industry, not just for businesses but for private citizens too. The threat of weaponized drones, unwanted surveillance, congested air traffic, collisions—let alone the intrusion of privacy—is simply too great to be left unchecked.
We’ve covered at length the hype surrounding 3D printing and how much of it is overblown. The idea that the home of the future will have its own 3D printer right beside the washing machine is silly, almost to the point of being ridiculous. But this technology could still level the playing field when it comes to manufacturing.
To get a sense of what’s possible, just take a look at some of the things 3D printing has already accomplished: Scientists at North Carolina State University have developed a liquid metal that could be used to print circuit components; NASA has printed and tested a key component for a rocket engine that generated 20,000 pounds of thrust; Chinese researchers have successfully used stem cells to print live kidneys, adding to a list of other body parts that have already been printed, including ears, bones, and prosthetic skulls.
You should notice, however, that none of the above products has any sort of domestic significance. The possibilities for “home” 3D printers are narrow enough to be negligible, especially considering the time-consuming, resource-intensive nature of physically printing knick-knacks. The real potential is in science and engineering, where 3D printing may unveil new, cheaper methods for manufacturing. Imagine how much NASA could reduce its costs if it could print some of the spacecraft components it needs.
BMW, Audi, Nissan, Toyota, and GM have all vowed to have driverless vehicles on the road by 2020. Google's driverless vehicles have already clocked hundreds of thousands of miles. While still dependent on the ancient internal combustion engine, driverless car technology is advancing quickly. That’s because the necessary elements—spatial coordination, motion detection, sensory response—are all reasonably achievable with today’s cameras, lasers, and computers. They're even street-legal in California.
There are worries about the slow progression of electrification in autos. According to Pike Research, roads worldwide will carry more than 1.8 million plug-in electric vehicles (PEVs) by 2020—impressive, but a tiny fraction of the 107 million total vehicles expected to be sold that same year, according to Goldman Sachs Japan. While brands like Tesla, GE, and Nissan are helping to bring PEVs to the mainstream, the tipping point necessary to make them more economically feasible than gas engines is still a ways away.
However, the process could be expedited by network and automation technology. In a blog post for The Energy Collective, John DeCicco, wrote earlier this year, “the same design freedoms opened up by connectivity will enable engineers to develop far more efficient combustion-based cars, using less material along with compact gasoline and diesel engines and plug-free hybrid drive for energy-efficiency gains across the board.”
“Horsepower can then go the way of the horse,” he continued, “and vehicles can be better matched to their everyday missions, which are as mundane as they are essential.”
OLED (Flexible) Displays
The benefits of organic light-emitting diodes as a display technology are clear to anyone with a set of eyes. Unlike LCDs (liquid crystal displays), which scatter light locally, OLEDs emit light from individual cells behind each display pixel. When there’s no signal to a given diode, it emits nothing, so it's totally black. Contrast is incredibly punchy, and colors are strikingly vibrant.
But the real potential of OLED is less obvious. The coolest part? OLED sheets are thin enough to be flexible, allowing for displays that are bendable, scrollable, foldable, and wearable.
Samsung and LG are some of the big investors in OLED, with the former pledging to provide OLEDs for the forthcoming Google Glass augmented reality (AR) glasses. Already, the two Korean electronics giants have released curved OLED TVs, and Samsung has unveiled prototype OLED phones and tablets featuring curved screens and bendable designs.
The downside is that OLED is extremely expensive to produce. Companies are investing heavily in research for developing more cost-effective manufacturing methods, but progress has been slow. That said, there’s no reason to suspect that within ten years OLED won’t be mainstream. When it is, expect to see tablets that can be rolled up or folded into a pocket-sized device; self-dimming windows that double as displays; compact light sources with adjustable brightness; interactive measurement devices; and, of course, really impressive TVs.
High-Density, Long-Lasting Batteries
The hunt for a battery to replace the standard lithium-ion power cell has been unfolding for decades, but only recently picked up steam.
Lithium-ion definitely needs to be retired—the energy density and charge time of these cells are just not sufficient to handle the growing demands of 21st century technology, including many of the developments listed above. For example, one of the biggest obstacles facing the burgeoning plug-in electric vehicle market is its reliance on lithium-ion technology, which currently limits charges to a distance of about 250 miles. That may not seem outrageously inferior to the average gasoline-powered car. But when it takes several hours to charge (as opposed to just a few minutes to gas up) you begin to see how impractical such a device would be for long-distance use.
Some researchers have turned to lithium-air batteries—a concept that’s been around for decades, thanks to the truly massive theoretical energy potential. However, because Li-air devices react with ambient oxygen, which is flammable, most implementations have thus far proven unstable. Another option is liquid metal, which has an enormous energy density. However, the size of these devices makes them better fit for grid-scale power supply, rather than vehicles and compact electronics.
Perhaps the most exciting possibility is not a battery at all, but rather a capacitor, more accurately a supercapacitor. Capacitors can charge and discharge extremely quickly—like, instantly—but their insufficient energy capacity makes them impractical for use as long-lasting power cells.
So, what if you could make a capacitor that charges and discharges just like a normal capacitor, but it's capable of storing lots of energy over a prolonged period? Well, that’s exactly what some researchers are hoping graphene supercapacitors will accomplish. If successful, these devices could charge an electric car battery—or for that matter, any battery—instantly.
While those in the know say a commercial graphene supercapacitor is still perhaps a decade away, most experts agree that, regardless of which battery technology triumphs, it will be smaller, cheaper, longer-lasting, and faster-charging than any existing lithium-ion device.