Expert Blog

From roads to the stars: where tech companies are going next

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In our previous post, we described how a number of tech companies have entered the automotive industry and begun to develop the technology that will allow cars to drive themselves. But the ambitions of entrepreneurs, such as Google’s Larry Page and Tesla’s Elon Musk, don’t end there.

Page – inventor of the ‘PageRank’ algorithm that made Google the dominant internet search engine, and CEO of Google’s parent company Alphabet – is now trying to make flying cars a reality. He’s invested in Silicon Valley start-up Kitty Hawk, named for the town in North Carolina where Orville and Wilbur Wright made their famous first flight. In April, the firm released a video showing off its first creation: the Kitty Hawk Flyer.

The Flyer doesn’t much resemble a car, but it can take off vertically and fly over water, and is powered entirely by electricity. It weighs 100kg, has eight propellers and can carry one person. Kitty Hawk says the Flyer will go on sale by the end of the year, and claims that someone can learn to fly one ‘in minutes’.

Kitty Hawk will face competition from some of its Californian neighbours, though. The very next day after the video of the Flyer appeared online, Uber announced its own plans to develop flying cars. It will work with aviation companies, including Bell Helicopter, to develop a fleet of flying electric taxis, with the hopes of demonstrating them in 2020 before offering their services to customers in 2023. Where we’re going, we really might not need roads.

Tesla CEO Elon Musk has set his sights even higher. In 2002, even before Tesla was born, Musk founded SpaceX, a private aerospace company that aims to make space flight commercially viable and transport humans to Mars.

In 2008, SpaceX’s Falcon 1 rocket became the first private liquid-fuel rocket to reach Earth orbit. The firm has since sent eleven unmanned missions to resupply the International Space Station. Crucially, it has also successfully developed the first orbital rocket to be reused for multiple launches. In March, a Falcon 9 completed its second launch after being recovered from a previous mission the last year.

SpaceX’s next target? The moon. In February, Musk announced that two people have paid for a trip around the moon, and that he hopes they’ll get their chance in 2018. They would be the first humans to travel that far from Earth since the Apollo 17 astronauts in 1972.

And Musk isn’t the only billionaire entrepreneur who’s reaching for the stars. Amazon founder Jeff Bezos started Blue Origin in 2000, and Richard Branson set up Virgin Galactic in 2004. Both are focused on offering commercial spaceflights to the paying public. Virgin’s efforts took a big knock in 2014, when the VSS Enterprise crashed in the Mojave Desert, killing its co-pilot. However, Branson remains hopeful that one of his spaceships will make it into space next year – with him aboard. Blue Origin is the most secretive of the three outfits – in stark contrast to SpaceX’s very public approach to testing – but it, too, plans to take its first paying passengers on suborbital spaceflights next year.

In other words, a new space race is very much underway. Unlike the 60s, when the United States and the Soviet Union raced to the moon, this is not a competition between nations or governments, but one between private companies. That doesn’t mean, however, that there isn’t a role for governments to play – and benefits for them to reap.

For example, in the recent Queen’s Speech, the UK Government announced a Space Industry Bill that aims to ‘boost the economy, British business, engineering and science by making the UK the most attractive place in Europe for commercial spaceflight.’ Ministers pointed out that the British space industry is worth around £14 billion to our economy, employs 38,500 people and supports more than 110,000 other jobs.

That Bill suggests, perhaps, that governments recognise that their role in space exploration has changed. Rather than sending astronauts into space themselves, they can support private companies to do so, and ensure that the proper regulations and safeguards are in place. It is, effectively, the privatisation of spaceflight. And it might yet take us to Mars.

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