Tuesday, 18 September 2012

Airline boom or airline bust (and telepresence)

There are opposite and equally valid viewpoints as to whether or not Heathrow should get a third runway: no because it means more flights and more flights means more greenhouse gas emissions or yes because the airline industry is growing and we don't want Heathrow left behind. It is true that airline travel is growing, worldwide, and while so far its proportion of world greenhouse gas emissions is small (2% [1]) this is also growing (and in the UK it is 5.4% [2]).  Will this always be the case and what are the alternatives?

There are differing views as to how fast the airline industry is growing. Boeing predicts airline traffic will grow at 5% per year until 2030 - which means it will more than double over the period [3]. IATA is less bullish, concerned about the EU financial crisis and the global recession reducing global trade while high oil prices squeeze profits. Taken together this reduces investor confidence - but the industry needs investment in more capacity to grow.

The number of airline trips abroad by UK residents has reduced over the last 5 years by 20%, though 2011 was up a little on 2010. Demand seems to be closely linked to the economy [5].
Purpose of visit for airline trips by UK Residents 2011 [5]

This pie chart shows the reasons for the trips we make. Nearly two thirds of our travel is for holidays  (of which nearly half are package tours).

The high carbon emissions from airline travel are not because aircraft are inefficient. For long distances the greenhouse gas emissions per passenger on on an aircraft are only twice that of a train and about the same as a reasonably efficient car with two passengers [6].

The problem is the distance we travel by plane. Planes will cruise at about 550 mph - 3 times faster than a train and 8 times faster than a car - so you can go much further in a reasonable time. Suppose you commute 15 km each day. One trip to New York (5600 km) is further than a year's worth of commuting. Direct emissions from one return trip, economy class comes to nearly a tonne of CO2e.

Perhaps New York isn't your favourite destination for a foreign holiday (it certainly isn't mine, though at least they speak English there, of a sort). There are lots of nice places in Europe too, which aren't nearly so far, and if your main purpose is to get away from it all then you don't even need to leave the UK.  When I go walking in the New Forest I might as well be on Mars as far as my phone is concerned. If you want a tan, then going south helps, but as our weather gets more and more erratic the right amount of sun is never guaranteed anywhere. If you want a bit of culture - well Florence and Pompei are a lot closer than Macchu Pichu, and Egypt is half as far as New York.

Visiting friends and relatives is the next biggest reason for travel, though technology is making inroads in reducing the need. The market in teleconferencing and telepresence is increasing much faster than airline travel - 20%  in 2011 [7] - mainly due to commercial demand rather than personal, but many of the requirements are similar and there are  products available now for the home market. For example, take a look at  Cisc's Umi - and see here for a story about going to a wedding with it. The Umi uses your TV for a display and the camera can take in the whole family on your sofa and pan and zoom by remote control. Or you can get basic video and voice functionality free from Skype. The next step up is to control a telepresence robot remotely.  At bottom you have a video screen and a camera on a stand with wheels you can drive from your computer or tablet, though the interesting bit is the software to avoid bumping into things and falling over. The low end is still around  $2000 from Double Robotics and the high end can be a lot more. Here's a lovely story about an 82 year old lady attending a party. Current technology can give you sight and sound; touch is under development. For example researchers are working on an arm with which you could do a convincing hand shake [8].

Can you imagine being at a party where most of the people were represented by robots? Can you imagine going on holiday by telepresence - climbing the steps at Macchu Pichu would be quite a challenge with today's robots.

Clearly, telepresence is always going to be a poor cousin to being there for real. On the other hand it does have a huge advantage which is that you can do it  every day. Maybe there is something to be said, in this case, for quantity rather than quality.

[1] IATA Factsheet
[2] 2010 Greenhouse gas inventory tables DECC
[3] Boeing current market outlook 2012-2030
[4] IATA Industry Outlook Presentation Dec 2011
[5] International Passenger Survey ONS
[6] Guidelines to Defra /DECC GHG Conversion Factors for Company Reporting2012
[7] Enterprise Videoconferencing Sees Double Digit Growth The Journal March 2012
[8] Osaka University previews robotic hand for telepresence tech Electronista March 2012

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