Oct 19, 2008

Dawn of the age of phlight

We live in the dawn of the age of phlight.

What is phlight? It is flight, but spelled with a "ph." Why? Flight today means "fossil fuel" flight, hence the "f;" we are interested in promoting renewable sun-powered flight, hence the "ph" of phlight, standing for passive heliogenic flight. A cloud weighs half a million kilograms yet is suspended in the air by sunlight alone. That is the emblem of phlight; let us say that the cloud phlies.

Flight--with a fossil fuel f--is done today by airplanes, helicopters and rocket ships, and also hot air and weather balloons, dirigibles, blimps, zeppelins--even gliders, since they are pulled by fossil-fuel powered vehicles. All of these rely on fossil fuels, hence they fly and do not phly.

Phlight--passive heliogenic phlight-- is done today by kites, passive solar-powered balloons, and Tomas Saraceno's work such as the Museo Aero Solar and his flying garden. There are also promising experimental solar collectors and kite-like wind generators, but progress is slow.

We envision a day when people sleep, work and phly daily along internationally accepted phlight paths. The slow progress towards phlight is due to the significant challenges that phlight poses. Understanding the challenges is a necessary first step towards finding solutions. The challenges are technological and social.

Phlight requires technological advances in
  • materials: ultra-light materials like Aerogel to build any rigid structures needed;
  • fabrics: ultra-thin textiles that can sequester sun radiation, retain hot air or release it as needed. Perhaps buckypaper can help.
  • suits: the original B-17 passengers wore heated flying suits with oxygen masks to protect them from the -45 degree Celsius cold. We need new such suits for our phliers, perhaps based on mountaineering and arctic gear.
  • kitchen and toilet: ultra-efficient food preparation and waste evacuation facilities are needed as every gram counts;
  • GIS: multidimensional maps of the atmosphere are needed; Google Earth-type GIS is a good first step, but that is only the surface of the earth; we need to innovate new methods to map the flows of air that have both depth and breadth.
  • escape devices: a safety vest is needed for people in phlight, perhaps gas-ejected parachutes.

Phlight requires social and political advances in
  • path clearing: we need to clear passive phlight paths in the atmosphere, using methods such as those used by Appalachian Trail and bike path activists; these paths require clear political border rights and air rights of passage, keeping in mind the passive and hence less-controlled nature of phlight.
  • ports of call: Phlight ports need to be created, with a clear idea of what supplies and services are needed at such a port.
  • motivation: Flight is marked by drama: the rush of speed, the loud noise, the tremendous power, the vicarious thrill of seeing death-defying stunts, the frisson of pilots in military-style dress and stewardesses in short dresses. Phlight is very different: it is a contemplative pleasure like gardening, a union with nature like sailing. (On a hormonal level, flight elicits fight-or-flight adrenaline responses; phlight elicits oxytocin-type responses of endurance, closeness and bonding).

The ocean was first traveled in passive heliogenic sea craft. The earliest seamen innovated a tremendous range of technologies that benefited all humankind, such as star navigation and tension-based sail structures. They must have been crazy, taking to sea on little more than a song and a hope; yet they discovered and populated the world.

Air travel has developed in reverse: first came fossil and carbon-fueled flight (even the first hot air balloons were heated by wood burning). Phlight had to await the high-tech fabrics and portable oxygen needed to enable a human to live in the oxygen-deprived, cold atmosphere. But today events pressure us to take to the skies. Overpopulation and ecological stress motivate humanity to leave the ground and take to the air.

The Graf zeppelin flew over a million and a half kilometers, including a trip around the world, but was retired as it was too slow (90 km/h) and too dangerous (flammable hydrogen). Phlight has different concerns: no need for speed--phlight is about dwelling, not transporting--and no danger--just solar powered air--and no need for such fine steering control, nor tables with linen table cloths.

The first phlying pioneers need to be extremely motivated people, just like the first seaman, and the first pilots. Until these people show up we can plant phlying gardens. We can hoist an atmonaut into a phlying meditation space tethered to the ground. Perhaps an X-prize can go to the first atmonaut to stay aloft for a month, or a year, in phlight. We can begin to request phlight paths from the owners of the jumbo jet superhighways, and we begin to collect the GIS data to comprehend atmospheric flows.

Phlight is a critical step towards easing our planet's burdens. Once achieved, we can begin tearing up concrete and liberate the world-around layer of soil from its asphalt prison, leaving it to do what it does best: make food and support the biosphere. We can achieve humanity's original dream of taking to the skies, not on the back of a roaring engine, but on the caress of a cloud.

- Lionel