Futuristic Transportation System Goes Online

By Anna Lynn Spitzer

Ben Raphael
Riders will board the system at modular portals.

Irvine, Calif., Nov. 16, 2007 --George Jetson would have loved it – a computer-controlled, personalized transportation system that moves riders in two-person pods on elevated guideways, far above gridlocked Southern California streets.

A local company is designing the futuristic system and Crista Lopes, a Calit2 researcher, is modeling its logic-control layer on virtual world Second Life.

A Trial Run

Simulations provide a valuable way to test complex engineering systems, says Lopes, associate professor of informatics. "Most engineering systems today have a very strong software component. With respect to the design decision you make when you are creating software, it's a real advantage to test them in this kind of environment."

Lopes and students Lorraine Kan and Anton Popov are developing and testing the software that will prevent the magnetically-levitated vehicles from colliding as they merge on and off the overhead roadway. Lopes also hopes to build and test the networking system that will allow passengers to direct the pods to a specific location.

She began working last summer with executives from Unimodal Inc., which is developing the system it calls SkyTran. “We met Crista and she suggested this really out-of-the-box, cool way to [simulate] it,” says Christopher Perkins, Unimodal CEO.

Genome Diagram
Popov, Lopes and Kan (from left) model
the system's logic control function online.

“Personal Rapid Transit is an old idea that has shown promise and now, because of all the concerns about the environment and the search for alternative forms of energy and transportation, it is being revisited,” Lopes says. “It’s exciting to be involved with that.”

Networking Power

Sky Tran is powered by electricity, with each vehicle getting the equivalent of more than 200 miles per gallon of gasoline. Passengers board at small portals located every quarter mile along a route. After selecting a destination via voice command or touch screen input, they are whisked along at more than 100 miles per hour in the driverless vehicles, avoiding waits, fixed routes and timetables.

For now, Lopes is constructing the model in "Canto Bay," her Second Life work site. A white brick suspended above the station platform is the "track rezzer," a virtual computer that holds the custom software that builds the rail brick by brick.

A blue oval object contains software that runs the station controller -- the program that coordinates the vehicles' movement on the track.

"It's like having a robot that creates the model automatically," she explains. "We're doing this with sufficient realism to be able to model the basic station controllers."

Useful Feedback

She and Unimodal executives hope to expand the project. They envision up to 10 stations and many more cars in a more complex network. Second Life visitors could actually travel on the system, creating an online test bed. Just like Lopes' current effort, the larger model would allow Unimodal designers to make necessary engineering adjustments before deploying the system in the real world.

The company plans to build a prototype of the system -- a 1,000-ft. oval track -- by the end of next year.

"This Second Life simulation is already providing feedback to the SkyTran engineers about their design decisions," Lopes says. "As it expands, it can give insights into how successful this technology might be in real life."