'Sky Pod' to Offer Personalized Ride

A public transportation scheme includes individual cars that will take riders directly to their destination.

A California firm thinks it has figured out how to get the masses moving on public transportation: Give them their own pods.

"If you look at what we've done in last 100 years in terms of how we've had the most market buy-in for personal mobility, we need look no further than the car," said Christopher Perkins, co-founder of Unimodal Systems.

"With a car, it's essentially one person, or so, and one destination. We don't have to stop at all our friends' houses to get to the store. Likewise, when you use public transit, the concept here is you don't want to have to go to a bunch of stops on the way to wherever you're going."

The company this month signed an agreement with NASA's Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif., to see if software developed to control robots will help development of a personal rapid transportation system known as SkyTran.

The system uses small vehicles that run on elevated, magnetically levitated rails.

Each computer-controlled pod holds up to three people. Riders type in their destination and leave the navigating to SkyTran's intelligent software to transport the pod, non-stop and without interrupting traffic flow.

Perkins envisions SkyTran feeding into other regional and local transit systems, such as the San Francisco Bay Area Rapid Transit, known as BART, and high-speed rail.

A demonstration system is planned for the NASA Research Park at Ames, a hub for innovative technology that has attracted 15 universities and about 40 businesses, including Google.

"What we see as a beginning is to serve areas that have high traffic that need to get to one point, like downtown to the airport. That would form the backbone," Perkins told Discovery News.

"All networks have humble beginnings," he added.

The pods can be mass produced in factories, which helps to cut costs. Unimodal expects the concept will be so appealing that it could be supported commercially, as opposed to public transportation systems, which typically operate at a loss.

"Based on our projects, we think this is a viable business model. The next step will be show in a series of demonstration projects that the technology is viable," Perkins said.

The pods are designed to hang beneath an elevated guideway. They are propelled by the interaction of electromagnetic fields. Unimodal expects the pods to eventually be capable of traveling at speeds of up to 150 mph.

For its part, NASA wants to know if its software created for aerospace projects has applications in other fields. It also is interested in the ergonomics of the pod itself.

"Having people see this built to scale is a major step forward," said Michael Marlaire, who oversees the NASA Research Park at Ames. "If this works and you sell the popularity, it's a huge impact on society."