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How the ESA sees the future of urban life

Amie Haven

Amie Haven, Journalist

Driverless cars, recycling human waste, and monitoring from the skies are just some of the ESA’s ideas for futuristic urban life.

“Smart cities are, in fact, complete ecosystems devoted to creating sustainable and resilient urban areas for the benefit of society and the local and global economies.” Infrastructure and smart cities, ESA

The ESA’s Smart Cities project is part of a sprawling attempt to manage the realities of population growth and cultivate sustainable urban living. The world’s population is expected to rise from 7.7 billion to 10 billion by 2057. Many of those people will be living in densely populated cities and urban design needs to take sustainability into account. 

The ESA is using its space research and technology to collaborate with Earthbound actors in research and commercial sectors. Expert teams are pooling their knowledge, ideas, and skills to provide solutions for complex urban problems. 

Mobility is a key area of concern. City dwellers need increased mobility for daily life and business needs. But current transportation systems cause congestion on the roads, pollute the environment and create toxic smog. Connected autonomous vehicles (CAVs) – or clean driverless vehicles – are the future of urban mobility. The ESA is working on a CAV programme called Project Darwin alongside the UK Space Agency, O2, Oxford and Glasgow Universities, Hispasat Spanish satellite operators, various specialised startups, and Darwin Innovation Group Oxford.

Project Darwin is a 4-year trial programme working on the technology for CAVs at the Harwell Campus in Oxford. The project aims to provide continuous connectivity for CAVs by using terrestrial 5G networks and satellites. CAVs will need to communicate with each other and with their surroundings, which creates vast amounts of data. And volumes of complex data require complex and reliable systems to manage them. Combining 5G networks with satellites will extend the reach and reliability of the CAVs as they navigate around cities and into rural areas without mobile network connections. 

Urbanites of the future can look forward to having their shopping delivered by clean energy driverless cars. Whilst tourists can view the sights of the city as they’re chauffeured in CAVs with constant access to road congestion data and air pollution levels. 

But it’s not just congestion and smog which blight cities – waste is a major problem. Densely populated cities full of people create enormous amounts of human waste whilst humans in general consume resources at an unsustainable rate. To tackle this problem the ESA propose adapting a method devised for use in space – closed-loop ecosystems

Devised for astronauts to survive in the resource scarcity of space, these closed-loop ecosystems aim to turn human waste back into air, water, and food. The ESA’s Micro-Ecological Life Support System Alternative (MELiSSA) team are currently working on these systems to improve life for astronauts in space, as well as looking at possible applications on Earth.

Whilst the idea of turning what we excrete back into air, water, and food may cause some to wrinkle their nose, such innovations are increasingly necessary as we deplete the world’s resources. Currently, a pilot plant in Barcelona, Spain are using rats to see if closed-loop systems can result in happy and healthy living. 

Watching over all this future activity will be high-altitude platform systems (HAPS). HAPS are unmanned stratospheric vehicles that connect with and complement communication networks. They can be used to observe and monitor urban life, gathering data on the entire functioning of a city and its impact on the environment. 

Research is being conducted into urban resiliency using Earth observation satellites at the Remote Sensing Lab of the Foundation for Research and Technology Hellas in Greece. The information will hopefully inform future urban developments and policies for sustainable city growth. 

Since human population growth requires increasing shares of the world’s resources, innovation will be key to ensuring our growth is sustainable. ESA’s Smart Cities project is investing in research and business, whilst contributing its own know-how, to make sustainable urban living a viable prospect.

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