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Tomorrow’s world

Flying race cars get the green light

The stage is set for “electric flying race cars” to go head to head, overhead, says Kim Lyons in The Verge. A company called Alauda Aeronautics has successfully tested zippy, unpiloted Airspeeder drones in southern Australia. On the back of this, it’s planning Grand Prix-style races later this year in three as yet unnamed locations.

Four metres long, with four little helicopter blades, the Airspeeders are the real deal, says Donna Lu in The Guardian. They accelerate more impressively than “some of the world’s most advanced fighter aircraft” and can fly at up to 250km/h. There’s space for a human pilot in the cockpit – and there’s the potential for crewed flights if the races go to plan – but for now the craft are controlled remotely via a “telerobotic avatar” in the cockpit. “When the pilot turns their head, the robot turns their head,” says Alauda’s boss, Matthew Pearson.

Each race will last for 45 minutes, including two 20-second pit stops for battery swaps. The Airspeeder has a laser detection system that creates a “virtual forcefield”, preventing collisions. It’s not just racing for racing’s sake, says Pearson: “Racing gave us seatbelts and disc brakes and rear-vision mirrors.”

Upgrading our bodies to suit space

George Frey/Getty Images

Human bodies are “exquisitely adapted” to life on Earth, says Adam Minter in Bloomberg, but that isn’t much help in outer space. Just one trip to Mars and back would blast you with your “lifetime limit” of radiation. Astronauts are at higher long-term risk of heart disease and cancer for that reason. So, if we’re serious about making interplanetary flight a thing, the human body is going to need a few “upgrades”. Scientists are hard at work figuring out how to use advanced medical tech such as the CRISPR gene-editing tool and CAR T-cell therapies, in which our immune cells are “re-engineered to fight cancer”, to help us live among the stars.

These are techniques we can use today: more than 1,000 cancer patients have taken part in CAR T trials, with re-engineered cells infused back into their bodies, “and they’re walking around Earth today, cured”. The changes you’d need to make for long space missions, turning certain genes “on and off” to protect someone temporarily from radiation, are more fiddly – and more dangerous. It will take a decade or so to gather enough data to prove it’s safe, just in time for the first long missions to Mars.