SkyTran: the future of transportation

Local company aims to build its 'SkyTran' at NASA Research Park

A local company imagines a day when computer-controlled electric vehicles will become the default mode of public transportation, taking people to their destinations via a network of overhead magnetic rails at the touch of a button.

Unimodal, Inc. has already built prototypes of "SkyTran" at its facilities inside NASA Ames Research Park. "Personal Rapid Transit" (PRT) is a futuristic idea that's been around for over 30 years, but now that technology has caught up, PRT systems are being considered for Santa Cruz, Marin County and San Jose airport.

The system could also come to Mountain View's outskirts. While not part of any formal plans yet, discussions are underway about installing a PRT system at the 73-acre NASA Ames Research Park when the area is redeveloped as a research hub for private companies and universities.

On Tuesday, during a talk at NASA Ames' "Exploration Expo," Unimodal CEO Christopher Perkins likened the technology's superiority over cars and buses to the Internet's superiority over switchboards.

Just as the Internet efficiently sends packets of information through a network of cables and servers, SkyTran would efficiently send people through a computer-controlled network of stations and "maglev" rails, Perkins said.

Pointing to a picture of gridlocked freeway traffic, Perkins said the "freedom" of the automobile is something everybody wants. However: "We're all held captive by this same desire."

The 1,200-pound electric vehicles allow up to three passengers. Users do no driving computers control the system to prevent accidents. The vehicles literally float on overhead rails using magnetic levitation or "maglev" technology instead of wheels. The vehicles would get the equivalent of 500 miles per gallon and could travel up to 150 miles per hour before becoming inefficient.

One SkyTran line can support as much traffic flow as a three-lane freeway, Perkins said. Power could come from rail-mounted solar panels or wind turbines.

Among the advantages of PRT is that, unlike trains, it can provide non-stop service (vehicles merge off of main lines for stops). Because of the light weight of the vehicles, the overhead rails and support poles need not be large.

Perkins said that right now it would cost $15 million per mile to construct SkyTran, but costs would go down "substantially" once mass produced.

If the technology gains public acceptance, Unimodal expects it to go "viral" at some point, spreading across the country to various cities. Perkins envisions urban areas with stations within walking distance.

The Marin County Board of Supervisors reportedly approved a letter of interest in January for a demonstration SkyTran system that could connect Marin's civic center with a new SMART rail line. Unimodal can use the letter to help acquire private funding.

Perkins says he hopes private companies would develop and operate the systems piece by piece, the way private companies once developed the county's railroad system. Taxpayer funds usually would not be necessary, Perkins says, though Marin has discussed using some state grants for its project. Fares for the systems in Marin are reportedly estimated at 25 cents per mile, paid using RFID cards.

There are several other companies developing personal rapid transit systems, including Ultra in Britain, which is constructing the first modern system at Heathrow airport, and POSCO Steel, which is testing a system in Sweden.

"It's time for the USA to get into the race," Perkins said. "That's why we're going to develop a system here at Ames."

Clark Foster, a mechanical engineer, says the company is supported by a team of engineers, some of whom volunteer their time because they "believe to a high degree in the concept." Perkins and Foster say Unimodal's biggest problem is political acceptance, and Foster admits that politics "is not our world."

Such acceptance is the "final hurdle all good ideas must overcome," said Phil Smith, CEO of Space Grant Education and Enterprise Institute, which may send college interns from around the country to work for Unimodal.

For more information, including video, visit the Unimodal Web site.

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4 people like this
Posted by Darth Transit
a resident of another community
on Apr 24, 2009 at 10:03 pm

Our tax money is going for this Mickey Mouse technophilia? Obvious pure IQ horsepower is hardly a precursor for many people to have any common sense.

4 people like this
Posted by Garrett
a resident of another community
on Apr 26, 2009 at 9:23 pm

Sounds Great, I am hoping to see it built and would love to go for a ride, we need transit to go with our cities and area, we are so built all over, this might be a cheap and safe way to build to Fremont or Walnut Creek.

4 people like this
Posted by Garrett
a resident of another community
on Apr 26, 2009 at 9:30 pm

One thing, it can be built like a roller coaster, prefabed and then put into place, roller coasters are light and safe, and can be replaced in sections, and can be taken apart and put back togerther, would love to see this run down the middle of El Camino, Steven Creek. Where do i sign on.

4 people like this
Posted by Tommy Carrig
a resident of another community
on Apr 27, 2009 at 10:42 am

The Bullet Train and SkyTran is a system that could complement each other and it would be fun with walkways and bikeways integrated.
I think that if we used the raised Unimodal Skytran and put Bike and walkways underneath where existing rails are we could have the best of the world. The high speed train could be run to San Jose and on to Sacramento from LA. From there we could use the less intrusive Skytran <>into the populated areas to SF. Larger freight could be accommodated along existing track space with a raised heavy duty Maglev Monorail and smaller tracks could travel to other tributaries along power lines or canals or even along El Camino. It needs 4 ft. width. The existing Railroad tracks could be replaced by bike and pedestrian pathways for commuters and recreation. In the City it could be built into buildings and not impact the roadways.
I live near the tracks in Sunnyvale and a high speed bullet train through here doesn't make as much sense as Skytran because Skytran can serve the whole community. The existing higher speed train doesn't stop in downtown Sunnyvale.
This system is also can be very cost effective. Also consider the lawsuits that a previous article in MV Voice noted.

4 people like this
Posted by Artemisia
a resident of another community
on Apr 30, 2009 at 4:50 pm

"Perkins said the "freedom" of the automobile is something everybody wants. However: "We're all held captive by this same desire."

Not all of us. Mr. Perkins needs to put his car in the garage and spend some time in an area with decent public transit so he can experience the joys of auto-less living. The Metro in DC, the Metro in Paris, transit in Portland - try walking, biking, or getting on a bus, streetcar or subway with your fellow humans, Mr. Perkins. The solution is not a horrendously expensive and complex system of thousands of tiny little computer-controlled pods on raised stanchions.

4 people like this
Posted by Seer
a resident of Old Mountain View
on Sep 16, 2009 at 4:59 pm

Artemisia, I think the idea is that Unimodal's people mover is *much* cheaper per mile than "the metro in DC, the Metro in Paris, etc.." The moment you have to dig, you've lost the budget battle. And, what's being discussed here is turning Mountain View in to an area with "decent public transit" at the best possible price.

4 people like this
Posted by Sid
a resident of Shoreline West
on Sep 16, 2009 at 5:18 pm

You all need to put your Legos away and ask how and who will pay for this boondoggle.

4 people like this
Posted by Allen Payton
a resident of another community
on Sep 18, 2009 at 10:39 am

Another low-cost, ultra-light rail, electric transit system to consider is being developed in the East Bay, called CyberTran. See more at

4 people like this
Posted by eric
a resident of another community
on Sep 18, 2009 at 11:19 am

Any Simpsons fans out there?

But Main Street's still all cracked and broken
Sorry, Mom, the mob has spoken

4 people like this
Posted by Dickster
a resident of Cuesta Park
on Sep 18, 2009 at 10:46 pm

Check out "Morgantown PRT" (Google Search). It has been around for over 30 years, and still serves the WVU community. I've taken their PRT, and it works great. It certainly could work here too.

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