Engineering against all odds, or how NYC’s subway will get wireless in the tunnels

Never ask a wireless engineer working on the NYC subway system “What can go wrong?” Flooding, ice, brake dust, and power outages relentlessly attack the network components. Rats — many, many rats — can eat power and fiber optic cables and bring down the whole system. Humans are no different, as their curiosity or malice strikes a blow against wireless hardware (literally and metaphorically).

Serverless software deployment to the cloud, this is not.

New York City officially got wireless service in every underground subway station a little more than a year ago, and I was curious what work went into the buildout of this system as well as how it will expand in the future.

That curiosity is part of a series of articles I’ve written on an observed pattern known as cost disease, the massively inflating costs of basic human services like health care, housing, infrastructure, and education. The United States spends trillions of dollars on each of these fields, massively outspending similar nations for little and often even negative gain.

Despite the importance of reining in costs, experts are befuddled at the underlying causes of cost disease amid a laundry list of potential factors, including complicated procurement processes, labor rules, underinvestment in software, productivity gains in affiliated fields, environmental regulations, and the list goes on.

I explored a bit about health care, and the skyrocketing costs in that field, despite the fact that few people in the industry understand those costs at all. Activity-based costing appears to be one potential solution there that startups are pursuing. I also looked at California High Speed Rail and the massively spiraling costs of that boondoggle, as well as some of the startups trying to improve efficiency in that category.

This past week, I explored the challenges of what appears at first glance to be a relatively simple problem: how do you get wireless service in New York City subway tunnels? Cellular technology is hardly novel, and transit systems throughout the world have been able to modernize in some cases more than a decade ago.

While riders may desperately want their YouTube videos underground, the real value of such a system is for the business operations of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (the MTA, which operates the NYC subway among other commuter rail and bus systems). Ticketing systems, arrival time indicators, emergency services, and other critical services are all run through this wireless system.

There is in fact a startup working on the problem, Transit Wireless. The company was formed in 2005 to respond to a request for proposals from the MTA and filled with veteran telecom executives. The authority rewarded the contract to Transit Wireless, which now holds a 27-year license to operate cellular service in the subway system.

William Bayne, the CEO of the company, explained that an important component of the contract was that the company couldn’t rely on taxpayer funding. “Our license requires us to design, build, own, operate, and finance the network,” he said. Transit Wireless raised its own equity capital to cover the costs of deploying the system, and generates revenues as the service provider over the life of the license. In fact, MTA receives a stream of revenue from Transit Wireless as well.

The company faced a number of challenges in building out the system. The first challenge was that the installation could not disrupt transit customers. Bayne said, “We had to figure out how to deploy network and equipment while minimizing disruption of the transit system itself.” That meant working overnight when labor costs are higher, and also placed the company at the mercy of the MTA’s maintenance windows to install network equipment.

Even more challenging was securing the right equipment. The NYC subway “is a 110-year-old system with low ceilings and lots of water, and it wasn’t designed to embrace a lot of electronics,” Bayne said. Wireless equipment “had to withstand all of these changes in environmental conditions: cold, heat, water, brake dust. Everything had to be passively cooled and fully-enclosed so it didn’t ingest any of the environment into the equipment.” That specialized, “mil-spec” equipment doesn’t come cheap.

As with the story of any infrastructure, particularly in New York, rolling out wireless connectivity to 282 active underground stations was anything but cheap. The final cost of the rollout was north of $300 million for Transit Wireless, a dramatic increase from early estimates which said that the project would cost “up to $200 million.” As a private entity spending private dollars, the company obviously had enormous incentives to hold down costs.

Perhaps more importantly for riders and the MTA itself, the timeline of the project ended up dragging. The first six stations in the system began offering wireless services in September 2011, about six years after the original contract signing. In the MTA’s announcement, the remainder of the rollout was expected to happen “within four years,” but another six years would actually pass before all remaining underground stations got service around New Year’s Day 2017. In all, it took about twelve years from contract signing to project completion.

While the costs and time required to build out the network were significant, Transit Wireless believes that the infrastructure it has built will stand the test of time. It designed the system to be “future-proof” by installing a fiber optic backbone with significantly more capacity than needed to handle whatever new technology might come, such as 5G wireless services. It also built a series of five data centers that act as data infrastructure hubs for the subway system, potentially lowering the cost of offering new services in the future.

The company, whose network spans much of New York City, hopes to be a core provider of smart city services in the future. Bayne envisions a world where real-time information about transit systems could be fused together, giving consumers access to smart transportation solutions — think connecting Uber and Lyft to smart bikes, parking meters, and the subway system to create a seamless, adaptive transportation system.

In addition to the smart city initiatives, Transit Wireless obviously is eyeing the tunnels as one of the most important infrastructure challenges going forward. Given the age of the tunnel construction, they are much narrower than the engineering standards used today for modern transit systems. In some cases, installed equipment has to fit within just a handful of inches of space lest a moving train rip the equipment right off the wall. “We have to be extremely precise on how we deploy equipment in there to be very precise to stay within those clearance envelopes,” Bayne said.

Currently, the company is offering a pilot demonstration of tunnel service on the shuttle between Times Square and Grand Central Station, which launched in December.

The lessons of the rollout are ultimately a question of desires from transit customers (who also happen to be voters) — how badly do we want new infrastructure, and how much are we willing to be inconvenienced to get it? We can’t have nice things today and also want no schedule changes in a system that operates 24/7 every day of the year. Unless we as transit riders say loudly and clearly “inconvenience me today for a better tomorrow,” keep expecting the same compromises to happen.

Featured Image: STAN HONDA/AFP/Getty Images

SpaceX’s spacesuited Starman mannequin serves a real purpose

SpaceX put a “Starman” into space today, on a path to a potential wide looping orbit of Mars and Earth — it was actually a mannequin wearing an official SpaceX crew flight suit, but it was more than just a fun payload for a rocket that stood every chance of exploding mid-flight, it turns out.

Elon Musk revealed on a press call following the Falcon Heavy launch on Tuesday that the mannequin was wearing an actual production SpaceX crew spacesuit, rather than a non-functional prototype or mock-up. The suit, which the SpaceX CEO revealed last year via Instagram, will eventually clothe SpaceX astronauts flying on board Crew Dragon, the capsule it’s developing to bring real people to space, with a target initial launch date of later this year if all goes to plan.

The suit, developed in-house by SpaceX, features a sleeker design than most spacefaring flight suits you’ll find. It’s a design that came with a price, however: Musk said that combining style and function was a particular challenge in a spacesuit.

“I mean, it’s a dangerous trip, you want to look good,” he said. “It’s easy to make a spacesuit that looks good but doesn’t work, it’s really hard to make a spacesuit that works, and looks good.”

And the suit does look good: It’s a stylish black and white, with clean lines and a helmet that looks like it’s been pulled from a sci-fi film with excellent costume design.

The suit, as mentioned, has more than good looks, however. It’s also a part of the qualification articles set by NASA that must be met in order to operate crewed launches that it be tested in the correct conditions, so Starman is serving SpaceX’s larger goal of providing crewed flight capabilities, too.

“It definitely works though,” Musk added. “You can just put it on and jump in a vacuum chamber.”

Behind the scenes of SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy launch day prep

SpaceX is launching its Falcon Heavy rocket tomorrow, and if it’s successful, it’ll be twice as powerful in terms of cargo capacity as its next closest active rival. That will help give SpaceX an edge in the growing private space race, and open up new opportunities in terms of potential clients, as well as set the stage for traveling to Mars.

The launch itself is happening on Tuesday, February 6 at 1:30 PM EST, weather permitting. The window lasts until 4 PM EST, however, so if conditions are good within that time the launch should go off as planned. There’s a backup window on February 7, which also starts at 1:30 PM EST, and we’ll be there live to watch it happen and report back all the news right here on TechCrunch.

The Airbus Vahana flying taxi actually flew for the first time

Seems like just yesterday Airbus’ Vahana autonomous electric vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) craft was little more than a painted concept, but now it’s actually flown, during a full-scale prototype test that lasted just under a minute, and during which the Vahana aircraft was fully self-piloted and fling at a height of 16 feet off the ground.

The Vahana VTOL, which resembles a complicated helicopter or an overground drone, depending on your perspective, is being developed by Airbus Silicon Valley skunkworks A³, and is aiming to eventually become something that can actually offer service to customers and transport people and goods within cities, cutting above traffic and making short-hop trips between strategically placed launch and landing pads.

This first flight is obviously a far cry from a working, commercial passenger drone service, but the successful first flight, which was followed by a second successful flight the next day, is a step in the right direction.

Next, Vahana says it’ll aim to move from being able to hover the vehicle, to being able to have it fly itself directionally, which will obviously be a key ingredient in terms of getting people and stuff from point A to point B.

Elon Musk’s Boring Co. flamethrower is real, $500 and up for pre-order

So that flamethrower that Elon Musk teased The Boring Company would start selling after it ran out of its 50,000 hats? Yeah, it’s real – and you can pre-order one now if you want need a ridiculous way to spend $500.

Musk revealed the flamethrower on Saturday, after some digging tipped its existence late last week. The Boring Company Flamethrower is functional, too, as you can see from this Instagram featuring some Boring Co. staff, presumably well safety trained, firing off two of the things IRL.

Marketing copy for the flamethrower includes a “guarantee” that it will “liven up any party,” and a proclamation that it’s “world’s safest flamethrower,” in case you were concerned (you probably are not, if you’re ordering a flamethrower on the internet). The $500 fee doesn’t include taxes and shipping, which are added at checkout, and the initial shipments will come out in spring.

There’s also a disclaimer about international shipping incurring extra fees (and maybe seizure at the border?) plus, buyers will be required to review and accept a terms and conditions document prior to getting their flamethrower in the mail.

The Boring Co. also sells a fire extinguisher, because they know how to make an upsell with specific relevance, and it’s $30, which they fully admit is more than you’d pay elsewhere. But it has a sticker. There’s not even a picture, so it probably doesn’t look all that impressive.

Musk’s Boring Company is literally a company focused on tunnel boring, but it seems like it’ll be a while before it has revenue or significant results (even if it’s already digging test tunnels). To fund the project until then, selling weird stuff with the company’s logo to Muskheads everywhere seems like a decent plan. Even if it contributes negatively to the sum total of working flamethrowers existing in the world.