Everyone knows that Santa Claus has some incredible technology at his disposal. His sleigh has warp drive, his suit boasts cloaking capabilities, and he probably has the best team of robotic surgeons in the world (how else does he stay in such good shape after so many years?). But like any global operation, he's always on the lookout for better tech to make his job a little easier. Here are five new technological developments that could help Santa accomplish his annual rounds:
1. Local Navigation
It's easy to get lost when you visit several hundred million homes in a single night. Naturally, Santa uses GPS to make sure that he's on track, but he does lose his way now and then, especially in larger houses or apartment buildings. In these indoor situations, GPS just doesn't cut it.
We'd suggest Santa have a look at a new shoe-embedded radar system under development at North Carolina State University. When his GPS stops working, an inertial measurement unit (IMU) inside Santa's classic black boot would track how far he has moved since the last successful GPS signal. These IMUs can be error-prone — they sometimes assume you're moving when you're really standing still — so Santa would also want to have tiny radar added to the heel of his boot. The radar would monitor the distance between his heel and the ground, so it would know when he's staying put, and eliminate that IMU error.
With these smart shoes, Santa could easily re-trace his steps and resume his charitable ops.
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2. Information Display
On Christmas Eve, Santa is flooded with information — who’s been naughty or nice, which toys to leave for which kids, etc. Normally, he scrolls through all this data using the head-up display in his reading glasses — much like these new consumer shades from Vuzix. But when he's in his sleigh, the glasses often fog up because of the quick transition from sizzling living rooms to snowy air.
In the sleigh, he'd be far better off with a projection system along the lines of GM's new augmented windshield project. The company is working on the new windshield display with scientists at Carnegie Mellon and the University of Southern California, and the system is still a few years away, but it could deliver a kind of augmented reality. Hard-to-see lane lines on a foggy road would be highlighted on your dashboard, for example.
Flying around the world in a reindeer-drawn sleigh, however, calls for a slightly more advanced set of data. Critical information — speed, direction, destination, obstacles — would be displayed right on the sleigh's windshield, and the system could alert Santa of potential collisions with high-rises or passing jetliners and guide him to a safe landing in a blizzard. Plus, he wouldn't need to rely on that petulant, stuck-up Rudolph anymore.
3. Year-Round Surveillance
Santa tries to be as green as possible, so he rarely dispatches his flying drones to monitor the behavior of children during the offseason. Even though they're tiny, these robots still burn energy, so Santa typically shelves his UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles) until December.
With a solar-powered UAV, however, Santa could keep tabs on kids all year long. Boeing recently announced a solar-powered UAV designed to fly for at least five years at a time. The SolarEagle would cruise above 60,000 feet at somewhere between 70 and 80 knots. It would absorb solar energy during the day, store it in fuel cells, and then burn the energy at night to remain aloft. Solar arrays will cover more than 50 percent of the aircraft's surface.
If Santa were to stack a few of these UAVs with his own surveillance equipment, he could watch kids all year round without burning a drop of oil.
4. Uniform Upgrade
Sure, the red suit and hat are cute, but functional? Hardly. For one, Santa could use the night vision and thermal sensors now being considered for future military helmets. Most chimneys lead to dark living rooms, and Santa accidentally knocks over a tree on occasion as he searches for the light switch. With night vision goggles, he could work in the dark. The thermal sensor would let him know if someone is approaching or perhaps hiding behind a couch.
Because he has to travel through inter-dimensional space when he's in warp-drive mode, he'd probably benefit from a more robust, but still flexible suit as well. In this case, he might want to borrow ideas from new spacesuit designers like Nikolay Moiseev and Ted Southern. The pair recently unveiled a prototype spacesuit that gives astronauts far more flexibility in their hands. Dexterity is critical for Santa — he needs to be able to wrap those last-minute presents as he's whipping through space.
5. Hands-Free Driving
Finally, it seems ridiculous that Santa still has to drive his sleigh at all. Google announced this year that its engineers have been making tremendous progress with robotic, self-driving cars. The Google cars monitor the road and other traffic using video cameras, radar and laser-range finders that act as the robot's "eyes." The cars have already driven 140,000 miles in all, including a 350-mile trip.
If Santa were to adopt this technology, he could be far more productive. He could even kick back and take a nap every now and then while the sleigh was en route.
This story was provided by Life's Little Mysteries, a sister site to LiveScience. Gregory Mone is the author of The Truth About Santa: Wormholes, Robots, and What Really Happens on Christmas Eve (opens in new tab).