The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge are heading back to Scotland next month for an important environmental event. Buckingham Palace confirmed that Prince William and Kate Middleton are joining Queen Elizabeth, Prince Charles and Camilla Parker-Bowles in Glasgow for the United Nations Climate Change Conference on November 1 through November 5, and will attend a number of events at the summit.
This will be the 26th annual summit; it was supposed to take place in November 2020, but was postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic. During the two-week conference, world leaders come together to discuss how to address climate change and complete the goals of the Paris Agreement; the objective is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and thus slow global warming.
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While the summit takes place from October 31 to November 12, it seems that as of now, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, the Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall will only be there for five days, perHello. Queen Elizabeth’s attendance was confirmed in late August, and she’s scheduled to attend the opening night reception on November 1. Other global leaders expected to attend the conference include Pope Francis, President Joe Biden and at least 100 more presidents and prime ministers, per the New York Times.
It makes sense that the Queen’s family is joining her for the occasion, as Prince Charles has long been an active and vocal environmentalist, and the Duke of Cambridge appears to be following in his footsteps. Last year, Prince William launched the Earthshot Prize, which awards five $1.2 million prizes to individuals, organizations and activists everywhere who are working to find solutions to the largest environmental problems plaguing the world.
Queen Elizabeth spent the past two months at Balmoral Castle, her estate in the Scottish Highlands, before returning to Windsor Castle in early October. Prince William and Duchess Kate visited the monarch in Scotland over the summer, when they brought their children to Balmoral for a family vacation. Prince Charles and Duchess Camilla also spend much of their summer (as well as lockdown) in Scotland at Birkhall, their home on the Queen’s Balmoral estate.
While the royals typically lighten their workload over the summer, they’ve gotten right back to work now that fall is in the air. The COP 26 conference, however, will be the first big engagement with all the senior royals together, including Queen Elizabeth, since the June G7 Summit in Cornwall. Prince William, Duchess Kate, Prince Charles and the Duchess of Cornwall did recently attend a big event together, as they all appeared at the James Bond premiere in London, where the Duchess of Cambridge stole the show in a glittering gold sequin gown.
Jordan Fisher was troubled. Every variety of the Red Bull energy drink comes in a similar metallic can, and his company’s camera system, which tracks products that customers pick up in stores, was having trouble distinguishing them.
This obstacle was one of many that his company, Standard AI, faced while retrofitting a Circle K convenience store in Tempe, Arizona, with computer vision software, which tracks every item that customers pick up so they can simply scan their app-enabled phone to pay as they leave, eliminating the checkout line. A network of more than 100 cameras can identify any of the thousands of similarly sized candy bars or beverages grabbed by customers, including cans of Red Bull, now identifiable thanks to a combination of geometric projections and higher-resolution cameras.
This tracking of consumer activity within the store — where shoppers look and linger, with cameras capturing their interactions and their near-misses — is part of a growing effort to use data collection to make commercial real estate more efficient.
“Checkout is kind of the killer app, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg,” said Fisher, CEO of Standard AI, which hones camera accuracy in high-volume, high-density environments. “You have a system that understands where people are in real time, down to the centimeter. It’s all about utilization of real estate.”
From the invasion of big-box stores to the ascendancy of e-commerce and, most recently, pandemic lockdowns, physical retail may seem stuck in perpetual crisis. But in-person shopping is still very popular and the subject of significant investment. (Retail tech investment hit a record $31.5 billion in the second quarter this year.) Amazon has spent generously on physical retail, including $13.4 billion on the acquisition of Whole Foods, and the development of its Just Walk Out system, which kick-started a race for cashierless checkout among grocery stores and retailers.
The added layers of technology in stores and entertainment venues — crowd-tracking cameras, information gleaned from smartphones, tallies of neighborhood foot traffic and sophisticated demographic data — aim to replicate the data measurement and analysis of the online experience.
But privacy advocates are sounding the alarm about the technology as Big Tech is under increased scrutiny. Congressional testimony from the Facebook whistleblower, Frances Haugen, in October has intensified calls for new regulations to rein in Silicon Valley giants.
Complicating efforts to address privacy concerns is a lack of regulatory clarity. Without an overarching federal privacy law or even a shared definition of personal data, retailers must sort through layers of state and municipal rules, such as California’s Consumer Privacy Act, said Gary Kibel, a partner at law firm Davis+Gilbert who specializes in retail privacy.
Technology companies counter the pushback by noting that their systems are designed to limit what they collect and anonymize the rest. For instance, Standard AI’s system does not capture faces, so they cannot be analyzed with facial recognition technology.
The growing volume of data on consumer and crowd behavior is having significant implications on real estate design. It is making even physical space more interactive for marketers.
WaitTime, an artificial intelligence crowd-counting startup backed by Cisco Systems, is used by venues such as Dodger Stadium and the Melbourne Cricket Ground in Australia. At the FTX Arena, where the Miami Heat play, digital messaging on concourse entrances powered by WaitTime tells fans not just where to find food and drinks but the length of the lines.
In today’s market, “data eliminates the risk,” said Ken Martin, executive director of global sales at Cisco, adding that crowd-tracking technology could guarantee a high return on investment.
The increased use of crowd-counting technology is part of a wave of changes that industry experts say sports and other entertainment venues will use to improve security and crowd flow and allow mobile and contactless ordering.
“The pandemic pushed people who weren’t using this technology over the edge,” said Sanford D. Sigal, CEO of NewMark Merrill, which owns more than 80 shopping centers, and chair of BrightStreet Ventures, a firm that develops retail technology. “Is this technology aspirin, that you take when you’re feeling bad, or penicillin, where it saves your life? Today, it’s definitely penicillin.”
Many industry observers suggest that these methods can improve performance, but there are doubters.
“I’m a fan of fact-based decision-making, but there are a lot of charlatans promising things that aren’t reasonable in terms of outcomes,” said Mark A. Cohen, director of retail studies at Columbia Business School.
Proponents argue that data can make a difference in decision-making by streamlining the leasing and scouting of new locations. Detailed information about how customers use parking or specific stores helps landlords and property owners better curate their malls and shopping centers.
“It’s not that the data is so out of touch with intuition. It’s that the data is real and gives brands the extra push they need to open a store,” said Adam Henick, a founder of Current Real Estate Advisors, which focuses on social media and data analysis.
He compared the adoption of data in real estate to MLB’s recent embrace of more aggressive defensive alignments, using statistical analysis to shift fielders for every batter. It is the same game but played with much more strategy and certainty.
Brokers can more easily winnow potential locations to a handful of spots based on local demographics and the mix of nearby stores, said Ethan Chernofsky, vice president of marketing at Placer.ai, which provides location intelligence and demographic data for retailers.
“Now you truly understand the demographics that come to a location, actual foot traffic, the value of co-tenants and their traffic, a far richer understanding of a location,” said Kevin Campos, who runs the retail technology fund at venture capital firm Fifth Wall. “It’s a more informed conversation between a landlord and a potential tenant.”
Placer has roughly 800 customers in commercial real estate and retail, including top brokerages and developers such as Tishman Speyer and Marcus & Millichap. The Placer data has been a go-to tool for measuring returning shoppers this year, offering week-old insights where earlier methods would lag behind three or four months, said James Cook, director of retail research for the Americas at JLL, a commercial real estate brokerage.
The growth of data mining has attracted more entrepreneurs, who are eager to create a more data-informed experience for retail brands.
Leap, a New York startup, operates boutique stores in several states for small, often digitally native, direct-to-consumer brands, handling their real estate, design work and even data analysis, said Amish Tolia, a co-CEO of Leap. For example, Goodlife Clothing, an online retailer, hired Leap to operate its two Manhattan locations.
“I look at this business in a digital way, and they look at it the same way,” said Andrew Codispoti, Goodlife’s co-founder and co-CEO. “They’re becoming experts in more and more places around the country, where to grow, based on your data as a brand.”
The option to open a turnkey location is a big selling point, but Leap also amalgamates shopping patterns — including local e-commerce sales, foot traffic and neighborhood demographics — across all of its locations. This allows it to pick ideal tenants and even tell them the most profitable merchandise to display.
“Leap is effectively going to own a data set nationally that’s truly meaningful to retailers and to real estate owners,” said Henick of Current Advisors, which has helped Leap find Manhattan locations for retailers. “It can give brands comfort with their success rate in a given location.”
Data mining and analysis are becoming key tools to help retail and entertainment recover from the pandemic-induced downturn, he added.
“If you’re spending dollars, don’t you want to spend them as accurately as possible?” Henick said. “I think that’s the benefit of data.”
Despite the promise of two-hour flights from New York to Los Angeles, the supersonic airline industry never really got off the ground. That is largely because of physics: specifically, the sonic boom, the thunderclap noise made when an aircraft breaks the sound barrier, which essentially doomed supersonic aviation as a viable business.
In 1960s-era tests, booms reportedly broke windows, cracked plaster and knocked knickknacks from shelves; in 1973, the Federal Aviation Administration forbade civilian supersonic aircraft from flying over land. Planes could go supersonic only over the ocean — most famously, the Concorde, the sleek British-French passenger plane that flew a handful of routes in less than half the average time. But potentially lucrative overland routes were off-limits, restricting supersonic travel’s business prospects.
NASA and aviation entrepreneurs, however, are working to change that, with new aircraft designed to turn the boom into a “sonic thump” that is no louder than a car door being slammed 20 feet away. That may induce the FAA to lift the ban, which could allow for two-hour coast-to-coast supersonic flights.
“The main reason NASA is working on this is to enable regulation for supersonic flight,” said Craig Nickol, NASA’s low-boom flight demonstration project manager. “The main objective is to open up new markets.”
The supersonic age dawned Oct. 14, 1947, when Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier while piloting the rocket-powered Bell X-1 over the Mojave Desert. In the following decades, the barrier was also broken by a succession of military jets, once by a passenger airliner (during a test flight of a Douglas DC-8 in 1961) and, ultimately, by regular commercial service from the Soviet Tupolev Tu-144 and the Concorde, both long defunct.
The far more successful Concorde mostly traveled trans-Atlantic routes at about $6,000 to $7,000 per ticket for a 3 1/2 hour flight in a cramped, noisy cabin, which was nonetheless considered glamorous. The Champagne-and-caviar flights were discontinued in 2003 after 27 years of intermittent profitability and one crash that killed 113 people. What the Concorde’s chief pilot called “the airliner of the future” was consigned to the past.
But the possibility of a supersonic renaissance was arriving even as the Concorde was on its way out. The slide rules and log tables used to design it had been pushed aside by supercomputers, which enabled engineers to test and tweak virtual aircraft designs comparatively cheaply and quickly.
That is exactly what DARPA, the research and development wing of the U.S. Defense Department, and NASA did in 2003 with the Shaped Sonic Boom Experiment, which confirmed that computer-designed modifications to a Northrop F-5E jet would hush the sonic boom in the way the software forecasted.
“We flew it and measured it, and our model predicted the boom very well,” Nickol said. “It was the first time we could prove that we could shape the sonic boom in a way we could predict.” That demonstration set the course for research to follow.
Taming the boom is complicated. Air has substance, which an aircraft slices through, much as a boat moves through water. A plane pushes air aside as it flies, creating ripples of air pressure. As an aircraft approaches the speed of sound, pressure builds up on surfaces like the nose and tail, creating waves of high pressure in front and low pressure behind. At the speed of sound, waves pile up and combine to reach the ground as an abrupt change in pressure that is heard as that thunderclap sound.
“It’s the change in the pressure that makes the sound,” Alexandra Loubeau, a NASA acoustics engineer, said. And that boom happens not just when a plane first breaks through the sound barrier; it also trails the jet continuously, like a boat’s wake.
NASA research led to the X-59 QueSST (for Quiet Supersonic Technology), a needle-beaked aircraft with lift and control surfaces spread over the 100-foot fuselage, of which 33 feet are nose.
The shock waves of a sonic boom cannot be avoided completely, but by minimizing the surfaces where pressure builds up — like the air intake and control surfaces — and spreading them over the length of a fuselage, shock waves can be reduced, shaped and aimed.
“You can modify the aircraft to alter what the wave looks like when it hits the ground,” Nickol said. “What we are doing is trying to spread those waves out and make them weaker.”
NASA is not alone in trying to reestablish supersonic travel. Blake Scholl, CEO of the Denver-based company Boom Supersonic, has declared an audacious goal of delivering passengers anywhere in the world within four hours for $100. He said Boom would begin with international transoceanic supersonic service so that it would not have to worry about noise or wait for regulation changes, although domestic routes would mean more passengers, giving the business “a huge boost, a factor of two or three times in opportunity,” he said.
Scholl added that he thought that just making faster aircraft would not create a sustainable supersonic business; planes must also be faster, cheaper and eco-friendly. The effort “has to be 100% carbon-neutral,” he said.
In his view, speed, economy and reduced emissions can be achieved through cleaner fuels and new engines designed expressly for supersonic flight. This approach contrasts with that of the Concorde, which used “converted military engines that were super-inefficient and rip-roaring loud,” Scholl said. (There are no realistic estimates on how or when such engines will be available.)
These engines — as well as modern materials, building methods and efficiencies introduced since the 1970s supersonic vogue — would let Boom operate for 75% less than the Concorde, Scholl said, although he added that his goal was to be 95% less expensive. Even so, he estimated initial fares at about the cost of a business-class ticket.
“Still a long way from $100,” he acknowledged.
A handful of companies have proposed private supersonic business jets to whisk international bankers, CEOs and hedge fund managers around the globe in swift, exclusive opulence. But despite the stated intentions of established players such as Gulfstream and credible upstarts like Spike Aerospace, private supersonic jets have yet to streak across the skies.
The chief barrier appears to be economic. It is the norm for aircraft to take longer and cost more to build than projected, and private supersonic jets are no exception.
NASA has government backing and shares much of its research so that any aerospace company can benefit from it, although it does not work with any specific airline or manufacturer. But without government financing, it is tougher for companies like Gulfstream and Boom.
There is a cautionary tale in the experience of Aerion Supersonic, a company of aviation veterans that was underwritten by billionaire Robert Bass, in partnership with Boeing, and that claimed preorders of $11.2 billion. Unable to raise enough cash to keep the doors open, Aerion shut down in May and is now being liquidated in a Florida court.
While supersonic travel would be a boon to international trade, there are too many unknowns to predict its viability as a business, said Bijan Vasigh, who teaches economics at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Florida.
“Are there 50 people a day who want to fly to London?” he asked. “Do we know how much people are willing to pay?”
He added: “We do our best analysis, but everything in the future could change. The best economist cannot find the answer.”
Adam Pilarski, an aviation economist and consultant, agreed that the numbers were uncertain, but he still expects to see supersonic aircraft produced, although not by a major aircraft manufacturer.
“It will make all of their other planes obsolete,” he said.
Instead, he looks to a maverick outfit on the order of Elon Musk’s venture with Tesla or Space-X.
“When Musk started going to space, who believed him? Nobody!” Pilarski said. “The CPA type thinks, ‘How much people will pay?’ Who cares?”
Although Pilarski predicts eventual success for a supersonic airline, he is reluctant to place any bets.
“Will Blake Scholl make it?” he asked. “I don’t know; he is a nice boy. But would I put my money on it, and grandchildren’s education fund on it? No.”
The crash that hit Interstate 225 in Aurora at the height of the evening rush hour was garden-variety: A sedan smashed into the back of a sport-utility vehicle, and nobody was hurt.
But the wreck quickly backed up northbound traffic all the same, with the heavily damaged Toyota Camry stuck, its engine dead, in one of the middle lanes near Colfax Avenue.
John “Boston” Alborghetti knew just what to do. Arriving before police, the CDOT Safety Patrol driver first checked to make sure no one was hurt. Then he used his specially outfitted Ford F-250 pickup to nudge the Camry over to the shoulder, where it joined the Jeep that had been hit.
Traffic was moving in all four lanes within five minutes.
Patrollers in the Colorado Department of Transportation’s roadside assistance program have kept tabs on a growing network of metro Denver and Colorado highways for 29 years, offering free help to stranded motorists while assisting authorities at crash scenes. The Safety Patrol recently added new routes in metro Denver to its network and signed up a new sponsor, the Geico insurance company, which will contribute $550,000 a year toward the program’s $6.5 million budget, CDOT says.
Alborghetti’s response on I-225 on the recent Monday evening prioritized safety and speed, since a quicker clearance of the highway lessens the chances for another crash. He left broken glass and debris on the pavement, but the people involved in the crash were safely on the shoulder.
“If (the stalled car) was in the left lane or right lane — not in the middle — I would have kept the lane shut down with my cones and I would have swept the debris up,” said Alborghetti, 50, a no-nonsense Army Reservist with a Boston accent whose nickname was inspired by his upbringing there.
“But people just want to go — I want to open it up quick and fast, get people going.”
Safety Patrol drivers don’t investigate crashes or issue tickets, but they do help responding state troopers and police officers with traffic control and safety. They also can clear most anything that’s blocking the highway, whether it’s a car, a large appliance that’s fallen off a truck — or even an 18-wheeler, which takes two Safety Patrol drivers working in tandem, Alborghetti said.
For three years, he’s been the operational manager for IncidentClear, CDOT’s Safety Patrol contractor. Its drivers assist more than 40,000 motorists a year, CDOT says, between crash responses and helping drivers who need a flat tire changed, a jump-start, extra fuel or lockout assistance.
When needed, the program’s towing partner provides free tows to safe, well-lit locations off the highway.
“We see accidents happen right in front of us”
Alborghetti was joined by a Denver Post reporter and photographer on that Monday in early November as he drove nearly 100 miles of metro Denver highways in three and a half hours.
As Alborghetti drove, he kept an eye out for collisions and for vehicles pulled over on the shoulders.
“So as I’m looking, I’m not only looking at this side (of the highway), I’m looking at that side, too,” he said as he neared the Sixth Avenue exit on Interstate 25 near downtown. “Because an accident may happen before CDOT or everybody else knows about it. We see accidents happen right in front of us.”
The afternoon had started quietly. Alborghetti’s first stop was on Interstate 70 near Sheridan Boulevard, where officers were responding to a car traveling the wrong direction in the eastbound lanes. He stopped in the left lane, his truck’s yellow emergency lights flashing, and placed cones to block it off for extra safety.
The driver turned out to be an older man who entered on the wrong ramp. By then, he’d pulled over on the inside shoulder and was talking with the officers. Alborghetti said they asked family members to come and drive the man home.
A half-hour later, while driving on I-25 near University Boulevard, Alborghetti spotted police and a CDOT incident management crew on the other side of the highway. He exited and turned back. They were managing traffic for a food truck that was stranded and blocking the right lane after its back axel busted, throwing the wheels out of alignment.
But this time, there was nothing for him to do, since the truck was upright and couldn’t move on its tires. If it had overturned and “it’s sitting out there, then boom! We will push it,” he said. Instead, Denver police called in a flatbed truck.
New patrols added on I-270, I-76
The Safety Patrol has nearly two dozen trucks stocked with equipment, extra gas and cleanup materials. Its drivers patrol interstates 25, 70 and 225 as well as the Sixth Avenue Freeway and C-470 in the Denver area; stretches of I-25 near Colorado Springs and Fort Collins; and I-70 in the mountains between Golden and Vail.
In mid-November, the Safety Patrol added new regular patrols on interstates 76 and 270 in metro Denver.
Most shifts cover the morning and evening rush hours, but some Safety Patrol drivers roam the highways during off-peak hours and on weekends, especially on the I-70 mountain stretch. They operate everywhere except construction zones, which have their own safety crews.
“I really want to tell people,” Alborghetti said, that “if you see one of our trucks … move out of the way — because there is something hindering and stopping you from going home to your family, going to work, going out on a hot date or something,” and the Safety Patrol can get traffic moving again.
The Navy veteran lives in Castle Rock and now is in the Army Reserves. He said his most recent deployment was in the last year at the U.S. military’s detention camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. He worked in security at Lockheed Martin’s Jefferson County campus, he said, before joining IncidentClear and the Safety Patrol.
Five years from retirement, he says he enjoys overseeing the patrol crews, while driving routes himself occasionally.
It’s a job that brings gratitude from the people helped by the patrol drivers. But the job also comes with its share of dangers, despite extensive training aimed at minimizing safety risks while working in traffic. Safety Patrol drivers also might be the first ones to arrive at a fatal crash scene — an incident that’s more likely to shut down a highway while it’s sorted out.
The drivers’ pay starts at $18 an hour and increases by $1 each year, Alborghetti said, with drivers eligible for safety bonuses.
For some, the variety is appealing. Drivers see similar patterns of crashes and roadside breakdowns, but each day brings a reshuffled deck — with winter storms throwing an extra wildcard into the mix.
“What’s today, Monday?” Alborghetti said, noting it had been relatively tame. “It’s a free-for-all on Fridays.”
Reducing the risk of more crashes
The quiet afternoon would soon give way to a flurry of radio traffic after 5 p.m., as rush-hour traffic grew denser.
But before that happened, Alborghetti talked about how the Safety Patrol responds to crashes. There’s a reason the drivers move quickly, with the program touting an average clearance time of less than 12 minutes.
As traffic backs up and drivers slam on the brakes, each minute brings a greater risk of another crash.
Alborghetti took the ramp from C-470 back onto I-70 as the sun was setting. He passed the stretch in Lakewood where the driver of a runaway semitrailer crashed into stopped traffic in April 2019, setting off a fiery chain-reaction pileup involving 28 vehicles. Four people died, and the driver recently was convicted of vehicular homicide.
The tragedy was a secondary crash, Alborghetti pointed out: That traffic was stopped because of a less-severe crash involving a car, a semitrailer and a school bus that happened five miles up the highway in Wheat Ridge about an hour earlier.
Clearing that one was more complicated than a fender-bender. But he said the time it took prompted hindsight discussions within CDOT and the Safety Patrol that underlined the importance of clearing most crashes quickly, to lessen the traffic backup.
“If we had moved that quicker,” Alborghetti speculated, perhaps the semitrailer driver in the fatal crash “could have slowed down just with his gears and made it all the way down to here … and gotten (his truck) under control.”
At 5:15 p.m., soon after turning south on I-225 on the other side of the Denver area, Alborghetti spotted the aftermath of a fresh two-car crash — the one involving the Camry and the Jeep — on the northbound side. After turning around at Colfax, he arrived and got to work, clearing the Camry from the middle of the highway within minutes.
After he departed, the radio popped with reports of other drivers responding to a four-car crash on Sixth Avenue at Wadsworth, a crash on I-25 at Colfax, one near I-25 and 58th Avenue, and another on I-25 in Castle Rock.