Santa Claus has got to be one of the most tech-savvy people in the world. Think about it: Circumnavigating the globe in a single night to deliver gifts to hundreds of millions of children is only possible by integrating some serious technology into his gift-giving empire. Surely his sleigh—the epicenter of this logistical feat—must be packed with cutting-edge electronics to ensure his success year after year. While the exact plans and specifications of his mobile command center are safely locked away at the North Pole, we can make some safe assumptions about the tech onboard.
Seeing where you are going is likely a major concern for the jolly old elf. His sleigh is likely to be equipped with a Forward Looking Infrared (FLIR) sensor that can visually cut through the wintry mix he encounters in the northern portions of the globe. Santa likely finds it very important to be able to see where he's going, and Rudolph's red nose can only provide so much illumination. Additionally, the sleigh probably has a Light Detection and Ranging (LIDAR) sensor to generate 3-D images so he can accurately and safely land.
One of the folktales surrounding Santa is that he makes a list (and checks it twice). But how does he know what the list should include? He’s likely using some technologies that are found in unmanned systems, better known as drones. Assuming Santa ascribes to the United States’ Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) rules, his sleigh can detect intruding aircraft within a three-mile radius with a field of view of 270° × 30°.
To assist in meeting these requirements, the sleigh employs a computer vision (CV) “sense and avoid” system that lets Santa manage his list while jet-setting (or is that sleigh-setting?) around the planet. Modern CV systems, such as the Intel® Neural Compute Stick 2, are built on technologies that can effectively use machine learning algorithms. In other words, these systems teach a machine image recognition by exposing it to enough similar images that it can reasonably guess what it sees. This is useful for Santa to discern between a rooftop and a mountaintop, for example.
Santa’s insistence on hand delivering gifts to every boy and girl requires precise knowledge of where he is at every second. The Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS) is an umbrella term for a variety of satellite-based navigation (satnav) technologies that enable the ability to locate anything or anyone on the planet. Specific implementations include GPS (which is perhaps the most widely known satnav system), GLONASS, QZSS, Beidou, and Galileo. Santa likely has multiple redundant systems onboard his sleigh to ensure accurate positioning no matter where he is at on the Earth. Integrating different satnav systems is not as complicated as one would suspect.
Santa is often given credit for single-handedly delivering Christmas joy year after year. The truth is: Without the continuous communications with the North Pole command center and a secret global network of holiday do-gooders, Santa would never be able to accomplish his impeccable record of success. Constant tweaks to the aforementioned list, getting weather updates, updating gift delivery changes, and checking in with Mrs. Claus requires pushing a lot of bits every second. That means Santa is likely running a prototype fifth generation (5G) wireless network. 5G offers “a 100-fold increase in data rates (great for gaming, ultra-high definition video, and virtual reality), a low-power way to facilitate human-machine communications with an eye toward the infrastructure required for vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-infrastructure communications required for autonomous vehicles, and even possibly a competitor for cable and fiber-delivered broadband and entertainment.”
Rumor is that Santa is working closely with Google’s Project SkyBender to test the feasibility of leveraging drones and aircraft to deliver Internet to the planet at speeds in excess of 40 times that of today’s 4G cellular networks. Fast, but still not as fast as Santa’s sleigh!
Regardless of whether you call him Santa Claus, Kris Kringle, Father Christmas, or Old Saint Nick, the man is a true technophile. By investing in the latest technologies, Santa ensures that he can continue to provide smiles to millions of children around the world.
So, what’s next? Rumors are that he has tasked his engineering elves to begin drawing up plans for what some consider to be the most radical sleigh design ever! Some say the new sleigh incorporate cutting-edge technology found in next-generation spacecraft—this way Santa can prepare for a future where humankind has colonized the Moon and Mars. Poor guy! There truly is no rest for the weary!
Michael Parks, P.E. is the owner of Green Shoe Garage, a custom electronics design studio and technology consultancy located in Southern Maryland. He produces the S.T.E.A.M. Power podcast to help raise public awareness of technical and scientific matters. Michael is also a licensed Professional Engineer in the state of Maryland and holds a Master’s degree in systems engineering from Johns Hopkins University.
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