November 2, 2012
Talk about being prescient.
Not quite two months ago Mireya Navarro wrote the following in the New York Times:
“With a 520-mile-long coast lined largely by teeming roads and fragile infrastructure, New York City is gingerly facing up to the intertwined threats posed by rising seas and ever-more-severe storm flooding.”
She also noted that critics say “New York is moving too slowly to address the potential for flooding that could paralyze transportation, cripple the low-lying financial district and temporarily drive hundreds of thousands of people from their homes.”
Actually, Navarro was not quite as oracular as it might seem. Scientists at Stony Brook University, working together as the ominously-named Storm Surge Research Group, have been beating this drum for years, warning that New York City becomes more vulnerable with each passing year as ocean levels rise. And last year, a New York State report estimated that a bad coastal storm could flood the subways and cost up to $58 billion in economic damage and revenue lost.
Even the city’s Museum of Modern Art has raised the spectre of a shrinking New York, with a 2010 exhibit titled “Rising Currents.” It included one architect’s vision of a Lower Manhattan defined by “a network of walkways that allow people to walk among the marsh and tall grass.”
Don’t speak of this
The idea of building a series of sea gates along Manhattan that could be closed during a major storm has been much discussed, but so far hasn’t moved much past the talking stage. For starters, there’s the potential cost, estimated at $10 billion, probably more. Also, it hasn’t helped that climate change has become the Lord Voldemort of political issues–you know, the He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named guy.
Which helps explain why New York is hardly alone among American cities when it comes to being skittish about investing heavily in climate change protection, which, by the way, is now referred to as “resiliency planning.” In fact, according to a recent study at MIT, only 59 percent of U.S. cities are engaged in such planning, as opposed to 86 percent of cities in Australia and New Zealand, 84 percent in Europe and 80 percent in Africa.
Luckily, most American cities aren’t as close to the brink as New York when it comes to the impact of extreme weather. So they’ve been able to get by with adaptation more incremental than transformative.
But at least some cities are starting to make resiliency planning a core part of their 21st century agenda. Chicago, for instance, has for several years now, been repaving its almost 2,000 miles of alleys with permeable concrete, a surface that allows storm water to seep through into the soil below instead of streaming into an overwhelmed sewer system or flowing as polluted runoff into streams and rivers. And that water in the ground beneath the concrete also keeps the aIleys cooler during the blisteringly hot summers Chicago has suffered though in recent years. Soon the city will start using the porous pavement in bike lanes.
Chicago’s also become a leader in the development of green roofs--rooftops covered with grass, flowers and decorative bushes that not only cut a building’s air conditioning costs, but also reduce the amount of rainwater that pours down gutters and into the sewers.
Other cities, such as Philadelphia, Nashville and Houston, have become much more aggressive about planting trees in environmentally sensitive areas to help them counter the impact of storms capable of unloading several inches of rain in a day.
Will that be enough? Maybe not. But one of the lessons from Sandy is that cities, in particular, no longer have the luxury of waiting for scientific certainty in linking extreme weather to climate change.
As Michael Oppenheimer, a professor of geosciences and international affairs at Princeton, told the Huffington Post:
“Whether or not there was a climate change component to this storm, it teaches us a lot of things, including how behind the 8-ball we are in being able to handle big events of the type that we believe — that scientists think — are going to get more frequent and intense in the future. So whether this one was 5 percent due to climate change or 1 percent or 10 percent — it’s interesting, it matters to a certain extent, but it’s not the whole story by any means.”
Jennifer Morgan, the director of the climate and energy program with the World Resources Institute, put it another way: “While it’s important to understand the scientific evidence underpinning these events, waiting for certainty that a particular storm or other event is caused by climate change is courting disaster. You don’t wait for 100 percent certainty that your house will burn down before you take out fire insurance.”
Slideshow bonus: With New York and Miami at the top of the list, here are the 17 U.S. cities most at risk from rising seas.
Video bonus: Watch time lapse video of Superstorm Sandy pummeling New York and Lower Manhattan going dark.
More from Smithsonian.com
October 15, 2012
The International Association of Police Chiefs held its convention in San Diego earlier this month and one of the booths drawing a lot of attention belonged to a California company called AeroVironment, Inc.
It’s in the business of building drones.
One of its models–the Raven–weighs less than five pounds and is the most popular military spy drone in the world. More than 19,000 have been sold. Another of its robot planes–the Switchblade–is seen as the kamikaze drone of the future, one small enough to fit into a soldier’s backpack.
But AeroVironment is zeroing in on a new market–police and fire departments too small to afford their own helicopters, but big enough to have a need for overhead surveillance. So in San Diego, it was showing off yet another model, this one called the Qube.
The camera never blinks
AeroVironment likes to tout the Qube as just what a future-thinking police department needs–a flying machine that fits in the trunk of a cop car–it’s less than five pounds and just three feet long–can climb as high as 500 feet and stays airborne as long as 40 minutes.
Outfitted with high-resolution color and thermal cameras that transmit what they see to a screen on the ground, the Qube is being marketted as a moderately-priced surveillance tool ($50,000 and up) for keeping fleeing criminals in sight or being eyes in the sky for SWAT teams dealing with hostage situations or gunmen they can’t see.
A few police departments have already taken the plunge into what are officially known as Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs)–big cities like Miami, Houston, and Seattle, but also smaller towns, such as North Little Rock, Ark., Ogden, Utah and Gadsen, Ala. Most used Homeland Security grants to buy their drones and they all had to be specially authorized by the FAA to fly them.
So far, they haven’t flown them all that much because the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) doesn’t yet allow drones to be used in populated areas and near airports, at an altitude above 400 feet, or even beyond the view of the operator. But that’s going to change, with the FAA estimating that by the end of the decade, at least 15,000 drones will be licensed to operate over the U.S.
I spy a pool party
So how is this going to work? What’s to keep all those unmanned aircraft from hitting planes or helicopters or crashing into buildings? And what’s going to prevent them from spying on private citizens or shooting video of pool parties?
The FAA is wrestling with all that now and, given the need to ensure both safe skies and individual privacy, the agency may have a hard time nailing down regulations by August, 2014, the deadline Congress set earlier this year with the goal of opening up public airspace to commercial drones in the fall of 2015.
The feds are already behind schedule in selecting six locations in the U.S. where they’ll test drones to see if they can do what their manufacturers say they can do and, more importantly, if they can be kept from flying out of control. Later this month, however, at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, the Department of Homeland Security will start grading different drones on how well they perform when lives are at stake, say with a hostage situation, or a spill of hazardous waste or a search and rescue mission.
For a technology still largely seen as a deadly, and controversial, weapon for going after suspected terrorists, it couldn’t hurt to be able show how a drone can help find a lost kid or save an Alzheimer’s patient wandering through the woods.
Not so private eyes
Still, the idea of police departments or government agencies having access to flying cameras makes a lot of people uneasy. This summer, when a rumor started on Twitter that the EPA was using drones to spy on American farmers, it shot through the blogosphere, was repeated on TV, and then in condemning press releases issued by several congressmen–even though it wasn’t true.
As Benjamin Wittes and John Villasenor pointed out in the Washington Post earlier this year, the FAA isn’t a privacy agency. It’s loaded with aviation lawyers. Yet it will be dealing with some very dicey issues, such as how do you define invasion of privacy from public airspace and who can get access to video shot by a drone.
To quote Wittes and Villasenor:
“The potential for abuses on the part of government actors, corporations and even individuals is real — and warrants serious consideration before some set of incidents poisons public attitudes against a field that promises great benefits.”
Judging from a pair of surveys on the subject, the public is already pretty wary. Of those recently surveyed by the Associated Press, about a third said they are “extremely concerned” or “very concerned” about how drones could affect their privacy.
Another national poll, taken this summer by the Monmouth University Polling Institute, found that while 80 percent of the people surveyed like the idea of drones helping with search and rescue missions and 67 percent support using them to track runaway criminals, about 64 percent said they are “very concerned” or “somewhat concerned” about losing their privacy.
And they definitely don’t like the notion of police departments using them to enforce routine laws. Two out of three people surveyed said they hate the idea of drones being used to issue speeding tickets.
When robots fly
Here’s more recent research on flying robots:
- No crash courses: NASA scientists are testing two different computer programs to see if they can help drones sense and then avoid potential mid-air collisions. In theory, an unmanned aircraft would be able to read data about other flying objects and change its speed and heading if it appeared to be on a collision course.
- What goes up doesn’t have to come down: Two recent innovations could dramatically increase the flight time of both giant drones and handheld ones. Lockheed Martin has found a way to recharge its huge Stalker drones wirelessly using lasers, allowing them to stay airborne for as long as 48 hours. And Los Angeles-based Somatis Technologies is working on a process to convert wind pressure and vibrations into energy and that could triple the battery life of hand-launched drones to almost three hours.
- Get your protest souvenir photos here: Russia is stepping up its drone program and will continue to use them to monitor street protests.
- The face is familiar: The Congressional Research Service released a report last month suggesting that law enforcement agencies could, in the near future, outfit drones with facial recognition or biometric software that could “recognize and track individuals based on attributes such as height, age, gender and skin color.”
- Talk to me when it makes honey: Harvard researchers have been working on a tiny–not much larger than a quarter–robotic bee for five years and now it can not only take off on its own power, but it can also pretty much fly where they want it to go.
- Two blinks to get rid of red eye: Chinese scientists have designed quadcopters that can be controlled by human thought and be told to take a photo by the blink of an eye.
Video bonus: This promo video by AeroVironment sure makes it feel like the Qube drone could have its own TV series.
More from Smithsonian.com
September 20, 2012
Usually I walk to work, but earlier this week, after another apocalyptic forecast of torrential rains and head-twisting winds, I fell prey to weather dread and drove in.
In no time, I was reminded of why Washington D.C. has the worst drivers in the U.S.–Allstate verified it–and also why it’s among the Top 10 congested cities in the country. The latest estimate is that drivers here waste an average of 45 hours a year in traffic jams. I don’t know if anyone’s come up with a comparable analysis of how much time the stress of sitting in gridlock takes off your life, but I’m guessing I said goodbye to 15 minutes or so that morning.
The experience revived my interest in the science of traffic flow and how GPS, sensors, and algorithms have made it possible to imagine a day when the commuting madness will end.
Here are some of the ways we just may get there:
1) Follow the wisdom of E. coli: That’s the thinking of two Chinese engineers wrestling with the hideous traffic of Guangzhou, a city of 13 million in southern China. They are advocates of applying “swarm intelligence” to traffic lights in the city, or more specifically, something known as Bacterial Foraging Optimization. This is an algorithm based on the behavior of E. coli, which, while very basic, ultimately results in the optimal solution to problems. In this case, the algorithm would be applied to stop lights, adapting them to traffic flow instead of keeping them on a fixed loop.
2) Failing that, you can still learn a few things from humans: Scientists at the University of Southampton in the U.K. found that real humans are better traffic controllers than computerized systems. So now they’re focusing on developing artificial intelligence for traffic control systems so they can learn from experience as humans do.
3) Or feel the pulse of social chatter: IBM studied traffic jams in three Indian cities over the past year through the social network comments of people stuck in them. The company’s evaluation of tweets, Facebook updates and other social network discussions of people in Mumbai, Bangalore and New Delhi is designed to show how social data can be used to read public attitudes on big urban issues, such as traffic. Among its findings: Drivers in New Delhi talked more about public transportation, weather and the stress of commuting, while those in Bangalore vented about the overall driving experience, construction and parking. And in Mumbai, they tended to rant about accidents and pollution.
4) Twitter intelligence is not an oxymoron: And Twitter is also being used in real time to stay on top of traffic accidents and backups on British highways. A mobile app called Twitraffic analyzes what people are saying on Twitter about traffic and warns you about problems that have popped up. The company behind the app claims it lets people know about accidents an average of seven minutes before the government’s Highways Agency does. It hopes to launch a U.S. version next month.
5) Meanwhile, back in the U.S.: There’s already a pretty impressive mobile app available here for helping you avoid commuting nightmares. It’s called Waze and it not only gives you directions, but it also monitors what other drivers are saying about what’s happening on the streets around you. It’s a traffic report through crowdsourcing, and one that constantly updates with new directions if there’s bad news coming in about the road ahead.
6) Just let the cars work it out: Since last month, about 3,000 vehicles around Ann Arbor, Michigan have been able to talk to one another. As part of a joint project of the U.S.Department of Transportation and the University of Michigan, the cars and trucks have been adapted to be able to communicate wirelessly and warn each other of potential accidents or backups. For instance, one vehicle could tell another when it’s approaching an intersection or if it’s stopping on the road ahead. The Michigan researchers think these wireless systems, if they become a standard feature, could cut accidents by 80 percent.
7) Car Talk was taken: MIT scientists are heading down the same road, developing something they calls CarSpeak. It’s a communication system for driverless cars that lets them “see” through the data provided by other cars on the road. And that would allow a car to cruise right through an intersection because it would know no other cars were coming.
Down the road
Here are a few other developments designed to help us get around:
- Not so mellow yellow: A researcher at Virginia Tech concludes that one of our big problems is yellow lights because they create what he calls a “dilemma zone” for drivers. He’s developing a system for giving drivers a few seconds notice when a light is about to turn yellow.
- We don’t need no stinking stretch limo: The largest buses in the world, 98-foot-long vehicles capable of carrying more than 250 people, will be rolled out in Dresden, Germany next month.
- Nothing makes an old man feel young like driving at night: According to a study at MIT, the most important car feature for drivers over 50 are smart headlights, which adjust the range and intensity of light based on the location of other cars. The idea is to reduce glare and improve visibility at night.
- I’m sleepin’ here: A new study of traffic noise levels in and around Atlanta found that almost 10 percent of the area’s population is exposed to traffic noise at a level described as “annoying.” And more than 2 percent live where traffic noise was described as “highly disturbing to sleep.”
Video bonus: How maddening are phantom traffic jams, you know, when everything slows to a crawl for no apparent reason? Here are two explanations, one from scientists, the other more like what we imagine.
More from Smithsonian.com
August 23, 2012
It’s not often that shoes make news and when they do, it usually has something to do with Nike and latest sports deity whose feet it has shod.
So it was again earlier this week when The Wall Street Journal reported that when Nike rolls out its LeBron X Nike Plus model this fall, sneakers could break the $300 barrier.
For that tidy sum, you’ll get the same type of shoes LeBron James wore in the Olympics gold medal basketball game in London and you get sensors–four scientifically-placed sensors embedded under each sole. They will measure downward pressure from different points on your foot and, together with an accelerometer, also under the sole, they’ll gather data and send it to your smartphone, which will let you know how high you’ve jumped.
Not that I need sensors to tell me that the answer is “Not very.” Then again, I’m hardly in Nike’s golden demo. Still, while demand for pricey sports shoes has remained steady throught the recession, the sense is that if prices keep climbing, people better get more than a gilded Swoosh for their money. So Nike has also put the sensors in trainer models, allowing the shoes to track and measure a person’s workouts and share that info with his or her smartphone.
Which, if equipped with Siri, will one day be able to let you know how disappointed she is in you.
You are how you walk
Actually, the most intriguing story about shoes this summer came out last month in Pittsburgh. Researchers at Carnegie-Mellon University (CMU) are working with a Canadian startup called Autonomous ID to develop biometric shoes that can identify who you are by the way you walk.
Studies have shown that everyone has unique feet and a distinctive gait, a signature as personalized as a fingerprint. Both the U.S. Department of Defense and the Chinese government, in fact, have spent millions of dollars on gait research.
The CMU team has applied that knowledge to create what they’ve dubbed BioSoles for shoes. They can record the pressure points of someone’s feet, track their gait and use a microcomputer to compare that to a master file already made for that person. If the patterns match, the BioSoles stay silent. If they don’t, they transmit a wireless alarm message.
According to the scientists, the system knows by your third step if you are who you’re supposed to be. In testing so far, they say it’s been accurate 99 percent of the time. Now they’re broadening the sample so that a much wider range of society is tested–thin people, heavy people, athletes, members of different races and cultures, and twins.
How would BioSoles be used? Mainly at military bases and nuclear plants for now, where each employee would have his own shoes. That would provide security that’s effective, but less invasive than other biometric techniques, such as iris scans.
But since the devices are designed to detect changes in gait, some think they could end up being used to help spot early signs of Alzheimer’s disease. One of its first indications is a slowing walk or a change in stride.
Best foot forward
Here are other recent innovations from the shoe biz:
- At least your shoes will understand you: Engineers in Germany have developed a device called ShoeSense that allows your shoes to read hand gestures and pass on messages to your smartphone. Here’s how it would work: Say you’re sitting in a meeting and you feel your phone vibrate in your pocket, but don’t want to be rude. So you make a pre-arranged gesture under the table, such as holding up two fingers, and your shoes will tell your phone to send a text you’ve already written.
- The gaits have opened: A firm based in Oklahoma City, Orthocare Innovations, has created a prosthetic device that closely mimics a human ankle and can be controlled with a smartphone. The device includes a microprocessor, sensors and hydraulics that allow users to make adjustments to changes in conditions, such as moving from a level surface to an incline.
- Lost and found: There’s now a brand of shoes designed to help find Alzheimer’s patients who wander away. The GPS Smart Shoe has a GPS transmitter embedded in its heel and tracks the person’s location in real time and sends the info to a monitoring station.
- Hot off the printer: Continuum, a small firm that sells customizable fashion, is now marketing shoes made on a 3D printer. Customers can order different colors, styles or heel lengths. The cost? A cool $900 a pair. (Take that, LeBron).
- Road zip: To make it easier to pack hiking shoes, Timberland has come out with the Radler Trail Camp shoes. They fold in half and zip shut.
- Yes, there are bad ideas: Earlier this summer Los Angeles designer Jeremy Scott created for Adidas a model for a sneaker that came with a plastic shackle meant to encircle the leg above each shoe. The Rev. Jesse Jackson said they looked like “slave shoes.” Adidas made them go away.
More from Smithsonian.com
August 6, 2012
If you’re over 50 and bought a new car recently, you’ve no doubt had the same reaction to the dashboard that I did, which was: “What is all this?”
I realize that these days data is to be revered and that a moment without infotainment or, perish the thought, a Web connection, is viewed as life not worth living. Yet I can’t shake the notion that the point of getting in a car is to drive it somewhere and that this has generally not required that I be so well-informed or emotionally fulfilled.
The above statement, of course, lowers me deep into the pit of fogeyishness and I know that frankly, no companies, save those that sell medications, see me and my ilk as a valued demographic. For carmakers, certainly, the target is the generations for which any screen, including a dashboard, should be a gateway to friends and music and info gratification. And it’s become critical for them to start delivering on that expectation since research suggests that the younger slice of that market isn’t as enanmored of the whole driving thing as their predecessors were–the percentage of young licensed drivers in the U.S. keeps dropping.
A new digital divide
So we’re moving quickly into the era of the connected car, with vehicles seen as rolling smartphones with easy access to Facebook and Twitter and to mobile apps, such as Pandora and Yelp. Any question about when this is going mainstream was answered a few weeks ago when Honda announced that starting this fall, a system called HondaLink will be offered in new Honda Accords. It will allow drivers to stream Internet radio, download audiobooks, see ratings for nearby restaurants and have Facebook feeds read to them.
With HondaLink, as with similar systems on other models, your smartphone will feed info from the Web into the dashboard display. But when is all the stuff on the screen too much? Well, it depends on your age. While three out of four car owners in a new Harris Poll said in-car connectivity could be too distracting, when people were asked about the appeal of connected cars, the results broke down along a generational digital divide.
Less than 40 percent of those surveyed between the ages of 50 and 66 think it’s important to have a connected car; drop down into the 18-to-35 age group and the approval rating jumps to almost 60 percent. And two out of three people in the younger group said a car’s technology would likely influence their next car-buying decision; in the older group, the number was under 50 percent. One other notable difference: Younger drivers were more concerned about privacy, specifically what connectivity would reveal about their driving habits and how that could affect their insurance rates.
Siri, tell that guy’s car that he’s a jerk
Automakers say all the in-dash technology will make drivers less likely to use their phones while they’re at the wheel. The big question, of course, is whether one distraction is simply being traded for another. Given that within the next five years, at least an estimated 80 percent of the new cars in North America and Europe will have Internet access, this is no small matter. The U.S. Department of Transportation already has weighed in with voluntary guidelines, which basically tell carmakers to keep it simple. It’s true that distracted driving will become less of an issue when driverless cars hit the market, but that’s still years away.
The focus now is on finding the most efficient ways to get our cars to do our bidding. Ford, whose MyFordTouch system has made it a leader in what’s known as in-car telematics, gives you three options: you can use a new and improved touch screen in the middle of the instrument panel, you can use secondary controls on the steering wheel or you can just speak your mind with the hope that the machine will catch your drift.
Actually, you have a much better chance these days that your voice commands will be understood. There’s little question that Siri, the iPhone’s digital assistant, has racheted up the capabilities of voice recognition. So it’s not surprising that most of the major automakers, will the exception of Ford, are seriously considering integrating Siri’s Eyes Free into their new vehicles. It’s a feature on the steering wheel, which like the button on the iPhone, would allow you to strike up a conversation with the ever-servile Siri.
Or you can just talk with your hands. And your face. Harman, the car infotainment systems supplier, has developed a concept car in which you can control the dashboard techonology with gestures. A wink turns the radio on, a tilt of your head to the left or right turns the volume up or down and a tap on the steering wheel skips to the next song. And if you want to make a call? Right, thumb up, pinkie out.
Here are more of the latest advances using car sensors and other fresh tech:
- When cars talk: A year-long research project involving 3,000 drivers in Ann Arbor, Michigan will analyze how enabling cars to talk to one other reduces collisions. The study will also try to determine whether warning sounds or visual signals are better at helping drivers avoid crashes.
- You’ll feel a sneeze coming: Ford has just come out with an Allergy Alert app. It aggregates info from Pollen.com to let drivers whose cars have Ford’s Sync system know about the pollen levels where they are. Also the asthma risk and the level of ultraviolet rays.
- Straighten up and drive right: More cutting-edge stuff from Ford. It has developed a technology called Traffic Jam Assist that uses cameras and sensors to ensure that your car stays in its lane and keeps pace with other vehicles in traffic.
- I brake for crashes: As of 2014, the European Commission will not give its five-star safety rating to any car without autonomous emergency braking. It’s a system using sensors and cameras to track the distance to a car in front of you. If it sees the threat of a crash, the brakes apply on their own.
- Bad moods: Toyota is developing technology that will use a camera to analyze drivers’ facial expressions. If you look sad or angry, the vehicle will sound warning alerts sooner since research shows that people in those emotional states are less alert to road hazards.
Video bonus: Here’s a Smart Planet video that explains how cars talking to one another could dramatically reduce the number of crashes, particularly in intersections.
More from Smithsonian.com