June 7, 2013
Andrea, the first tropical storm of hurricane season is churning up the East Coast today and while it’s not expected to do much more than deliver a heavy drenching, it has kicked off the first wave of storm tracking.
Will it hug the coast or drift inland? Will it dump and inch of rain or three? Will it provide us with our first 2013 image of a TV reporter doing unintended slapstick on a beach?
Already we’ve been told that this could be one nasty season, with a prediction from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) of seven to 11 hurricanes, of which three to six could be major–that’s with winds of 111 mph or higher. And hurricane experts at Colorado State University are pretty confident–they put the likelihood at 72 percent–that at least one of those major hurricanes will make landfall somewhere along the Gulf Coast or the Eastern seaboard. Keep in mind that Sandy was not considered a major hurricane when it swept in over New Jersey last fall.
Hurricane forecasting is much more science than crapshoot these days. Computer models have become amazingly accurate, considering how many variables need to be taken into account–temperature, wind speed, humidity, barometric pressure, topography–from many different locations at different times. All told, there can be hundreds of thousands of factors that need to be weighed. And the task is complicated by the fact that we only have about 60 years of good historical data to plug into the models.
Most of the real-time data that gets fed into the computers comes from dropsonde sensors that are dropped into the storms from big, heavy “hurricane hunters,” planes that are essentially flying laboratories. These are impressive machines. They also are quite expensive. One plane costs about $22 million.
Kamran Mohseni thinks there may be a better way to gather storm data. It’s about thinking small.
Mohseni, an engineering professor at the University of Florida, believes the next generation of hurricane hunters will be drones small enough to almost fit into the palm of your hand, but able to engage fierce hurricanes by riding the wind rather than trying to punch through it. Its weight–about as much as an iPod Nano–is an asset in his mind. “Our vehicles don’t fight the hurricane,” he says. “We use the hurricane to take us places.”
His take is that instead of relying on a few “super-duper” aircraft, why not use hundreds of little drones that through their sheer numbers, could make the data that much more accurate or, as he put it, “You get super duper on an aggregate level.”
Mohseni’s drones, with their sensors, would be launched with commands from a laptop, and then, with the help of mathematical models that predict where the best wind currents can be found, would be able to hitch a ride into the storm. Once there, the drones can be powered up or down as needed, with the goal of taking advantage of the wind’s power to explore the hurricane.
Riding the waves
But Mohseni is not just talking about flying drones. He also has developed underwater vehicles designed to mimic jellyfish as they move through the ocean. He envisions them as a tiny naval fleet working in tandem with a squadron of his flying drones, and that could allow scientists to also gather data from under the sea, which can be particularly difficult to collect.
He realizes, of course, that even though his drones–since they won’t resist the wind–aren’t likely to be blown apart, a lot of them will be lost once they take on a hurricane. But because they’re so small and light, they’re not likely to do much damage if they hit something. And he figures the data gained will be worth the expense.
Each of his drones costs about $250.
Eyes of the storm
Here are other recent developments in weather tech:
- It’s a wind win: The Canadian firm Aeryon Labs has developed an “Unmanned Aerial Vehicle” (UAV) designed to do military reconnaissance in bad weather. It promises that its SkyRanger drone can remain stable in winds for 40 and survive gusts of 55 mph and also can function in temperatures from -22 to 122º Fahrenheit.
- It was a dark and stormy flight: Later this summer NASA will send a pair of large unmanned aircraft loaded with instruments out over the Atlantic to study more closely how hurricanes form and build in intensity. Last fall, the agency used one of these drones, called Global Hawk, but will add another as it expands its focus to wind and rain bands inside hurricanes.
- After all, why shouldn’t clouds be able to get that inner glow: With the goal of seeing how lasers might affect cloud formation, researchers at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology in Germany found that lasers can actually make a cirrus cloud glow. Unfortunately, lasers aren’t able to do this yet with real clouds; the scientists produced the effect on clouds created in the lab.
- Not to mention, an awesome shield against flying beer: And now, meet the Rainshader, an umbrella that looks more like a motorcycle helmet on a stick. Designed to protect you from rain at sporting events, it promises not to blow inside out, poke people in the eye, or drip on those sitting next to you. And, best of all, because it can he held to sit low on your head, it shouldn’t block anyone else’s view.
Video bonus: Watch Kamran Mohseni’s little hurricane hunters taking flight.
Video bonus bonus: And for old time’s sake, the lighter side of big storms.
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May 24, 2013
Summer in America unofficially begins this weekend, and with it come the late afternoon and middle-of-the-night thunderstorms that are Nature’s version of shock and awe. But as common as they are, much about thunder and lightning remains a mystery. In fact, scientists are still debating what actually causes those amazing flashes across the sky.
Here are eight recent findings related to storm-watching:
1) Come to the dark side: The dazzling thunderbolts get all the attention, but within each thunderstorm are invisible intense bursts of gamma rays, which have become known as “dark lightning.” Scientists recently discovered that the two types of lightning seemed to be connected, that there’s a gamma ray discharge immediately before a bolt shoots through the sky, although no one’s quite sure what that connection is. The good thing about dark lightning is that it dissipates quickly so it can’t really hurt anyone on the ground. But if you should be so unlucky and fly through a thunderstorm, a release of dark lightning nearby could expose you to a significant dose of radiation. Which is just one more reason for pilots to fly around them.
2) When planes go bump in the night: By the middle of the century, transatlantic flights could get a whole lot bumpier if a team of British scientists is right. They’re projecting that, because of climate change, the chances of encountering significant turbulence will increase by between 40 and 170 percent. Most likely, they say, the amount of airspace where nasty turbulence occurs will double. But wait, there’s more. They predict that the average strength of turbulence will also increase by 10 to 40 percent.
3) The pain in rain lies mainly in the brain: A study published earlier this year concluded that lightning could actually trigger migraines and other headaches. The researchers asked 90 chronic migraine sufferers to document when they developed migraines during a three-to-six month period, and then tracked that data against lightning strikes within 25 miles of the migraine victims’ homes. Their analysis found a 28 percent increased chance of a migraine and a 31 percent chance of a non-migraine headache on days when lightning struck nearby. So what’s the connection? Not absolutely clear. Some have suggested that high pressure increases the risk of migraines, while others have argued that low pressure can increase the risk. And still other research has failed to show that there even is a definite connection.
4) Hi, I’m Big Data and from now on I’ll be doing the weather: IBM obviously is big on Big Data–it’s pretty much building its future around it–and not long ago it launched a weather analysis project it calls “Deep Thunder.” Using complex algorithms and massive computing power, the company is compiling data around the physics of the atmosphere over a number of major cities. With the resulting mathematical models, the company says it should be able to predict up to 40 hours ahead of time how much rain will fall in a particular location—with 90 percent accuracy.
5) Now if it could only get the lightning to charge your phone: In case you can’t figure it out on your own, there’s now an app that tells you when lightning is nearby. Called Spark, it’s a product from WeatherBug, available on Android and iPhones, that tells you where the nearest lightning strike is, based on data from the Total Lightning Network and your phone’s GPS. And this isn’t just about getting the lowdown on lightning near you. It also allows you to check on what’s happening at GPS locations you’ve saved on your phone–such as your favorite golf course.
6) And now, time for a cosmic interlude: Two Russian researchers say they have more evidence that lightning is caused by the interaction of cosmic rays with water droplets in thunderclouds. Their theory is that cosmic rays–which are created in deep space by star collisions and supernovae–zoom across space and the ones that pass through Earth’s upper atmosphere create showers of ionized particles and electromagnetic radiation. And that, the scientists contend, causes lightning when it passes through a thundercloud. The other popular theory is that lightning occurs when collisions between ice crystals and hailstones in storm clouds separate enough electric charge to cause a high electric field. The debate goes on.
7) Now that’s shock and awe: The U.S. Army is developing a weapon that allows it to shoot lighting bolts along a laser beam directly into a target. So, basically, they’ve figured out how to fire lightning. Called the Laser-Induced Plasma Channel, it can be used to destroy anything that conducts electricity better than the air or ground surrounding it.
8) Just don’t name the kid “Flash:” And just in case you wondered, 70 percent of Americans who responded to a survey by Trojan Brand Condoms said that they’ve had sex during a nasty storm.
Video bonus: You’ve never seen lightning quite like this, slowed down so that one flash is drawn out to last six minutes. You can watch every incredible step of the way.
Video bonus bonus: And here’s what it’s like to have lightning strike next to you.
Video bonus bonus bonus: That’s right, a bonus bonus bonus because you can never watch enough lightning strikes. Here’s a collection of lightning shooting upward.
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February 19, 2013
Last Friday was, astronomically speaking, one of those days that comes along every 40 years. Actually, a lot less frequently than that. That’s how often, according to NASA estimates, an asteroid the size of the one that flew by Friday gets that close to hitting the Earth–it passed 17,000 miles away. But when you throw in the considerably smaller meteorite that exploded over Russia the same day and injured more than 1,000 people–that’s never happened before–you’re talking about one extremely unique moment in space rock history.
Most of us have moved on, taking comfort in the belief that that’s not happening again any time soon. But there was something sobering about seeing how much damage could be done by rock about as big as one and and a half school buses. Also, that if the flyby asteroid, which was three times that size, had been on target to hit our planet, we really couldn’t have done much about it–the giant rock was spotted by a team of amateur astronomers in Spain only a year ago.
All of which prompted two basic questions: “How much warning will we get before a monster asteroid collides with the planet?” and “What’s the plan for stopping it?”
Beware of “city killers”
The good news is that NASA, which really didn’t start tracking near-Earth objects until the mid-1990s, believes it has charted almost 95 percent of the 980 asteroids more than a half-mile wide that are orbiting in our part of the universe. These are known as “planet-killers,” space rocks so large that if they collided with Earth, it would pretty much end civilization as we know it. None, I’m happy to say, are headed our way.
But move down a bit in size to asteroids roughly between 100 feet and a half mile wide and it’s a very different story. NASA figures it’s located only 1 percent of the near-Earth objects that small. They may not sound very menacing, but keep in mind that the rock that missed us Friday was roughly 150 feet wide and it would have had a cataclysmic impact if it had exploded over or landed on a populated area. And the one that did blow apart over Russia and hurt so many people was only 55 feet wide.
Scientists at the University of Hawaii, with NASA funding, are developing a network of telescopes designed to find the smaller ones. It’s called ATLAS, which stands for the ominous-sounding Asteroid Terrestrial-Impact Last Alert System, and its creators say they’ll be able to provide a one-week warning of incoming ”city killers”–rocks about 150 wide–and three weeks notice of “county killers”–ones three times as large.
Seek and you shall find
The truth is, though, infrared telescopes surveying from space are better suited for the job, particularly when it comes to spotting asteroids orbiting close to the sun. NASA’s WISE telescope identified 130 near-Earth asteroids, but it’s been shut down for two years. Instead of replacing it, NASA is reviewing proposals for a sensor that could detect asteroids as small as 100 feet wide, while attached to a communications satellite.
But now private groups have started floating their own ideas for finding rocks flying through space. One, called the B612 Foundation after the fantasy asteroid on which the Little Prince lived, has ambitious plans to launch a deep space telescope named Sentinel. From a vantage point as far away as Venus, it should be able to look back at our planet and see the heat signatures of objects that come near the Earth’s orbit.
It’s no small undertaking–the estimated cost is $450 million–but among those driving the project are two former astronauts, Russell Schweickart and Edward Lu, who’s now a Google executive and has been able to stir up interest for the mission in Silicon Valley. Lu sees last week’s double asteroid display as a wakeup call. Sure enough, his group was getting calls all day Friday from people wanting to know when it will have its telescope up. Most likely it won’t be until 2018.
And two companies hoping to make a fortune by mining asteroids will also soon be in the business of tracking them. Planetary Resources, which includes among its investors filmmaker James Cameron, Google execs Larry Page and Eric Schmidt and X-Prize Foundation head Peter Diamandis, plans to launch its own asteroid-charting space telescope late next year. The other, Deep Space Industries, has proposed a kind of sentry line of spacecraft circling the Earth that would evaluate and, if necessary, intercept incoming asteroids.
Taking care of business
Okay, but then what? Can an asteroid moving at 18,000 miles an hour be stopped, or at least steered away?
Forget about the Armageddon approach. Blowing up an asteroid with a nuclear bomb–good for a movie, bad for Planet Earth. The resulting debris shower might do almost as much damage.
Instead, here are five ideas that have been proposed:
1) A shout out to our old friend gravity: This would involve what’s referred to as a “gravity tractor.” Actually, it’s a large spaceship that would be maneuvered as close as possible to the orbiting asteroid. In theory, the gravitational pull of such a large object would be strong enough to change the asteroid’s path. Unfortunately, some scientists say we might need a decade’s notice to pull this off.
2) Prepare for ramming speed!: The European Space Agency is working with scientists at Johns Hopkins University on a plan that would involve sending a spacecraft to bump an asteroid off course. Called the Asteroid Impact and Deflection misson, or AIDA for short, it would actually involve sending up two spacecraft. One would be there to observe and gather data while the other does the ramming. The goal would be to alter the asteroid’s spin and ultimately, its direction.
3) Okay, so there is a nuclear option: But it hopefully wouldn’t involve blowing up the asteroid to smithereens. Instead, scientists would prefer to detonate a device close enough that it would change the rock’s orbit. This is always referred to as a last resort.
4) Would you like something in an eggshell? Or perhaps a tasteful pearl white?: Then there’s the white paint strategy. According to this plan, a spacecraft would approach the asteroid and pummel it with white paint balls. The new white coat would more than double the rock’s reflectivity and, over time, that would, in theory, increase solar radiation pressure enough to move it off course. You scoff? This plan, devised by an MIT graduate student, won the 2012 Move an Asteroid Technical Paper Competition sponsored by the United Nations.
5) You knew there had to be lasers in here somewhere: And just in time for last week’s space rock event, two California scientists outlined a strategy in which they would use the sun’s power to create laser beams that could be aimed at an asteroid. They would start small, creating an array in space about the size of the International Space Station. The laser beams it created would be strong enough to push an asteroid on to a different path, say the plan’s inventors. But they wouldn’t stop there. They foresee building out the array until it’s as large as six miles wide. And then it would be able to produce laser beams powerful enough that , within a year, could vaporize an asteroid.
Sure, it sounds like a George Lucas fever dream. But the scientists say it’s eminently feasible. Besides, says one, physicist Philip Lubin of the University of California, Santa Barbara, it’s time to be proactive instead of reactive. As he put it, “Duck and cover is not an option.”
Video bonus: In case you forgot how bad a movie Armageddon was, and that it featured Steve Buscemi as an astronaut, here’s the over-the-top trailer.
Video bonus bonus : Or if you want to stick to the real thing, here’s a collection of videos of Friday’s asteroid flyby.
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September 25, 2012
About a year ago I wrote about the first meeting of the 100 Year Starship Symposium (100YSS), a conference designed to keep scientists focused on what it will take for humans to be able to travel outside our solar system.
Luckily, they still have about a century to figure it out. NASA and DARPA, the research arm of the Defense Department, are behind the project, and the latter has kicked in $500,000 to start wrestling with the ridiculously difficult challenge of traveling trillions of miles in space by 2100.
Last week, at the second 100YSS meeting, there actually was a bit of progress to note. Along with a discussion of how many pair of underpants would be required to make such a trip and a rendition of the “Star Trek” theme song by Lt. Uhura herself, came a report that warp drive might actually be possible, that it would require far less energy than previously thought for a spaceship to travel several times faster than the speed of light.
Good news, but still a long, long way from making real something we used to see happen on TV every week. It reminded me, though, of the iterative, and often methodical process of science and how too often the focus on innovation is more about the potential of new ideas and technology and less about how they actually evolve in the real world.
So here are updates on five innovations I’ve written about in the past year. Some are already making their mark; others remain on a low boil.
1) When robots play nice: Robots work great by themselves, but mix them in with humans and it can get a little dicey. Most robots, while amazingly efficient and powerful, can also be dangerous to people nearby because, to put it simply, they don’t know we’re there.
That’s not the case, however, with a new model designed by Boston-based Rethink Robotics. It’s called Baxter and it’s been given the artificial intelligence to slow its motions when it detects a person approaching. And, to alert humans that it’s aware of their presence, its face turns red.
Next month Rethink will start selling Baxter, which can be trained by humans to do different tasks. The goal is to expand the robot market beyond big factories by providing a model that’s safe and relatively inexpensive–Baxter will cost $22,000, a steal by robot standards.
2) Replicator 2! Coming soon to an office near you!: Much has been written about 3-D printing as the future driver of manufacturing. But Bre Pettis, CEO of Brooklyn-based MakerBot Industries, has always believed in the more personal side of 3-D printers. He thinks they belong in people’s homes right next to their PCs.
Since 2009, the company has sold 13,000 of its MakerBot models. But buyers have largely been hobbyists who ordered their printers online. Now the company is taking things up a notch. Last week Pettis unveiled The Replicator 2, a sleek, stylized and more expensive model, one designed to fit right into the suitably applianced home. Also last week, MakerBot opened its first real store, in Manhattan no less.
Ah, but there’s also a bit of a dark side to giving people the power to print objects at home. Last month, a Wisconsin engineer showed readers of his blog the working gun he made.
3) Every picture tells a story. Or three: When it came on the market early this year, the Lytro camera had some people saying it would do for cameras what the iPhone did for cell phones. It made photos interactive, allowing you to change what’s in focus in an image after the fact. Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry was impressed enough to include a Lytro in its 2012 Smart Home exhibit.
The Lytro still may transform photography, but not this year. Probably not next year, either. For now at least, most people seem perfectly content with the photos they can take on their smart phones, and they aren’t ready to pay $400 for a camera shaped like a stick of butter that allows them to do something with photos they’re not in the habit of doing.
This summer, Lytro founder Ren Ng stepped down as CEO, a move he said would allow him to focus on the company’s vision and not get bogged down in day-to-day operations. This likely has a lot to do with how quickly Lytro, which raised $50 million in private funding, has grown. It still isn’t able to fill online orders immediately–it won’t share sales figures–but Ng says it has reduced the wait time to about a month.
In case you haven’t seen how Lytro photography works, here’s a sampling.
4) Apple has spoken: A lot of attention has already been paid to the new features of the iPhone 5–its bigger screen, 4G speed, longer battery life. But it’s also worth noting something it doesn’t have–a Near-Field Communication (NFC) chip.
That’s what turns a smart phone into a mobile wallet, enabling it to make payments by waving it at checkout devices in stores. There was much speculation that if Apple gave NFC its blessing, it would push the technology mainstream in the U.S.
But Apple balked, in part because not many stores in the the U.S. have been willing to upgrade their checkout systems with NFC devices. Customers haven’t exactly been clamoring for them and besides, if Apple’s not buying in, why bother, say store owners. (Ah, the vicious circle.)
This is not good news for Isis, a partnership of mobile carriers, including Verizon and AT&T, and credit card companies, such as American Express and Capital One. The day after Apple introduced its new smart phone–minus a NFC chip–Isis announced that it was delaying the launch of its NFC mobile payments service.
5) But who’s going to blow the horn?: Since I first wrote about it in July, 2011, Google’s driverless car has received big boosts in Nevada, which last spring became the first state to issue license plates to autonomous vehicles, and California, where last month, in an extremely rare case of bipartisanship, Democrats and Republicans joined forces to overwhelmingly pass a self-driving car law. It directs the state’s Department of Motor Vehicles and the California Highway Patrol to develop safety and performance standards for robotic vehicles.
But Google’s just getting warmed up. It’s following up its success in lobbying officials there by pushing similar legislation in Florida, Arizona, Hawaii and Oklahoma. And this is a concept that’s trending: BMW and Audi are known to be working on their own versions and no less prestigious an organization as the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) recently predicted that by 2040, 75 percent of the vehicles on the road won’t have human drivers.
Still, it’s not all open road ahead. Automakers have raised questions about their liability if they start selling driverless cars–although Google is quick to point out that its fleet of autonomous Priuses have so far logged 300,000 miles without one accident. And a consumer watchdog group in California fought the driverless car legislation, raising privacy concerns about how all the data gathered by the vehicles is used. Could you start receiving ads based on where your car drives?
Video bonus: This was probably inevitable. A candidate in Florida has come under fire for his support of driverless cars and now one of his opponent’s campaign ads features an old lady with a walker nearly run down at a stop sign by, you guessed it, a car without a driver. In case you miss the point, the large type next to her asks: “Will Driverless Cars REALLY Slow for Pedestrians?”
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September 7, 2012
It’s been a month since Curiosity’s remarkable soft landing on the surface of Mars. (Video) Remember the massive, supersonic parachute that slowed the spacecraft’s descent from 1,000 down to 200 miles per hour, and the sky crane that lowered the rover on 20-foot long cables the rest of the way, touching down at a speed of under two miles per hour?
And who can forget the unnerving “Seven Minutes of Terror,” the time that would pass before NASA scientists here on Earth would know if they had pulled it off or trashed a $350 million vehicle.
Science and drama? Now that’s a special occasion.
But, sadly, the thrills are gone. A few days ago, the big news from Mars was that Curiosity had traveled 100 feet. Or a little more than three first downs in an NFL game. Yesterday’s press release from NASA announced that the rover had extended its arm.
I know, I know, all this is being orchestrated by scientists about 60 million miles away. That is truly amazing. And this is how science is done. It’s methodical and repetitive.
But we have become a jaded bunch here on 21st century Earth and soon enough most of us will likely lose interest in reports of a machine digging in dirt, even if it is Martian dirt.
Now Curiosity is all about the science. But we’d rather have the fiction.
Submarines in space
No need to fret, though. NASA still has plenty of imagination when it comes to exploring the universe. Or at least it’s willing to put up seed money for ideas that now seem as fanciful as lowering a rover on to the surface of Mars once did. Last month, as part of its Innovative Advanced Concepts program, NASA provided funding to further study 28 different concepts with just the right touch of crazy.
Here are eight of the more intriguing ones:
1) It’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s a wing: Flying wings aren’t new, but a star-shaped aircraft designed by a team at the University of Miami would take the concept in a new direction. Literally. Called a “Supersonic Bi-Directional Flying Wing,” it would fly sideways. It would take off in a conventional manner, then rotate 90 degrees in flight for supersonic travel. Its inventors see the wing flying from New York to Tokyo in four hours without producing a sonic boom, thanks to its unique design.
2) Sailing on Venus: Venus is one of the nastier spots in our solar system, with its average temperature of 450 degrees Centigrade and thick atmosphere of corrosive gases. But a group of NASA scientists has come up with a concept for a vehicle they say could scoot along its surface. It’s a rover powered by a sail that would take advantage of the planet’s strong winds tied to its extremely high atmospheric pressure.
3) Breaking the ice: Jupiter’s moon Europa has three times as much water as Earth, but it’s all under a thick layer of ice. That hasn’t discouraged a group of scientists at Virginia Tech who have proposed the idea of a heavy, heated torpedo that would melt the ice, then release a robotic underwater glider/submarine to explore the mysterious world beneath it.
4) Could you do that with cheese?: A big challenge to settling our moon is the need for astronauts to bring building materials with them. But a University of Southern California engineer may have developed a technology to get around that. It’s called Contour Crafting and it would allow structures to be built on the moon layer by layer using a paste made of heated-up lunar soil.
5) Pump you up: One of the risks of long space trips for astronauts is the tendency of their muscles to atrophy in zero gravity. Calves alone can lose up to 20 percent of their mass. But a scientist named Kevin Duda has created something he calls the V2 suit. It would use gyroscopes and accelerometers to track different body parts and add “viscous resistance” to mimic the sensation of gravity where it’s needed.
6) On a roll: Think tumbleweeds. That’s the basic concept behind “super ball bots,” round robots of interlocking rods and cables that would land on a planet, then be directed to roll to areas of interest. The idea is based on Buckminster Fuller’s design of round structures with no rigid connections. They’re lightweight, but amazingly stable and durable.
7) Print my ride: NASA scientists have proposed the idea of printable spacecraft--flat sheets embedded with all the electronics a robotic spacecraft needs — sensors for gathering information, data processing, data downlink and a communications system. In theory at least, multiple sheets of spacecraft could float around a planet gathering data.
8) Waste not, want not: Finally, there’s Water Walls. It’s a concept where walls filled with water would not only recycle astronauts’ waste, but would also protect them from radiation and purify the air. The walls can’t talk, at least not yet.
Video bonus: The bi-directional flying wing is so cool it comes with a soundtrack.
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