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 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?”
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
September 10, 2012
This Wednesday, Apple, with great fanfare, will present the iPhone 5 to the world. Much will be written about its 4G speed, taller screen, longer battery life, thinner shape and two-tone look.
And much will be said about whether or not it is Steve Jobs’ final legacy. Was he actually weighing in on the new model until his dying day? Or is that story being floated to ensure the iPhone 5 cult classic status in the devout Apple community?
No doubt this will be the big tech innovation story of the month–although, as MIT’s Technology Review pointed out last week, we’ve reached the point with smartphones that improvements are more incremental than revolutionary. Now all the talk is about how big the screen is, not that you can control your phone simply by touching it.
Now that’s a good idea
But instead of joining the iPhone chorus, how about a little counter-programming. What follows are 10 recent inventions, none of which is likely to get much attention this week. But that doesn’t make them any less inspired.
1) All we are saying, is give bats a chance: One of the raps on wind turbines is that they kill thousands of birds and bats every year. But an 89-year-old retired engineer in California named Raymond Green has taken it upon himself to create a device that may lead to a solution. His invention, which he calls “Catching Wind Power,” is basically a large drum in which all the movable parts, including the killer blades, are contained. That would make them considerably less dangerous for flying creatures, and also, Green claims, quieter than what’s out there now.
2) Forgetting something?: As I noted in a recent post, hospitals are a bacterial war zone where one of the key weapons of the good guys is frequent hand-washing. But research suggests that health care workers wash their hands half as often as they should. Now an Israeli company named Hyginex is producing wristbands that wirelessly remind those wearing them that to scrub down. Sensors in soap dispensers track the movements of doctors and nurses, and if they approach a patient without washing their hands, their wristbands light up and vibrate.
3) The roads less traveled: Yes, there are apps out there that alert you to backups and accidents, but a group of German students has ratcheted traffic apps up a notch. Their Greenway app, now being tested by drivers in Munich, uses algorithms to predict where and how traffic will flow and gives its users directions to “traffic-optimized” routes. It also closely monitors the alternate routes and scales back its recommendations if they’re getting crowded. Greenway’s creators claim their directions, on average, get drivers to their destinations twice as fast as on their usual routes.
4) Say good-bye to helmet hair: It’s still Fashion Week in New York, so allow me to introduce the Hovding bike helmet. It’s the brainstorm of two Swedish women who have managed to do the seemingly impossible–merge fashion and bike safety. Their helmet actually looks like a collar, but if it senses impact, it inflates like an airbag around the rider’s head.
5) Go ahead, walk all over me: Scientists at the University of Manchester in the UK have developed a smart carpet. That’s right, a smart carpet. The rug’s backing contains optical fibers that distort when they’re stepped on and send a signal to a computer. That’s impressive, but to what end? First, it can, in the case of elderly person, determine if someone has fallen. It can also serve as an intruder alert if it detects unfamiliar footsteps near a window. Its inventors think it even has potential as a physical therapy aid able to predict mobility problems if it notices changes in a person’s walk.
6) Got juice?: If you drive a lot and need to keep your iPad charged, do I have a gadget for you. It’s a device that turns your standard car cup holder into a charging station, allowing you to juice up your tablet and your smartphone at the same time.
7) You’ve been drinking. I can see it in your nose: Two Greek computer scientists say that by using algorithms and thermal imaging, they’ve devised a way to spot inebriated people in public. Their method, in which they combine an infrared image with algorithms related to what happens to blood vessels in a person’s nose when they have too much to drink, would allow police to identify a drunk on more info than that they’re acting like one.
8) Flashlights are so over: You can have the biggest, shiniest belt buckle ever and it won’t help you much on a walk in the dark. But the Walker’s Path Illuminating Belt is custom-made for such occasions. It’s a hands-free LED safety light that wraps around your waist and can be adjusted to serve as either a wide-angle floodlight or a narrowly-focused spotlight.
9) Why shouldn’t bikes have growth spurts?: It’s one thing for your kids to grow out of their clothes and shoes, but you move into a whole other price range when they keep getting too big for their bikes. The Spanish bicycle designer Orbea has taken on the challenge, creating a bike that grows with a kid, appropriately called the Grow bike. The crossbar, stem and seats all can be lengthened, and since other components also are designed to last longer, Grow bikes, says Orbea, need to be replaced every five to seven years instead of every two to three.
10) Video bonus: Sugar kills: As much practice as we get, most of us just aren’t very good at knocking flies out of the air. But soon BugASalt could change all that–when flies comes buzzin’, it’s just the weapon for the job. It’s a toy gun that acts like a shotgun firing just enough salt to bring down a fly. Seeing is believing.
More from Smithsonian.com
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.
More from Smithsonian.com