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Elliot Page on Juno, Hollywood’s dark side and coming out twice
Sat, 10 Jun 2023 06:00:14 GMT
When the feelgood movie made him an Oscar-nominated star, the strain of hiding who he was almost forced him to quit acting. He explains how opening up about being gay, then trans, saved his life
Elliot Page’s memoir is called Pageboy. At its heart is the story of his transitioning from an Oscar-nominated actress, best known for the wonderful coming-of-age comedy drama Juno, to one of the world’s most high profile trans men. He writes, rather beautifully, about gender dysphoria, top surgery and finally finding himself. But the book is so much more than a tale of transition.
Pageboy is a modern-day Hollywood Babylon, written by a sensitive soul rather than a scandalmonger. Page depicts a film industry even more rancid than we may have suspected. This is a world where it’s not only the Harvey Weinsteins at the top of the pyramid who get to abuse the young and powerless – just about everybody seems to have a go. It’s a world where most people appear to be closeted in one way or another, a world where more acting is done off set than on.Continue reading...
No one wants to see the cast naked any more, so this TV follow-up shuns stripping for comic capers and cost-of-living tragedy. Even better, it actually gives plotlines to the female characters
Television shows that remake films tend to be exercises in pointless nostalgia. Do you remember the movies Fatal Attraction, Dangerous Liaisons and American Gigolo? Yes. Would you like to watch a weird cosplay version of them that goes on for 10 hours and confusingly reshuffles the plot? Um, not really. The Full Monty (from 14 June, Disney+) is the latest entrant in an already tired genre, but it has one up on most of the competition: all the core cast are in that sweet spot where they’re successful enough to be worth rehiring but not so famous they’ve turned the reboot down. That means there’s no need to rejig the story of redundant Sheffield steelworkers who, in 1997, found solace in hard times by forming a Chippendales-style male striptease troupe. We simply return to Sheffield 26 years later, to find the same characters, played by the same actors, living the same lives.
The film had it easy, plot-wise, in that it built towards that heartwarming climactic moment when a sextet of men showed the local community their penises. Those six appendages were the pegs on which were hung serious subtexts about the misery of life in a Thatcher-ravaged, deindustrialised northern England. A quarter of a century on, however, the prospect of the old boys windmilling their hosepipes in housewives’ faces would horrify everyone. So the new Full Monty is fully clothes-on.Continue reading...
Animation has come a long way since 1900, when J. Stuart Blackton created The Enchanted Drawing, the earliest known animated film. The 90-second movie was created using stop-motion techniques, as flat characters, props, and backgrounds were drawn on an easel or made from paper.
Most modern animators rely on computer graphics and visualization techniques to create popular movies and TV shows like Finding Dory, Toy Story, and Paw Patrol. In the 1960s and ’70s, computer science pioneers David Evans and IEEE Life Member Ivan E. Sutherland led the development of many of the technologies animators now use. Their groundbreaking research, conducted at the University of Utah, in Salt Lake City, and at their company, Evans and Sutherland, helped jump-start the computer graphics industry.
A ceremony was held at the university on 24 March to recognize the computer graphics and visualization techniques with an IEEE Milestone. The IEEE Utah Section sponsored the nomination.
Computer graphics began in the 1950s with interactive games and visualization tools designed by the U.S. military to develop technologies for aviation, radar, and rocketry.
Evans and Sutherland, then computer science professors at the University of Utah, wanted to expand on the use of such tools by finding a way for computers to simulate objects and environments. In 1968 they founded Evans and Sutherland, locating the E&S headquarters in the university’s research park.
Many of today’s computer graphics luminaries—including Pixar cofounder Edwin Catmull, Adobe cofounder John Warnock, and Netscape founder Jim Clark, who also founded Silicon Graphics—got their start in the industry as E&S employees or as doctoral students working on research at the company’s facilities.
IEEE Milestone Dedication: Utah Computer Graphics youtu.be
While at E&S, the employees and students made fundamental contributions to computer graphics processes, says IEEE Fellow Christopher Johnson, a University of Utah computer science professor.
“David Evans, Ivan Sutherland, and their students and colleagues helped change the world,” Johnson says.
“The period from 1968 through 1978 was an extraordinary time for computer graphics,” adds Brian Berg, IEEE Region 6 history chair. “There was a rare confluence of faculty, students, staff, facilities, and resources to support research into computer vision algorithms and hardware that produced remarkable developments in computer graphics and visualization techniques. This research was responsible for the birth of much of continuous-tone computer graphics as we know it today.” Continuous-tone computer graphics have a virtually unlimited range of color and shades of gray.
Evans began his career in 1955 at Bendix—an aviation electronics company in Avon, Ohio—as manager of a project that aimed to develop an early personal computer. He left to join the University of California, Berkeley, as chair of its computer science department. He also headed Berkeley’s research for the Pentagon’s Advanced Research Project Agency (now known as the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency).
In 1963 Evans became a principal investigator for ARPA’s Project Genie. He helped develop hardware techniques that enabled commercial use of time-shared computer systems.
In 1965 the University of Utah hired him to establish its computer science department after receiving an ARPA grant of US $5 million to investigate how the emerging field of computer graphics could play a role in the country’s technological competitiveness, according to Computer Graphics and Computer Animation.
In 1968 Evans asked Sutherland, a former colleague at Berkeley who was then an associate professor of electrical engineering at Harvard, to join him at the University of Utah, luring him with the promise of starting a company together. Sutherland was already famous in computer graphics circles, having created Sketchpad, the first computer-aided design program, for his Ph.D. thesis in 1963 at MIT.
The two founded E&S almost as soon as Sutherland arrived, and they began working on computer-based simulation systems.
The duo in 1969 developed the line-drawing system displays LDS-1 and LDS-2, the first graphics devices with a processing unit. They then built the E&S Picture System—the next generation of LDS displays.
Those workstations, as they were called, came to be used by most computer-generated-imagery production companies through the 1980s.
E&S also developed computer-based simulation systems for military and commercial training, including the CT5 and CT6 flight simulators.
In addition to hiring employees, E&S welcomed computer science doctoral students from the university to work on their research projects at the company.
“Almost every influential person in the modern computer-graphics community either passed through the University of Utah or came into contact with it in some way,” Robert Rivlin wrote in his book, The Algorithmic Image: Graphic Visions of the Computer Age.
One of the doctoral students was Henri Gouraud, who in 1971 developed an algorithm to simulate the differing effects of light and color across the surface of an object. The Gouraud shading method is still used by creators of video games and cartoons.
In 1974 Edwin Catmull, then also a doctoral student at the university, developed the principle of texture mapping, a method for adding complexity to a computer-generated surface. Catmull went on to help found Pixar in 1986 with computer scientist Alvy Ray Smith, an IEEE member. For his work in the industry, Catmull received the 2006 IEEE John von Neumann Medal.
Doctoral student Bui Tuong Phong in 1973 devised Phong shading, a modeling method that reflects light so computer-generated graphics can look shiny and plasticlike.
“As a group, the University of Utah contributed more to the field of knowledge in computer graphics than any of its contemporaries,” Berg wrote in the Milestone proposal. “That fact is made most apparent both in the widespread use of the techniques developed and in the body of awards the innovations garnered.” The awards include several scientific and technical Oscars, an Emmy, and many IEEE medals.
Administered by the IEEE History Center and supported by donors, the Milestone program recognizes outstanding technical developments around the world.
The Milestone plaque displayed on a granite obelisk outside of the University of Utah’s Merrill engineering building reads:
In 1965 the University of Utah established a Center of Excellence for computer graphics research with Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) funding. In 1968 two professors founded the pioneering graphics hardware company Evans & Sutherland; by 1978, fundamental rendering and visualization techniques disclosed in doctoral dissertations included the Warnock algorithm, Gouraud shading, the Catmull-Rom spline, and the Blinn-Phong reflection model. Alumni-founded companies include Atari, Silicon Graphics, Adobe, Pixar, and Netscape.
A group of researchers from NASA, MIT, and other institutions have achieved the fastest space-to-ground laser-communication link yet, doubling the record they set last year. With data rates of 200 gigabits per second, a satellite could transmit more than 2 terabytes of data—roughly as much as 1,000 high-definition movies—in a single 5-minute pass over a ground station.
“The implications are far-reaching because, put simply, more data means more discoveries,” says Jason Mitchell, an aerospace engineer at NASA’s Space Communications and Navigation program.
The new communications link was made possible with the TeraByte InfraRed Delivery (TBIRD) system orbiting about 530 kilometers above Earth’s surface. Launched into space last May, TBIRD achieved downlink rates of up to 100 Gb/s with a ground-based receiver in California by last June. This was 100 times as fast as the quickest Internet speeds in most cities, and more than 1,000 times as fast as radio links traditionally used for communications with satellites.
The fastest data networks on Earth typically rely on laser communications over fiber optics. However, a high-speed laser-based Internet does not exist yet for satellites. Instead, space agencies and commercial satellite operators most commonly use radio to communicate with objects in space. The infrared light that laser communications can employ has a much higher frequency than radio waves, enabling much higher data rates.
“There are satellites currently in orbit limited by the amount of data they are able to downlink, and this trend will only increase as more capable satellites are launched,” says Kat Riesing, an aerospace engineer and a staff member at MIT Lincoln Laboratory on the TBIRD team. “Even a hyperspectral imager—HISUI on the International Space Station—has to send data back to Earth via storage drives on cargo ships due to limitations on downlink rates. TBIRD is a big enabler for missions that collect important data on Earth’s climate and resources, as well as astrophysics applications such as black hole imaging.”
MIT Lincoln Laboratory conceived TBIRD in 2014 as a low-cost, high-speed way to access data on spacecraft. A key way it reduced expenses was by using commercial, off-the-shelf components originally developed for terrestrial use. These include high-rate optical modems developed for fiber telecommunications and high-speed large-volume storage to hold data, Riesing says.
Located onboard NASA’s Pathfinder Technology Demonstrator 3 (PTD-3) satellite, TBIRD was carried into orbit on SpaceX’s Transporter-5 rideshare mission from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida on 25 May 2022. The PTD-3 satellite is a roughly 12-kilogram CubeSat about the size of two stacked cereal boxes, and its TBIRD payload is no larger than the average tissue box. “Industry’s drive to small, low-power, high-data-rate optical transceivers enabled us to achieve a compact form factor suitable even for small satellites,” Mitchell says.
“There are satellites currently in orbit limited by the amount of data they are able to downlink, and this trend will only increase as more-capable satellites are launched.” —Kat Riesing, aerospace engineer, MIT Lincoln Laboratory
The development of TBIRD faced a number of challenges. To start with, terrestrial components are not designed to survive the rigors of launching to and operating in space. For example, during a thermal test simulating the extreme temperatures the devices might face in space, the fibers in the optical signal amplifier melted.
The problem was that, when used as originally intended, the atmosphere could help cool the amplifier through convection. When tested in a vacuum, simulating space, the heat that the amplifier generated was trapped. To solve the issue, the researchers worked with the amplifier’s vendor to modify it so that it released heat through conduction instead.
In addition, laser beams from space to Earth can experience distortion from atmospheric effects and weather conditions. This can cause power loss, and in turn data loss, for the beams.
To compensate, the scientists developed their own version of automatic repeat request (ARQ), a protocol for controlling errors in data transmission over a communications link. In this arrangement, the ground terminal uses a low-rate uplink signal to let the satellite know that it has to retransmit any block of data, or frame, that has been lost or damaged. The new protocol lets the ground station tell the satellite which frames it received correctly, so the satellite knows which ones to retransmit and not waste time sending data it doesn’t have to.
Another challenge the scientists faced stemmed from how lasers form in much narrower beams than radio transmissions. For successful data transmission, these beams must be aimed precisely at their receivers. This is often accomplished by mounting the laser on a gimbal. Due to TBIRD’s small size, however, it instead maneuvers the CubeSat carrying it to point it at the ground, using any error signals it receives to correct the satellite’s orientation. This gimbal-less strategy also helped further shrink TBIRD, making it cheaper to launch.
TBIRD’s architecture can support multiple channels through wavelength separation to enable higher data rates, Riesing says. This is how TBIRD accomplished a 200-Gb/s downlink on 28 April—by using two 100-Gb/s channels, she explains. “This can scale further on a future mission if the link is designed to support it,” Riesing notes.
“Put simply, more data means more discoveries.” —Jason Mitchell, aerospace engineer, NASA
The research team’s next step is to explore where to apply this technology in upcoming missions. “This technology is particularly useful for science missions where collecting a lot of data can provide significant benefits,” Riesing says. “One mission concept that is enabled by this is the Event Horizon Explorer mission, which will extend the exciting work of the Event Horizon Telescope in imaging black holes with even higher resolution.”
The scientists also want to explore how to extend this technology to different scenarios, such as geostationary orbit, Riesing says. Moreover, Mitchell says, they are looking at ways to push TBIRD’s capabilities as far away as the moon, in order to support future missions there. The rates under consideration are in the 1- to 5-Gb/s range, which “may not seem like much of an improvement, but remember the moon is roughly 400,000 km away from Earth, which is quite a long distance to cover,” Mitchell says.
The new technology may also find use in high-speed atmospheric data links on the ground. “For example, from building to building, or across inhospitable terrain, such as from mountaintop to mountaintop, where the cost of laying fiber systems could be exorbitant,” Riesing says.
On a gin-clear December day, I’m sitting under the plexiglass bubble of a radically new kind of aircraft. It’s a little past noon at the Byron Airport in northern California; in the distance, a jagged line of wind turbines atop rolling hills marks the Altamont Pass, blades spinning lazily. Above me, a cloudless blue sky beckons.
The aircraft, called BlackFly, is unlike anything else on the planet. Built by a Palo Alto, Calif., startup called Opener, it’s an electric vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) aircraft with stubby wings fore and aft of the pilot, each with four motors and propellers. Visually, it’s as though an aerial speedster from a 1930s pulp sci-fi story has sprung from the page.
There are a couple of hundred startups designing or flying eVTOLs. But only a dozen or so are making tiny, technologically sophisticated machines whose primary purpose is to provide exhilarating but safe flying experiences to people after relatively minimal training. And in that group, Opener has jumped out to an early lead, having built dozens of aircraft at its facilities in Palo Alto and trained more than a score of people to fly them.
My own route to the cockpit of a BlackFly was relatively straightforward. I contacted the company’s CEO, Ken Karklin, in September 2022, pitched him on the idea of a story and video, and three months later I was flying one of his aircraft.
Well, sort of flying it. My brief flight was so highly automated that I was more passenger than pilot. Nevertheless, I spent about a day and a half before the flight being trained to fly the machine manually, so that I could take control if anything went wrong. For this training, I wore a virtual-reality headset and sat in a chair that tilted and gyrated to simulate flying maneuvers. To “fly” this simulation I manipulated a joystick that was identical to the one in the cockpit of a BlackFly. Opener’s chief operating officer, Kristina L. Menton, and engineer Wyatt Warner took turns patiently explaining the operations of the vehicle and giving me challenging tasks to complete, such as hovering and performing virtual landings in a vicious crosswind.
The BlackFly is entirely controlled by that joystick, which is equipped with a trigger and also topped by a thumb switch. To take off, I squeeze the trigger while simultaneously pushing forward on the switch. The machine leaps into the air with the sound of a million bees, and with a surge of giddy elation I am climbing skyward.
Much more so than an airplane or helicopter, the BlackFly taps into archetypal human yearnings for flight, the kind represented by magic carpets, the flying cars in “The Jetsons,” and even those Mountain Banshees in the movie “Avatar.” I’ve had several unusual experiences in aircraft, including flying on NASA’s zero-gravity-simulating “Vomit Comet,” and being whisked around in a BlackFly was definitely the most absorbing and delightful. Gazing out over the Altamont Pass from an altitude of about 60 meters, I had a feeling of joyous release—from Earth’s gravity and from earthly troubles.
For technical details about the BlackFly and to learn more about its origin, go here.
The BlackFly is also a likely harbinger of things to come. Most of the startups developing eVTOLs are building vehicles meant to carry several passengers on commercial runs of less than 50 kilometers. Although the plan is for these to be flown by pilots initially, most of the companies anticipate a day when the flights will be completely automated. So specialized aircraft such as the BlackFly—designed to be registered and operated as “ultralight” aircraft under aviation regulations—could provide mountains of invaluable data on highly and fully automated flying and perhaps even help familiarize people with the idea of flying without a pilot. Indeed, during my flight, dozens of sensors gathered gigabytes of data, to add to the large reservoir Opener has already collected during many hundreds of test flights so far.
As of late February 2023, Opener hadn’t yet announced a retail price or an official commercial release date for the aircraft, which has been under development and testing for more than a decade. I’ll be keeping an eye out for further news of the company. Long after my flight was over I was still savoring the experience, and hoping for another one.
Special thanks to IEEE.tv for collaborating on production of this video.
Non-fungible tokens (NFTs) are the most popular digital assets today, capturing the attention of cryptocurrency investors, whales and people from around the world. People find it amazing that some users spend thousands or millions of dollars on a single NFT-based image of a monkey or other token, but you can simply take a screenshot for free. So here we share some freuently asked question about NFTs.
NFT stands for non-fungible token, which is a cryptographic token on a blockchain with unique identification codes that distinguish it from other tokens. NFTs are unique and not interchangeable, which means no two NFTs are the same. NFTs can be a unique artwork, GIF, Images, videos, Audio album. in-game items, collectibles etc.
A blockchain is a distributed digital ledger that allows for the secure storage of data. By recording any kind of information—such as bank account transactions, the ownership of Non-Fungible Tokens (NFTs), or Decentralized Finance (DeFi) smart contracts—in one place, and distributing it to many different computers, blockchains ensure that data can’t be manipulated without everyone in the system being aware.
The value of an NFT comes from its ability to be traded freely and securely on the blockchain, which is not possible with other current digital ownership solutionsThe NFT points to its location on the blockchain, but doesn’t necessarily contain the digital property. For example, if you replace one bitcoin with another, you will still have the same thing. If you buy a non-fungible item, such as a movie ticket, it is impossible to replace it with any other movie ticket because each ticket is unique to a specific time and place.
One of the unique characteristics of non-fungible tokens (NFTs) is that they can be tokenised to create a digital certificate of ownership that can be bought, sold and traded on the blockchain.
As with crypto-currency, records of who owns what are stored on a ledger that is maintained by thousands of computers around the world. These records can’t be forged because the whole system operates on an open-source network.
NFTs also contain smart contracts—small computer programs that run on the blockchain—that give the artist, for example, a cut of any future sale of the token.
Non-fungible tokens (NFTs) aren't cryptocurrencies, but they do use blockchain technology. Many NFTs are based on Ethereum, where the blockchain serves as a ledger for all the transactions related to said NFT and the properties it represents.5) How to make an NFT?
Anyone can create an NFT. All you need is a digital wallet, some ethereum tokens and a connection to an NFT marketplace where you’ll be able to upload and sell your creations
When you purchase a stock in NFT, that purchase is recorded on the blockchain—the bitcoin ledger of transactions—and that entry acts as your proof of ownership.
The value of an NFT varies a lot based on the digital asset up for grabs. People use NFTs to trade and sell digital art, so when creating an NFT, you should consider the popularity of your digital artwork along with historical statistics.
In the year 2021, a digital artist called Pak created an artwork called The Merge. It was sold on the Nifty Gateway NFT market for $91.8 million.
Non-fungible tokens can be used in investment opportunities. One can purchase an NFT and resell it at a profit. Certain NFT marketplaces let sellers of NFTs keep a percentage of the profits from sales of the assets they create.
Many people want to buy NFTs because it lets them support the arts and own something cool from their favorite musicians, brands, and celebrities. NFTs also give artists an opportunity to program in continual royalties if someone buys their work. Galleries see this as a way to reach new buyers interested in art.
There are many places to buy digital assets, like opensea and their policies vary. On top shot, for instance, you sign up for a waitlist that can be thousands of people long. When a digital asset goes on sale, you are occasionally chosen to purchase it.
To mint an NFT token, you must pay some amount of gas fee to process the transaction on the Etherum blockchain, but you can mint your NFT on a different blockchain called Polygon to avoid paying gas fees. This option is available on OpenSea and this simply denotes that your NFT will only be able to trade using Polygon's blockchain and not Etherum's blockchain. Mintable allows you to mint NFTs for free without paying any gas fees.
The answer is no. Non-Fungible Tokens are minted on the blockchain using cryptocurrencies such as Etherum, Solana, Polygon, and so on. Once a Non-Fungible Token is minted, the transaction is recorded on the blockchain and the contract or license is awarded to whoever has that Non-Fungible Token in their wallet.
You can sell your work and creations by attaching a license to it on the blockchain, where its ownership can be transferred. This lets you get exposure without losing full ownership of your work. Some of the most successful projects include Cryptopunks, Bored Ape Yatch Club NFTs, SandBox, World of Women and so on. These NFT projects have gained popularity globally and are owned by celebrities and other successful entrepreneurs. Owning one of these NFTs gives you an automatic ticket to exclusive business meetings and life-changing connections.
That’s a wrap. Hope you guys found this article enlightening. I just answer some question with my limited knowledge about NFTs. If you have any questions or suggestions, feel free to drop them in the comment section below. Also I have a question for you, Is bitcoin an NFTs? let me know in The comment section below
A growing number of countries are preparing to shift from using the U.S. dollar in trade, which could undermine the greenback’s global supremacy.
The post Monetary Blowback: How U.S. Wars, Sanctions, and Hegemony Are Threatening the Dollar’s Reserve Currency Dominance appeared first on The Intercept.
Video Friday is your weekly selection of awesome robotics videos, collected by your friends at IEEE Spectrum robotics. We also post a weekly calendar of upcoming robotics events for the next few months. Please
send us your events for inclusion.
Enjoy today’s videos!
The industry standard for dangerous and routine autonomous inspections just got better, now with a brand-new set of features and hardware.
[ Boston Dynamics ]
For too long, dogs and vacuums have existed in a state of conflict. But Roomba robots are finally ready to make peace. To celebrate Pet Appreciation Week (4–10 June), iRobot is introducing T.R.E.A.T., an experimental prototype engineered to dispense dog treats on demand. Now dogs and vacuums can finally be friends.
[ T.R.E.A.T. ]
Legged robots have better adaptability in complex terrain, and wheeled robots move faster on flat surfaces. Unitree B-W, the ultimate speed all-rounder, combines the advantages of both types of two robots, and continues to bring new exploration and change to the industry.
[ Unitree ]
In this demonstration, Digit starts out knowing there is trash on the floor and that bins are used for recycling/trash. We use a voice command “Clean up this mess” to have Digit help us. Digit hears the command and uses a large language model to interpret how best to achieve the stated goal with its existing physical capabilities. At no point is Digit instructed on how to clean or what a mess is. This is an example of bridging the conversational nature of Chat GPT and other LLMs to generate real-world physical action.
[ Agility ]
Battery endurance represents a key challenge for long-term autonomy and long-range operations, especially in the case of aerial robots. In this paper, we propose AutoCharge, an autonomous charging solution for quadrotors that combines a portable ground station with a flexible, lightweight charging tether and is capable of universal, highly efficient, and robust charging.
[ ARPL NYU ]
BruBotics secured a place in the Guinness World Records! Together with the visitors of the Nerdland Festival, they created the longest chain of robots ever, which also respond to light. Vrije Universiteit Brussel/Imec professor Bram Vanderborght and his team, consisting of Ellen Roels, Gabriël Van De Velde, Hendrik Cools, and Niklas Steenackers, have worked hard on the project in recent months. They set their record with a chain of 334 self-designed robots. The BruBotics research group at VUB aims to bring robots closer to people with their record. “Our main objective was to introduce participants to robots in an interactive way,” says Vanderborght. “And we are proud that we have succeeded.”
[ VUB ]
Based in Italy, Comau is a leading robot manufacturer and global systems integrator. The company has been working with Intrinsic over the past several years to validate our platform technology and our developer product Flowstate through real-world use cases. In a new video case study, we go behind the scenes to explore and hear firsthand how Comau and Intrinsic are working together. Comau is using Intrinsic Flowstate to assemble the rigid components of a supermodule for a plug-in hybrid electric vehicle (PHEV).
[ Intrinsic ]
GITAI has achieved a significant milestone with the successful demonstration of a GITAI, an inchworm-type robotic arm equipped with a tool-changer function, and a GITAI lunar robotic rover in a simulated regolith chamber, featuring a 7-ton regolith simulant (LHS-1E).
[ GITAI ]
Uhh, pinch points...?
[ Deep Robotics ]
Detect, fetch, and collect. A seemingly easy task is being tested to find the best strategy to collect samples on the Martian surface, some 290,000 million kilometers away from home. The Sample Transfer Arm will need to load the tubes from the Martian surface for delivery to Earth. ESA’s robotic arm will collect them from the Perseverance rover, and possibly others dropped by sample-recovery helicopters as a backup.
[ ESA ]
Wing’s AutoLoader for curbside pickup.
[ Wing ]
MIT Mechanical Engineering students in Professor Sangbae Kim’s class explore why certain physical traits have evolved in animals in the natural world. Then they extract those useful principles that are applicable to robotic systems to solve such challenges as manipulation and locomotion in novel and interesting ways.
[ MIT ]
I get that it’s slightly annoying that robot vacuums generally cannot clean stairs, but I’m not sure that it’s a problem actually worth solving.
Also, the actual existence of this thing is super sketchy, and I wouldn’t give them any money just yet.
The fastest, tiniest, mouse-iest competition for how well robots can stick to smooth surfaces.
[ Veritasium ]
Art and language are pinnacles of human expressive achievement. This panel, part of the Stanford HAI Spring Symposium on 24 May 2023, offered conversations between artists and technologists about intersections in their work. Speakers included Ken Goldberg, professor of industrial engineering and operations research, University of California, Berkeley, and Sydney Skybetter, deputy dean of the College for Curriculum and Co-Curriculum and senior lecturer in theater arts and performance studies, Brown University. Moderated by Catie Cuan, Stanford University.
[ Stanford HAI ]
An ICRA 2023 Plenary from 90-year-old living legend Jasia Reichardt (who coined the term “uncanny valley” in 1978), linking robots with Turing, Fellini, Asimov, and Buddhism.
[ ICRA 2023 ]
Mo-Shing Chen, a world-renowned power engineering educator and researcher, died on 1 May at the age of 91.
The IEEE Fellow was a professor at the University of Texas at Arlington for more than 40 years. He founded the university’s Energy Systems Research Center in 1968 and served as its director until he retired in 2003.
Chen created UTA’s first Ph.D. program in electrical engineering in 1969, and it quickly became one of the nation’s largest and top-rated graduate programs in power systems engineering.
Chen’s research included the modeling of electrical loads, the effect of voltage control in energy savings, real-time testing to improve power system efficiency, computer representation of cogeneration systems, reducing efficiency losses in transmission lines, and voltage stability.
Through his work, he solved complex problems engineers were facing with power networks, from small, rural electric cooperatives to ones that serve large metropolitan areas including New York City’s Consolidated Edison Co.
He taught his students not only how to solve such problems but also how to identify and understand what caused the troubles.
Born in the village of Wuxing in China, Chen and his family moved to Taiwan in 1949 when he was a teenager. After Chen earned a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering in 1954 from National Taiwan University in Taipei, he joined the Taiwan Power Co. as a power engineer in Wulai. There he became fascinated by difficult, real-world problems of power systems, such as frequent blackouts and sudden spikes of electric loads.
Deciding he wanted to pursue master’s and doctoral degrees in electrical engineering, Chen moved to the United States to do so at the University of Texas at Austin under the mentorship of Edith Clarke, an EE professor there. She had invented an early graphing calculator and worked on the design and construction of hydroelectric power systems including the Hoover Dam, located on the Nevada-Arizona border.
Clarke and Chen had lively discussions about their work, and they had mutual respect for one another. He studied under Clarke until she retired in 1957.
Chen earned his master’s degree in 1958 and his Ph.D. in 1962.
He joined UTA—then known as Arlington State College—in 1962 as an assistant professor of electrical engineering.
As a professor, Chen observed that electrical engineering programs at universities around the country were not meeting the needs of industry, so he founded UTA’s Power Systems Research Center. It was later renamed the Energy Systems Research Center.
He gained global recognition in the power industry through his intensive, two-week continuing-education course, Modeling and Analysis of Modern Power Systems, which he began teaching in 1967. Attendees learned how to design, operate, and stabilize systems. The course became the power industry’s hub for continuing education, attended by 1,500 participants from academia and industry. The attendees came from more than 750 universities and companies worldwide. Chen also traveled to more than 40 companies and universities to teach the course.
He mentored UTA’s first Ph.D. graduate, Howard Daniels, who became an IEEE life member and vice president of a multinational power company based in Switzerland. Chen went on to mentor more than 300 graduate students.
Chen this year was awarded one of UTA’s first College of Engineering Legacy Awards. The honor is designed to recognize a faculty member’s career-long performance and dedication to the university.
In 1968 he founded the Transmission and Substation Design and Operation Symposium. The event, still held today, serves as a forum for utility companies, engineers, contractors, and consultants to present and discuss trends and challenges.
He also created a distinguished-lecturer series at UTA and invited students, faculty, and industry engineers to campus to listen to speeches by power systems engineers including IEEE Fellow Charles Concordia and IEEE Life Fellow W.F. Tinney.
Chen said he was always cognizant that the primary purpose of a university was education, so before making any decision, he asked himself, “How will my students benefit?”
By the mid-1970s, the U.S. National Science Foundation consistently ranked UTA as one of the top power engineering programs in the country.
Chen said he believed any faculty member could teach top students, who generally need little help. A professor’s real service to society, he said, was turning average students into top-quality graduates who could compete with anyone.
Part of that process was recruiting, motivating, and mentoring students. Chen insisted that his graduate students have an office near his so he could be readily available for discussions.
Chen’s contagious enthusiasm and thorough understanding of power systems— along with a knack for communicating difficult concepts clearly, simply, and humorously—made him a popular professor. In 1976 he received the first Edison Electric Institute Power Engineering Educator Award. More than 50 of Chen’s students and colleagues endorsed him for the honor.
Chen founded the university’s first international visiting-scholars program in 1968. Through the program, more than 50 power systems researchers have spent a year at UTA, teaching and conducting research. Participants have come from China, Israel, Japan, Korea, Latvia, Macedonia, Spain, and Russia.
Chen was the principal investigator for more than 40 research projects at the Energy Systems Research Center. Many of them were supported by Consolidated Edison (ConEd) of New York and the Electric Power Research Institute, in Washington, D.C.
One of his first research projects involved creating a computer representation of an operational power system with Daniels. Running a computer was expensive in the late 1960s, and Chen and Daniels’ research helped decrease data acquisition costs from between US $10,000 and $20,000 to only 1 cent.
With that project, Chen quickly demonstrated his research value to the power industry.
In the first project Chen led for ConEd, he and his team created a computer representation of New York City’s underground electric power system. It was one of Chen’s favorite projects, he said, and he enjoyed looking back at his experiences with it.
“Before this study, computers were used to represent balanced systems, not unbalanced underground systems,” he once told me. “New York City is fundamentally a distribution system, not a transmission system. ConEd had paid $2 million to a different, very famous university to do this study, but it couldn’t deliver the results after two years. We bid $250,000 and delivered the results in nine months.”
ConEd’s CEO at the time said, “We asked for a Ford, and you delivered a Cadillac.” It was the beginning of a nearly 30-year relationship between Chen and the utility company.
Chen and his colleagues designed and built a small supervisory control and data acquisition system in the mid-1980s for a group of power companies in Texas. Such systems gather and analyze real-time data from power systems to monitor and control their equipment. Chen’s invention proved valuable when he and his team were modeling electric loads for analyzing power system stability, resulting in the reduction of blackouts.
He published more than 100 peer-reviewed papers, most of them in IEEE Transactions on Power Systems.
His awards included the 1984 IEEE Centennial Medal, an honorary professorship by eight universities in China and Taiwan, and an honorary EE doctorate in 1997 from the Universidad Autonoma de Nuevo Leon, in Mexico.
He was a member of the Texas Society of Professional Engineers, the American Society of Engineering Education, IEEE–Eta Kappa Nu, Tau Beta Pi, the New York Academy of Sciences, and Sigma Xi.
Donald Trump’s latest charges are just the beginning of his legal woes, but Republicans are standing by their man.
The post How Many Indictments Does It Take to Bring Down a Cult Leader? appeared first on The Intercept.
The would-be president and the US right look ready to side with Putin, and walk away from a fight the free world must win
The war for Ukraine gets darker and more terrifying, and now a new front has opened up many miles away – in a US Republican party whose biggest players are itching to abandon Ukraine to its fate.
Proof of the conflict’s deepening horror came this week, with the destruction on Tuesday of the Kakhovka dam in Russian-controlled Ukraine, releasing a body of water so massive it’s best imagined not as a reservoir but as a great lake. The result has been the flooding of a vast swath of terrain, forcing thousands to abandon their homes and flee for their lives. But the menaces unleashed by this act go further than the immediate and devastating effect on the people who live close by.
Jonathan Freedland is a Guardian columnistContinue reading...
The definition conflates criticism of Israel with antisemitism. A new report details how it’s been used to justify punitive action against Palestine advocates in Europe.
The post Biden Embraces Antisemitism Definition That Has Upended Free Speech in Europe appeared first on The Intercept.
Indictment accuses former president of risking national security, foreign relations, safety of US military and intelligence gathering
The US senate judiciary committee chairman, Dick Durbin, has said the investigation led by special counsel Jack Smith should be allowed to continue “without interference”.
In a statement on Friday, Durbin added that Donald Trump “should be afforded the due process protections that he is guaranteed by our constitution, just like any other American”.
I think before the sun sets today, the attorney general of the United States should be standing in front of the American people, should unseal this indictment, should provide the American people with all the facts and information here.
And the American people be able to judge for themselves whether this is just the latest incident of weaponization and politicization at the justice department or it’s something different.Continue reading...
Trump took steps to retain classified documents subpoenaed by the justice department, according to indictment
Donald Trump twice disclosed national security information in separate incidents in 2021 and took steps to retain classified documents that he knew he could not keep because they had been subpoenaed by the justice department, according to the sprawling 37-count indictment unsealed Friday.
The charging papers also revealed Trump hoarded materials of the highest sensitivity after he left the White House, including documents on US nuclear programs, potential military vulnerabilities of the US and allies, and plans for US retaliation in the event of an attack.Continue reading...
Trump took classified documents including information on nuclear weapons and secret plans to attack a foreign country
Donald Trump took classified documents including information on nuclear weapons in the US and secret plans to attack a foreign country, according to a 49-page federal indictment unsealed Friday afternoon.
The former US president, alongside a military valet, now faces a sweeping 37-count felony indictment related to the mishandling of classified documents.Continue reading...
The U.S. Energy Department on Friday said that it awarded contracts for the previously announced plan to purchase 3 million barrels of crude oil for the nation’s Strategic Petroleum Reserve. The agency is purchasing the oil for an average price of about $73 a barrel and the oil will be delivered in August. It also announced plans for an additional purchase of 3.1 million barrels of oil for the Big Hill SPR site this September, as part of President Joe Biden’s “replenishment strategy” following his historic release from the SPR in the wake of the Russia-Ukraine war’s disruption to global oil supplies. U.S. crude benchmark West Texas Intermediate for July delivery CLN23 settled at $70.17 a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange on Friday, down $1.2, or 1.6%, for the session.
Market Pulse Stories are Rapid-fire, short news bursts on stocks and markets as they move. Visit MarketWatch.com for more information on this news.
As Russian oil and gas imports fell petrostates including UAE, Qatar and Saudi Arabia increased exports to UK
UK fossil fuel imports from authoritarian petrostates surged to £19.3bn in the year following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, it can be revealed.
Efforts to end the purchasing of oil and gas from Russia appear to have resulted in a surge in imports from other authoritarian regimes, including Algeria, Bahrain, Kuwait, Libya, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), according to data from the Office for National Statistics analysed by DeSmog.Continue reading...
The fight could influence whether Georgia stays blue in 2024’s Senate and presidential races.
The post No One Believes in Cop City. So Why Did Atlanta’s City Council Fund It? appeared first on The Intercept.
In an interview with The Intercept, the ousted Pakistani prime minister, just released from arrest, accuses the country’s military of deepening a political crisis.
The post Imran Khan: U.S. Was Manipulated by Pakistan Military Into Backing Overthrow appeared first on The Intercept.
Putin and Zelenskiy tussle over Ukraine’s counteroffensive narrative; water levels begin to recede in flooded regions near destroyed Kakhovka dam
Russian president Vladimir Putin said Ukraine had begun its counteroffensive against Russian troops but that efforts “so far have failed” after Moscow said it repelled several Ukrainian assaults. However, Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskiy made no formal announcement of specific developments on the battlefield, but praised the “heroism” of his country’s soldiers fighting “tough battles”.
Water levels are gradually receding in parts of southern Ukraine that were flooded after the destruction of the Kakhovka dam, according to officials. Meanwhile, evidence is growing that the dam was blown up after seismic data showed there was a blast at the site in the early hours of Tuesday. Norsar, the Norwegian Seismic Array, said signals from a regional station in Romania pointed to an explosion at 2.54am. Norsar did not draw conclusions on who was responsible.
The US said Russia appeared to be deepening its defence cooperation with Iran and had received hundreds of one-way attack drones that it is using to strike Ukraine. Citing newly declassified information, the White House said the drones were built in Iran, shipped across the Caspian Sea and then used by Russian forces against Ukraine.
The Wagner group has been accused of stoking “anarchy” on Russia’s frontlines after one of the Kremlin’s military commanders claimed Yevgeny Prigozhin’s mercenaries had kidnapped and tortured his soldiers during the battle for Bakhmut. In a video posted online, Lt Col Roman Venevitin also accused Wagner soldiers of stealing arms, forcing mobilised soldiers to sign contracts with Wagner, and attempting to extort weapons from the Russian defence ministry in exchange for releasing kidnapped soldiers.
Iceland announced it would suspend work at its embassy in Russia as of 1 August, the first country to do so, and asked Russia to limit its operations in Reykjavik. “The current situation simply does not make it viable for the small foreign service of Iceland to operate an embassy in Russia,” foreign minister Thordis Gylfadottir said.
Russia will start deploying tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus after the facilities are ready on 7-8 July, Putin told his Belarusian counterpart Alexander Lukashenko on Friday in a meeting in Sochi, Russia.
Nato allies on Friday condemned Russia’s decision to withdraw from the treaty on conventional armed forces in Europe (CFE).
Hungary said on Friday it had received a group of Ukrainian prisoners of war from Russia, a release that Ukraine welcomed while expressing concern that it had not been informed.
Volodymyr Zelenskiy has thanked Joe Biden for his $2.1bn (£1.6bn) security assistance package. In a tweet, Zelenskiy said the contribution is “more important than ever” since the Kakhovka dam collapse.
The Japanese prime minister, Fumio Kishida, told Zelenskiy on Friday that Japan will offer emergency humanitarian aid worth about $5m (£3.9m) after the destruction of the Nova Kakhovka dam, a Japanese government spokesperson has said.
Ukraine’s domestic Security Service (SBU) said on Friday it had intercepted a telephone call proving a Russian “sabotage group” blew up the Kakhovka hydroelectric station and dam in southern Ukraine. A one-and-a-half minute audio clip on its Telegram channel of the alleged conversation featured two unidentified men who appeared to be discussing the fallout from the disaster in Russian. One of the men said “Our saboteur group is there. They wanted to cause fear with this dam. It did not go according to the plan. More than they planned.”
The Kremlin on Friday accused Ukrainian forces of killing civilian victims of flooding caused by the collapse of the Kakhovka dam in southern Ukraine in repeated shelling attacks, including one pregnant woman. Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov called the purported attacks “barbaric”. Russia did not provide any evidence to back up its claims.
Russian deputy prime minister Marat Khusnullin said on Friday that Crimea’s water supply will not be affected by the destruction of the Kakhovka dam, and the peninsula had enough water reserves for 500 days. A canal from the destroyed reservoir fed drinking water to the peninsula. Kyiv cut access to the canal in 2014, after Russia illegally seized Crimea and claimed to annex it.Continue reading...
Whether to pardon January 6 convicts will be the most revealing question of the Republican primary.
The post Oath Keepers Leader Stewart Rhodes Says He’s a Political Prisoner. Republicans Are Listening. appeared first on The Intercept.
Donald Trump is the first former president in US history to face federal criminal charges – is this a gamechanger or just another chapter in the drama?
He really might be going to prison.
Donald Trump just became the first former president in American history to face federal criminal charges.Continue reading...
The federal indictment of former President Donald Trump in a classified documents probe has been unsealed. Earlier Friday, Trump shook up his legal team in the wake of the late-Thursday indictment.
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Agatha Christie explains why Donald Trump is the first president to be indicted.
The post Trump’s Mistake Was Committing Small Crimes by Himself appeared first on The Intercept.
Former President Donald Trump said in a Friday post on his Truth Social platform that he’s parting ways with some lawyers and now will be represented by attorney Todd Blanche and a firm to be named later, with the move coming after he said said late Thursday that he has been indicted in Florida over his handling of classified documents. “I want to thank Jim Trusty and John Rowley for their work, but they were up against a very dishonest, corrupt, evil, and ‘sick’ group of people, the likes of which has not been seen before. We will be announcing additional lawyers in the coming days,” Trump said.
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There’s no telling how many indictments he will collect before the election. And the sad fact is that his party doesn’t seem to care
Donald Trump announced his latest indictment last night in front of a painting of a guy literally twirling his moustache. “I am an innocent man,” the former president insisted, next to this cartoon shorthand for villainy. The oil painting in question is not so much an artwork as a lift-music version of an artwork, and seems to hang at Trump’s Bedminster golf club in New Jersey – which is the same place he buried his former wife Ivana, as all admirers of both exquisite taste and private-cemetery tax breaks may already know. Either way, Ivana’s there, right near the first tee. It’s what she would have wanted.
As for her surviving ex-husband, it’s fashionable to say that anything that would represent a catastrophic setback for any other human being is exactly what Trump would have wanted. By this metric, his indictment on federal charges for the first time, including under the Espionage Act, is an absolute gift and a triumph. He’ll use it to pull in fundraising, it’ll rally his base, it’ll make every Republican beta – which is to say, every Republican – feel they have to swear loyalty to him. Furthermore, it’s already got him right where he most loves to be: with everyone talking about him. And these are all reasonable points – or at least reasonable in a through-the-looking-glass way, given that to many outside observers the United States passed reason two or three election cycles ago. If only they could invade themselves to bring democracy.
Marina Hyde is a Guardian columnist
On Tuesday 13 June, Marina Hyde will join Gary Younge at a Guardian Live event in Brighton. Readers can join this event in person
What Just Happened?! by Marina Hyde (Guardian Faber, £9.99). To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply
Do you have an opinion on the issues raised in this article? If you would like to submit a response of up to 300 words by email to be considered for publication in our letters section, please click here.Continue reading...
This replaces a previous item that incorrectly reported the name of Donald Trump’s social media company. It has been corrected.Shares of Digital World Acquisition Corp. DWAC, the special-purpose acquisition company (SPAC) looking to take Donald Trump’s Truth Social platform public, climbed 2.6% in morning trading Friday, after the former president said he’s been indicted in the federal investigation into classified documents. Trump has been summoned to appear in federal court on June 13. After Trump was found liable for sexual abuse and defamation on May 9, the SPAC’s stock rose 3.6%, and climbed 7.5% over three days to close May 11 at $13.93, before pulling back. A merger with Digital World Acquisition and Trump Media & Technology Group has been in the works since October 2021. Earlier this week, Digital World Acquisition said its board of directors approved an extension for when the company would be required to close a merger to Sept. 8, 2023 from June 8. The SPAC’s stock has tumbled 69.7% over the past 12 months, while the S&P 500 SPX has gained 7.2%.
Market Pulse Stories are Rapid-fire, short news bursts on stocks and markets as they move. Visit MarketWatch.com for more information on this news.
Rufo’s Documentary Foundation received an influx of untraceable money in 2021, as his national profile grew.
The post Funded by Dark Money, Chris Rufo’s Nonprofit Stokes the Far Right’s Culture War appeared first on The Intercept.
The powerful lights mounted on the border wall threaten the dark skies that make southern Arizona a biodiversity hotspot.
The post The Feds Have Thousands of Stadium Lights on the Border. Switching Them On Would Devastate Desert Ecosystems. appeared first on The Intercept.
Facing questions about Gail Gitcho’s work as a foreign agent, the GOP-affiliated Women’s Democracy Network scrubbed her from its site.
The post GOP Lobbyist Claimed to Be “Empowering Women” — but Worked for Saudi Theocracy’s LIV Golf appeared first on The Intercept.
UK Ministry of Defence says Ukraine has ‘likely made good progress’ in some areas but that progress is ‘slower’ in others
The latest intelligence update from the UK’s Ministry of Defence said over the past 48 hours “significant” Ukrainian operations have taken place in several sectors of eastern and southern Ukraine.
Ukrainian forces have “likely made good progress” and “penetrated the first line of Russian defences”, the MoD added. However, in other areas “Ukrainian progress has been slower”.Continue reading...
Stowaways allegedly tried to take sailors hostage after being discovered on Galatea Seaways bound for France
Italian special forces have stormed a cargo ship sailing from Turkey to France after about 15 people armed with knives attempted to hijack the vessel.
The asylum seekers, 13 men and two women, mainly from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq, had allegedly sneaked undetected on to the roll-on, roll-off cargo ship, named Galatea Seaways, in the hope of reaching Europe.
AFP and Ansa contributed to this reportContinue reading...
Money will go to councils across Britain to help Ukrainians secure private rented housing and find work
A £150m fund to help Ukrainians into their own homes has been announced by the UK government.
More than 124,000 people have arrived in the UK under the Homes for Ukraine scheme since Russia invaded Ukraine in February last year.Continue reading...
Dutiful German generosity revealed in analysis of gratuity habits in six EU countries, the UK and US
In Germany it seems to be pretty much automatic, pretty much all the time. In France and Spain it all depends – presumably on social subtleties that you have to be French or Spanish to understand. In Italy, why would you even bother?
When, and how much, to tip is a question that has been vexing visitors to Europe for as long as people have been travelling around the continent. Outside their own country, it seems even Europeans don’t know the answer.Continue reading...
Opposition leaders have begun to plan for the end of the regime – and some believe it is now inevitable
Is Russia about to experience a period of dramatic political change? If so, can exiled democratic forces unite into a coherent bloc, and is there any way for them to force themselves on to the political scene?
Nearly 300 exiled Russian opposition politicians and activists gathered to discuss these questions in the European parliament earlier this week, the congress coming as news broke of the Nova Kakhovka dam destruction, the latest grim episode in Vladimir Putin’s war on Ukraine.Continue reading...
Russian president says beginning of offensive ‘is evidenced by the use of strategic reserves’. This live blog is closed
Russian military bloggers are saying that overnight the Ukrainians were making another attempt to break through Russian lines in occupied Zaporizhzhia in the area of Orikhiv.
The claims have not been independently verified.Continue reading...
Campi Flegrei (Phlegraean Fields) near Naples is now in ‘extremely dangerous’ state, say academic experts
Half a million people live on a sprawling volcano in Italy – and the risk of an eruption has never been greater, according to a study.
The Campi Flegrei (Phlegraean Fields) volcano may be less well-known than Vesuvius, but is “extremely dangerous”, study co-author Stefano Carlino told AFP.Continue reading...
Kremlin commander claimed the mercenaries had kidnapped and tortured his soldiers during battle for Bakhmut
The Wagner group has been accused of stoking “anarchy” on Russia’s frontlines after one of the Kremlin’s military commanders claimed Yevgeny Prigozhin’s mercenaries had kidnapped and tortured his soldiers during the battle for Bakhmut.
In a video posted online, Lt Col Roman Venevitin also accused Wagner soldiers of stealing arms, forcing mobilised soldiers to sign contracts with Wagner, and attempting to extort weapons from the Russian defence ministry in exchange for releasing kidnapped soldiers.Continue reading...
The Justice Department unsealed charges against two Russian nationals Friday, accusing them of hacking the now-defunct Mt. Gox cryptocurrency exchange to steal what at the time was nearly half a billion dollars in bitcoin BTCUSD and conspiring to launder the proceeds.The DOJ alleges that Alexey Bilyuchenko and Aleksandr Verner gained unauthorized access to the exchange starting in 2011 and over the next three years illegally transferred 670,000 bitcoins to addresses controlled by them.“As cyber criminals have become more sophisticated in their methods of thievery, our career prosecutors and law enforcement partners, too, have become experts in the latest technologies being abused for malicious purposes,” said Damian Williams, the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, in a statement.
Market Pulse Stories are Rapid-fire, short news bursts on stocks and markets as they move. Visit MarketWatch.com for more information on this news.
Signals point to explosion early on Tuesday, as Ukraine says intercepted call proves Russia was responsible
Evidence is growing that the Nova Kakhovka dam was blown up, after the publication of seismic data showing there was a blast at the site in the early hours of Tuesday.
Norsar, the Norwegian Seismic Array, said signals from a regional station in Romania pointed to an explosion at 2.54am. Norsar did not draw conclusions on who was responsible.Continue reading...
At least four wire articles published by national broadcaster had been edited to add pro-Kremlin phrasing
New Zealand’s national radio broadcaster is conducting an internal investigation after evidence emerged that an employee had edited wire reporting on the Ukraine war to add Russia-friendly phrasing.
The state-funded RNZ, or Radio New Zealand, published at least four articles attributed to the Reuters wire service that had been edited to add pro-Kremlin phrasing.Continue reading...
Authorities close off 46-mile stretch of coastline after man attacked by tiger shark near Hurghada
A Russian man has died after being mauled by a shark off one of Egypt’s Red Sea resorts, Egyptian and Russian authorities have said.
Egypt’s environment ministry said the man was killed on Thursday after being attacked by a tiger shark in the waters near the city of Hurghada. Authorities closed off a 46-mile (74km) stretch of the coastline, announcing it would remain off-limits until Sunday.Continue reading...
Footage recorded in Ukraine's southern Mykolaiv region shows heavily mined areas inundated with flood water after the Kakhovka dam was destroyed. Mine specialists said they feared the explosive devices could be uprooted and endanger civilian areas. Jasmine Dann, a regional operation manager for the Halo Trust, which specialises in clearing mines and other explosive devices in conflict zones, said: 'For the past two days, we have not been able to access any of those minefields and we believe that the majority of them are completely under water.' She added: 'The minefields we’ve been working on are quite high priority. They are areas that people need to be able to get back on to, and so every day that we are delayed, and being able to do clearance there, has an impact for civilians in the area'
Russian forces accused of blocking flood evacuation efforts in Ukraine
Maps show how Kakhovka dam collapse threatens Ukraine’s bread basket
Report demands accountability for war crimes and singles out Russia for ‘mind-boggling’ targeting of hospitals in Ukraine
Russian attacks on medical facilities in Ukraine made 2022 the most violent year in a decade for hospitals and health workers operating in conflict zones, according to a new report by a coalition of humanitarian organisations.
With 750 reported attacks in 2022, Russia set a 10-year record, according to the Safeguarding Health in Conflict Coalition, which includes Human Rights Watch and the Johns Hopkins Center for Humanitarian Health.Continue reading...
The UN has blamed the destruction of the Kakhovka dam on Russia. What impact will the flooding have on the war in Ukraine? Dan Sabbagh reports
In the early hours of Tuesday, the Kakhovka dam in Ukraine was destroyed. The breach of the dam left 42,000 people at immediate risk of flooding, and is a blow to Ukrainian food and water supplies.
Ukraine has accused Russia, which has been in control of the dam for more than a year, of mining and blowing up the structure. Volodymyr Zelenskiy described the incident as an ‘environmental bomb of mass destruction’.Continue reading...
The intelligence report described the demonstrations as a “violent far-left occupation” — a phrase copied directly from an article by Ngo a day earlier.
The post DHS Intel Report on Cop City Protesters Cribbed Far-Right Activist Andy Ngo appeared first on The Intercept.
In 2013 and 2014, I wrote extensively about new revelations regarding NSA surveillance based on the documents provided by Edward Snowden. But I had a more personal involvement as well.
I wrote the essay below in September 2013. The New Yorker agreed to publish it, but the Guardian asked me not to. It was scared of UK law enforcement, and worried that this essay would reflect badly on it. And given that the UK police would raid its offices in July 2014, it had legitimate cause to be worried.
Now, ten years later, I offer this as a time capsule of what those early months of Snowden were like...
Video Friday is your weekly selection of awesome robotics videos, collected by your friends at IEEE Spectrum robotics. This week, we’re featuring a special selection of videos from ICRA 2023! We also post a weekly calendar of upcoming robotics events for the next few months. Please send us your events for inclusion.
Enjoy today’s videos!
Abstract: Near the limits of adhesion, the forces generated by a tire are nonlinear and intricately coupled. Efficient and accurate modeling in this region could improve safety, especially in emergency situations where high forces are required. To this end, we propose a novel family of tire force models based on neural ordinary differential equations and a neural-ExpTanh parameterization. These models are designed to satisfy physically insightful assumptions while also having sufficient fidelity to capture higher-order effects directly from vehicle state measurements. They are used as drop-in replacements for an analytical brush tire model in an existing nonlinear model predictive control framework. Experiments with a customized Toyota Supra show that scarce amounts of driving data—less than 3 minutes—is sufficient to achieve high-performance autonomous drifting on various trajectories with speeds up to 45 miles per hour. Comparisons with the benchmark model show a 4x improvement in tracking performance, smoother control inputs, and faster and more consistent computation time.
Abstract: Aerial-aquatic vehicles are capable of moving in the two most dominant fluids, making them more promising for a wide range of applications. We propose a prototype with special designs for propulsion and thruster configuration to cope with the vast differences in the fluid properties of water and air. For propulsion, the operating range is switched for the different mediums by the dual-speed propulsion unit, providing sufficient thrust and also ensuring output efficiency. For thruster configuration, thrust vectoring is realized by the rotation of the propulsion unit around the mount arm, thus enhancing the underwater maneuverability. This paper presents a quadrotor prototype of this concept and the design details and realization in practice.
Abstract: Falling cat problem is well-known where cats show their super aerial reorientation capability and can land safely. For their robotic counterparts, a similar falling quadruped robot problem has not been fully addressed, although achieving as safe a landing as the cats has been increasingly investigated. Unlike imposing the burden on landing control, we approach to safe landing of falling quadruped robots by effective flight phase control. Different from existing work like swinging legs and attaching reaction wheels or simple tails, we propose to deploy a 3-DoF morphable inertial tail on a medium-size quadruped robot. In the flight phase, the tail with its maximum length can self-right the body orientation in 3D effectively; before touchdown, the tail length can be retracted to about 1/4 of its maximum for impressing the tail’s side effect on landing. To enable aerial reorientation for safe landing in the quadruped robots, we design a control architecture that is verified in a high-fidelity physics simulation environment with different initial conditions. Experimental results on a customized flight-phase test platform with comparable inertial properties are provided and show the tail’s effectiveness on 3D body reorientation and its fast retractability before touchdown. An initial falling quadruped robot experiment is shown, where the robot Unitree A1 with the 3-DoF tail can land safely subject to non-negligible initial body angles.
Abstract: Achieving stable hopping has been a hallmark challenge in the field of dynamic legged locomotion. Controlled hopping is notably difficult due to extended periods of underactuation combined with very short ground phases wherein ground interactions must be modulated to regulate a global state. In this work, we explore the use of hybrid nonlinear model predictive control paired with a low-level feedback controller in a multirate hierarchy to achieve dynamically stable motions on a novel 3D hopping robot. In order to demonstrate richer behaviors on the manifold of rotations, both the planning and feedback layers must be designed in a geometrically consistent fashion; therefore, we develop the necessary tools to employ Lie group integrators and appropriate feedback controllers. We experimentally demonstrate stable 3D hopping on a novel robot, as well as trajectory tracking and flipping in simulation.
Abstract: Enlightened by the fast-running gait of mammals like cheetahs and wolves, we design and fabricate a single-actuated untethered compliant robot that is capable of galloping at a speed of 313 millimeters per second or 1.56 body lengths per second (BL/s), faster than most reported soft crawlers in mm/s and BL/s. An in-plane prestressed hair clip mechanism (HCM) made up of semirigid materials, i.e., plastics are used as the supporting chassis, the compliant spine, and the force amplifier of the robot at the same time, enabling the robot to be simple, rapid, and strong. With experiments, we find that the HCM robotic locomotion speed is linearly related to actuation frequencies and substrate friction differences except for concrete surfaces, that tethering slows down the crawler, and that asymmetric actuation creates a new galloping gait. This paper demonstrates the potential of HCM-based soft robots.
Abstract: In nature, living creatures show versatile behaviors. They can move on various terrains and perform impressive object manipulation/transportation using their legs. Inspired by their morphologies and control strategies, we have developed bioinspired robots and adaptive modular neural control. In this video, we demonstrate our five bioinspired robots in our robot zoo setup. Inchworm-inspired robots with two electromagnetic feet (Freelander-02 and AVIS) can adaptively crawl and balance on horizontal and vertical metal pipes. With special design, the Freelander-02 robot can adapt its posture to crawl underneath an obstacle, while the AVIS robot can step over a flange. A millipede-inspired robot with multiple body segments (Freelander-08) can proactively adapt its body joints to efficiently navigate on bump terrain. A dung beetle–inspired robot (ALPHA) can transport an object by grasping it with its hind legs and at the same time walk backward with the remaining legs like dung beetles. Finally, an insect-inspired robot (MORF), which is a hexapod robot platform, demonstrates typical insectlike gaits (slow wave and fast tripod gaits). In a nutshell, we believe that this bioinspired robot zoo demonstrates how the diverse and fascinating abilities of living creatures can serve as inspiration and principles for developing robotics technology capable of achieving multiple robotic functions and solving complex motor control problems in systems with many degrees of freedom.
Abstract: AngGo is a hands-free shared indoor smart mobility device for public use. AngGo is a personal mobility device that is suitable for the movement of passengers in huge indoor spaces such as convention centers or airports. The user can use both hands freely while riding the AngGo. Unlike existing mobility devices, the mobility device can be maneuvered using the feet and was designed to be as intuitive as possible. The word “AngGo” is pronounced like a Korean word meaning “sit down and move.” There are 6 ToF distance sensors around AngGo. Half of them are in the front part and the other half are in the rear part. In the autonomous mode, AngGo avoids obstacles based on the distance from each sensor. IR distance sensors are mounted under the footrest to measure the extent to which the footrest is moved forward or backward, and these data are used to control the rotational speed of motors. The user can control the speed and the direction of AngGo simultaneously. The spring in the footrest generates force feedback, so the user can recognize the amount of variation.
Abstract: Since the Renaissance, artists have created artworks using novel techniques and machines, deviating from conventional methods. The robotic drawing system is one of such creative attempts that involves not only the artistic nature but also scientific problems that need to be solved. Robotic drawing problems can be viewed as planning the robot’s drawing path that eventually leads to the art form. The robotic pen-art system imposes new challenges, unlike robotic painting, requiring the robot to maintain stable contact with the target drawing surface. This video showcases an autonomous robotic system that creates pen art on an arbitrary canvas surface without restricting its size or shape. Our system converts raster or vector images into piecewise-continuous paths depending on stylistic choices, such as TSP art or stroke-based drawing. Our system consists of multiple manipulators with mobility and performs stylistic drawing tasks. In order to create a more extensive pen art, the mobile manipulator setup finds a minimal number of discrete configurations for the mobile platform to cover the ample canvas space. The dual manipulator setup can generate multicolor pen art using adaptive three-finger grippers with a pen-tool-change mechanism. We demonstrate that our system can create visually pleasing and complicated pen art on various surfaces.
Abstract: We developed a novel “Smart Bartender” system, which can understand the intention of users just from the eye gaze and make some corresponding actions. Particularly, we believe that a cyber-barman who cannot feel our faces is not an intelligent one. We thus aim at building a novel cyber-barman by capturing and analyzing the intention of the customers on the fly. Technically, such a system enables the user to select a drink simply by staring at it. Then the robotic arm mounted with a camera will automatically grasp the target bottle and pour the liquid into the cup. To achieve this goal, we firstly adopt YOLO to detect candidate drinks. Then, the GazeNet is utilized to generate potential gaze center for grounding the target bottle that has minimum center-to-center distance. Finally, we use object pose estimation and path-planning algorithms to guide the robotic arm to grasp the target bottle and execute pouring. Our system integrated with the category-level object pose estimation enjoys powerful performance, generalizing to various unseen bottles and cups that are not used for training. We believe our system would not only reduce the intensive human labor in different service scenarios but also provide users with interactivity and enjoyment.
Abstract: The current state of robotics technology lacks a platform that can combine manipulation, aerial locomotion, and bipedal terrestrial locomotion. Therefore, we define aerial humanoid robotics as the outcome of platforms with these three capabilities. To implement aerial humanoid robotics on the humanoid robot iCub, we conduct research in different directions. This includes experimental research on jet turbines and codesign, which is necessary to implement aerial humanoid robotics on the real iCub. These activities aim to model and identify the jet turbines. We also investigate flight control of flying humanoid robots using Lyapunov-quadratic-programming-based control algorithms to regulate both the attitude and position of the robot. These algorithms work independently of the number of jet turbines installed on the robot and ensure satisfaction of physical constraints associated with the jet engines. In addition, we research computational fluid dynamics for aerodynamics modeling. Since the aerodynamics of a multibody system like a flying humanoid robot is complex, we use CFD simulations with Ansys to extract a simplified model for control design, as there is little space for closed-form expressions of aerodynamic effects.
Abstract: The goal of this research project (Consortium: Altatek GmbH, Eastern Switzerland University of Applied Sciences OST, Faculty of Law University of Zurich) was the development of a multifunctional, autonomous single-axle robot with an electric drive. The robot is customized for agricultural applications in mountainous areas with steepest slopes. The intention is to relieve farmers from arduous and safety-critical work. Furthermore, the robot is developed as a modular platform that can be used for work in forestry, municipal, sports fields, and winter/snow applications. Robot features: Core feature is the patented center of gravity control. With a sliding wheel axle of 800 millimeters, hills up to a steepness of 35 degrees (70 percent) can be easily driven and a safe operation without tipping can be ensured. To make the robot more sustainable, electric drives and a 48-volt battery were equipped. To navigate in mountainous areas, several sensors are used. In difference to applications on flat areas, the position and gradient of the robot on the slope needs to be measured and considered in the path planning. A sensor system that detects possible obstacles and especially humans or animals which could be in the path of the robot is currently under development.
Abstract: Surf zones are challenging for walking robots if they cannot anchor to the substrate, especially at the transition between dry sand and waves. Crablike dactyl designs enable robots to achieve this anchoring behavior while still being lightweight enough to walk on dry sand. Our group has been developing a series of crablike robots to achieve the transition from walking on underwater surfaces to walking on dry land. Compared with the default forward-moving gait, we find that inward-pulling gaits and sideways walking increase efficiency in granular media. By using soft dactyls, robots can probe the ground to classify substrates, which can help modify gaits to better suit the environment and recognize hazardous conditions. Dactyls can also be used to securely grasp the object and dig in the substrate for installing cables, searching for buried objects, and collecting sediment samples. To simplify control and actuation, we developed a four-degrees-of-freedom Klann mechanism robot, which can climb onto an object and then grasp it. In addition, human interfaces will improve our ability to precisely control the robot for these types of tasks. In particular, the U.S. government has identified munitions retrieval as an environmental priority through their Strategic Environmental Research Development Program. Our goal is to support these efforts with new robots.
Abstract: Tasks involving locally unstable or discontinuous dynamics (such as bifurcations and collisions) remain challenging in robotics, because small variations in the environment can have a significant impact on task outcomes. For such tasks, learning a robust deterministic policy is difficult. We focus on structuring exploration with multiple stochastic policies based on a mixture of experts (MoE) policy representation that can be efficiently adapted. The MoE policy is composed of stochastic subpolicies that allow exploration of multiple distinct regions of the action space (or strategies) and a high- level selection policy to guide exploration toward the most promising regions. We develop a robot system to evaluate our approach in a real-world physical problem-solving domain. After training the MoE policy in simulation, online learning in the real world demonstrates efficient adaptation within just a few dozen attempts, with a minimal sim2real gap. Our results confirm that representing multiple strategies promotes efficient adaptation in new environments and strategies learned under different dynamics can still provide useful information about where to look for good strategies.
Abstract: This paper tackles the task of singulating and grasping paperlike deformable objects. We refer to such tasks as paper-flipping. In contrast to manipulating deformable objects that lack compression strength (such as shirts and ropes), minor variations in the physical properties of the paperlike deformable objects significantly impact the results, making manipulation highly challenging. Here, we present Flipbot, a novel solution for flipping paperlike deformable objects. Flipbot allows the robot to capture object physical properties by integrating exteroceptive and proprioceptive perceptions that are indispensable for manipulating deformable objects. Furthermore, by incorporating a proposed coarse-to-fine exploration process, the system is capable of learning the optimal control parameters for effective paper-flipping through proprioceptive and exteroceptive inputs. We deploy our method on a real-world robot with a soft gripper and learn in a self-supervised manner. The resulting policy demonstrates the effectiveness of Flipbot on paper-flipping tasks with various settings beyond the reach of prior studies, including but not limited to flipping pages throughout a book and emptying paper sheets in a box. The code is available here: https://robotll.github.io/Flipbot/
Abstract: Crochet is a textile craft that has resisted mechanization and industrialization except for a select number of one-off crochet machines. These machines are only capable of producing a limited subset of common crochet stitches. Crochet machines are not used in the textile industry, yet mass-produced crochet objects and clothes sold in stores like Target and Zara are almost certainly the products of crochet sweatshops. The popularity of crochet and the existence of crochet products in major chain stores shows that there is both a clear demand for this craft as well as a need for it to be produced in a more ethical way. In this paper, we present Croche-Matic, a radial crochet machine for generating three-dimensional cylindrical geometry. The Croche-Matic is designed based on Magic Ring technique, a method for hand-crocheting 3D cylindrical objects. The machine consists of nine mechanical axes that work in sequence to complete different types of crochet stitches, and includes a sensor component for measuring and regulating yarn tension within the mechanical system. Croche-Matic can complete the four main stitches used in Magic Ring technique. It has a success rate of 50.7 percent with single crochet stitches, and has demonstrated an ability to create three-dimensional objects.
Abstract: This letter presents the first design of a soft and lightweight UAV, entirely 3D-printed in flexible filament. The drone’s flexible arms are equipped with a tendon-actuated bending system, which is used for applications that require physical interaction with the environment. The flexibility of the UAV can be controlled during the additive manufacturing process by adjusting the infill rate ρTPU distribution. However, the increase inflexibility implies difficulties in controlling the UAV, as well as structural, aerodynamic, and aeroelastic effects. This article provides insight into the dynamics of the system and validates the flyability of the vehicle for densities as low as 6 percent. Within this range, quasi-static arm deformations can be considered; thus the autopilot is fed back through a static arm deflection model. At lower densities, strong nonlinear elastic dynamics appear, which translates to complex modeling, and it is suggested to switch to data-based approaches. Moreover, this work demonstrates the ability of the soft UAV to perform full-body perching, specifically landing and stabilizing on pipelines and irregular surfaces without the need for an auxiliary system.
Abstract: Cargo drones are designed to carry payloads with predefined shape, size, and/or mass. This lack of flexibility requires a fleet of diverse drones tailored to specific cargo dimensions. Here we propose a new reconfigurable drone based on a modular design that adapts to different cargo shapes, sizes, and mass. We also propose a method for the automatic generation of drone configurations and suitable parameters for the flight controller. The parcel becomes the drone’s body to which several individual propulsion modules are attached. We demonstrate the use of the reconfigurable hardware and the accompanying software by transporting parcels of different mass and sizes requiring various numbers and propulsion modules’ positioning. The experiments are conducted indoors (with a motion-capture system) and outdoors (with an RTK-GNSS sensor). The proposed design represents a cheaper and more versatile alternative to the solutions involving several drones for parcel transportation.
A raft of states are looking to restrict property purchases by citizens of U.S. adversaries like China and Iran. Democrats in Washington are pushing back.
The post U.S. Lawmakers Seek to Preempt State-Level Bans on Foreigners Buying Property appeared first on The Intercept.
Swift investment would make any Labour government a climate and economic leader – so why the dithering?
As wildfire smoke engulfs much of the east coast of the US and average global temperatures continue to rise, with the world imminently facing some of the hottest years on record, it would be an error of judgment for the Labour party to delay its green investment pledge. Doing so would not only be a mistake for our economy and the climate, but also threaten Labour’s electoral prospects, given strong public demand for bold action on this issue.
Together with its world-leading promise to end all new domestic oil and gas developments, the Labour party’s £28bn-a-year investment pledge to green industries marks the scale of climate ambition we need to see from a future British government. These commitments mark Labour out as a potential major climate leader and, like Joe Biden’s landmark Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), the investment pledge clearly demonstrates that the party is in tune with the economic realities of today’s world.
Rebecca Newsom is head of politics at GreenpeaceContinue reading...
The £28bn delay caps weeks of turmoil over Labour’s green ambitions, but if he’s serious about them, the leader will need to get used to it
A U-turn on the eve of a major policy announcement is not usually part of the plan for a government in waiting. Later this month the Labour leader, Keir Starmer, will set out his pitch on energy, jobs and net zero, hoping to place a green economy at the centre of his vision for revitalising the UK.
But with just weeks to go, his shadow chancellor, Rachel Reeves, admitted on Friday that the key plank of that vision – the party’s much-heralded flagship commitment to spend £28bn a year on green investment – would be delayed. She blamed the economic mess being left by the Conservative party, and insisted the target would be met in the second half of a Labour parliament.Continue reading...
While transition to wind energy could benefit the local area, private interests are set to create wealth elsewhere
Giant primary-coloured oil platform supply vessels fill almost every bay in Aberdeen’s tightly packed city centre port. For the two marine traffic controllers sitting at the very top of the glass tower overlooking the congested harbour, it is like an enormous high-stakes round of the classic computer puzzle game Tetris.
“It’s been busy all morning. We’ve only got a couple of berths free [in the north harbour] and the south harbour is full already. There are a few vessels out at sea waiting for berths,” says one of the controllers.Continue reading...
Jeremy Hunt hopes suspending energy profits levy if Brent crude falls below $71.40 a barrel will aid investment
Jeremy Hunt has handed the North Sea oil and gas industry a “get-out” clause from the windfall tax on fossil fuel profits if wholesale energy market prices fall back to normal levels.
The Treasury set out the change before a meeting with oil companies including Equinor, BP, Shell and Total in Aberdeen on Friday afternoon, after months of warnings from the North Sea industry that the windfall tax would threaten investment and jobs.Continue reading...
We want to hear from people near the dam on the Dnipro River about their experiences. How are you affected?
Ми хочемо почути людей, які знаходяться біля дамби на Дніпрі, про їхній досвід. Як це на вас вплинуло?
Following damage to the Nova Kakhovka dam near Kherson, people are being evacuated as the Ukrainian government warns of catastrophic flooding.
We want to speak to people in Ukraine about their experiences. Have you been affected? Are you, friends or family evacuating the area? Share your photos, videos and experiences below or by messaging us on WhatsApp or Signal at +447766780300 or Telegram at +447799322095.Continue reading...
Political messaging expert Anat Shenker-Osorio breaks down the art of reframing the debate for progressives to win.
The post A Dmitri Rebuttal by Messaging Expert Anat Shenker-Osorio appeared first on The Intercept.
Democrats and Republicans have previously joined hands to support the invasion of Iraq, huge corporate tax cuts, and more.
The post The Debt Limit Bill: Yet Another Triumph for Bipartisanship appeared first on The Intercept.
Since the coup in 2021 the carnage has been unceasing, meanwhile Russia and China continue to send weapons
The problem is not that governments around the world are unaware of what is happening in Myanmar. It’s that they are not doing nearly enough to stop it.
Since the military seized power in a coup in early 2021, it has terrorised the country, killed, tortured and imprisoned thousands of citizens, broken countless laws, and made a mockery of the UN.Continue reading...
The war between Russia and Ukraine is making a lot of high-tech military systems look like so many gold-plated irrelevancies. That’s why both sides are relying increasingly on low-tech alternatives—dumb artillery shells instead of pricey missiles, and drones instead of fighter aircraft.
“This war is a war of drones, they are the super weapon here,” Anton Gerashchenko, an adviser to Ukraine’s minister of internal affairs, told Newsweek earlier this year.
In early May, Russia attributed explosions at the Kremlin to drones sent by Ukraine for the purpose of assassinating Vladimir Putin, the Russian leader. Ukraine denied the allegation. True, the mission to Moscow was ineffectual, but it is amazing that it could be managed at all.
Like fighter planes, military drones started cheap, then got expensive. Unlike the fighters, though, they got cheap again.
Drones fly slower than an F-35, carry a smaller payload, beckon ground fire, and last mere days before being shot out of the skies. But for the most part, the price is right: China’s DJI Mavic 3, used by both Russia and Ukraine for surveillance and for delivering bombs, goes for around US $2,000. You can get 55,000 of them for the price of a single F-35. Also, they’re much easier to maintain: When they break, you throw them out, and there’s no pilot to be paraded through the streets of the enemy capital.
Smoke clouds rise on a flat-screen monitor above a struck target, as a Ukrainian serviceman of the Adam tactical group operates a drone to spot Russian positions near the city of Bakhmut, Donetsk region, on 16 April 2023, amid the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Sergey Shestak/AFP/Getty Images
You can do a lot with 55,000 drones. Shovel them at the foe and one in five may make it through. Yoke them together and send them flocking like a murmuration of starlings, and they will overwhelm antiaircraft defenses. Even individually they can be formidable. One effective tactic is to have a drone “loiter” near a point where targets are expected to emerge, then dash in and drop a small bomb. Videos posted on social media purport to show Ukrainian remote operators dropping grenades on Russian troops or through the hatches of Russian armored vehicles. A drone gives a lot of bang for the buck, as utterly new weapons often do.
Over time, as a weapons system provokes countermeasures, their designers respond with improvements, and the gold-plating accumulates.
In 1938, a single British Spitfire cost £9,500 to produce, equivalent to about $1 million today. In the early 1950s the United States F-86 Sabre averaged about $250,000 apiece, about $3 million now. The F-35, today’s top-of-the-line U.S. fighter, starts at $110 million. Behold the modern-day fighter plane: the hypertrophied product of the longest arms race since the days of the dreadnought.
“In the year 2054, the entire defense budget will purchase just one aircraft,” wrote Norman Augustine, formerly Under Secretary of the Army, back in 1984. “This aircraft will have to be shared by the Air Force and Navy 3 1/2 days each per week except for leap year, when it will be made available to the Marines for the extra day.”
Like fighter planes, military drones started cheap, then got expensive. Unlike the fighters, though, they got cheap again.
“Sophisticated tech is more readily available, and with AI advances and the potential for swarms, there’s even more emphasis on quantity.”
—Kelly A. Greico, Stimson Center
Back in 1981, Israel sent modest contraptions sporting surveillance cameras in its war against Syria, to some effect. The U.S. military took hold of the concept, and in its hands, those simple drones morphed into Predators and Reapers, bomber-size machines that flew missions in Iraq and Afghanistan. Each cost millions of dollars (if not tens of millions). But a technologically powerful country needn’t count the cost; the United States certainly didn’t.
“We are a country of technologists, we love technological solutions,” says Kelly A. Grieco, a strategic analyst at the Stimson Center, a think tank in Washington, D.C. “It starts with the Cold War: Looking at the Soviet Union, their advantages were in numbers and in their close approach to Germany, the famous Fulda Gap. So we wanted technology to offset the Soviet numerical advantage.”
A lot of the cost in an F-35 can be traced to the stealth technology that lets it elude even very sophisticated radar. The dreadnoughts of old needed guns of ever-greater range—enough finally to shoot beyond the horizon—so that the other side couldn’t hold them at arm’s length and pepper them with shells the size of compact cars.
Arms races tend to shift when a long peacetime buildup finally ends, as it has in Ukraine.
“The character of war has moved back toward quantity mattering,” Grieco says. “Sophisticated tech is more readily available, and with AI advances and the potential for swarms, there’s even more emphasis on quantity.”
A recent research paper she wrote with U.S. Air Force Col. Maximilian K. Bremer notes that China has showcased such capabilities, “including a swarm test of 48 loitering munitions loaded with high-explosive warheads and launched from a truck and helicopter.”
What makes these things readily available—as the nuclear and stealth technologies were not—is the Fourth Industrial Revolution: 3D printing, easy wireless connections, AI, and the big data that AI consumes. These things are all out there, on the open market.
“You can’t gain the same advantage from simply possessing the technology,” Grieco says. “What will become more important will be how you use it.”
One example of how experience has changed use comes from the early days of the war in Ukraine. That country scored early successes with the Baykar Bayraktar TB2, a Turkish drone priced at an estimated at $5 million each, about one-sixth as much as the United States’ Reaper, which it broadly resembles. That’s not cheap, except by U.S. standards.
Right now the militaries of the world are working on ways to shoot down small drones with directed-energy weapons based on lasers or microwaves.
“The Bayraktar was extremely effective at first, but after Russia got its act together with air defense, they were not as effective by so large a margin,” says Zach Kallenborn, a military consultant associated with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a think tank in Washington, D.C. That, he says, led both sides to move to masses of cheaper drones that get shot down so often they have a working life of maybe three to four days. So what? It’s a good cost-benefit ratio for drones as cheap as Ukraine’s DJIs and for Russia’s new equivalent, the Shahed-136, supplied by Iran.
Ukraine has also resorted to homemade drones as an alternative to long-range jet fighters and missiles, which Western donors have so far refused to provide. It recently launched such drones from its own territory to targets hundreds of kilometers inside Russia; Ukrainian officials said that they were working on a model that would fly about 1,000 kilometers.
Every military power is now staring at these numbers, not least the United States and China. If those two powers ever clash, it would likely be over Taiwan, which China says it will one day absorb and the United States says it will defend. Such a far-flung maritime arena would be very different from the close-in land war going on now in Eastern Europe. The current war may therefore not be a good guide to future ones.
“I don’t buy that drones will transform all of warfare. But even if they do, you’d need to get them all the way to Taiwan. And to do that you’d need [aircraft] carriers,” says Kallenborn. “And you’d need a way to communicate with drones. Relays are possible, but now satellites are key, so China’s first move might be to knock out satellites. There’s reason to doubt they would, though, because they need satellites, too.”
In every arms race there is always another step to take. Right now the militaries of the world are working on ways to shoot down small drones with directed-energy weapons based on lasers or microwaves. The marginal cost of a shot would be low—once you’ve amortized the expense of developing, making, and deploying such weapons systems.
Should such antidrone measures succeed, then succeeding generations of drones will be hardened against them. With gold plating.
A year has passed since the launch of the ESA’s Rosalind Franklin rover mission was put on hold, but the work has not stopped for the ExoMars teams in Europe.
In this programme, the ESA Web TV crew travel back to Turin, Italy to talk to the teams and watch as new tests are being conducted with the rover’s Earth twin Amalia while the real rover remains carefully stored in an ultra-clean room.
The 15-minute special programme gives an update on what happened since the mission was cancelled in 2022 because of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the plan ahead, the new challenges, the latest deep drilling test and the stringent planetary protection measures in place.
ESA’s Rosalind Franklin rover has unique drilling capabilities and an on-board science laboratory unrivalled by any other mission in development. Its twin rover Amalia was back on its wheels and drilled down 1.7 metres into a martian-like ground in Italy – about 25 times deeper than any other rover has ever attempted on Mars. The rover also collected samples for analysis under the watchful eye of European science teams.
ESA, together with international and industrial partners, is reshaping the ExoMars Rosalind Franklin Mission with new European elements, including a lander, and a target date of 2028 for the trip to Mars.
The newly shaped Rosalind Franklin Mission will recover one of the original objectives of ExoMars – to create an independent European capability to access the surface of Mars with a sophisticated robotic payload.
More information: https://www.esa.int/ExoMars
Video Friday is your weekly selection of awesome robotics videos, collected by your friends at IEEE Spectrum robotics. We also post a weekly calendar of upcoming robotics events for the next few months. Please send us your events for inclusion.
Enjoy today’s videos!
We’ve just relaunched the IEEE Robots Guide over at RobotsGuide.com, featuring new robots, new interactives, and a complete redesign from the ground up. Tell your friends, tell your family, and explore nearly 250 robots in pictures and videos and detailed facts and specs, with lots more on the way!
The qualities that make a knitted sweater comfortable and easy to wear are the same things that might allow robots to better interact with humans. RobotSweater, developed by a research team from Carnegie Mellon University’s Robotics Institute, is a machine-knitted textile “skin” that can sense contact and pressure.
RobotSweater’s knitted fabric consists of two layers of conductive yarn made with metallic fibers to conduct electricity. Sandwiched between the two is a net-like, lace-patterned layer. When pressure is applied to the fabric—say, from someone touching it—the conductive yarn closes a circuit and is read by the sensors. In their research, the team demonstrated that pushing on a companion robot outfitted in RobotSweater told it which way to move or what direction to turn its head. When used on a robot arm, RobotSweater allowed a push from a person’s hand to guide the arm’s movement, while grabbing the arm told it to open or close its gripper. In future research, the team wants to explore how to program reactions from the swipe or pinching motions used on a touchscreen.
DEEP Robotics Co. yesterday announced that it has launched the latest version of its Lite3 robotic dog in Europe. The system combines advanced mobility and an open modular structure to serve the education, research, and entertainment markets, said the Hangzhou, China–based company.
Lite3’s announced price is US $2,900. It ships in September.
Estimating terrain traversability in off-road environments requires reasoning about complex interaction dynamics between the robot and these terrains. We propose a method that learns to predict traversability costmaps by combining exteroceptive environmental information with proprioceptive terrain interaction feedback in a self-supervised manner. We validate our method in multiple short- and large-scale navigation tasks on a large, autonomous all-terrain vehicle (ATV) on challenging off-road terrains, and demonstrate ease of integration on a separate large ground robot.
This work will be presented at the IEEE International Conference on Robotics and Automation (ICRA 2023) in London next week.
Sheet Metal Workers’ Local Union 104 has introduced a training course on automating and innovating field layout with the Dusty Robotics FieldPrinter system.
Apptronik has half of its general-purpose robot ready to go!
The other half is still a work in progress, but here’s progress:
A spotted-lanternfly-murdering robot is my kind of murdering robot.
ANYmal is rated IP67 for water resistance, but this still terrifies me.
Check out the impressive ankle action on this humanoid walking over squishy terrain.
Wing’s progress can be charted along the increasingly dense environments in which we’ve been able to operate: from rural farms to lightly populated suburbs to more dense suburbs to large metropolitan areas like Brisbane, Australia; Helsinki, Finland; and the Dallas Fort Worth metro area in Texas. Earlier this month, we did a demonstration delivery at Coors Field–home of the Colorado Rockies–delivering beer (Coors of course) and peanuts to the field. Admittedly, it wasn’t on a game day, but there were 1,000 people in the stands enjoying the kickoff party for AUVSI’s annual autonomous systems conference.
[ Wing ]
Pollen Robotics’ team will be going to ICRA 2023 in London! Come and meet us there to try teleoperating Reachy by yourself and give us your feedback!
[ Pollen Robotics ]
The most efficient drone engine is no engine at all.
[ MAVLab ]
Is your robot spineless? Should it be? Let’s find out.
[ UPenn ]
Looks like we’re getting closer to that robot butler.
[ Prisma Lab ]
This episode of the Robot Brains podcast features Raff D’Andrea, from Kiva, Verity, and ETH Zurich.
[ Robot Brains ]
Inside today’s computers, phones, and other mobile devices, more and more sensors, processors, and other electronics are fighting for space. Taking up a big part of this valuable real estate are the cameras—just about every gadget needs a camera, or two, three, or more. And the most space-consuming part of the camera is the lens.
The lenses in our mobile devices typically collect and direct incoming light by refraction, using a curve in a transparent material, usually plastic, to bend the rays. So these lenses can’t shrink much more than they already have: To make a camera small, the lens must have a short focal length; but the shorter the focal length, the greater the curvature and therefore the thickness at the center. These highly curved lenses also suffer from all sorts of aberrations, so camera-module manufacturers use multiple lenses to compensate, adding to the camera’s bulk.
With today’s lenses, the size of the camera and image quality are pulling in different directions. The only way to make lenses smaller and better is to replace refractive lenses with a different technology.
That technology exists. It’s the metalens, a device developed at Harvard and commercialized at Metalenz, where I am an applications engineer. We create these devices using traditional semiconductor-processing techniques to build nanostructures onto a flat surface. These nanostructures use a phenomenon called metasurface optics to direct and focus light. These lenses can be extremely thin—a few hundred micrometers thick, about twice the thickness of a human hair. And we can combine the functionality of multiple curved lenses into just one of our devices, further addressing the space crunch and opening up the possibility of new uses for cameras in mobile devices.
Before I tell you how the metalens evolved and how it works, consider a few previous efforts to replace the traditional curved lens.
Conceptually, any device that manipulates light does so by altering its three fundamental properties: phase, polarization, and intensity. The idea that any wave or wave field can be deconstructed down to these properties was proposed by Christiaan Huygens in 1678 and is a guiding principle in all of optics.
In this single metalens [between tweezers], the pillars are less than 500 nanometers in diameter. The black box at the bottom left of the enlargement represents 2.5 micrometers. Metalenz
In the early 18th century, the world’s most powerful economies placed great importance on the construction of lighthouses with larger and more powerful projection lenses to help protect their shipping interests. However, as these projection lenses grew larger, so did their weight. As a result, the physical size of a lens that could be raised to the top of a lighthouse and structurally supported placed limitations on the power of the beam that could be produced by the lighthouse.
French physicist Augustin-Jean Fresnel realized that if he cut a lens into facets, much of the central thickness of the lens could be removed but still retain the same optical power. The Fresnel lens represented a major improvement in optical technology and is now used in a host of applications, including automotive headlights and brake lights, overhead projectors, and—still—for lighthouse projection lenses. However, the Fresnel lens has limitations. For one, the flat edges of facets become sources of stray light. For another, faceted surfaces are more difficult to manufacture and polish precisely than continuously curved ones are. It’s a no-go for camera lenses, due to the surface accuracy requirements needed to produce good images.
Another approach, now widely used in 3D sensing and machine vision, traces its roots to one of the most famous experiments in modern physics: Thomas Young’s 1802 demonstration of diffraction. This experiment showed that light behaves like a wave, and when the waves meet, they can amplify or cancel one another depending on how far the waves have traveled. The so-called diffractive optical element (DOE) based on this phenomenon uses the wavelike properties of light to create an interference pattern—that is, alternating regions of dark and light, in the form of an array of dots, a grid, or any number of shapes. Today, many mobile devices use DOEs to convert a laser beam into “structured light.” This light pattern is projected, captured by an image sensor, then used by algorithms to create a 3D map of the scene. These tiny DOEs fit nicely into small gadgets, yet they can’t be used to create detailed images. So, again, applications are limited.
Enter the metalens. Developed at Harvard by a team led by professor Federico Capasso, then-graduate student Rob Devlin, research associates Reza Khorasaninejad, Wei Ting Chen, and others, metalenses work in a way that’s fundamentally different from any of these other approaches.
A metalens is a flat glass surface with a semiconductor layer on top. Etched in the semiconductor is an array of pillars several hundred nanometers high. These nanopillars can manipulate light waves with a degree of control not possible with traditional refractive lenses.
Imagine a shallow marsh filled with seagrass standing in water. An incoming wave causes the seagrass to sway back and forth, sending pollen flying off into the air. If you think of that incoming wave as light energy, and the nanopillars as the stalks of seagrass, you can picture how the properties of a nanopillar, including its height, thickness, and position next to other nanopillars, might change the distribution of light emerging from the lens.
A 12-inch wafer can hold up to 10,000 metalenses, made using a single semiconductor layer.Metalenz
We can use the ability of a metalens to redirect and change light in a number of ways. We can scatter and project light as a field of infrared dots. Invisible to the eye, these dots are used in many smart devices to measure distance, mapping a room or a face. We can sort light by its polarization (more on that in a moment). But probably the best way to explain how we are using these metasurfaces as a lens is by looking at the most familiar lens application—capturing an image.
The process starts by illuminating a scene with a monochromatic light source—a laser. (While using a metalens to capture a full-color image is conceptually possible, that is still a lab experiment and far from commercialization.) The objects in the scene bounce the light all over the place. Some of this light comes back toward the metalens, which is pointed, pillars out, toward the scene. These returning photons hit the tops of the pillars and transfer their energy into vibrations. The vibrations—called plasmons—travel down the pillars. When that energy reaches the bottom of a pillar, it exits as photons, which can be then captured by an image sensor. Those photons don’t need to have the same properties as those that entered the pillars; we can change these properties by the way we design and distribute the pillars.
Researchers around the world have been exploring the concept of metalenses for decades.
In a paper published in 1968 in Soviet Physics Uspekhi, Russian physicist Victor Veselago put the idea of metamaterials on the map, hypothesizing that nothing precluded the existence of a material that exhibits a negative index of refraction. Such a material would interact with light very differently than a normal material would. Where light ordinarily bounces off a material in the form of reflection, it would pass around this type of metamaterial like water going around a boulder in a stream.
It took until 2000 before the theory of metamaterials was implemented in the lab. That year, Richard A. Shelby and colleagues at the University of California, San Diego, demonstrated a negative refractive index metamaterial in the microwave region. They published the discovery in 2001 in Science, causing a stir as people imagined invisibility cloaks. (While intriguing to ponder, creating such a device would require precisely manufacturing and assembling thousands of metasurfaces.)
The first metalens to create high-quality images with visible light came out of Federico Capasso’s lab at Harvard. Demonstrated in 2016, with a description of the research published in Science, the technology immediately drew interest from smartphone manufacturers. Harvard then licensed the foundational intellectual property exclusively to Metalenz, where it has now been commercialized.
A single metalens [right] can replace a stack of traditional lenses [left], simplifying manufacturing and dramatically reducing the size of a lens package.Metalenz
Since then, researchers at Columbia University, Caltech, and the University of Washington, working with Tsinghua University, in Beijing, have also demonstrated the technology.
Much of the development work Metalenz does involves fine-tuning the way the devices are designed. In order to translate image features like resolution into nanoscale patterns, we developed tools to help calculate the way light waves interact with materials. We then convert those calculations into design files that can be used with standard semiconductor processing equipment.
The first wave of optical metasurfaces to make their way into mobile imaging systems have on the order of 10 million silicon pillars on a single flat surface only a few millimeters square, with each pillar precisely tuned to accept the correct phase of light, a painstaking process even with the help of advanced software. Future generations of the metalens won’t necessarily have more pillars, but they’ll likely have more sophisticated geometries, like sloped edges or asymmetric shapes.
Metalenz came out of stealth mode in 2021, announcing that it was getting ready to scale up production of devices. Manufacturing was not as big a challenge as design because the company manufactures metasurfaces using the same materials, lithography, and etching processes that it uses to make integrated circuits.
In fact, metalenses are less demanding to manufacture than even a very simple microchip because they require only a single lithography mask as opposed to the dozens required by a microprocessor. That makes them less prone to defects and less expensive. Moreover, the size of the features on an optical metasurface are measured in hundreds of nanometers, whereas foundries are accustomed to making chips with features that are smaller than 10 nanometers.
And, unlike plastic lenses, metalenses can be made in the same foundries that produce the other chips destined for smartphones. This means they could be directly integrated with the CMOS camera chips on site rather than having to be shipped to another location, which reduces their costs still further.
A single meta-optic, in combination with an array of laser emitters, can be used to create the type of high-contrast, near-infrared dot or line pattern used in 3D sensing. Metalenz
In 2022, ST Microelectronics announced the integration of Metalenz’s metasurface technology into its FlightSense modules. Previous generations of FlightSense have been used in more than 150 models of smartphones, drones, robots, and vehicles to detect distance. Such products with Metalenz technology inside are already in consumer hands, though ST Microelectronics isn’t releasing specifics.
Indeed, distance sensing is a sweet spot for the current generation of metalens technology, which operates at near-infrared wavelengths. For this application, many consumer electronics companies use a time-of-flight system, which has two optical components: one that transmits light and one that receives it. The transmitting optics are more complicated. These involve multiple lenses that collect light from a laser and transform it to parallel light waves—or, as optical engineers call it, a collimated beam. These also require a diffraction grating that turns the collimated beam into a field of dots. A single metalens can replace all of those transmitting and receiving optics, saving real estate within the device as well as reducing cost.
And a metalens does the field-of-dots job better in difficult lighting conditions because it can illuminate a broader area using less power than a traditional lens, directing more of the light to where you want it.
Conventional imaging systems, at best, gather information only about the spatial position of objects and their color and brightness.But the light carries another type of information: the orientation of the light waves as they travel through space—that is, the polarization. Future metalens applications will take advantage of the technology’s ability to detect polarized light.
The polarization of light reflecting off an object conveys all sorts of information about that object, including surface texture, type of surface material, and how deeply light penetrates the material before bouncing back to the sensor. Prior to the development of the metalens, a machine vision system would require complex optomechanical subsystems to gather polarization information. These typically rotate a polarizer—structured like a fence to allow only waves oriented at a certain angle to pass through—in front of a sensor. They then monitor how the angle of rotation impacts the amount of light hitting the sensor.
Metasurface optics are capable of capturing polarization information from light, revealing a material’s characteristics and providing depth information.Metalenz
A metalens, by contrast, doesn’t need a fence; all the incoming light comes through. Then it can be redirected to specific regions of the image sensor based on its polarization state, using a single optical element. If, for example, light is polarized along the X axis, the nanostructures of the metasurface will direct the light to one section of the image sensor. However, if it is polarized at 45 degrees to the X axis, the light will be directed to a different section. Then software can reconstruct the image with information about all its polarization states.
Using this technology, we can replace previously large and expensive laboratory equipment with tiny polarization-analysis devices incorporated into smartphones, cars, and even augmented-reality glasses. A smartphone-based polarimeter could let you determine whether a stone in a ring is diamond or glass, whether concrete is cured or needs more time, or whether an expensive hockey stick is worth buying or contains micro cracks. Miniaturized polarimeters could be used to determine whether a bridge’s support beam is at risk of failure, whether a patch on the road is black ice or just wet, or if a patch of green is really a bush or a painted surface being used to hide a tank. These devices could also help enable spoof-proof facial identification, since light reflects off a 2D photo of a person at different angles than a 3D face and from a silicone mask differently than it does from skin. Handheld polarizers could improve remote medical diagnostics—for example, polarization is used in oncology to examine tissue changes.
But like the smartphone itself, it’s hard to predict where metalenses will take us. When Apple introduced the iPhone in 2008, no one could have predicted that it would spawn companies like Uber. In the same way, perhaps the most exciting applications of metalenses are ones we can’t even imagine yet.
Video Friday is your weekly selection of awesome robotics videos, collected by your friends at IEEE Spectrum robotics. We also post a weekly calendar of upcoming robotics events for the next few months. Please send us your events for inclusion.
Enjoy today’s videos!
LATTICE is an undergrad project from Caltech that’s developing a modular robotic transportation system for the lunar surface that uses autonomous rovers to set up a sort of cable car system to haul things like ice out of deep craters to someplace more useful. The prototype is fully functional, and pretty cool to watch in action.
We’re told that the team will be targeting a full system demonstration deploying across a “crater” on Earth this time next year. As to what those quotes around “crater” mean, your guess is as good as mine.
[ Caltech ]
Happy World Cocktail Day from Flexiv!
[ Flexiv ]
Here’s what Optimus has been up to lately.
As per usual, the robot is moderately interesting, but it’s probably best to mostly just ignore Musk.
[ Tesla ]
The INSECT tarsus-inspired compliant robotic grippER with soft adhesive pads (INSECTER) uses only one single electric actuator with a cable-driven mechanism. It can be easily controlled to perform a gripping motion akin to an insect tarsus (i.e., wrapping around the object) for handling various objects.
[ Paper ]
Congratulations to ANYbotics on their $50 million Series B!
And from 10 years ago (!) at ICRA 2013, here is video I took of StarlETH, one of ANYmal’s ancestors.
[ ANYbotics ]
In this video we present results from the recent field-testing campaign of the DigiForest project at Evo, Finland. The DigiForest project started in September 2022 and runs up to February 2026. It brings together diverse partners working on aerial robots, walking robots, autonomous lightweight harvesters, as well as forestry decision makers and commercial companies with the goal to create a full data pipeline for digitized forestry.
[ DigiForest ]
The Robotics and Perception Group at UZH will be presenting some new work on agile autonomous high-speed flight through cluttered environments at ICRA 2023.
[ Paper ]
Robots who lift together, stay together.
[ Sanctuary AI ]
The next CYBATHLON competition, which will take place again in 2024, breaks down barriers between the public, people with disabilities, researchers and technology developers. The initiative promotes the inclusion and participation of people with disabilities and improves assistance systems for use in everyday life by the end users.
[ Cybathlon ]
For about as long as engineers have talked about beaming solar power to Earth from space, they’ve had to caution that it was an idea unlikely to become real anytime soon. Elaborate designs for orbiting solar farms have circulated for decades—but since photovoltaic cells were inefficient, any arrays would need to be the size of cities. The plans got no closer to space than the upper shelves of libraries.
That’s beginning to change. Right now, in a sun-synchronous orbit about 525 kilometers overhead, there is a small experimental satellite called the Space Solar Power Demonstrator One (SSPD-1 for short). It was designed and built by a team at the California Institute of Technology, funded by donations from the California real estate developer Donald Bren, and launched on 3 January—among 113 other small payloads—on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket.
“To the best of our knowledge, this would be the first demonstration of actual power transfer in space, of wireless power transfer,” says Ali Hajimiri, a professor of electrical engineering at Caltech and a codirector of the program behind SSPD-1, the Space Solar Power Project.
The Caltech team is waiting for a go-ahead from the operators of a small space tug to which it is attached, providing guidance and attitude control. If all goes well, SSPD-1 will spend at least five to six months testing prototype components of possible future solar stations in space. In the next few weeks, the project managers hope to unfold a lightweight frame, called DOLCE (short for Deployable on-Orbit ultraLight Composite Experiment), on which parts of future solar arrays could be mounted. Another small assembly on the spacecraft contains samples of 32 different types of photovoltaic cells, intended to see which would be most efficient and robust. A third part of the vehicle contains a microwave transmitter, set up to prove that energy from the solar cells can be sent to a receiver. For this first experiment, the receivers are right there on board the spacecraft, but if it works, an obvious future step would be to send electricity via microwave to receivers on the ground.
Caltech’s Space Solar Power Demonstrator, shown orbiting Earth in this artist’s conception, was launched on 3 January.Caltech
One can dismiss the 50-kilogram SSPD-1 as yet another nonstarter, but a growing army of engineers and policymakers take solar energy from space seriously. Airbus, the European aerospace company, has been testing its own technology on the ground, and government agencies in China, Japan, South Korea, and the United States have all mounted small projects. “Recent technology and conceptual advances have made the concept both viable and economically competitive,” said Frazer-Nash, a British engineering consultancy, in a 2021 report to the U.K. government. Engineers working on the technology say microwave power transmissions would be safe, unlike ionizing radiation, which is harmful to people or other things in its path.
No single thing has happened to start this renaissance. Instead, say engineers, several advances are coming together.
For one thing, the cost of launching hardware into orbit keeps dropping, led by SpaceX and other, smaller companies such as Rocket Lab. SpaceX has a simplified calculator on its website, showing that if you want to launch a 50-kg satellite into sun-synchronous orbit, they’ll do it for US $275,000.
Meanwhile, photovoltaic technology has improved, step by step. Lightweight electronic components keep getting better and cheaper. And there is political pressure as well: Governments and major companies have made commitments to decarbonize in the battle against global climate change, committing to renewable energy sources to replace fossil fuels.
Most solar power, at least for the foreseeable future, will be Earth-based, which will be cheaper and easier to maintain than anything anyone can launch into space. Proponents of space-based solar power say that for now, they see it as best used for specialty needs, such as remote outposts, places recovering from disasters, or even other space vehicles.
But Hajimiri says don’t underestimate the advantages of space, such as unfiltered sunlight that is far stronger than what reaches the ground and is uninterrupted by darkness or bad weather—if you can build an orbiting array light enough to be practical.
Most past designs, dictated by the technology of their times, included impossibly large truss structures to hold solar panels and wiring to route power to a central transmitter. The Caltech team would dispense with all that. An array would consist of thousands of independent tiles as small as 100 square centimeters, each with its own solar cells, transmitter, and avionics. They might be loosely connected, or they might even fly in formation.
Time-lapse images show the experimental DOLCE frame for an orbiting solar array being unfolded in a clean room.Caltech
“The analogy I like to use is that it’s like an army of ants instead of an elephant,” says Hajimiri. Transmission to receivers on the ground could be by phased array—microwave signals from the tiles synchronized so that they can be aimed with no moving parts. And the parts—the photovoltaic cells with their electronics—could perhaps be so lightweight that they’re flexible. New algorithms could keep their signals focused.
“That’s the kind of thing we’re talking about,” said Harry Atwater, a coleader of the Caltech project, as SSPD-1 was being planned. “Really gossamer-like, ultralight, the limits of mass-density deployable systems.”
If it works out, in 30 years maybe there could be orbiting solar power fleets, adding to the world’s energy mix. In other words, as a recent report from Frazer-Nash concluded, this is “a potential game changer.”
This article appears in the April 2023 print issue as “Trial Run for Orbiting Solar Array.”
The technical challenge of missile defense has been compared with that of hitting a bullet with a bullet. Then there is the still tougher economic challenge of using an expensive interceptor to kill a cheaper target—like hitting a lead bullet with a golden one.
Maybe trouble and money could be saved by shooting down such targets with a laser. Once the system was designed, built, and paid for, the cost per shot would be low. Such considerations led planners at the Pentagon to seek a solution from Lockheed Martin, which has just delivered a 300-kilowatt laser to the U.S. Army. The new weapon combines the output of a large bundle of fiber lasers of varying frequencies to form a single beam of white light. This laser has been undergoing tests in the lab, and it should see its first field trials sometime in 2023. General Atomics, a military contractor in San Diego, is also developing a laser of this power for the Army based on what’s known as the distributed-gain design, which has a single aperture.
Both systems offer the prospect of being inexpensive to use. The electric bill itself would range “from US $5 to $10,” for a pulse lasting a few seconds, says Michael Perry, the vice president in charge of laser systems for General Atomics.
Why are we getting ray guns only now, more than a century after H.G. Wells imagined them in his sci-fi novel The War of the Worlds? Put it down partly to the rising demand for cheap antimissile defense, but it’s mainly the result of technical advances in high-energy lasers.
The old standby for powerful lasers employed chemical reactions in flowing gas. That method was clumsy, heavy, and dangerous, and the laser itself became a flammable target for enemies to attack. The advantage was that these chemical lasers could be made immensely powerful, a far cry from the puny pulsed ruby lasers that wowed observers back in the 1960s by punching holes in razor blades (at power levels jocularly measured in “gillettes”).
“With lasers, if you can see it, you can kill it.” —Robert Afzal, Lockheed Martin
By 2014, fiber lasers had reached the point where they could be considered for weapons, and one 30-kW model was installed on the USS Ponce, where it demonstrated the ability to shoot down speedboats and small drones at relatively close range. The 300-kW fiber lasers being employed now in the two Army projects emit about 100 kW in optical power, enough to burn through much heftier targets (not to mention quite a few gillettes) at considerable distances.
“A laser of that class can be effective against a wide variety of targets, including cruise missiles, mortars, UAVs, and aircraft,” says Perry. “But not reentry vehicles [launched by ballistic missiles].” Those are the warheads, and to ward them off, he says, you’d probably have to hit the rocket when it’s still in the boost phase, which would mean placing your laser in orbit. Laser tech is still far from performing such a feat.
Even so, these futuristic weapons will no doubt find plenty of applications in today’s world. Israel made news in April by field-testing an airborne antimissile laser called Iron Beam, a play on the name Iron Dome, the missile system it has used to down rockets fired from Gaza. The laser system, reportedly rated at about 100 kW, is still not in service and hasn’t seen combat, but one day it may be able to replace some, if not all, of Iron Dome’s missiles with photons. Other countries have similar capabilities, or say they do. In May, Russia said it had used a laser to incinerate a Ukrainian drone from 5 kilometers away, a claim that Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, derided.
A missile is destroyed by a low-power, 2013 version of Lockheed Martin’s fiber laser www.youtube.com
Not all ray guns must be lasers, though. In March, Taiwan News reported that Chinese researchers had built a microwave weapon that in principle could be placed in orbit from where its 5-megawatt pulses could fry the electronic heart of an enemy satellite. But making such a machine in the lab is quite different from operating it in the field, not to mention in outer space, where supplying power and removing waste heat constitute major problems.
Because lasers performance falls off in bad weather, they can’t be relied on by themselves to defend critically important targets. They must instead be paired with kinetic weapons—missiles or bullets—to create a layered defense system.
“With lasers, if you can see it, you can kill it; typically rain and snow are not big deterrents,” says Robert Afzal, an expert on lasers at Lockheed Martin. “But a thundercloud—that’s hard.”
Afzal says that the higher up a laser is placed, the less interference it will face, but there is a trade-off. “With an airplane you have the least amount of resources—least volume, least weight—that is available to you. On a ship, you have a lot more resources available, but you’re in the maritime atmosphere, which is pretty hazy, so you may need a lot more power to get to the target. And the Army is in between: It deals with closer threats, like rockets and mortars, and they need a deep magazine, because they deal with a lot more targets.”
In every case, the point is to use expensive antimissile missiles only when you must. Israel opted to pursue laser weapons in part because its Iron Dome missiles cost so much more than the unguided, largely homemade rockets they defend against. Some of the military drones that Russia and Ukraine are now flying wouldn’t break the budget of the better-heeled sort of hobbyist. And it would be a Pyrrhic victory indeed to shoot them from the sky with projectiles so costly that you went broke.
This article appears in the January 2023 print issue as “Economics Drives a Ray-Gun Resurgence .”
Top Tech 2023: A Special Report
Preview exciting technical developments for the coming year.
Can This Company Dominate Green Hydrogen?
Fortescue will need more electricity-generating capacity than France.
Pathfinder 1 could herald a new era for zeppelins
A New Way to Speed Up Computing
Blue microLEDs bring optical fiber to the processor.
The Personal-Use eVTOL Is (Almost) Here
Opener’s BlackFly is a pulp-fiction fever dream with wings.
Baidu Will Make an Autonomous EV
Its partnership with Geely aims at full self-driving mode.
China Builds New Breeder Reactors
The power plants could also make weapons-grade plutonium.
Economics Drives a Ray-Gun Resurgence
Lasers should be cheap enough to use against drones.
A Cryptocurrency for the Masses or a Universal ID?
What Worldcoin’s killer app will be is not yet clear.
The company’s Condor chip will boast more than 1,000 qubits.
Vagus-nerve stimulation promises to help treat autoimmune disorders.
New satellites can connect directly to your phone.
The E.U.’s first exascale supercomputer will be built in Germany.
A dozen more tech milestones to watch for in 2023.
The new reporting from the Sydney Morning Herald comes as Australia is pressing the U.S. to end its attempt to prosecute Assange.
The post FBI Reopens Case Around Julian Assange, Despite Australian Pressure to End Prosecution appeared first on The Intercept.
A powerful trillion-watt laser shot at the sky can generate lightning rods in the air that can guide lightning strikes to keep them from causing havoc, a new study finds.
To date, the most common and effective form of protection against lightning is the lightning rod invented by Benjamin Franklin in 1752. These pointed electrically conductive metal rods intercept lightning strikes and guide their electric current safely to the ground.
However, a key drawback of a conventional lightning rod is that the radius of its area of protection is roughly equal to its height. Since there are practical limits to how tall one can build a lightning rod, this means they may not prove useful at protecting large areas, including sensitive infrastructure such as airports, rocket launchpads and nuclear power plants, says study senior author Jean-Pierre Wolf, a physicist at the University of Geneva.
“This is the first demonstration that lightning can be controlled by a laser.”
—Jean-Pierre Wolf, University of Geneva
Scientists first suggested using lasers to generate lightning rods in the air nearly 50 years ago. “The idea is to create a very long lightning rod with the laser,” Wolf says.
In the new study, researchers conducted experiments during the summer of 2021 at the top of Mount Säntis, which at 2,502 meters above sea level, is the highest mountain in the Alpstein massif of northeastern Switzerland. The laser was activated every time storms were forecast between June and September, with air traffic closed over the area during these tests.
Wolf and his colleagues sought to protect a 124-meter transmitter tower equipped with a traditional lightning rod at the summit belonging to telecommunications provider Swisscom. This tower is struck by lightning about 100 times a year, and scientists had previously equipped it with multiple sensors to analyze these strikes.
Near the tower, the researchers installed a near-infrared laser the size of a large car. It fired pulses each packing about a half-joule of energy and a picosecond (trillionth of a second) long roughly a thousand times a second, with a peak power of a terawatt (trillion watts). (It also shot a visible green beam to help show the laser’s path.)
“Imagine transporting a 10-ton laser to 2,500-meter altitude on a mountain with helicopters, making it run in very harsh conditions, tracking lightning in extreme weather like winds up to 200 kilometers per hour, heavy rain, hail, temperatures varying from -10 degrees to 20 degrees Celsius in the same day, and then, when it works, you get a massive lightning bolt some tens of meters next to you—and you’re so happy,” Wolf says.
The laser pulses can alter the refractive index of the air—the quality of a material that controls how quickly light travels within it. This can make the air behave like a series of lenses.
After crossing this lensing air, the intense, short laser pulses can rapidly ionize and heat air molecules, expelling them from the path of the beam at supersonic speeds. This leaves behind a channel of low-density air for roughly a millisecond. These “filaments” possess high electric conductivity and can thus serve as lightning rods, and can range up to 100 meters long. The researchers could adjust the laser to create filaments that appear up to a kilometer from the machine.
In experiments, the scientists created filaments above, but near, the tip of the tower’s lightning rod. This essentially boosted the rod’s height by at least 30 meters, extending its area of protection so that lightning would not strike parts of the tower otherwise outside the rod’s shelter, says study lead author Aurélien Houard, a research scientist at the Superior National School of Advanced Techniques in Paris.
The laser operated for more than six hours during thunderstorms happening within three kilometers of the tower. The tower was hit by at least 16 lightning flashes, all of which streaked upward.
Four of these flashes occurred while the laser was operating. High-speed camera footage and radio and X-ray detectors showed the laser helped guide the course of these discharges. One of these guided strikes was recorded on camera and revealed it followed the laser path for nearly 60 meters.
During tests carried out on the summit of Mt. Säntis by Jean-Pierre Wolf and Aurélien Houard’s team, the scientists noted that lightning discharges followed laser beams for several dozen meters before reaching the Swisscom telecommunications tower (in red and white).Xavier Ravinet/UNIGE
“This is the first demonstration that lightning can be controlled by a laser,” Wolf says.
Although lab experiments had suggested that lasers could help guide lightning strikes, previous experiments failed to do so in the field over the past 20 or so years. Wolf, Houard and their colleagues suggest their new work may have succeeded because of the pulse rate of their laser was hundreds of times greater than prior attempts. The more pulses are used, the greater the chance one might successfully intercept all of the activity leading up to a lightning flash. In addition, higher pulse rates are likely better at keeping filaments electrically conductive, they added.
Wolf noted their work is not geoengineering research. “We are not modifying the climate,” he says. “We deflect lightning to protect areas.”
In the long term, the scientists would like to use lasers to extend lightning rods by 500 meters. In addition, they would likely to run experiments at sites such as airports and rocket launchpads, Wolf notes.
The researchers detailed their findings 16 January in the journal Nature Photonics.
Each January, the editors of IEEE Spectrum offer up some predictions about technical developments we expect to be in the news over the coming year. You’ll find a couple dozen of those described in the following special report. Of course, the number of things we could have written about is far higher, so we had to be selective in picking which projects to feature. And we’re not ashamed to admit, gee-whiz appeal often shaped our choices.
For example, this year’s survey includes an odd pair of new aircraft that will be taking to the skies. One, whose design was inspired by the giant airships of years past, is longer than a football field; the other, a futuristic single-seat vertical-takeoff craft powered by electricity, is about the length of a small car.
While some of the other stories might not light up your imagination as much, they highlight important technical issues the world faces—like the challenges of shifting from fossil fuels to a hydrogen-based energy economy or the threat that new plutonium breeder reactors in China might accelerate the proliferation of nuclear weapons. So whether you prefer reading about topics that are heavy or light (even lighter than air), you should find something here to get you warmed up for 2023.
This article appears in the January 2023 print issue.
Top Tech 2023: A Special Report
Preview exciting technical developments for the coming year.
Can This Company Dominate Green Hydrogen?
Fortescue will need more electricity-generating capacity than France.
Pathfinder 1 could herald a new era for zeppelins
A New Way to Speed Up Computing
Blue microLEDs bring optical fiber to the processor.
The Personal-Use eVTOL Is (Almost) Here
Opener’s BlackFly is a pulp-fiction fever dream with wings.
Baidu Will Make an Autonomous EV
Its partnership with Geely aims at full self-driving mode.
China Builds New Breeder Reactors
The power plants could also make weapons-grade plutonium.
Economics Drives a Ray-Gun Resurgence
Lasers should be cheap enough to use against drones.
A Cryptocurrency for the Masses or a Universal ID?
What Worldcoin’s killer app will be is not yet clear.
The company’s Condor chip will boast more than 1,000 qubits.
Vagus-nerve stimulation promises to help treat autoimmune disorders.
New satellites can connect directly to your phone.
The E.U.’s first exascale supercomputer will be built in Germany.
A dozen more tech milestones to watch for in 2023.
Stephen Cass: Welcome to Fixing the Future, an IEEE Spectrum podcast. This episode is brought to you by IEEE Xplore, the digital library with over 6 million technical documents and free search. I’m senior editor Stephen Cass, and today I’m talking with a former Spectrum editor, Sally Adee, about her new book, We Are Electric: The New Science of Our Body’s Electrome. Sally, welcome to the show.
Sally Adee: Hi, Stephen. Thank you so much for having me.
Cass: It’s great to see you again, but before we get into exactly what you mean by the body’s electrome and so on, I see that in researching this book, you actually got yourself zapped quite a bit in a number of different ways. So I guess my first question is: are you okay?
Adee: I mean, as okay as I can imagine being. Unfortunately, there’s no experimental sort of condition and control condition. I can’t see the self I would have been in the multiverse version of myself that didn’t zap themselves. So I think I’m saying yes.
Cass: The first question I have then is what is an electrome?
Adee: So the electrome is this word, I think, that’s been burbling around the bioelectricity community for a number of years. The first time it was committed to print is a 2016 paper by this guy called Arnold De Loof, a researcher out in Europe. But before that, a number of the researchers I spoke to for this book told me that they had started to see it in papers that they were reviewing. And I think it wasn’t sort of defined consistently always because there’s this idea that seems to be sort of bubbling to the top, bubbling to the surface, that there are these electrical properties that the body has, and they’re not just epiphenomena, and they’re not just in the nervous system. They’re not just action potentials, but that there are electrical properties in every one of our cells, but also at the organ level, potentially at the sort of entire system level, that people are trying to figure out what they actually do.
And just as action potentials aren’t just epiphenomena, but actually our control mechanisms, they’re looking at how these electrical properties work in the rest of the body, like in the cells, membrane voltages and skin cells, for example, are involved in wound healing. And there’s this idea that maybe these are an epigenetic variable that we haven’t been able to conscript yet. And there’s such promise in it, but a lot of the research, the problem is that a lot of the research is being done across really far-flung scientific communities, some in developmental biology, some of it in oncology, a lot of it in neuroscience, obviously. But what this whole idea of the electrome is— I was trying to pull this all together because the idea behind the book is I really want people to just develop this umbrella of bioelectricity, call it the electrome, call it bioelectricity, but I kind of want the word electrome to do for bioelectricity research what the word genome did for molecular biology. So that’s basically the spiel.
Cass: So I want to surf back to a couple points you raised there, but first off, just for people who might not know, what is an action potential?
Adee: So the action potential is the electrical mechanism by which the nervous signal travels, either to actuate motion at the behest of your intent or to gain sensation and sort of perceive the world around you. And that’s the electrical part of the electrochemical nervous impulse. So everybody knows about neurotransmitters at the synapse and— well, not everybody, but probably Spectrum listeners. They know about the serotonin that’s released and all these other little guys. But the thing is you wouldn’t be able to have that release without the movement of charged particles called ions in and out of the nerve cell that actually send this impulse down and allow it to travel at a rate of speed that’s fast enough to let you yank your hand away from a hot stove when you’ve touched it, before you even sort of perceive that you did so.
Cass: So that actually brings me to my next question. So you may remember in some Spectrum‘s editorial meetings when we were deciding if a tech story was for us or not, that literally, we would often ask, “Where is the moving electron? Where is the moving electron?” But bioelectricity is not really based on moving electrons. It’s based on these ions.
Yeah. So let’s take the neuron as an example. So what you’ve got is— let me do like a— imagine a spherical cow for a neuron, okay? So you’ve got a blob and it’s a membrane, and that separates the inside of your cell from the outside of your cell. And this membrane is studded with tens of thousands, I think, little pores called ion channels. And the pores are not just sieve pores. They’re not inert. They’re really smart. And they decide which ions they like. Now, let’s go to the ions. Ions are suffusing your extracellular fluid, all the stuff that bathes you. It’s basically the reason they say you’re 66 percent water or whatever. This is like sieve water. It’s got sodium, potassium, calcium, etc., and these ions are charged particles.
So when you’ve got a cell, it likes potassium, the neuron, it likes potassium, it lets it in. It doesn’t really like sodium so much. It’s got very strong preferences. So in its resting state, which is its happy place, those channels allow potassium ions to enter. And those are probably where the electrons are, actually, because an ion, it’s got a plus-one charge or a minus-one charge based on— but let’s not go too far into it. But basically, the cell allows the potassium to come inside, and its resting state, which is its happy place, the separation of the potassium from the sodium causes, for all sorts of complicated reasons, a charge inside the cell that is minus 70 degree— sorry, minus 70 millivolts with respect to the extracellular fluid.
Cass: Before I read your book, I kind of had the idea that how neurons use electricity was, essentially, settled science, very well understood, all kind of squared away, and this was how the body used electricity. But even when it came to neurons, there’s a lot of fundamentals, kind of basic things about how neurons use electricity that we really only established relatively recently. Some of the research you’re talking about is definitely not a century-old kind of basic science about how these things work.
Adee: No, not at all. In fact, there was a paper released in 2018 that I didn’t include, which I’m really annoyed by. I just found it recently. Obviously, you can’t find all the papers. But it’s super interesting because it blends that whole sort of ionic basis of the action potential with another thing in my book that’s about how cell development is a little bit like a battery getting charged. Do you know how cells assume an electrical identity that may actually be in charge of the cell fate that they meet? And so we know abou— sorry, the book goes into more detail, but it’s like when a cell is stem or a fertilized egg, it’s depolarized. It’s at zero. And then when it becomes a nerve cell, it goes to that minus 70 that I was talking about before. If it becomes a fat cell, it’s at minus 50. If it’s musculoskeletal tissue, it goes to minus 90. Liver cells are like around minus 40. And so you’ve got real identitarian diversity, electrical diversity in your tissues, which has something to do with what they end up doing in the society of cells. So this paper that I was talking about, the 2018 paper, they actually looked at neurons. This was work from Denis Jabaudon at the University of Geneva, and they were looking at how neurons actually differentiate. Because when baby neurons are born-- your brain is made of all kinds of cells. It’s not just cortical cells. There’s staggering variety of classes of neurons. And as cells actually differentiate, you can watch their voltage change, just like you can do in the rest of the body with these electrosensitive dyes. So that’s an aspect of the brain that we hadn’t even realized until 2018.
Cass: And that all leads me to my next point, which is if you think bioelectricity, we think, okay, nerves zapping around. But neurons are not the only bioelectric network in the body. So talk about some of the other sorts of electrical networks we have, completely, or are largely separate from our neural networks?
Adee: Well, so Michael Levin is a professor at Tufts University. He does all kinds of other stuff, but mainly, I guess, he’s like the Paul Erdos of bioelectricity, I like to call him, because he’s sort of the central node. He’s networked into everybody, and I think he’s really trying to, again, also assemble this umbrella of bioelectricity to study this all in the aggregate. So his idea is that we are really committed to this idea of bioelectricity being in charge of our sort of central communications network, the way that we understand the environment around us and the way that we understand our ability to move and feel within it. But he thinks that bioelectricity is also how— that the nervous system kind of hijacked this mechanism, which is way older than any nervous system. And he thinks that we have another underlying network that is about our shape, and that this is bioelectrically mediated in really important ways, which impacts development, of course, but also wound healing. Because if you think about the idea that your body understands its own shape, what happens when you get a cut? How does it heal it? It has to go back to some sort of memory of what its shape is in order to heal it over. In animals that regenerate, they have a completely different electrical profile after they’ve been—so after they’ve had an arm chopped off.
So it’s a very different electrical— yeah, it’s a different electrical process that allows a starfish to regrow a limb than the one that allows us to scar over. So you’ve got this thing called a wound current. Your skin cells are arranged in this real tight wall, like little soldiers, basically. And what’s important is that they’re polarized in such a way that if you cut your skin, all the sort of ions flow out in a certain way, which creates this wound current, which then generates an electric field, and the electric field acts like a beacon. It’s like a bat signal, right? And it guides in these little helper cells, the macrophages that come and gobble up the mess and the keratinocytes and the guys who build it back up again and scar you over. And it starts out strong, and as you scar over, as the wound heals, it very slowly goes away. By the time the wound is healed, there’s no more field. And what was super interesting is this guy, Richard Nuccitelli, invented this thing called the Dermacorder that’s able to sense and evaluate the electric field. And he found that in people over the age of 65, the wound field is less than half of what it is in people under 25. And that actually goes in line with another weird thing about us, which is that our bioelectricity— or sorry, our regeneration capabilities are time-dependent and tissue-dependent.
So you probably know that the intestinal tissue regenerates all the time. You’re going to digest next week’s food with totally different cells than this morning’s food. But also, we’re time-dependent because when we’re just two cells, if you cleave that in half, you get identical twins. Later on during fetal development, it’s totally scarless, which is something we found out, because when we started being able to do fetal surgery in the womb, it was determined that we heal, basically, scarlessly. Then we’re born, and then between the ages of 7 and 11— until we are between the ages of 7 and 11, you chop off a fingertip, it regenerates perfectly, including the nail, but we lose that ability. And so it seems like the older we get, the less we regenerate. And so they’re trying to figure out now how— various programs are trying to figure out how to try to take control of various aspects of our sort of bioelectrical systems to do things like radically accelerate healing, for example, or how to possibly re-engage the body’s developmental processes in order to regenerate preposterous things like a limb. I mean, it sounds preposterous now. Maybe in 20 years, it’ll just be.
Cass: I want to get into some of the technologies that people are thinking of building on this sort of new science. Part of it is that the history of this field, both scientifically and technologically, has really been plagued by the shadow of quackery. And can you talk a little bit about this and how, on the one hand, there’s been some things we’re very glad that we stopped doing some very bad ideas, but it’s also had this shadow on sort of current research and trying to get real therapies to patients?
Adee: Yeah, absolutely. That was actually one of my favorite chapters to write, was the spectacular pseudoscience one, because, I mean, that is so much fun. So it can be boiled down to the fact that we were trigger happy because we see this electricity, we’re super excited about it. We start developing early tools to start manipulating it in the 1700s. And straight away, it’s like, this is an amazing new tool, and there’s all these sort of folk cures out there that we then decide that we’re going to take— not into the clinic. I don’t know what you’d call it, but people just start dispensing this stuff. This is separate from the discovery of endogenous electrical activity, which is what Luigi Galvani famously discovered in the late 1700s. He starts doing this. He’s an anatomist. He’s not an electrician. Electrician, by the way, is what they used to call the sort of literati who were in charge of discovery around electricity. And it had a really different connotation at the time, that they were kind of like the rocket scientists of their day.
But Galvani’s just an anatomist, and he starts doing all of these experiments using these new tools to zap frogs in various ways and permutations. And he decides that he has answered a whole different old question, which is how does man’s will animate his hands and let him feel the world around him? And he says, “This is electrical in nature.” This is a long-standing mystery. People have been bashing their heads against it for the past 100, 200 years. But he says that this is electrical, and there’s a big, long fight. I won’t get into too much between Volta, the guy who invented the battery, and Galvani. Volta says, “No, this is not electrical.” Galvani says, “Yes, it is.” But owing to events, when Volta invents the battery, he basically wins the argument, not because Galvani was wrong, but because Volta had created something useful. He had created a tool that people could use to advance the study of all kinds of things. Galvani’s idea that we have an endogenous electrical sort of impulse, it didn’t lead to anything that anybody could use because we didn’t have tools sensitive enough to really measure it. We only sort of had indirect measurements of it.
And his nephew, after he dies in ignominy, his nephew decides to bring it on himself to rescue, single-handedly, his uncle’s reputation. The problem is, the way he does it is with a series of grotesque, spectacular experiments. He very famously reanimated— well, zapped until they shivered, the corpses of all these dead guys, dead criminals, and he was doing really intense things like sticking electrodes connected to huge voltaic piles, Proto batteries, into the rectums of dead prisoners, which would make them sit up halfway and point at the people who are assembled, this very titillating stuff. Many celebrities of the time would crowd around these demonstrations.
Anyway, so Galvani basically—or sorry, Aldini, the nephew, basically just opens the door to everyone to be like, “Look what we can do with electricity.” Then in short order, there’s a guy who creates something called the Celestial Bed, which is a thing— they’ve got rings, they’ve got electric belts for stimulating the nethers. The Celestial Bed is supposed to help infertile couples. This is how sort of just wild electricity is in those days. It’s kind of like— you know how everybody went crazy for crypto scams last year? Electricity was like the crypto of 1828 or whatever, 1830s. And the Celestial Bed, so people would come and they would pay £9,000 to spend a night in it, right? Well, not at the time. That’s in today’s money. And it didn’t even use electricity. It used the idea of electricity. It was homeopathy, but electricity. You don’t even know where to start. So this is the sort of caliber of pseudoscience, and this is really echoed down through the years. That was in the 1800s. But when people submit papers or grant applications, I heard more than one researchers say to me— people would look at this electric stuff, and they’d be like, “Does anyone still believe this shit?” And it’s like, this is rigorous science, but it’s been just tarnished by the association with this.
Cass: So you mentioned wound care, and the book talks about some of the ways [inaudible] would care. But we’re also looking at other really ambitious ideas like regenerating limbs as part of this extension of wound care. And also, you make the point of certainly doing diagnostics and then possibly treatments for things like cancer. In thinking about cancer in a very different way than the really very, very tightly-focused genetic view we have of cancer now, and thinking about it kind of literally in a wider context. So can you talk about that a little bit?
Adee: Sure. And I want to start by saying that I went to a lot of trouble to be really careful in the book. I think cancer is one of those things that— I’ve had cancer in my family, and it’s tough to talk about it because you don’t want to give people the idea that there’s a cure for cancer around the corner when this is basic research and intriguing findings because it’s not fair. And I sort of struggled. I thought for a while, like, “Do I even bring this up?” But the ideas behind it are so intriguing, and if there were more research dollars thrown at it or pounds or whatever, Swiss francs, you might be able to really start moving the needle on some of this stuff. The idea is, there are two electrical— oh God, I don’t want to say avenues, but it is unfortunately what I have to do. There are two electrical avenues to pursue in cancer. The first one is something that a researcher called Mustafa Djamgoz at Imperial College here in the UK, he has been studying this since the ‘90s. Because he used to be a neurobiologist. He was looking at vision. And he was talking to some of his oncologist Friends, and they gave him some cancer cell lines, and he started looking at the behavior of cancer cells, the electrical behavior of cancer cells, and he started finding some really weird behaviors.
Cancer cells that should not have had anything to do with action potentials, like from prostate cancer lines, when he looked at them, they were oscillating like crazy, as if they were nerves. And then he started looking at other kinds of cancer cells, and they were all oscillating, and they were doing this oscillating behavior. So he spent like seven years sort of bashing his head against the wall. Nobody wanted to listen to him. But now, way more people are now investigating this. There’s going to be an ion channel at Cancer Symposium I think later this month, actually, in Italy. And he found, and a lot of other researchers like this woman, Annarosa Arcangeli, they have found that the reason that cancer cells may have these oscillating properties is that this is how they communicate with each other that it’s time to leave the nest of the tumor and start invading and metastasizing. Separately, there have been very intriguing-- this is really early days. It’s only a couple of years that they’ve started noticing this, but there have been a couple of papers now. People who are on certain kinds of ion channel blockers for neurological conditions like epilepsy, for example, they have cancer profiles that are slightly different from normal, which is that if they do get cancer, they are slightly less likely to die of it. In the aggregate. Nobody should be starting to eat ion channel blockers.
But they’re starting to zero in on which particular ion channels might be responsible, and it’s not just one that you and I have. These cancer kinds, they are like a expression of something that normally only exists when we’re developing in the womb. It’s part of the reason that we can grow ourselves so quickly, which of course, makes sense because that’s what cancer does when it metastasizes, it grows really quickly. So there’s a lot of work right now trying to identify how exactly to target these. And it wouldn’t be a cure for cancer. It would be a way to keep a tumor in check. And this is part of a strategy that has been proposed in the UK a little bit for some kinds of cancer, like the triple-negative kind that just keep coming back. Instead of subjecting someone to radiation and chemo, especially when they’re older, sort of just really screwing up their quality of life while possibly not even giving them that much more time. What if instead you sort of tried to treat cancer more like a chronic disease, keep it managed, and maybe that gives a person like 10 or 20 years? That’s a huge amount of time. And while not messing up with their quality of life.
This is a whole conversation that’s being had, but that’s one avenue. And there’s a lot of research going on in this right now that may yield fruit sort of soon. The much more sci-fi version of this, the studies have mainly been done in tadpoles, but they’re so interesting. So Michael Levin, again, and his postdoc at the time, I think, Brook Chernet, they were looking at what happens— so it’s uncontroversial that as a cancer cell-- so let’s go back to that society of cells thing that I was talking about. You get fertilized egg, it’s depolarized, zero, but then its membrane voltage charges, and it becomes a nerve cell or skin cell or a fat cell. What’s super interesting is that when those responsible members of your body’s society decide to abscond and say, “Screw this. I’m not participating in society anymore. I’m just going to eat and grow and become cancer,” their membrane voltage also changes. It goes much closer to zero again, almost like it’s having a midlife crisis or whatever.
So what they found, what Levin and Chernet found is that you can manipulate those cellular electrics to make the cell stop behaving cancerously. And so they did this in tadpoles. They had genetically engineered the tadpoles to express tumors, but when they made sure that the cells could not depolarize, most of those tadpoles did not express the tumors. And when they later took tadpoles that already had the tumors and they repolarized the voltage, those tumors, that tissue started acting like normal tissue, not like cancer tissue. But again, this is the sci-fi stuff, but the fact that it was done at all is so fascinating, again, from that epigenetic sort of body pattern perspective, right?
Cass: So sort of staying with that sci-fi stuff, except this one, even more closer to reality. And this goes back to some of these experiments which you zapped yourself. Can you talk a little bit about some of these sort of device that you can wear which appear to really enhance certain mental abilities? And some of these you [inaudible].
Adee: So the kit that I wore, I actually found out about it while I was at Spectrum, when I was a DARPATech. And this program manager told me about it, and I was really stunned to find out that just by running two milliamps of current through your brain, you would be able to improve your-- well, it’s not that your ability is improved. It was that you could go from novice to expert in half the time that it would take you normally, according to the papers. And so I really wanted to try it. I was trying to actually get an expert feature written for IEEE Spectrum, but they kept ghosting me, and then by the time I got to New Scientist, I was like, fine, I’m just going to do it myself. So they let me come over, and they put this kit on me, and it was this very sort of custom electrodes, these things, they look like big daisies. And this guy had brewed his own electrolyte solution and sort of smashed it onto my head, and it was all very slimy.
So I was doing this video game called DARWARS Ambush!, which is just like a training— it’s a shooter simulation to help you with shooting. So it was a Gonzo stunt. It was not an experiment. But he was trying to replicate the conditions of me not knowing whether the electricity was on as much as he could. So he had it sort of behind my back, and he came in a couple of times and would either pretend to turn it on or whatever. And I was practicing and I was really bad at it. That is not my game. Let’s just put it that way. I prefer driving games. But it was really frustrating as well because I never knew when the electricity was on. So I was just like, “There’s no difference. This sucks. I’m terrible.” And that sort of inner sort of buzz kept getting stronger and stronger because I’d also made bad choices. I’d taken a red-eye flight the night before. And I was like, “Why would I do that? Why wouldn’t I just give myself one extra day to recover before I go in and do this really complicated feature where I have to learn about flow state and electrical stimulation?” And I was just getting really tense and just angrier and angrier. And then at one point, he came in after my, I don’t know, 5th or 6th, I don’t know, 400th horrible attempt where I just got blown up every time. And then he turned on the electricity, and I could totally feel that something had happened because I have a little retainer in my mouth just at the bottom. And I was like, “Whoa.” But then I was just like, “Okay. Well, now this is going to suck extra much because I know the electricity is on, so it’s not even a freaking sham condition.” So I was mad.
But then the thing started again, and all of a sudden, all the sort of buzzing little angry voices just stopped, and it was so profound. And I’ve talked about it quite a bit, but every time I remember it, I get a little chill because it was the first time I’d ever realized, number one, how pissy my inner voices are and just how distracting they are and how abusive they are. And I was like, “You guys suck, all of you.” But somebody had just put a bell jar between me and them, and that feeling of being free from them was profound. At first, I didn’t even notice because I was just busy doing stuff. And all of a sudden, I was amazing at this game and I dispatched all of the enemies and whatnot, and then afterwards, when they came in, I was actually pissed because I was just like, “Oh, now I get it right and you come in after three minutes. But the last times when I was screwing it up, you left me in there to cook for 20 minutes.” And they were like, “No, 20 minutes has gone by,” which I could not believe. But yeah, it was just a really fairly profound experience, which is what led me down this giant rabbit hole in the first place. Because when I wrote the feature afterwards, all of a sudden I started paying attention to the whole TDCS thing, which I hadn’t yet. I had just sort of been focusing [crosstalk].
Cass: And that’s transcranial—?
Adee: Oh sorry, transcranial direct current stimulation.
Cass: There you go. Thank you. Sorry.
Adee: No. Yeah, it’s a mouthful. But then that’s when I started to notice that quackery we were talking about before. All that history was really informing the discussion around it because people were just like, “Oh, sure. Why don’t you zap your brain with some electricity and you become super smart.” And I was like, “Oh, did I like fall for the placebo effect? What happened here?” And there was this big study from Australia where the guy was just like, “When we average out all of the effects of TDCS, we find that it does absolutely nothing.” Other guys stimulated a cadaver to see if it would even reach the brain tissue and included it wouldn’t. But that’s basically what started me researching the book, and I was able to find answers to all those questions. But of course, TDCS, I mean, it’s finicky just like the electrome. It’s like your living bone is conductive. So when you’re trying to put an electric field on your head, basically, you have to account for things like how thick is that person’s skull in the place that you want to stimulate. They’re still working out the parameters.
There have been some really good studies that show sort of under which particular conditions they’ve been able to make it work. It does not work for all conditions for which it is claimed to work. There is some snake oil. There’s a lot left to be done, but a better understanding of how this affects the different layers of the sort of, I guess, call it, electrome, would probably make it something that you could use replicability. Is that a word? But also, that applies to things like deep brain stimulation, which, also, for Parkinson’s, it’s fantastic. But they’re trying to use it for depression, and in some cases, it works so—I want to use a bad word—amazingly. Just Helen Mayberg, who runs these trials, she said that for some people, this is an option of last resort, and then they get the stimulation, and they just get back on the bus. That’s her quote. And it’s like a switch that you flip. And for other people, it doesn’t work at all.
Cass: Well the book is packed with even more fantastic stuff, and I’m sorry we don’t have time to go through it, because literally, I could sit here and talk to you all day about this.
Adee: I didn’t even get into the frog battery, but okay, that’s fine. Fine, fine skip the frog. Sorry, I’m just kidding. I’m kidding, I’m kidding.
Cass: And thank you so much, Sally, for chatting with us today.
Adee: Oh, thank you so much. I really love talking about it, especially with you.
Cass: Today on Fixing the Future, we’re talking with Sally Adee about her new book on the body’s electrome. For IEEE Spectrum I’m Stephen Cass.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022 put Ukrainian communications in a literal jam: Just before the invasion, Russian hackers knocked out Viasat satellite ground receivers across Europe. Then entrepreneur Elon Musk swept in to offer access to Starlink, SpaceX’s growing network of low Earth orbit (LEO) communications satellites. Musk soon reported that Starlink was suffering from jamming attacks and software countermeasures.
In March, the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) concluded that Russia was still trying to jam Starlink, according to documents leaked by U.S. National Guard airman Ryan Teixeira and seen by the Washington Post. Ukrainian troops have likewise blamed problems with Starlink on Russian jamming, the website Defense One reports. If Russia is jamming a LEO constellation, it would be a new layer in the silent war in space-ground communications.
“There is really not a lot of information out there on this,” says Brian Weeden, the director of program planning for the Secure World Foundation, a nongovernmental organization that studies space governance. But, Weeden adds, “my sense is that it’s much harder to jam or interfere with Starlink [than with GPS satellites].”
Regardless of their altitude or size, communications satellites transmit more power and therefore require more power to jam than navigational satellites. However, compared with large geostationary satellites, LEO satellites—which orbit Earth at an altitude of 2,000 kilometers or lower—have frequent handovers that “introduce delays and opens up more surface for interference,” says Mark Manulis, a professor of privacy and applied cryptography at the University of the Federal Armed Forces’ Cyber Defense Research Institute (CODE) in Munich, Germany.
Security and communications researchers are working on defenses and countermeasures, mostly behind closed doors, but it is possible to infer from a few publications and open-source research how unprepared many LEO satellites are for direct attacks and some of the defenses that future LEO satellites may need.
For years, both private companies and government agencies have been planning LEO constellations, each numbering thousands of satellites. The DOD, for example, has been designing its own LEO satellite network to supplement its more traditional geostationary constellations for more than a decade and has already begun issuing contracts for the constellation’s construction. University research groups are also launching tiny, standardized cube satellites (CubeSats) into LEO for research and demonstration purposes. This proliferation of satellite constellations coincides with the emergence of off-the-shelf components and software-defined radio—both of which make the satellites more affordable, but perhaps less secure.
Russia’s defense agencies commissioned a system called Tobol that’s designed to counter jammers that might interfere with their own satellites, reported journalist and author Bart Hendrickx. That implies that Russia either can transmit jamming signals up to satellites, or suspects that adversaries can.
Many of the agencies and organizations launching the latest generation of low-cost satellites haven’t addressed the biggest security issues they face, researchers wrote in one review of LEO security in 2022. That may be because one of the temptations of LEO is the ability of relatively cheap new hardware to do smaller jobs.
“Satellites are becoming smaller. They are very purpose-specific,” says Ijaz Ahmad, a telecoms security researcher at the VTT Technical Research Centre in Espoo, Finland. “They have less resources for computing, processing, and also memory.” Less computing power means fewer encryption capabilities, as well as less ability to detect and respond to jamming or other active interference.
The rise of software-defined radio (SDR) has also made it easier to get hardware to accomplish new things, including allowing small satellites to cover many frequency bands. “When you make it programmable, you provide that hardware with some sort of remote connectivity so you can program it. But if the security side is overlooked, it will have severe consequences,” Ahmad says.
“At the moment there are no good standards focused on communications for LEO satellites.”
—Mark Manulis, professor of privacy and applied cryptography, University of the Federal Armed Forces
Among those consequences are organized criminal groups hacking and extorting satellite operators or selling information they have captured.
One response to the risks of software-defined radio and the fact that modern low-cost satellites require firmware updates is to include some simple physical security. Starlink did not respond to requests for comments on its security, but multiple independent researchers said they doubt today’s commercial satellites match military-grade satellite security countermeasures, or even meet the same standards as terrestrial communications networks. Of course, physical security can be defeated with a physical attack, and state actors have satellites capable of changing their orbits and grappling with, and thus perhaps physically hacking, communications satellites, the Secure World Foundation stated in an April report.
Despite that vulnerability, LEO satellites do bring certain advantages in a conflict: There are more of them, and they cost less per satellite. Attacking or destroying a satellite “might have been useful against an adversary who only has a few high-value satellites, but if the adversary has hundreds or thousands, then it’s a lot less of an impact,” Weeden says. LEO also offers a new option: sending a message to multiple satellites for later confirmation. That wasn’t possible when only a handful of GEO satellites covered Earth, but it is a way for cooperating transmitters and receivers to ensure that a message gets through intact. According to a 2021 talk by Vijitha Weerackody, a communications engineer at Johns Hopkins University, as few as three LEO satellites may be enough for such cooperation.
Even working together, future LEO constellation designers may need to respond with improved antennas, radio strategies that include spread spectrum modulation, and both temporal and transform-domain adaptive filtering. These strategies come at a cost to data transmission and complexity. But such measures may still be defeated by a strong enough signal that covers the satellite’s entire bandwidth and saturates its electronics.
“There’s a need to introduce a strong cryptographic layer,” says Manulis. “At the moment there are no good standards focused on communications for LEO satellites. Governments should push for standards in that area relying on cryptography.” The U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology does have draft guidelines for commercial satellite cybersecurity that satellite operator OneWeb took into account when designing its LEO constellation, says OneWeb principal cloud-security architect Wendy Ng: “Hats off to them, they do a lot of work speaking to different vendors and organizations to make sure they’re doing the right thing.”
OneWeb uses encryption in its control channels, something a surprising number of satellite operators fail to do, says Johannes Willbold, a doctoral student at Ruhr University, in Bochum, Germany. Willbold is presenting his analysis of three research satellites’ security on 22 May 2023 at the IEEE Symposium on Security and Privacy. “A lot of satellites had straight-up no security measures to protect access in the first place,” he says.
Securing the growing constellations of LEO satellites matters to troops in trenches, investors in any space endeavor, anyone traveling into Earth orbit or beyond, and everyone on Earth who uses satellites to navigate or communicate. “I’m hoping there will be more initiatives where we can come together and share best practices and resources,” says OneWeb’s Ng. Willbold, who cofounded an academic workshop on satellite security, is optimistic that there will be: “It’s surprising to me how many people are now in the field, and how many papers they submitted.”
Stay up late sometime when the moon is past full and look at the large dark oval near its western edge. Renaissance astronomers called it the Ocean of Storms, Oceanus Procellarum, not knowing it was a hundred times drier than the most arid desert on Earth.
But there is water there. And two new studies—one Chinese, the other American—suggest that lunar soil may have a good deal more water in it than modern space scientists previously believed. It’s still very, very dry; NASA’s Artemis program is looking for ice in shadowed craters near the moon’s south pole, and mission managers should not change those plans. Still, the new evidence is tantalizing, and scientists say it deserves further exploration.
Some details on each of the findings:
In 2020, the China National Space Administration launched a robotic mission, called Chang’e-5, to the Ocean of Storms. It was China’s first mission to return soil samples from the lunar surface. The CNSA said the ship gathered just over 1.7 kilograms of lunar regolith, which it found to be speckled with thousands of glass beads, mostly microscopic.
China’s Chang’e-5 spacecraft brought back these glass beads from lunar soil.
This was not surprising; the moon has been showered for billions of years with micrometeoroids, and the heat of their impact has been shown to melt rock, which then turns glassy as it cools. But here’s what was new: A team of scientists at the Chinese Academy of Sciences scanned 117 glass beads from Chang’e-5 and claimed most of them contained either water molecules or hydroxyls, molecules with an attached chemical group made of one hydrogen and one oxygen atom.
“The interesting thing is that the water entrapped in impact glass beads is of solar-wind origin,” wrote Hu Sen, one of the study authors, in an email to IEEE Spectrum. Hu’s team, reporting its findings in the journal Nature Geoscience, says much of the hydrogen present streamed from the sun and bonded with oxygen in the lunar soil, creating a water cycle of sorts, enough to help replace water molecules that escape into space due to the sun’s heat.
The Chinese scientists then take this a step further—a big step. If the Chang’e-5 lander found so many glass beads in just one spot, they say, there may be similar beads, impregnated with water or its components, all over the moon. “We believe that impact glass beads formed by meteorite or micrometeorite impacts are a common phase in lunar soils, from equator to polar and from east to west, distributed globally and spread evenly,” wrote Hu.
If that’s true, they say, the outer layers of lunar soil could contain 270 trillion kg of water molecules. There is no good way to compare that to liquid water on Earth (Hu suggests Earth’s oceans weigh about a million times as much) but, still, if a future space program wanted to use lunar water for drinking, oxygen, or the chemical components of rocket fuel, wouldn’t this be intriguing?
Not so fast. Scientists doing related work say to tread very, very carefully. “The measurements are well done but it’s not a game changer,” says Rhonda Stroud, director of the Buseck Center for Meteorite Studies at Arizona State University. She was not involved in the Chang’e-5 study, but has done extensive research on the likelihood of water in the lunar regolith. She points out that geologists sometimes use the word “water” loosely to describe both molecules with hydroxyl groups and actual H2O because their chemical signatures may often be very similar.
“There are lots of ways hydrogen can be stored in the glass beads,” she says. She concludes, “It’s premature to say there’s an easily extractable source of water.”
So where does that leave the search for lunar water? For that, let’s turn to the second study:
This study may be on firmer ground because it was done from the air. Last year a team of scientists scanned for possible water on the moon using a converted NASA Boeing 747 called SOFIA. The plane, since retired, carried a 2.7-meter telescope with a spectrometer it could point at the moon. It flew above 99.9 percent of the water vapor in Earth’s atmosphere, so that earthly vapor couldn’t fool its instruments. NASA says infrared spectroscopy is a good way of identifying lunar water and telling it apart from other molecules.
NASA’s SOFIA aircraft mapped water signatures near the moon’s south pole. Darker blue means higher concentration of ice.Ernie Wright/NASA Goddard Scientific Visualization Studio
The resulting map of the region near the moon’s south pole shows some water signatures even on sunlit plains. But the greatest concentrations are in the shadows—against the steep walls of craters where the sun rarely (or never) reaches. That confirms a growing body of research that started in the 1990s, when robotic probes first found evidence of ice hiding in the permanently darkened recesses of polar craters.
NASA plans to send a robotic rover called VIPER to the lunar south pole late in 2024. The agency says its instruments should be able to parse the difference between water, hydroxyl, and other compounds. If it succeeds, Artemis astronauts could follow as soon as December 2025, though the Artemis schedule has often slipped. China and Russia have talked on occasion of a joint lunar effort as well.
Whoever goes, they’ll bring their own water to start. Will they find more?
At IEEE, we know that the advancement of science and technology is the engine that drives the improvement of the quality of life for every person on this planet. Unfortunately, as we are all aware, today’s world faces significant challenges, including escalating conflicts, a climate crisis, food insecurity, gender inequality, and the approximately 2.7 billion people who cannot access the Internet.
The COVID-19 pandemic exposed the digital divide like never before. The world saw the need for universal broadband connectivity for remote work, online education, telemedicine, entertainment, and social networking. Those who had access thrived while those without it struggled. As millions of classrooms moved online, the lack of connectivity made it difficult for some students to participate in remote learning. Adults who could not perform their job virtually faced layoffs or reduced work hours.
The pandemic also exposed weaknesses in the global infrastructure that supports the citizens of the world. It became even more apparent that vital communications, computing, energy, and distribution infrastructure was not always equitably distributed, particularly in less developed regions.
I had the pleasure of presenting the 2023 IEEE President’s Award to Doreen Bogdan-Martin, secretary-general of the International Telecommunication Union, on 28 March, at ITU’s headquarters in Geneva. The award recognizes her distinguished leadership at the agency and her notable contributions to the global public.
It is my honor to recognize such a transformational leader and IEEE member for her demonstrated commitment to bridging the digital divide and to ensuring connectivity that is safe, inclusive, and affordable to all.
Nearly 45 percent of global households do not have access to the Internet, according to UNESCO. A report from UNICEF estimates that nearly two-thirds of the world’s schoolchildren lack Internet access at home.
This digital divide is particularly impactful on women. who are 23 percent less likely than men to use the Internet. According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, in 10 countries across Africa, Asia, and South America, women are between 30 percent and 50 percent less likely than men to make use of the Internet.
Even in developed countries, Internet access is often lower than one might imagine. More than six percent of the U.S. population does not have a high-speed connection. In Australia, the figure is 13 percent. Globally, just over half of households have an Internet connection, according to UNESCO. In the developed world, 87 percent are connected, compared with 47 percent in developing nations and just 19 percent in the least developed countries.
As IEEE looks to lead the development of technology to tackle climate change and empower universal prosperity, it is essential that we recognize the role that meaningful connectivity and digital technology play in the organization’s goals to support global sustainability, drive economic growth, and transform health care, education, employment, gender equality, and youth empowerment.
IEEE members around the globe are continuously developing and applying technology to help solve these problems. It is that universal passion—to improve global conditions—that is at the heart of our mission, as well as our expanding partnerships and significant activities supporting the achievement of the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals.
One growing partnership is with the International Telecommunication Union, a U.N. specialized agency that helps set policy related to information and communication technologies. IEEE Member Doreen Bogdan-Martin was elected as ITU secretary-general and took office on 1 January, becoming the first woman to lead the 155-year-old organization. Bogdan-Martin is the recipient of this year’s IEEE President’s Award [see sidebar].
IEEE and ITU share the goal of bringing the benefits of technology to all of humanity. I look forward to working closely with the U.N. agency to promote meaningful connectivity, intensify cooperation to connect the unconnected, and strengthen the alignment of digital technologies with inclusive sustainable development.
I truly believe that one of the most important applications of technology is to improve people’s lives. For those in underserved regions of the world, technology can improve educational opportunities, provide better health care, alleviate suffering, and maintain human dignity.
Technology and technologists, particularly IEEE members, have a significant role to play in shaping life on this planet. They can use their skills to develop and advance technology—from green energy to reducing waste and emissions, and from transportation electrification to digital education, health, and agriculture. As a person who believes in the power of technology to benefit humanity, I find this to be a very compelling vision for our shared future.
Please share your thoughts with me: email@example.com.
IEEE president and CEO
This article appears in the June 2023 print issue as “Connecting the Unconnected.”
Everything burns. Given the right environment, all matter can burn by adding oxygen, but finding the right mix and generating enough heat makes some materials combust more easily than others. Researchers interested in knowing more about a type of fire called discrete burning used ESA’s microgravity experiment facilities to investigate.
Tens of thousands of tech workers have been laid off by companies recently, including at Amazon, Dropbox, GitHub, Google, Microsoft, and Vimeo. Startups, too, have made cuts, according to TechCrunch.
To help IEEE members cope with losing a job, The Institute asked Chenyang Xu for advice. The IEEE Fellow is president and cochairman of Perception Vision Medical Technologies, known as PVmed. The global startup, which is involved with AI-powered precision radiotherapy and surgery for treating cancer, is headquartered in Guangzhou, China. Xu was formerly general manager of the Siemens Technology to Business North America.
In past articles, Xu has provided guidance for startups, such as steps they can take to ensure success, where founders can find financing, and how to be a global entrepreneur.
Included with his advice are ways IEEE can help.
Although Xu isn’t a financial advisor, he says the first thing to do when you lose your job is to “slim down financially.” Do what it takes to make sure you have enough money to support yourself and your family until you land your next job, he says.
“Don’t assume you’ll find a job right away,” he cautions. “You might not find one for six months, and by then you could become bankrupt.”
To help unemployed members keep costs down, IEEE offers a reduced-dues program. For those who have lost their insurance coverage, the organization offers group insurance plans.
After attending to your finances, Xu says, the next step is to reflect on your career.
“Being laid off gives you some breathing room,” he says. “When you were working, you had no choice in what kind of work you had to do. But now that you’re laid off, you need to think about your career in 5 to 10 years. You now have experience and know what you like to do and what you don’t.”
Ask yourself what makes you fulfilled, he says, as well as what makes you happy and what makes you feel valued. Then, he says, start looking for jobs that check all or some of the boxes.
“Now that you’re laid off, you need to think about your career in 5 to 10 years. You now have experience and know what you like to do and what you don’t.”
Once you’ve figured out what your long-range career plan is, you most likely will need to learn new skills, Xu says. If you’ve decided to change fields, you’ll need to learn even more.
IEEE offers online courses that cover 16 subjects. There are classes, for example, on aerospace, computing, power and energy, and transportation. The emerging technologies course offerings cover artificial reality, blockchain technology, virtual reality, and more.
Several leadership courses can teach you how to manage people. They include An Introduction to Leadership, Communication and Presentation Skills, and Technical Writing for Scientists and Engineers.
Looking for a new position? The IEEE Job Site lists hundreds of openings. Job seekers can upload their résumé and set up an alert to be notified of jobs matching their criteria. The site’s career-planning portal offers services such as interview tips and help with writing résumés and cover letters.
IEEE-USA offers several on-demand job-search webinars. They cover topics such as how to find the right job, résumé trends, and healthy financial habits. You don’t have to live in the United States to access them.
To earn some extra money, consider becoming a consultant, Xu says.
“Consulting can be an excellent bridge to bring in income while working to secure the next job when facing the situation that your job search may take months or longer,” he says. “For some, consulting can be the next job.”
IEEE-USA’s consultants web page offers a number of services. For example, members can find an assignment by registering their name in the IEEE-USA Consultant Finder. Those who want to network with other consultants can use the site to search for them by state or by IEEE’s U.S. geographic regions. The website also offers resources to help consultants succeed, such as e-books, newsletters, and webinars.
To determine how much to charge a client, the IEEE-USA Salary Service provides information from IEEE’s U.S. members about their compensation and other details.
IEEE Collabratec’s Consultants Exchange offers networking workshops, educational webinars, and more.
If you are financially able and have the right ideas and expertise, Xu says, another option might be to launch your own company.
The IEEE Entrepreneurship program offers a variety of resources for founders. Its IEEE Entrepreneurship Exchange is a community of tech startups, investors, and venture capital organizations that discuss and develop entrepreneurial ideas and endeavors. There’s also a mentorship program, in which founders can get advice from an experienced entrepreneur.
Don’t overlook the power of networking in finding a job, Xu advises.
“You need to reach out to as many people as possible,” he says.
You’re likely to meet people who could help you at your IEEE chapter or section meetings and at IEEE conferences, Xu says.
“You will be surprised about how many contacts you can meet who might help you find a job, mentor you, or give you information about a company that might be hiring,” he says.
Take advantage of LinkedIn and other professional social media outlets, Xu suggests. He adds that you should let your followers know you are looking for a position.
If you are knowledgeable about a specific topic, he encourages posting your thoughts about it to display your expertise to prospective employers.
Consider joining the IEEE Collabratec networking platform. Members have access to IEEE’s membership directory, where they can find contacts who might help them find a job. They also can join communities of members who are working in their technical areas, such as artificial intelligence, consumer technology, and the Internet of Things.
If you are still having a hard time finding a job, consider moving to a different region of your country—or to another country—where jobs are more plentiful, Xu says.
“Relocating,” he says, “may open up whole new opportunities or adventures that are fulfilling to you or your family.”
For more than a century, utility companies have used electromechanical relays to protect power systems against damage that might occur during severe weather, accidents, and other abnormal conditions. But the relays could neither locate the faults nor accurately record what happened.
Then, in 1977, Edmund O. Schweitzer III invented the digital microprocessor-based relay as part of his doctoral thesis. Schweitzer’s relay, which could locate a fault within the radius of 1 kilometer, set new standards for utility reliability, safety, and efficiency.
Schweitzer Engineering Laboratories
President and CTO
Purdue University, West Lafayette, Ind.; Washington State University, Pullman
To develop and manufacture his relay, he launched Schweitzer Engineering Laboratories in 1982 from his basement in Pullman, Wash. Today SEL manufactures hundreds of products that protect, monitor, control, and automate electric power systems in more than 165 countries.
Schweitzer, an IEEE Life Fellow, is his company’s president and chief technology officer. He started SEL with seven workers; it now has more than 6,000.
The 40-year-old employee-owned company continues to grow. It has four manufacturing facilities in the United States. Its newest one, which opened in March in Moscow, Idaho, fabricates printed circuit boards.
Schweitzer has received many accolades for his work, including the 2012 IEEE Medal in Power Engineering. In 2019 he was inducted into the U.S. National Inventors Hall of Fame.
Power system faults can happen when a tree or vehicle hits a power line, a grid operator makes a mistake, or equipment fails. The fault shunts extra current to some parts of the circuit, shorting it out.
If there is no proper scheme or device installed with the aim of protecting the equipment and ensuring continuity of the power supply, an outage or blackout could propagate throughout the grid.
Overcurrent is not the only damage that can occur, though. Faults also can change voltages, frequencies, and the direction of current.
A protection scheme should quickly isolate the fault from the rest of the grid, thus limiting damage on the spot and preventing the fault from spreading to the rest of the system. To do that, protection devices must be installed.
That’s where Schweitzer’s digital microprocessor-based relay comes in. He perfected it in 1982. It later was commercialized and sold as the SEL-21 digital distance relay/fault locator.
Schweitzer says his relay was, in part, inspired by an event that took place during his first year of college.
“Back in 1965, when I was a freshman at Purdue University, a major blackout left millions without power for hours in the U.S. Northeast and Ontario, Canada,” he recalls. “It was quite an event, and I remember it well. I learned many lessons from it. One was how difficult it was to restore power.”
He says he also was inspired by the book Protective Relays: Their Theory and Practice. He read it while an engineering graduate student at Washington State University, in Pullman.
“I bought the book on the Thursday before classes began and read it over the weekend,” he says. “I couldn’t put it down. I was hooked.
“I realized that these solid-state devices were special-purpose signal processors. They read the voltage and current from the power systems and decided whether the power systems’ apparatuses were operating correctly. I started thinking about how I could take what I knew about digital signal processing and put it to work inside a microprocessor to protect an electric power system.”
The 4-bit and 8-bit microprocessors were new at the time.
“I think this is how most inventions start: taking one technology and putting it together with another to make new things,” he says. “The inventors of the microprocessor had no idea about all the kinds of things people would use it for. It is amazing.”
He says he was introduced to signal processing, signal analysis, and how to use digital techniques in 1968 while at his first job, working for the U.S. Department of Defense at Fort Meade, in Maryland.
Faster ways to clear faults and improve cybersecurity
Schweitzer continues to invent ways of protecting and controlling electric power systems. In 2016 his company released the SEL-T400L, which samples a power system every microsecond to detect the time between traveling waves moving at the speed of light. The idea is to quickly detect and locate transmission line faults.
The relay decides whether to trip a circuit or take other actions in 1 to 2 milliseconds. Previously, it would take a protective relay on the order of 16 ms. A typical circuit breaker takes 30 to 40 ms in high-voltage AC circuits to trip.
“The inventors of the microprocessor had no idea about all the kinds of things people would use it for. It is amazing.”
“I like to talk about the need for speed,” Schweitzer says. “In this day and age, there’s no reason to wait to clear a fault. Faster tripping is a tremendous opportunity from a point of view of voltage and angle stability, safety, reducing fire risk, and damage to electrical equipment.
“We are also going to be able to get a lot more out of the existing infrastructure by tripping faster. For every millisecond in clearing time saved, the transmission system stability limits go up by 15 megawatts. That’s about one feeder per millisecond. So, if we save 12 ms, all of the sudden we are able to serve 12 more distribution feeders from one part of one transmission system.”
The time-domain technology also will find applications in transformer and distribution protection schemes, he says, as well as have a significant impact on DC transmission.
What excites Schweitzer today, he says, is the concept of energy packets, which he and SEL have been working on. The packets measure energy exchange for all signals including distorted AC systems or DC networks.
“Energy packets precisely measure energy transfer, independent of frequency or phase angle, and update at a fixed rate with a common time reference such as every millisecond,” he says. “Time-domain energy packets provide an opportunity to speed up control systems and accurately measure energy on distorted systems—which challenges traditional frequency-domain calculation methods.”
He also is focusing on improving the reliability of critical infrastructure networks by improving cybersecurity, situational awareness, and performance. Plug-and-play and best-effort networking aren’t safe enough for critical infrastructure, he says.
“SEL OT SDN technology solves some significant cybersecurity problems,” he says, “and frankly, it makes me feel comfortable for the first time with using Ethernet in a substation.”
Schweitzer didn’t start off planning to launch his own company. He began a successful career in academia in 1977 after joining the electrical engineering faculty at Ohio University, in Athens. Two years later, he moved to Pullman, Wash., where he taught at Washington State’s Voiland College of Engineering and Architecture for the next six years. It was only after sales of the SEL-21 took off that he decided to devote himself to his startup full time.
It’s little surprise that Schweitzer became an inventor and started his own company, as his father and grandfather were inventors and entrepreneurs.
His grandfather, Edmund O. Schweitzer, who held 87 patents, invented the first reliable high-voltage fuse in collaboration with Nicholas J. Conrad in 1911, the year the two founded Schweitzer and Conrad—today known as S&C Electric Co.—in Chicago.
Schweitzer’s father, Edmund O. Schweitzer Jr., had 208 patents. He invented several line-powered fault-indicating devices, and he founded the E.O. Schweitzer Manufacturing Co. in 1949. It is now part of SEL.
Schweitzer says a friend gave him the best financial advice he ever got about starting a business: Save your money.
“I am so proud that our 6,000-plus-person company is 100 percent employee-owned,” Schweitzer says. “We want to invest in the future, so we reinvest our savings into growth.”
He advises those who are planning to start a business to focus on their customers and create value for them.
“Unleash your creativity,” he says, “and get engaged with customers. Also, figure out how to contribute to society and make the world a better place.”
Many teenagers take a job at a restaurant or retail store, but Megan Dion got a head start on her engineering career. At 16, she landed a part-time position at FXB, a mechanical, electrical, and plumbing engineering company in Chadds Ford, Pa., where she helped create and optimize project designs.
She continued to work at the company during her first year as an undergraduate at the Stevens Institute of Technology, in Hoboken, N.J., where she is studying electrical engineering with a concentration in power engineering. Now a junior, Dion is part of the five-year Stevens cooperative education program, which allows her to rotate three full-time work placements during the second quarter of the school year through August. She returns to school full time in September with a more impressive résumé.
For her academic achievements, Dion received an IEEE Power & Energy Society scholarship and an IEEE PES Anne-Marie Sahazizian scholarship this year. The PES Scholarship Plus Initiative rewards undergraduates who one day are likely to build green technologies and change the way we generate and utilize power. Dion received US $2,000 from each scholarship toward her education.
She says she’s looking forward to networking with other scholarship recipients and IEEE members.
“Learning from other people’s stories and seeing myself in them and where my career could be in 10 or 15 years” motivates her, she says.
Dion’s early exposure to engineering came from her father, who owned a commercial electrical construction business for 20 years, and sparked her interest in the field. He would bring her along to meetings and teach her about the construction industry.
Then she was able to gain on-the-job experience at FXB, where she quickly absorbed what she observed around her.
“I would carry around a notebook everywhere I went, and I took notes on everything,” she says. “My team knew they never would have to explain something to me twice.”
“If I’m going to do something, I’m going to do it the best I can.”
She gained the trust of her colleagues, and they asked her to continue working with them while she attended college. She accepted the offer and supported a critical project at the firm: designing an underground power distribution and conduit system in the U.S. Virgin Islands to replace overhead power lines. The underground system could minimize power loss after hurricanes.
Skilled in AutoCAD software, she contributed to the electrical design. Dion worked directly with the senior electrical designer and the president of the company, and she helped deliver status updates. The experience, she says, solidified her decision to become a power engineer.
After completing her stint at FXB, she entered her first work placement through Stevens, which brought her to the Long Island Rail Road, in New York, through HNTB, an infrastructure design company in Kansas City, Mo. She completed an eight-month assignment at the LIRR, assisting the traction power and communications team in DC electrical system design for a major capacity improvement project for commuters in the New York metropolitan area.
Working on a railroad job was out of her comfort zone, she says, but she was up for the challenge.
“In my first meeting with the firm, I was in shock,” she says. “I was looking at train tracks and had to ask someone on the team to walk me through everything I needed to know, down to the basics.”
Dion describes how they spent two hours going through each type of drawing produced, including third-rail sectionalizing, negative-return diagrams, and conduit routing. Each sheet included 15 to 30 meters of a 3.2-kilometer section of track.
What Dion has appreciated most about the work placement program, she says, is learning about niche areas within power and electric engineering.
She’s now at her second placement, at structural engineering company Thornton Tomasetti in New York City, where she is diving into forensic engineering. The role interests her because of its focus on investigating what went wrong when an engineering project failed.
“My dad taught me to be 1 percent better each day.”
“It’s a career path I had never known about before,” she says. Thornton Tomasetti investigates when something goes awry during the construction process, determines who is likely at fault, and provides expert testimony in court.
Dion joined IEEE in 2020 to build her engineering network. She is preparing to graduate from Stevens next year, and then plans to pursue a master’s degree in electrical engineering while working full time.
To round out her experience and expertise in power and energy, Dion is taking business courses. She figures she might one day follow in her father’s entrepreneurial path.
“My dad is my biggest supporter as well as my biggest challenger,” she says. “He will always ask me ‘Why?’ to challenge my thinking and help me be the best I can be. He’s taught me to be 1 percent better each day.” She adds that she can go to him whenever she has an engineering question, pulling from his decades of experience in the industry.
Because of her background—growing up around the electrical industry—she has been less intimidated when she is the only woman in a meeting, she says. She finds that being a woman in a male-dominated industry is an opportunity, she says, adding that there is a lot of support and camaraderie among women in the field.
While excelling academically, she is also a starter on the varsity volleyball team at Stevens. She has played the sport since she was in the seventh grade. Her athletic background has taught her important skills, she says, including how to lead by example and the importance of ensuring the entire team is supported and working well together.
Dion’s competitive nature won’t allow her to hold herself back: “If I’m going to do something,” she says, “I’m going to do it the best I can.”
Poland has a deep and historic relationship with coal, importing huge amounts despite producing yet more locally. With the energy crisis biting, fuelled by the war in Ukraine, the country’s government withdrew restrictions on burning materials and subsidised coal, creating huge air quality issues, particularly in the industrial south – reversing 10 years of hard work by air pollution campaigners in the process.
The Guardian visits southern Poland to witness first hand the impact of this decision on affected communities, meeting the ostracised miners at the front of the culture wars, and joining climate activists visiting towns in the region that are fighting back against fossil fuels and air pollutionContinue reading...
The 19-seater Dornier 228 propeller plane that took off into the cold blue January sky looked ordinary at first glance. Spinning its left propeller, however, was a 2-megawatt electric motor powered by two hydrogen fuel cells—the right side ran on a standard kerosene engine—making it the largest aircraft flown on hydrogen to date. Val Miftakhov, founder and CEO of ZeroAvia, the California startup behind the 10-minute test flight in Gloucestershire, England, called it a “historical day for sustainable aviation.”
Los Angeles–based Universal Hydrogen plans to test a 50-seat hydrogen-powered aircraft by the end of February. Both companies promise commercial flights of retrofitted turboprop aircraft by 2025. French aviation giant Airbus is going bigger with a planned 2026 demonstration flight of its iconic A380 passenger airplane, which will fly using hydrogen fuel cells and by burning hydrogen directly in an engine. And Rolls Royce is making headway on aircraft engines that burn pure hydrogen.
The aviation industry, responsible for some 2.5 percent of global carbon emissions, has committed to net-zero emissions by 2050. Getting there will require several routes, including sustainable fuels, hybrid-electric engines, and battery-electric aircraft.
Hydrogen is another potential route. Whether used to make electricity in fuel cells or burned in an engine, it combines with oxygen to emit water vapor. If green hydrogen scales up for trucks and ships, it could be a low-cost fuel without the environmental issues of batteries.
Flying on hydrogen brings storage and aircraft-certification challenges, but aviation companies are doing the groundwork now for hydrogen flight by 2035. “Hydrogen is headed off to the sky, and we’re going to take it there,” says Amanda Simpson, vice president for research and technology at Airbus Americas.
The most plentiful element, hydrogen is also the lightest—key for an industry fighting gravity—packing three times the energy of jet fuel by weight. The problem with hydrogen is its volume. For transport, it has to be stored in heavy tanks either as a compressed high-pressure gas or a cryogenic liquid.
ZeroAvia is using compressed hydrogen gas, since it is already approved for road transport. Its test airplane had two hydrogen fuel cells and tanks sitting inside the cabin, but the team is now thinking creatively about a compact system with minimal changes to aircraft design to speed up certification in the United States and Europe. The fuel cells’ added weight could reduce flying range, but “that’s not a problem, because aircraft are designed to fly much further than they’re used,” says vice president of strategy James McMicking.
The company has backing from investors that include Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos; partnerships with British Airways and United Airlines; and 1,500 preorders for its hydrogen-electric power-train system, half of which are for smaller, 400-kilometer-range 9- to 19-seaters.
By 2027, ZeroAvia plans to convert larger, 70-seater turboprop aircraft with twice the range, used widely in Europe. The company is developing 5-MW electric motors for those, and it plans to switch to more energy-dense liquid hydrogen to save space and weight. The fuel is novel for the aviation industry and could require a longer regulatory approval process, McMicking says.
Next will come a 10-MW power train for aircraft with 100 to 150 seats, “the workhorses of the industry,” he says. Those planes—think Boeing 737—are responsible for 60 percent of aviation emissions. Making a dent in those with hydrogen will require much more efficient fuel cells. ZeroAvia is working on proprietary high-temperature fuel cells for that, McMicking says, with the ability to reuse the large amounts of waste heat generated. “We have designs and a technology road map that takes us into jet-engine territory for power,” he says.
Universal Hydrogen, which counts Airbus, GE Aviation, and American Airlines among its strategic investors, is placing bets on liquid hydrogen. The startup, “a hydrogen supply and logistics company at our core,” wants to ensure a seamless delivery network for hydrogen aviation as it catches speed, says founder and CEO Paul Eremenko. The company sources green hydrogen, turns it into liquid, and puts it in relatively low-tech insulated aluminum tanks that it will deliver via road, rail, or ship. “We want them certified by the Federal Aviation Administration for 2025, which means they can’t be a science project,” he says.
The cost of green hydrogen is expected to be on par with kerosene by 2025, Eremenko says. But “there’s nobody out there with an incredible hydrogen-airplane solution. It’s a chicken-and-egg problem.”
To crack it, Universal Hydrogen partnered with leading fuel-cell-maker Plug Power to develop a few thousand conversion kits for regional turboprop airplanes. The kits swap the engine in its streamlined housing (also known as nacelle) for a fuel-cell stack, power electronics, and a 2-MW electric motor. While the company’s competitors use batteries as buffers during takeoff, Eremenko says Universal uses smart algorithms to manage fuel cells, so they can ramp up and respond quickly. “We are the Nespresso of hydrogen,” he says. “We buy other people’s coffee, put it into capsules, and deliver to customers. But we have to build the first coffee machine. We’re the only company incubating the chicken and egg at the same time.”
This rendering of an Airbus A380 demonstrator flight (presently slated for 2026) reveals current designs on an aircraft that’s expected to fly using fuel cells and by burning hydrogen directly in the engine. Airbus
Fuel cells have a few advantages over a large central engine. They allow manufacturers to spread out smaller propulsion motors over an aircraft, giving them more design freedom. And because there are no high-temperature moving parts, maintenance costs can be lower. For long-haul aircraft, however, the weight and complexity of high-power fuel cells makes hydrogen-combustion engines appealing.
Airbus is considering both fuel-cell and combustion propulsion for its ZEROe hydrogen aircraft system. It has partnered with German automotive fuel-cell-maker Elring Klinger and, for direct combustion engines, with CFM International, a joint venture between GE Aviation and Safran. Burning liquid hydrogen in today’s engines is still expected to require slight modifications, such as a shorter combustion chamber and better seals.
Airbus is also evaluating hybrid propulsion concepts with a hydrogen-engine-powered turbine and a hydrogen-fuel-cell-powered motor on the same shaft, says Simpson, of Airbus Americas. “Then you can optimize it so you use both propulsion systems for takeoff and climb, and then turn one off for cruising.”
The company isn’t limiting itself to simple aircraft redesign. Hydrogen tanks could be stored in a cupola on top of the plane, pods under the wings, or a large tank at the back, Simpson says. Without liquid fuel in the wings, as in traditional airplanes, she says, “you can optimize wings for aerodynamics, make them thinner or longer. Or maybe a blended-wing body, which could be very different. This opens up the opportunity to optimize aircraft for efficiency.” Certification for such new aircraft could take years, and Airbus isn’t expecting commercial flights until 2035.
Conventional aircraft made today will be around in 2050 given their 25- to 30-year life-span, says Robin Riedel, an analyst at McKinsey & Co. Sustainable fuels are the only green option for those. He says hydrogen could play a role there, through “power-to-liquid technology, where you can mix hydrogen and captured carbon dioxide to make aviation fuel.”
Even then, Riedel thinks hydrogen will likely be a small part of aviation’s sustainability solution until 2050. “By 2070, hydrogen is going to play a much bigger role,” he says. “But we have to get started on hydrogen now.” The money that Airbus and Boeing are putting into hydrogen is a small fraction of aerospace, he says, but big airlines investing in hydrogen companies or placing power-train orders “shows there is desire.”
The aviation industry has to clean up if it is to grow, Simpson says. Biofuels are a stepping-stone, because they reduce only carbon emissions, not other harmful ones. “If we’re going to move towards clean aviation, we have to rethink everything from scratch and that’s what ZEROe is doing,” she says. “This is an opportunity to make not an evolutionary change but a truly revolutionary one.”
This article appears in the April 2023 print issue as “Hydrogen-Powered Flight Cleared for Takeoff.”
An experimental, potentially revolutionary all-electric airplane designed by NASA will soon be taking its first test flight, which will mark a major milestone for battery-powered aviation. However, the program already appears destined to fall short of its lofty goal to exploit the unique features of electric propulsion to rewrite the design rules for modern aircraft. Its time and funding has nearly run out.
Part of the agency’s storied X-plane program, the X-57 Maxwell set out with the ambitious goal of tackling two grand challenges in aerospace engineering simultaneously. Not only did it aim to show that an airplane could be powered entirely by electricity, it also planned to demonstrate the significant gains in efficiency and performance that could be made by switching from two large engines to many smaller ones evenly distributed across the wings—a configuration known as a “blown wing.”
The plan was to demonstrate both of these propositions through a series of increasingly advanced test vehicles. Ultimately though, the complexity of the first challenge, compounded by disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, saw timelines repeatedly pushed back. As a result, the project’s leaders say it no longer has the funding to progress to the latter stages of the program.
“It turned out to be actually a pretty tall order to work through all of those airworthiness, and qualification, and design challenges.”
—Sean Clarke, NASA
The first iteration of the X-57, a modified Tecnam P2006T light aircraft whose gas-powered engines have been replaced with electric motors, will take flight this coming spring or possibly summer. (As of early January, NASA is still unclear as to precisely when that maiden voyage will be. NASA officials Spectrum contacted could only narrow the timeframe down to “first half of 2023.”) That will be a significant achievement, making the X-57 one of just a handful of electrically powered aircraft to get off the ground. But the team say they plan to wrap up flight testing by the end of the year and will no longer be building more advanced designs featuring novel wing configurations and distributed propulsion, such as the blown wing.
“We tried to do a very ambitious thing. Trying to do a new type of airframe and a new motor project is not very typical, because those are both very, very challenging endeavors,” says Nick Borer, deputy principal investigator for the X-57 project at the NASA Langley Research Center. “The agency funds a lot of different things and they’ve been very generous with what they’ve provided to us. But there are priorities at the top and eventually, you’ve got to finish up.”
The project’s ultimate goal was to take advantage of the benefits of electric propulsion to reimagine the design of aircraft wings. For instance, in the case of that blown wing: the large number of motors and props on the leading-edge force air at high rates over the wing, which can generate significant lift even at low speeds. This makes it possible to take off from shorter runways and can also allow you to shrink the size of the wing, reducing drag and boosting cruise efficiency.
The design is difficult to achieve with conventional combustion engines, because they are relatively heavy and become increasingly inefficient as they are scaled down in size. The same is not true of electric motors though, which means it’s relatively simple to switch from several large motors to many smaller ones distributed along the wing.
The current iteration of the X-57, pictured here, is powered by two electric motors and is based at the NASA Armstrong Flight Research Center in California.Carla Thomas/NASA
The final design iteration of the X-57 had six small electrically powered propellers across the front of each wing. The wings themselves would be only 40 percent of the size of a conventional P2006T wing. The design also featured two larger motors mounted on the tips of each wing, which would further reduce drag by counteracting the vortices normally produced at the end of each wing. Because the high lift generated by the smaller propellers along the leading edge would only be needed at take-off, these were designed to fold up once at cruising altitude to further reduce drag.
“The whole idea of an X-plane is to do something that has never been done before, and so I think it is just normal to expect that there is a learning curve.”
—Sergio Cecutta, SMG Consulting
Altogether these aerodynamic innovations would slash the planes’ power consumption at cruise by as much as a third, according to Borer. Electric motors are also about three times more efficient in terms of their power-to-weight ratio compared to gasoline-burning ones, he adds, so combined these design changes were expected to lead to a roughly fivefold reduction in energy requirements while flying at cruise speeds of around 280 kilometers per hour.
Switching to electric propulsion turned out to be more complicated than envisioned. The team had to completely redesign their battery packs in 2017 to avoid the risk of catastrophic fires. The high voltages and power levels required for electric aviation also posed significant complications, says Borer, requiring several iterations of the systems designed to protect components from electromagnetic interference.
Early on in the project they also found that state-of-the-art transistors able to withstand high power levels couldn’t tolerate the vibrations and temperatures involved in flight. This was resolved only recently by switching to a newer generation of silicon carbide MOSFET modules, says Sean Clarke, principal investigator for the X-57 project at the NASA Armstrong Flight Research Center in California. “It turned out to be actually a pretty tall order to work through all of those airworthiness, and qualification, and design challenges,” he says.
This led to delays that will mean the more ambitious goals of the project may not come to fruition, but Borer hopes that others will be able to pick up from where they left off. The team has been regularly publishing their findings and data as they’ve progressed, he says. They are also actively contributing to standards for electric aviation and are working with regulators to help develop aircraft certification processes. “We’re pushing out everything that we can,” says Borer.
The X-57’s custom-made battery packs installed in the aircraft’s cabin provide all the aircraft’s power, rather than the JET A/A-1 fuel that powers most aviation today. Lauren Hughes/NASA
This information sharing has already borne fruit. NASA’s main subcontractor for the project California-based Empirical Systems Aerospace has been able to commercialize the X-57’s battery pack design, and the agency has a technology-transfer agreement with Virginia-based electric-aircraft designer Electra, which involved the team sharing information on their aerodynamic innovations. The company that NASA initially contracted to build their electric motors, Joby Aviation, has also gone on to develop their own electric vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) vehicle and is today one of the leaders in the industry.
This is the beauty of a publicly funded effort like the X-57, says Sergio Cecutta, founder and partner at SMG Consulting, who covers the electric-aviation industry. Unlike a private development effort, he says, all of the advances and lessons that have come out of the project will be in the public domain and can spread throughout the industry. And while it may not have achieved its most ambitious goals, Cecutta says it has done exactly what was intended, which was to remove some of the roadblocks holding back electric aviation.
“The whole idea of an X-plane is to do something that has never been done before, and so I think it is just normal to expect that there is a learning curve,” he says. “In the end, you want to lay the groundwork for the industry to become successful, and I think on that metric, the X-57 has been a successful project.”
Andrew Ng has serious street cred in artificial intelligence. He pioneered the use of graphics processing units (GPUs) to train deep learning models in the late 2000s with his students at Stanford University, cofounded Google Brain in 2011, and then served for three years as chief scientist for Baidu, where he helped build the Chinese tech giant’s AI group. So when he says he has identified the next big shift in artificial intelligence, people listen. And that’s what he told IEEE Spectrum in an exclusive Q&A.
Ng’s current efforts are focused on his company Landing AI, which built a platform called LandingLens to help manufacturers improve visual inspection with computer vision. He has also become something of an evangelist for what he calls the data-centric AI movement, which he says can yield “small data” solutions to big issues in AI, including model efficiency, accuracy, and bias.
Andrew Ng on...
The great advances in deep learning over the past decade or so have been powered by ever-bigger models crunching ever-bigger amounts of data. Some people argue that that’s an unsustainable trajectory. Do you agree that it can’t go on that way?
Andrew Ng: This is a big question. We’ve seen foundation models in NLP [natural language processing]. I’m excited about NLP models getting even bigger, and also about the potential of building foundation models in computer vision. I think there’s lots of signal to still be exploited in video: We have not been able to build foundation models yet for video because of compute bandwidth and the cost of processing video, as opposed to tokenized text. So I think that this engine of scaling up deep learning algorithms, which has been running for something like 15 years now, still has steam in it. Having said that, it only applies to certain problems, and there’s a set of other problems that need small data solutions.
When you say you want a foundation model for computer vision, what do you mean by that?
Ng: This is a term coined by Percy Liang and some of my friends at Stanford to refer to very large models, trained on very large data sets, that can be tuned for specific applications. For example, GPT-3 is an example of a foundation model [for NLP]. Foundation models offer a lot of promise as a new paradigm in developing machine learning applications, but also challenges in terms of making sure that they’re reasonably fair and free from bias, especially if many of us will be building on top of them.
What needs to happen for someone to build a foundation model for video?
Ng: I think there is a scalability problem. The compute power needed to process the large volume of images for video is significant, and I think that’s why foundation models have arisen first in NLP. Many researchers are working on this, and I think we’re seeing early signs of such models being developed in computer vision. But I’m confident that if a semiconductor maker gave us 10 times more processor power, we could easily find 10 times more video to build such models for vision.
Having said that, a lot of what’s happened over the past decade is that deep learning has happened in consumer-facing companies that have large user bases, sometimes billions of users, and therefore very large data sets. While that paradigm of machine learning has driven a lot of economic value in consumer software, I find that that recipe of scale doesn’t work for other industries.
It’s funny to hear you say that, because your early work was at a consumer-facing company with millions of users.
Ng: Over a decade ago, when I proposed starting the Google Brain project to use Google’s compute infrastructure to build very large neural networks, it was a controversial step. One very senior person pulled me aside and warned me that starting Google Brain would be bad for my career. I think he felt that the action couldn’t just be in scaling up, and that I should instead focus on architecture innovation.
“In many industries where giant data sets simply don’t exist, I think the focus has to shift from big data to good data. Having 50 thoughtfully engineered examples can be sufficient to explain to the neural network what you want it to learn.”
—Andrew Ng, CEO & Founder, Landing AI
I remember when my students and I published the first NeurIPS workshop paper advocating using CUDA, a platform for processing on GPUs, for deep learning—a different senior person in AI sat me down and said, “CUDA is really complicated to program. As a programming paradigm, this seems like too much work.” I did manage to convince him; the other person I did not convince.
I expect they’re both convinced now.
Ng: I think so, yes.
Over the past year as I’ve been speaking to people about the data-centric AI movement, I’ve been getting flashbacks to when I was speaking to people about deep learning and scalability 10 or 15 years ago. In the past year, I’ve been getting the same mix of “there’s nothing new here” and “this seems like the wrong direction.”
How do you define data-centric AI, and why do you consider it a movement?
Ng: Data-centric AI is the discipline of systematically engineering the data needed to successfully build an AI system. For an AI system, you have to implement some algorithm, say a neural network, in code and then train it on your data set. The dominant paradigm over the last decade was to download the data set while you focus on improving the code. Thanks to that paradigm, over the last decade deep learning networks have improved significantly, to the point where for a lot of applications the code—the neural network architecture—is basically a solved problem. So for many practical applications, it’s now more productive to hold the neural network architecture fixed, and instead find ways to improve the data.
When I started speaking about this, there were many practitioners who, completely appropriately, raised their hands and said, “Yes, we’ve been doing this for 20 years.” This is the time to take the things that some individuals have been doing intuitively and make it a systematic engineering discipline.
The data-centric AI movement is much bigger than one company or group of researchers. My collaborators and I organized a data-centric AI workshop at NeurIPS, and I was really delighted at the number of authors and presenters that showed up.
You often talk about companies or institutions that have only a small amount of data to work with. How can data-centric AI help them?
Ng: You hear a lot about vision systems built with millions of images—I once built a face recognition system using 350 million images. Architectures built for hundreds of millions of images don’t work with only 50 images. But it turns out, if you have 50 really good examples, you can build something valuable, like a defect-inspection system. In many industries where giant data sets simply don’t exist, I think the focus has to shift from big data to good data. Having 50 thoughtfully engineered examples can be sufficient to explain to the neural network what you want it to learn.
When you talk about training a model with just 50 images, does that really mean you’re taking an existing model that was trained on a very large data set and fine-tuning it? Or do you mean a brand new model that’s designed to learn only from that small data set?
Ng: Let me describe what Landing AI does. When doing visual inspection for manufacturers, we often use our own flavor of RetinaNet. It is a pretrained model. Having said that, the pretraining is a small piece of the puzzle. What’s a bigger piece of the puzzle is providing tools that enable the manufacturer to pick the right set of images [to use for fine-tuning] and label them in a consistent way. There’s a very practical problem we’ve seen spanning vision, NLP, and speech, where even human annotators don’t agree on the appropriate label. For big data applications, the common response has been: If the data is noisy, let’s just get a lot of data and the algorithm will average over it. But if you can develop tools that flag where the data’s inconsistent and give you a very targeted way to improve the consistency of the data, that turns out to be a more efficient way to get a high-performing system.
“Collecting more data often helps, but if you try to collect more data for everything, that can be a very expensive activity.”
For example, if you have 10,000 images where 30 images are of one class, and those 30 images are labeled inconsistently, one of the things we do is build tools to draw your attention to the subset of data that’s inconsistent. So you can very quickly relabel those images to be more consistent, and this leads to improvement in performance.
Could this focus on high-quality data help with bias in data sets? If you’re able to curate the data more before training?
Ng: Very much so. Many researchers have pointed out that biased data is one factor among many leading to biased systems. There have been many thoughtful efforts to engineer the data. At the NeurIPS workshop, Olga Russakovsky gave a really nice talk on this. At the main NeurIPS conference, I also really enjoyed Mary Gray’s presentation, which touched on how data-centric AI is one piece of the solution, but not the entire solution. New tools like Datasheets for Datasets also seem like an important piece of the puzzle.
One of the powerful tools that data-centric AI gives us is the ability to engineer a subset of the data. Imagine training a machine-learning system and finding that its performance is okay for most of the data set, but its performance is biased for just a subset of the data. If you try to change the whole neural network architecture to improve the performance on just that subset, it’s quite difficult. But if you can engineer a subset of the data you can address the problem in a much more targeted way.
When you talk about engineering the data, what do you mean exactly?
Ng: In AI, data cleaning is important, but the way the data has been cleaned has often been in very manual ways. In computer vision, someone may visualize images through a Jupyter notebook and maybe spot the problem, and maybe fix it. But I’m excited about tools that allow you to have a very large data set, tools that draw your attention quickly and efficiently to the subset of data where, say, the labels are noisy. Or to quickly bring your attention to the one class among 100 classes where it would benefit you to collect more data. Collecting more data often helps, but if you try to collect more data for everything, that can be a very expensive activity.
For example, I once figured out that a speech-recognition system was performing poorly when there was car noise in the background. Knowing that allowed me to collect more data with car noise in the background, rather than trying to collect more data for everything, which would have been expensive and slow.
What about using synthetic data, is that often a good solution?
Ng: I think synthetic data is an important tool in the tool chest of data-centric AI. At the NeurIPS workshop, Anima Anandkumar gave a great talk that touched on synthetic data. I think there are important uses of synthetic data that go beyond just being a preprocessing step for increasing the data set for a learning algorithm. I’d love to see more tools to let developers use synthetic data generation as part of the closed loop of iterative machine learning development.
Do you mean that synthetic data would allow you to try the model on more data sets?
Ng: Not really. Here’s an example. Let’s say you’re trying to detect defects in a smartphone casing. There are many different types of defects on smartphones. It could be a scratch, a dent, pit marks, discoloration of the material, other types of blemishes. If you train the model and then find through error analysis that it’s doing well overall but it’s performing poorly on pit marks, then synthetic data generation allows you to address the problem in a more targeted way. You could generate more data just for the pit-mark category.
“In the consumer software Internet, we could train a handful of machine-learning models to serve a billion users. In manufacturing, you might have 10,000 manufacturers building 10,000 custom AI models.”
Synthetic data generation is a very powerful tool, but there are many simpler tools that I will often try first. Such as data augmentation, improving labeling consistency, or just asking a factory to collect more data.
To make these issues more concrete, can you walk me through an example? When a company approaches Landing AI and says it has a problem with visual inspection, how do you onboard them and work toward deployment?
Ng: When a customer approaches us we usually have a conversation about their inspection problem and look at a few images to verify that the problem is feasible with computer vision. Assuming it is, we ask them to upload the data to the LandingLens platform. We often advise them on the methodology of data-centric AI and help them label the data.
One of the foci of Landing AI is to empower manufacturing companies to do the machine learning work themselves. A lot of our work is making sure the software is fast and easy to use. Through the iterative process of machine learning development, we advise customers on things like how to train models on the platform, when and how to improve the labeling of data so the performance of the model improves. Our training and software supports them all the way through deploying the trained model to an edge device in the factory.
How do you deal with changing needs? If products change or lighting conditions change in the factory, can the model keep up?
Ng: It varies by manufacturer. There is data drift in many contexts. But there are some manufacturers that have been running the same manufacturing line for 20 years now with few changes, so they don’t expect changes in the next five years. Those stable environments make things easier. For other manufacturers, we provide tools to flag when there’s a significant data-drift issue. I find it really important to empower manufacturing customers to correct data, retrain, and update the model. Because if something changes and it’s 3 a.m. in the United States, I want them to be able to adapt their learning algorithm right away to maintain operations.
In the consumer software Internet, we could train a handful of machine-learning models to serve a billion users. In manufacturing, you might have 10,000 manufacturers building 10,000 custom AI models. The challenge is, how do you do that without Landing AI having to hire 10,000 machine learning specialists?
So you’re saying that to make it scale, you have to empower customers to do a lot of the training and other work.
Ng: Yes, exactly! This is an industry-wide problem in AI, not just in manufacturing. Look at health care. Every hospital has its own slightly different format for electronic health records. How can every hospital train its own custom AI model? Expecting every hospital’s IT personnel to invent new neural-network architectures is unrealistic. The only way out of this dilemma is to build tools that empower the customers to build their own models by giving them tools to engineer the data and express their domain knowledge. That’s what Landing AI is executing in computer vision, and the field of AI needs other teams to execute this in other domains.
Is there anything else you think it’s important for people to understand about the work you’re doing or the data-centric AI movement?
Ng: In the last decade, the biggest shift in AI was a shift to deep learning. I think it’s quite possible that in this decade the biggest shift will be to data-centric AI. With the maturity of today’s neural network architectures, I think for a lot of the practical applications the bottleneck will be whether we can efficiently get the data we need to develop systems that work well. The data-centric AI movement has tremendous energy and momentum across the whole community. I hope more researchers and developers will jump in and work on it.
This article appears in the April 2022 print issue as “Andrew Ng, AI Minimalist.”
The end of Moore’s Law is looming. Engineers and designers can do only so much to miniaturize transistors and pack as many of them as possible into chips. So they’re turning to other approaches to chip design, incorporating technologies like AI into the process.
Samsung, for instance, is adding AI to its memory chips to enable processing in memory, thereby saving energy and speeding up machine learning. Speaking of speed, Google’s TPU V4 AI chip has doubled its processing power compared with that of its previous version.
But AI holds still more promise and potential for the semiconductor industry. To better understand how AI is set to revolutionize chip design, we spoke with Heather Gorr, senior product manager for MathWorks’ MATLAB platform.
How is AI currently being used to design the next generation of chips?
Heather Gorr: AI is such an important technology because it’s involved in most parts of the cycle, including the design and manufacturing process. There’s a lot of important applications here, even in the general process engineering where we want to optimize things. I think defect detection is a big one at all phases of the process, especially in manufacturing. But even thinking ahead in the design process, [AI now plays a significant role] when you’re designing the light and the sensors and all the different components. There’s a lot of anomaly detection and fault mitigation that you really want to consider.
Then, thinking about the logistical modeling that you see in any industry, there is always planned downtime that you want to mitigate; but you also end up having unplanned downtime. So, looking back at that historical data of when you’ve had those moments where maybe it took a bit longer than expected to manufacture something, you can take a look at all of that data and use AI to try to identify the proximate cause or to see something that might jump out even in the processing and design phases. We think of AI oftentimes as a predictive tool, or as a robot doing something, but a lot of times you get a lot of insight from the data through AI.
What are the benefits of using AI for chip design?
Gorr: Historically, we’ve seen a lot of physics-based modeling, which is a very intensive process. We want to do a reduced order model, where instead of solving such a computationally expensive and extensive model, we can do something a little cheaper. You could create a surrogate model, so to speak, of that physics-based model, use the data, and then do your parameter sweeps, your optimizations, your Monte Carlo simulations using the surrogate model. That takes a lot less time computationally than solving the physics-based equations directly. So, we’re seeing that benefit in many ways, including the efficiency and economy that are the results of iterating quickly on the experiments and the simulations that will really help in the design.
So it’s like having a digital twin in a sense?
Gorr: Exactly. That’s pretty much what people are doing, where you have the physical system model and the experimental data. Then, in conjunction, you have this other model that you could tweak and tune and try different parameters and experiments that let sweep through all of those different situations and come up with a better design in the end.
So, it’s going to be more efficient and, as you said, cheaper?
Gorr: Yeah, definitely. Especially in the experimentation and design phases, where you’re trying different things. That’s obviously going to yield dramatic cost savings if you’re actually manufacturing and producing [the chips]. You want to simulate, test, experiment as much as possible without making something using the actual process engineering.
We’ve talked about the benefits. How about the drawbacks?
Gorr: The [AI-based experimental models] tend to not be as accurate as physics-based models. Of course, that’s why you do many simulations and parameter sweeps. But that’s also the benefit of having that digital twin, where you can keep that in mind—it’s not going to be as accurate as that precise model that we’ve developed over the years.
Both chip design and manufacturing are system intensive; you have to consider every little part. And that can be really challenging. It’s a case where you might have models to predict something and different parts of it, but you still need to bring it all together.
One of the other things to think about too is that you need the data to build the models. You have to incorporate data from all sorts of different sensors and different sorts of teams, and so that heightens the challenge.
How can engineers use AI to better prepare and extract insights from hardware or sensor data?
Gorr: We always think about using AI to predict something or do some robot task, but you can use AI to come up with patterns and pick out things you might not have noticed before on your own. People will use AI when they have high-frequency data coming from many different sensors, and a lot of times it’s useful to explore the frequency domain and things like data synchronization or resampling. Those can be really challenging if you’re not sure where to start.
One of the things I would say is, use the tools that are available. There’s a vast community of people working on these things, and you can find lots of examples [of applications and techniques] on GitHub or MATLAB Central, where people have shared nice examples, even little apps they’ve created. I think many of us are buried in data and just not sure what to do with it, so definitely take advantage of what’s already out there in the community. You can explore and see what makes sense to you, and bring in that balance of domain knowledge and the insight you get from the tools and AI.
What should engineers and designers consider when using AI for chip design?
Gorr: Think through what problems you’re trying to solve or what insights you might hope to find, and try to be clear about that. Consider all of the different components, and document and test each of those different parts. Consider all of the people involved, and explain and hand off in a way that is sensible for the whole team.
How do you think AI will affect chip designers’ jobs?
Gorr: It’s going to free up a lot of human capital for more advanced tasks. We can use AI to reduce waste, to optimize the materials, to optimize the design, but then you still have that human involved whenever it comes to decision-making. I think it’s a great example of people and technology working hand in hand. It’s also an industry where all people involved—even on the manufacturing floor—need to have some level of understanding of what’s happening, so this is a great industry for advancing AI because of how we test things and how we think about them before we put them on the chip.
How do you envision the future of AI and chip design?
Gorr: It’s very much dependent on that human element—involving people in the process and having that interpretable model. We can do many things with the mathematical minutiae of modeling, but it comes down to how people are using it, how everybody in the process is understanding and applying it. Communication and involvement of people of all skill levels in the process are going to be really important. We’re going to see less of those superprecise predictions and more transparency of information, sharing, and that digital twin—not only using AI but also using our human knowledge and all of the work that many people have done over the years.
Earlier this week, I signed on to a short group statement, coordinated by the Center for AI Safety:
Mitigating the risk of extinction from AI should be a global priority alongside other societal-scale risks such as pandemics and nuclear war.
The press coverage has been extensive, and surprising to me. The New York Times headline is “A.I. Poses ‘Risk of Extinction,’ Industry Leaders Warn.” BBC: “Artificial intelligence could lead to extinction, experts warn.” Other headlines are similar.
I actually don’t think that AI poses a risk to human extinction. I think it poses a similar risk to pandemics and nuclear war—which is to say, a risk worth taking seriously, but not something to panic over. Which is what I thought the statement said...
First-year college students are understandably frustrated when they can’t get into popular upper-level electives. But they usually just gripe. Paras Jha was an exception. Enraged that upper-class students were given priority to enroll in a computer-science elective at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey, Paras decided to crash the registration website so that no one could enroll.
On Wednesday night, 19 November 2014, at 10:00 p.m. EST—as the registration period for first-year students in spring courses had just opened—Paras launched his first distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attack. He had assembled an army of some 40,000 bots, primarily in Eastern Europe and China, and unleashed them on the Rutgers central authentication server. The botnet sent thousands of fraudulent requests to authenticate, overloading the server. Paras’s classmates could not get through to register.
The next semester Paras tried again. On 4 March 2015, he sent an email to the campus newspaper, The Daily Targum: “A while back you had an article that talked about the DDoS attacks on Rutgers. I’m the one who attacked the network.… I will be attacking the network once again at 8:15 pm EST.” Paras followed through on his threat, knocking the Rutgers network offline at precisely 8:15 p.m.
On 27 March, Paras unleashed another assault on Rutgers. This attack lasted four days and brought campus life to a standstill. Fifty thousand students, faculty, and staff had no computer access from campus.
On 29 April, Paras posted a message on Pastebin, a website popular with hackers for sending anonymous messages. “The Rutgers IT department is a joke,” he taunted. “This is the third time I have launched DDoS attacks against Rutgers, and every single time, the Rutgers infrastructure crumpled like a tin can under the heel of my boot.”
Paras was furious that Rutgers chose Incapsula, a small cybersecurity firm based in Massachusetts, as its DDoS-mitigation provider. He claimed that Rutgers chose the cheapest company. “Just to show you the poor quality of Incapsula’s network, I have gone ahead and decimated the Rutgers network (and parts of Incapsula), in the hopes that you will pick another provider that knows what they are doing.”
Paras’s fourth attack on the Rutgers network, taking place during finals, caused chaos and panic on campus. Paras reveled in his ability to shut down a major state university, but his ultimate objective was to force it to abandon Incapsula. Paras had started his own DDoS-mitigation service, ProTraf Solutions, and wanted Rutgers to pick ProTraf over Incapsula. And he wasn’t going to stop attacking his school until it switched.
Paras Jha was born and raised in Fanwood, a leafy suburb in central New Jersey. When Paras was in the third grade, a teacher recommended that he be evaluated for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, but his parents didn’t follow through.
As Paras progressed through elementary school, his struggles increased. Because he was so obviously intelligent, his teachers and parents attributed his lackluster performance to laziness and apathy. His perplexed parents pushed him even harder.
Paras sought refuge in computers. He taught himself how to code when he was 12 and was hooked. His parents happily indulged this passion, buying him a computer and providing him with unrestricted Internet access. But their indulgence led Paras to isolate himself further, as he spent all his time coding, gaming, and hanging out with his online friends.
Paras was particularly drawn to the online game Minecraft. In ninth grade, he graduated from playing Minecraft to hosting servers. It was in hosting game servers that he first encountered DDoS attacks.
Minecraft server administrators often hire DDoS services to knock rivals offline. As Paras learned more sophisticated DDoS attacks, he also studied DDoS defense. As he became proficient in mitigating attacks on Minecraft servers, he decided to create ProTraf Solutions.
Paras’s obsession with Minecraft attacks and defense, compounded by his untreated ADHD, led to an even greater retreat from family and school. His poor academic performance in high school frustrated and depressed him. His only solace was Japanese anime and the admiration he gained from the online community of Minecraft DDoS experts.
Paras’s struggles deteriorated into paralysis when he enrolled in Rutgers, studying for a B.S. in computer science. Without his mother’s help, he was unable to regulate the normal demands of living on his own. He could not manage his sleep, schedule, or study. Paras was also acutely lonely. So he immersed himself in hacking.
Paras and two hacker friends, Josiah White and Dalton Norman, decided to go after the kings of DDoS—a gang known as VDoS. The gang had been providing these services to the world for four years, which is an eternity in cybercrime. The decision to fight experienced cybercriminals may seem brave, but the trio were actually older than their rivals. The VDoS gang members had been only 14 years old when they started to offer DDoS services from Israel in 2012. These 19-year-old American teenagers would be going to battle against two 18-year-old Israeli teenagers. The war between the two teenage gangs would not only change the nature of malware. Their struggle for dominance in cyberspace would create a doomsday machine.
The Mirai botnet, with all its devastating potential, was not the product of an organized-crime or nation-state hacking group—it was put together by three teenage boys. They rented out their botnet to paying customers to do mischief with and used it to attack chosen targets of their own. But the full extent of the danger became apparent only later, after this team made the source code for their malware public. Then others used it to do greater harm: crashing Germany’s largest Internet service provider; attacking Dyn’s Domain Name System servers, making the Internet unusable for millions; and taking down all of Liberia’s Internet—to name a few examples.
The Mirai botnet exploited vulnerable Internet of Things devices, such as Web-connected video cameras, ones that supported Telnet, an outdated system for logging in remotely. Owners of these devices rarely updated their passwords, so they could be easily guessed using a strategy called a dictionary attack.
The first step in assembling a botnet was to scan random IP addresses looking for vulnerable IoT devices, ones whose passwords could be guessed. Once identified, the addresses of these devices were passed to a “loader,” which would put the malware on the vulnerable device. Infected devices located all over the world could then be used for distributed denial-of-service attacks, orchestrated by a command-and-control (C2) server. When not attacking a target, these bots would be enlisted to scan for more vulnerable devices to infect.
Botnet malware is useful for financially motivated crime because botmasters can tell the bots in their thrall to implant malware on vulnerable machines, send phishing emails, or engage in click fraud, in which botnets profit by directing bots to click pay-per-click ads. Botnets are also great DDoS weapons because they can be trained on a target and barrage it from all directions. One day in February 2000, for example, the hacker MafiaBoy knocked out Fifa.com, Amazon.com, Dell, E-Trade, eBay, CNN, as well as Yahoo, at the time the largest search engine on the Internet.
After taking so many major websites offline, MafiaBoy was deemed a national -security threat. President Clinton ordered a national manhunt to find him. In April 2000, MafiaBoy was arrested and charged, and in January 2001 he pled guilty to 58 charges of denial-of-service attacks. Law enforcement did not reveal MafiaBoy’s real name, as this national-security threat was 15 years old.
Both MafiaBoy and the VDoS crew were adolescent boys who crashed servers. But whereas MafiaBoy did it for the sport, VDoS did it for the money. Indeed, these teenage Israeli kids were pioneering tech entrepreneurs. They helped launch a new form of cybercrime: DDoS as a service. With it, anyone could now hack with the click of a button, no technical knowledge needed.
It might be surprising that DDoS providers could advertise openly on the Web. After all, DDoSing another website is illegal everywhere. To get around this, these “booter services” have long argued they perform a legitimate function: providing those who set up Web pages a means to stress test websites.
In theory, such services do play an important function. But only in theory. As a booter-service provider admitted to University of Cambridge researchers, “We do try to market these services towards a more legitimate user base, but we know where the money comes from.”
Paras dropped out of Rutgers in his sophomore year and, with his father’s encouragement, spent the next year focused on building ProTraf Solutions, his DDoS-mitigation business. And just like a mafia don running a protection racket, he had to make that protection needed. After launching four DDoS attacks his freshman year, he attacked Rutgers yet again in September 2015, still hoping that his former school would give up on Incapsula. Rutgers refused to budge.
ProTraf Solutions was failing, and Paras needed cash. In May 2016, Paras reached out to Josiah White. Like Paras, Josiah frequented Hack Forums. When he was 15, he developed major portions of Qbot, a botnet worm that at its height in 2014 had enslaved half a million computers. Now 18, Josiah switched sides and worked with his friend Paras at ProTraf doing DDoS mitigation.
The hacker’s command-and-control (C2) server orchestrates the actions of many geographically distributed bots (computers under its control). Those computers, which could be IoT devices like IP cameras, can be directed to overwhelm the victim’s servers with unwanted traffic, making them unable to respond to legitimate requests. IEEE Spectrum
But Josiah soon returned to hacking and started working with Paras to take the Qbot malware, improve it, and build a bigger, more powerful DDoS botnet. Paras and Josiah then partnered with 19-year-old Dalton Norman. The trio turned into a well-oiled team: Dalton found the vulnerabilities; Josiah updated the botnet malware to exploit these vulnerabilities; and Paras wrote the C2—software for the command-and-control server—for controlling the botnet.
But the trio had competition. Two other DDoS gangs—Lizard Squad and VDoS—decided to band together to build a giant botnet. The collaboration, known as PoodleCorp, was successful. The amount of traffic that could be unleashed on a target from PoodleCorp’s botnet hit a record value of 400 gigabits per second, almost four times the rate that any previous botnet had achieved. They used their new weapon to attack banks in Brazil, U.S. government sites, and Minecraft servers. They achieved this firepower by hijacking 1,300 Web-connected cameras. Web cameras tend to have powerful processors and good connectivity, and they are rarely patched. So a botnet that harnesses video has enormous cannons at its disposal.
While PoodleCorp was on the rise, Paras, Josiah, and Dalton worked on a new weapon. By the beginning of August 2016, the trio had completed the first version of their botnet malware. Paras called the new code Mirai, after the anime series Mirai Nikki.
When Mirai was released, it spread like wildfire. In its first 20 hours, it infected 65,000 devices, doubling in size every 76 minutes. And Mirai had an unwitting ally in the botnet war then raging.
Up in Anchorage, Alaska, the FBI cyber unit was building a case against VDoS. The FBI was unaware of Mirai or its war with VDoS. The agents did not regularly read online boards such as Hack Forums. They did not know that the target of their investigation was being decimated. The FBI also did not realize that Mirai was ready to step into the void.
The head investigator in Anchorage was Special Agent Elliott Peterson. A former U.S. Marine, Peterson is a calm and self-assured agent with a buzz cut of red hair. At the age of 33, Peterson had returned to his native state of Alaska to prosecute cybercrime.
On 8 September 2016, the FBI’s Anchorage and New Haven cyber units teamed up and served a search warrant in Connecticut on the member of PoodleCorp who ran the C2 that controlled all its botnets. On the same day, the Israeli police arrested the VDoS founders in Israel. Suddenly, PoodleCorp was no more.
The Mirai group waited a couple of days to assess the battlefield. As far as they could tell, they were the only botnet left standing. And they were ready to use their new power. Mirai won the war because Israeli and American law enforcement arrested the masterminds behind PoodleCorp. But Mirai would have triumphed anyway, as it was ruthlessly efficient in taking control of Internet of Things devices and excluding competing malware.
A few weeks after the arrests of those behind VDoS, Special Agent Peterson found his next target: the Mirai botnet. In the Mirai case, we do not know the exact steps that Peterson’s team took in their investigation: Court orders in this case are currently “under seal,” meaning that the court deems them secret. But from public reporting, we know that Peterson’s team got its break in the usual way—from a Mirai victim: Brian Krebs, a cybersecurity reporter whose blog was DDoSed by the Mirai botnet on 25 September.
The FBI uncovered the IP address of the C2 and loading servers but did not know who had opened the accounts. Peterson’s team likely subpoenaed the hosting companies to learn the names, emails, cellphones, and payment methods of the account holders. With this information, it would seek court orders and then search warrants to acquire the content of the conspirators’ conversations.
Still, the hunt for the authors of the Mirai malware must have been a difficult one, given how clever these hackers were. For example, to evade detection Josiah didn’t just use a VPN. He hacked the home computer of a teenage boy in France and used his computer as the “exit node.” The orders for the botnet, therefore, came from this computer. Unfortunately for the owner, he was a big fan of Japanese anime and thus fit the profile of the hacker. The FBI and the French police discovered their mistake after they raided the boy’s house.
After wielding its power for two months, Paras dumped nearly the complete source code for Mirai on Hack Forums. “I made my money, there’s lots of eyes looking at IOT now, so it’s time to GTFO [Get The F*** Out],” Paras wrote. With that code dump, Paras had enabled anyone to build their own Mirai. And they did.
Dumping code is reckless, but not unusual. If the police find source code on a hacker’s devices, they can claim that they “downloaded it from the Internet.” Paras’s irresponsible disclosure was part of a false-flag operation meant to throw off the FBI, which had been gathering evidence indicating Paras’s involvement in Mirai and had contacted him to ask questions. Though he gave the agent a fabricated story, getting a text from the FBI probably terrified him.
Mirai had captured the attention of the cybersecurity community and of law enforcement. But not until after Mirai’s source code dropped would it capture the attention of the entire United States. The first attack after the dump was on 21 October, on Dyn, a company based in Manchester, N.H., that provides Domain Name System (DNS) resolution services for much of the East Coast of the United States.
It began at 7:07 a.m. EST with a series of 25-second attacks, thought to be tests of the botnet and Dyn’s infrastructure. Then came the sustained assaults: of one hour, and then five hours. Interestingly, Dyn was not the only target. Sony’s PlayStation video infrastructure was also hit. Because the torrents were so immense, many other websites were affected. Domains such as cnn.com, facebook.com, and nytimes.com wouldn’t work. For the vast majority of these users, the Internet became unusable. At 7:00 p.m., another 10-hour salvo hit Dyn and PlayStation.
Further investigations confirmed the point of the attack. Along with Dyn and PlayStation traffic, the botnet targeted Xbox Live and Nuclear Fallout game-hosting servers. Nation-states were not aiming to hack the upcoming U.S. elections. Someone was trying to boot players off their game servers. Once again—just like MafiaBoy, VDoS, Paras, Dalton, and Josiah—the attacker was a teenage boy, this time a 15-year-old in Northern Ireland named Aaron Sterritt.
Meanwhile, the Mirai trio left the DDoS business, just as Paras said. But Paras and Dalton did not give up on cybercrime. They just took up click fraud.
Click fraud was more lucrative than running a booter service. While Mirai was no longer as big as it had been, the botnet could nevertheless generate significant advertising revenue. Paras and Dalton earned as much money in one month from click fraud as they ever made with DDoS. By January 2017, they had earned over US $180,000, as opposed to a mere $14,000 from DDoSing.
Had Paras and his friends simply shut down their booter service and moved on to click fraud, the world would likely have forgotten about them. But by releasing the Mirai code, Paras created imitators. Dyn was the first major copycat attack, but many others followed. And due to the enormous damage these imitators wrought, law enforcement was intensely interested in the Mirai authors.
After collecting information tying Paras, Josiah, and Dalton to Mirai, the FBI quietly brought each up to Alaska. Peterson’s team showed the suspects its evidence and gave them the chance to cooperate. Given that the evidence was irrefutable, each folded.
Paras Jha was indicted twice, once in New Jersey for his attack on Rutgers, and once in Alaska for Mirai. Both indictments carried the same charge—one violation of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. Paras faced up to 10 years in federal prison for his actions. Josiah and Dalton were only indicted in Alaska and so faced 5 years in prison.
The trio pled guilty. At the sentencing hearing held on 18 September 2018, in Anchorage, each of the defendants expressed remorse for his actions. Josiah White’s lawyer conveyed his client’s realization that Mirai was “a tremendous lapse in judgment.”
Unlike Josiah, Paras spoke directly to Judge Timothy Burgess in the courtroom. Paras began by accepting full responsibility for his actions and expressed his deep regret for the trouble he’d caused his family. He also apologized for the harm he’d caused businesses and, in particular, Rutgers, the faculty, and his fellow students.
The Department of Justice made the unusual decision not to ask for jail time. In its sentencing memo, the government noted “the divide between [the defendants’] online personas, where they were significant, well-known, and malicious actors in the DDoS criminal milieu and their comparatively mundane ‘real lives’ where they present as socially immature young men living with their parents in relative obscurity.” It recommended five years of probation and 2,500 hours of community service.
The government had one more request —for that community service “to include continued work with the FBI on cybercrime and cybersecurity matters.” Even before sentencing, Paras, Josiah, and Dalton had logged close to 1,000 hours helping the FBI hunt and shut down Mirai copycats. They contributed to more than a dozen law enforcement and research efforts. In one instance, the trio assisted in stopping a nation-state hacking group. They also helped the FBI prevent DDoS attacks aimed at disrupting Christmas-holiday shopping. Judge Burgess accepted the government’s recommendation, and the trio escaped jail time.
The most poignant moments in the hearing were Paras’s and Dalton’s singling out for praise the very person who caught them. “Two years ago, when I first met Special Agent Elliott Peterson,” Paras told the court, “I was an arrogant fool believing that somehow I was untouchable. When I met him in person for the second time, he told me something I will never forget: ‘You’re in a hole right now. It’s time you stop digging.’ ” Paras finished his remarks by thanking “my family, my friends, and Agent Peterson for helping me through this.”
This article appears in the June 2023 print issue as “Patch Me if You Can.”
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