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Friday, June 23, 2017

The Air Force and IBM are Building an AI Supercomputer

Supercomputers today are capable of performing incredible feats, from accurately predicting the weather to uncovering insights into climate change, but they still by and large rely on brute processor power to accomplish their tasks. That's where this new partnership between the US Air Force and IBM comes in. They're teaming up to build the world's first supercomputer that behaves like a natural brain.

IBM and the USAF announced on Friday that the machine will run on an array of 64 TrueNorth Neurosynaptic chips. The TrueNorth chips are wired together like, and operate in a similar fashion to, the synapses within a biological brain. Each core is part of a distributed network and operate in parallel with one another on an event-driven basis. That is, these chips don't require a clock, as conventional CPUs do, to function.

What's more, because of the distributed nature of the system, even if one core fails, the rest of the array will continue to work. This 64-chip array will contain the processing equivalent of 64 million neurons and 16 billion synapses, yet absolutely sips energy -- each processor consumes just 10 watts of electricity.

Like other neural networks, this system will be put to use in pattern recognition and sensory processing roles. The Air Force wants to combine the TrueNorth's ability to convert multiple data feeds -- whether it's audio, video or text -- into machine readable symbols with a conventional supercomputer's ability to crunch data.

This isn't the first time that IBM's neural chip system has been integrated into cutting-edge technology. Last August, Samsung installed the chips in its Dynamic Vision Sensors enabling cameras to capture images at up to 2,000 fps while burning through just 300 milliwatts of power.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

It's Time to Embrace the eSIM

Goodbye, and good riddance, to SIM cards.
As reported by Engadget: It's a downright shame that eSIMs aren't commonplace by now. Embedded-SIM technology has the potential to make getting connected to cellular networks much more convenient, but there hasn't been a consumer-friendly set of specifications for it since its 2013 introduction. That is, until last year, when the GSM Alliance (GSMA) released updated guidelines to add support for multiple profiles and devices (more on that later). Since then, thanks to partnerships between Microsoft, Intel and Qualcomm on a new generation of connected PCs with eSIMs onboard, we're going to see the technology feature in all sorts of gadgets over the next few years.

For the uninitiated, SIM stands for subscriber identity module, and it's generally a tiny, fingernail-size piece of plastic that you slide into a tray on your phone, laptop, tablet or smartwatch. Typically, it's found in your phone and contains a unique reference number for your account so that your mobile service provider knows whom to charge and how much access to grant you. The card also has some onboard memory to store a small number of your contacts and SMS messages.

But fiddling with a tiny physical card is archaic and frustrating (who wants to carry around a SIM ejector?), and eSIMs can alleviate that pain. Embedded SIMs integrate the identification technology of the plastic card into the device's processor or modem itself. For Intel-branded chips, this will be supported in its existing XMMTM 7260 modem and upcoming XMM 7360 model, while Qualcomm offers it in the Snapdragon 835 chipset. But that doesn't mean you'll have to buy a new device. If your machine already has a SIM card tray, you'll be able to slide in an adapter.

And don't worry about being locked to one carrier. Thanks to the new version of what's called "remote SIM provisioning (RSP)," eSIMs can store and adopt different profiles (or accounts) so you can simply switch carriers without having to get a new card (we'll get to what this looks like on your device in a bit). This means you could get wireless plans when you're traveling or buy specific amounts of data without having to visit a carrier's physical store. The GSMA, which represents the interests of about 800 mobile operators worldwide, updated its RSP specifications in March to extend this capability to gadgets other than phones.

The Samsung Gear S3 pictured above is one of the first consumer devices to use an eSIM.

Carriers will have to support this technology before you can access their networks over eSIM. So far, T-Mobile, AT&T and about 20 providers worldwide have said they'll work with Microsoft to let eSIM-connected PCs buy data from the Windows Store. What that process will look like isn't clear yet. Microsoft said it's working on making the carrier-selection process part of the Windows 10 interface. It could be as easy as picking a wireless operator the way you select a WiFi network, then going to the Windows Store to buy the amount of data you think you'll need.

Based on a presentation made by Deutsche Telecom/T-Mobile at the GSMA's March event, it could also involve entering an activation code provided by the operator in your device's settings.

Not only will eSIMs save you trips to physical stores and remove the need to fiddle with a tiny piece of plastic, the space saved by eliminating the card tray could also make for smaller gadgets. Because SIM cards don't take up all that much room in laptops and phones, the space gained is most significant in things like wearables and connected devices. If they didn't have to accommodate physical SIM trays, device makers could design LTE-capable smartwatches that are a bit slimmer.

We're still at least a few months away from seeing the benefits of eSIM and the resulting carrier flexibility. But given the support from big brands like ASUS, Lenovo and HP, which have all signed on to make eSIM-enabled PCs, it's clear we'll see much more of the feature soon. Plus, who knows? In a few more years, we could even say goodbye to physical SIM cards altogether. And good riddance.

Friday, June 16, 2017

China's Quantum Satellite is a Big Leap

Micius was launched from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in China's Northwest.
As reported by the BBC: The term "spy satellite" has taken on a new meaning with the successful test of a novel Chinese spacecraft.
The mission can provide unbreakable secret communications channels, in principle, using the laws of quantum science.
Called Micius, the satellite is the first of its kind and was launched from the Gobi desert last August.
It is all part of a push towards a new kind of internet that would be far more secure than the one we use now.
The experimental Micius, with its delicate optical equipment, continues to circle the Earth, transmitting to two mountain-top Earth bases separated by 1,200 km (745.6 miles).
The optics on-board are paramount. They're needed to distribute to the ground stations the particles, or photons, of light that can encode the "keys" to secret messages.
"I think we have started a worldwide quantum space race," says lead researcher Jian-Wei Pan, who is based in Hefei in China's Anhui Province.

'Messy business'

Quantum privacy in many ways should be like the encryption that already keeps our financial data private online.
Before sensitive information is shared between shopper and online shop, the two exchange a complicated number that is then used to scramble the subsequent characters. It also hides the key that will allow the shop to unscramble the text securely.
The weakness is that the number itself can be intercepted, and with enough computing power, cracked.
Quantum cryptography, as it is called, goes one step further, by using the power of quantum science to hide the key.
As one of the founders of quantum mechanics Werner Heisenberg realized over 90 years ago, any measurement or detection of a quantum system, such as an atom or photon of light, uncontrollably and unpredictably changes the system.
This quantum uncertainty is the property that allows those engaged in secret communications to know if they are being spied on: the eavesdropper's efforts would mess up the connection.

Artwork satelliteImage copyrightNSSC
Image captionArtwork: The two Earth stations are 1,200km apart

The idea has been developed since it was first understood in the 1980s.
Typically, pairs of photons created or born simultaneously like quantum twins will share their quantum properties no matter how long they are separated or how far they have traveled. Reading the photons later, by shopper and shop, leads to the numerical key that can then be used to encrypt a message. Unless the measurements show interference from an eavesdropper.
A network established in Vienna in 2008 successfully used telecommunications fiber optics criss-crossing the city to carry these "entangled photons", as they are called. But even the clearest of optical fibers looks foggy to light, if it's long enough. And an ambitious 2,000 km link from Beijing to Shanghai launched last year needs repeater hubs every 100 km or so - weak points for quantum hackers of the future to target.
And that, explains Anton Zeilinger, one of the pioneers of the field and creator of the Vienna network, is the reason to communicate via satellite instead.
"On the ground, through the air, through glass fibers - you cannot go much further than 200 km. So a satellite in outer space is the choice if you want to go a really large distance," he said.
The point being that in the vacuum of space, there are no atoms, or at least hardly any, to mess up the quantum signal.
That is what makes the tests with Micius, named after an ancient Chinese philosopher, so significant. They have proved a spaced-based network is possible, as revealed in the latest edition of the journal Science.

Technical tour de force

Not that it is easy. The satellite passes 500 km over China for just less than five minutes each day - or rather each night, as bright sunlight would easily swamp the quantum signal. Micius' intricate optics create the all-important photon pairs and fires them down towards telescopes on some of China's high mountains.
"When I had the idea of doing this in 2003, many people thought it was a crazy idea," Jian-Wei Pan told the BBC World Service from his office in the University of Science and Technology of China. "Because it was very challenging already doing the sophisticated quantum optics experiments in a lab - so how can you do a similar experiment at a thousand-kilometer distance and with optical elements moving at a speed of 8 km/s?"
Additional lasers steered the satellite's optics as it flew over China, keeping them pointed at the base stations. Nevertheless, owing to clouds, dust and atmospheric turbulence, most of the photons created on the satellite failed to reach their target: only one pair of the 10 million photon pairs generated each second actually completed the trip successfully.
But that was enough to complete the test successfully. It showed that the photons that did arrive preserved the quantum properties needed for quantum crypto-circuits.
"The Chinese experiment is a quite remarkable technological achievement," enthused mathematician Artur Ekert in an e-mail to the BBC. It was as a student in quantum information at Oxford University in the 1990s that Ekert proposed the paired-photon approach to cryptography. Relishing the pun, he added wryly "when I proposed the scheme, I did not expect it to be elevated to such heights."
Alex Ling from the National University of Singapore is a rival physicist. His first quantum mini-satellite blew up shortly after launch in 2014, but he is generous in his praise of the Micius mission: "The experiment is definitely a technical tour-de-force.
"We are pretty excited about this development, and hope it heralds a new era in quantum communications capability."

Vienna quantum experimental set-upImage copyrightSPL
Image captionJian-Wei Pan is now set to team up with his old PhD supervisor, Anton Zeilinger, who is based in Vienna

The next step will be a collaboration between Jian-Wei Pan and his former PhD supervisor, Anton Zeilinger in the University of Vienna - to prove what can be done across a single nation can also be achieved between whole continents, still using Micius.
"The idea is the satellite flies over China, establishes a secret key with a ground station; then it flies over Austria, it establishes another secret key with that ground station. Then the keys are combined to establish a key between say Vienna and Beijing," he told the BBC's Science in Action program.
Pan says his team will soon arrive in Vienna to start those tests.
Meanwhile, Zeilinger is working on Qapital, a quantum network connecting many of the capitals of Europe, Vienna and Bratislava. Existing optic fibers laid alongside data networks but not currently used could make the backbone of this network, Zeilinger believes.
"A future quantum internet," he says, "will consist of fiber optic networks on the ground that will be connected to other fiber networks by satellites overhead. I think it will happen."
Pan is already planning the details of the satellite constellation that will make this possible.
The need? Secrecy is the stuff of spy agencies, who have large budgets. But financial institutions which trade billions of dollars internationally day by day also have valuable resources to protect.
Although some observers are skeptical they would want to pay for a quantum internet, Pan, Zeilinger and the other technologists think the case will be irresistible once one exists.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

It Takes a Smart City to Make Cars Truly Autonomous

As reported by Engadget: Artificial intelligence is driving the autonomous car. Coupled with robust computers, automobiles of the future will be more powerful than any other device we own. But they'll only be as powerful as their surrounding allows. If your vehicle doesn't know about a traffic jam along its route, like its human counterparts, it'll get stuck in gridlock. That's where connectivity comes in. When self-driving cars hit the road, they'll not only be computing juggernauts but also sharing data with everything all the time.

One of the places where a connected infrastructure is already being built is Nevada. More accurately, Las Vegas. The city known for gambling has to deal with 42 million tourists and the traffic they bring with them every year. Controlling all of that is the Regional Transportation Commission of Southern Nevada. The agency oversees all the city and surrounding area's transit infrastructure and has been proactive in its embrace of vehicle communication, including working with Audi on its traffic-light countdown system that displays the time before a light turns green on the dash of the car.

Helping to navigate Nevada's foray into vehicle-to-infrastructure communications is the Nevada Center for Advanced Mobility, which facilitates partnerships between the state and private and academic entities. Innovation Director Dan Langford told Engadget that the goal is to create a safer, smoother transportation and pedestrian experience for residents, visitors and businesses working within the state.

But the state is doing more than just looking at ways to make traffic flow smoothly and helping folks get to their destination; it's actively implementing solutions. Agencies that traditionally deal with slow-moving transportation projects and bureaucracy are acting quickly as new sensors, applications and data become available. "The level of risk and innovation that some of the agencies are open to has increased," Langford said.

An example of that is the recent partnership between the state and Nexar, which builds systems for automobiles to communicate with one another. Co-founder and CTO Bruno Fernandez-Ruiz likened it to air traffic control but for the ground to increase not only the capacity of the roads but also their safety.

It's helping Nevada track vehicles and what they see while the state focuses on the infrastructure. Approximately 18 months ago the Center for Advanced Mobility pivoted from working on autonomous vehicles to focusing on the actual infrastructure that self-driving cars will need to get around while automakers figure out the in-car solution. The fragmentation in the automotive world will continue until there's a government mandate from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration or the industry sits down and figures out a standard. The state can't control that aspect of the transportation. What it can do is make sure the roads are ready. Nexar and Nevada realize that if the state is to stay ahead of the curve, it needs to start working on how roads will interact with these cars now instead of waiting.

But Nevada isn't the only state looking at the future of infrastructure. On a 35-mile stretch of US 33 in Ohio, the state in partnership with Honda, the Transportation Research Center at East Liberty and the Ohio State University Center for Automotive Research will build a "smart road" by laying down highway sensors, expanding fiber optic networks and outfitting government and research vehicles with data-collecting hardware. When it's complete the information collected can be instantaneously shared with researchers. That data will be used to understand how traffic flows in all sorts of conditions and can help in the testing of autonomous vehicles outfitted with vehicle-to-infrastructure technology.

The state won't stop with US 33: It plans to make other smart roads. The information gathered from this pilot program will likely be watched closely by other states as more and more of our cars become rolling data centers eager to consume and share data.

Meanwhile automakers like BMW, Mercedes, Audi, and GM have been outfitting their vehicles with V2V (vehicle-to-vehicle) and V2I (vehicle-to-infrastructure) technology. It's early days, but the benefits are already showing up in the high-end models like the upcoming Mercedes S-Class with its ability to change speeds based on road conditions.

The transportation infrastructure of tomorrow is only available in a few places, with only high-end vehicles able to access and share data. But the work is happening both at the car and street level. Even if you don't own a car, the work will benefit public transportation and the shipping of goods.

Like self-driving cars, it'll be years (possibly decades) before cars and roads are sharing data on a nationwide level. But those robot cars need this network if they're going to fundamentally transform how we get around.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Tesla Model X Earns a Perfect NHTSA Safety Rating

"This thing's a freakin' tank."
As reported by Engadget: Tesla has yet another achievement to crow about. On Tuesday, the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) released its assessment of the company's Model X SUV and awarded it the agencies highest possible rating: 5 stars across every test category. That makes the Model X the safest SUV on the road today.
Every Model X variant -- the 60D, 75D, 90D, P90D and 100D -- all scored perfectly in front impact, side impact, rollover and overall safety. In fact, the NHTSA was unable to even tip one over during its dynamic test and gave the Model X only a 9.30 percent chance of rolling over during an accident.

The company credits its electric drivetrain and power system, as well as the vehicle's low center of gravity thanks to its battery packs being located under the cabin floor, for its impressive rollover resistance. "Of all the cars NHTSA has ever tested, Model X's overall probability of injury was second only to Model S," the company wrote in its press release.

Friday, June 9, 2017

Boeing Studies Planes Without Human Pilots, Plans Experiments Next Year

Boeing is researching the possibility of commercial-passenger jets that will rely on artificial intelligence rather than pilots. Initial experimental flights, without passengers, are planned next year, with such systems taking over some of the pilot decisions.
Boeing has begun researching the possibility of commercial-passenger jets that will fly without pilots, using artificial intelligence guiding automated controls to make decisions in flight.

“The basic building blocks of the technology are clearly available,” said Mike Sinnett, former chief systems engineer on the 787 Dreamliner and now vice president at Boeing responsible for innovative future technologies, at a briefing before the Paris Air Show.

“There’s going to be a transition from the requirement to have a skilled aviator operate the airplane to having a system that operates the vehicle autonomously, if we can do that with the same level of safety,” Sinnett said.

“That’s a really big if,” he added.

It sure is. Think about a machine that could do what US Airways Capt. Chesley Sullenberger did in New York City in 2009.

When a flock of geese took out both engines on an Airbus A320 with 155 people on board as it took off out of La Guardia, Sullenberger communicated with ground controllers, rapidly sized up his limited options within two minutes and guided the plane to a safe ditching in the Hudson River.

Sinnett, who plans a June 21 presentation on the subject at the Paris Air Show, agreed that the Sullenberger scenario is the standard that has to be achieved. It also underscores the challenge Boeing faces in attempting to take the human out of the flight deck.

“We are not smart enough to preprogram all those things. The machine has to be capable of making the same set of decisions,” Sinnett said. “If it can’t, we cannot go there.”

Sinnett said his team will fly a simulator this year with an artificial-intelligence system making some of the piloting decisions.

Next year, he said, they’ll fly the system on a real plane. Those would be experimental flights, with engineers and pilots on board, but no passengers.

Image result for Artificial intelligence cockpit

Go for zero

Wild as it sounds to consider a commercial jet flying without a pilot, the times are ripe for such thinking.

Sinnett said Boeing’s research is driven by the pilot shortage worldwide that is only going to become more acute.

In the next two decades, Boeing forecasts a demand for about 40,000 new commercial jets, roughly doubling the world fleet.

“Where will the experienced pilots come from?” Sinnett asked.

Meanwhile, small autonomous drones are flown by the military and are being tested by Amazon for package delivery. And the public increasingly accepts the notion of driverless cars navigating the public roads.

Yet Sinnett understands why it seems more radical to think of the same for a passenger jet. Last year 40,000 people died in road accidents in the U.S. — leaving lots of room for potential improvement by autonomous, driverless cars.

By contrast, Sinnett said, there were zero deaths in the U.S. last year on scheduled jet aircraft. To make autonomous aircraft as safe as flying commercial is today, “We’ve got to be as good as zero,” he said.

Image result for Artificial intelligence cockpit crash landing

Autopilot systems

Some of the technological building blocks of autonomous flight are already embedded in today’s aircraft.

On long flights, airline pilots will switch to autopilot as they cruise for hours.

What’s less well known is that commercial jets often auto-land, which is what makes landing possible in conditions of very low visibility due to weather.

The auto-land is the closest thing today to autonomous flight because the system reacts to changes in the environment as it comes in, adjusting for small changes in the winds.

Sinnett said that when he was developing the 787, the eighth landing the aircraft made was an auto-land without pilot input.

Auto-takeoff is not allowed, but today’s airplanes can do that too.

“If you want to end your career, you could take a 777 out and do an automatic takeoff,” Sinnett said. “The airplane is capable of doing it, but not capable at the same levels of integrity we have today. So we have pilots in the loop.”

The pilots always are expected to monitor the functions of the automated systems.

Because of the multiple redundant systems on aircraft, airplane accidents are almost always the result of a series of mishaps, any one of which would not alone have caused the accident.

So, if say, an autopilot does something unexpected, a crucial function of the pilot is to step in and catch that first piece of unintended behavior before the next step in any chain that could lead to disaster.

Artificial intelligence

Could a machine do the same?

If a passenger has a heart attack, will it divert?

If one engine goes out, will it know the best response given its position?

What about both engines?

Sinnett points out that a primary requirement for certification of commercial jets today is that the systems operate deterministically: given a set of inputs you must always get the same result.

But he said because no one is likely to be able to predict all the potential things that could happen during all phases of a flight anywhere in the world, an autonomous flying machine has to be able to respond non-deterministically — to react to a situation that has not been preprogrammed into the software.

“So we are doing early exploration with machine learning and artificial intelligence,” Sinnett said.

When safety regulators tell him that they cannot certify non-deterministic systems — as they have — he responds that yes they can, because they certify pilots.

Humans inevitably react differently to one another. An individual may even react differently to the same circumstances at different times.

Still, don’t expect pilotless passenger jets anytime soon.

Sinnett sees this problem of building a system — a machine — capable of intelligent, non-deterministic behavior as the toughest challenge.

“I have no idea how we’ll do that,” he said, with a laugh. “But we are studying it right now and developing those algorithms.”

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Hyperloop One Reveals its Plans for Connecting Europe

As reported by Engadget: One of Hyperloop One's smartest ideas was the Global Challenge, a "competition" where cities could pitch for the honor of hosting a Hyperloop. From the suggestions, the company then produced a shortlist of routes that were both technically feasible and economically viable. We've already seen the candidate cities in the US, and now the company has revealed its thinking for Hyperloop corridors across Europe.

There are nine potential routes being considered on that side of the Atlantic, running from a 90km hop to connect Estonia and Finland, through to a 1,991km pan-German route. The UK, which has a love /hate relationship with rail travel, gets three proposed routes: one to connect its Northern Cities, one to connect the North and South, and one to connect Scotland with Wales.

Even bolder plans entail linking the world together via Hyperloops:

Monday, June 5, 2017

Faraday Future Will Test its Electric SUV by Climbing Pikes Peak

As reported by Engadget: Faraday Future announced that one of its FF 91 pre-production vehicleswill be participating in the 2017 Pikes Peak International Hill Climb. The company says the race will be the first in a series public tests of the high-end electric SUV.

Faraday says that the test vehicle will be production weight and specifications. While the company has been widely touting the vehicle's speed (zero to 60 mph in 2.39 seconds), this event will be highlighting the car's all-wheel steering that it says gives the vehicle better handling than a typical SUV.

The automaker has had its share of troubles. Including reports of unpaid bills and an exodus of high-level executives. It's currently searching for a CEO.

Faraday says the FF 91 will go into production in 2018.

Friday, June 2, 2017

Intel Predicts a $7 Trillion Self-Driving Future

Over half a million lives will be part of the ‘passenger economy’

A $7 trillion annual revenue stream, according to a study released Thursday by Intel. The companies that don’t prepare for self-driving risk failure or extinction, Intel says. The report also finds that over half a million lives could be saved by self-driving over just one decade.
The study, prepared by Strategy Analytics, predicts autonomous vehicles will create a massive economic opportunity that will scale from $800 billion in 2035 (the base year of the study) to $7 trillion by 2050. An estimated 585,000 lives could be saved due to autonomous vehicles between 2035 and 2045, the study predicts.
This “passenger economy,” as Intel is calling it, includes the value of the products and services derived from fully autonomous vehicles as well as indirect savings such as time.
This is hardly the first attempt to place value on autonomous vehicles, nor will it be the last. However, Intel’s study offers a few interesting predictions for autonomous vehicles and how a combination of mobile connectivity, population density in cities, traffic congestion and subsequent regulation, and the rise of on-demand ride-hailing and car-sharing services will be the catalysts in this new economic era.
Of course, Intel has a vested interest in rosy predictions about the future of autonomous transportation. The chipmaker has promised to spend $250 million over the next two years to develop self-driving technology, and recently acquired Jerusalem-based auto vision company Mobileye for an eye-popping $15 billion. And Intel is working with BMW to put self-driving cars on the road later this year. So when Intel pays for a study that predicts self-driving cars will cause cash to rain from the sky, it should be seen as equal parts industry analysis and wishful thinking.

Autonomous technology will drive change across a range of industries, the study predicts, the first green shoots of which will appear in the business-to-business sector. These autonomous vehicles will first appear in developed markets and will reinvent the package delivery and long-haul transportation sectors, says Strategy Analytics president Harvey Cohen, who co-authored the study. This will relieve driver shortages, a chronic problem in the industry, and account for two-thirds of initial projected revenues.
One of the bolder predictions is that public transportation as we know it today — trains, subways, light rails, and buses — will be supplanted, or at least radically changed, by the rise of on-demand autonomous vehicle fleets.
The study argues that people will flock to suburbs as population density rises in city centers, pushing commute times higher and “outstripping the ability of public transport infrastructure to fully meet consumer mobility needs.”
The pressures of mounting traffic congestion and the correlated emissions will drive regulators to include autonomous vehicles as a part of their larger public transportation plans. Some cities may choose to own the vehicle networks not unlike existing public transportation, the study says.
The bulk of the revenue generated in the new economy will be driven by this “mobility-as-a-service.”
By 2050, business use of mobility as a service will generate about $3 trillion in revenues, or 43 percent of the total passenger economy. Consumer use will account for $3.7 trillion, or 53 percent, the study predicts.
The remaining $200 billion in revenue (of the $7 trillion total) will be generated by new applications and services as driverless vehicle services expand. A key opportunity will be how to capitalize on all of this saved time people will have once they no longer have to drive a car.
Self-driving vehicles are expected to free more than 250 million hours of consumers’ commuting time per year in the most congested cities in the world, the study says. That’s a lot of time that could be filled with streaming video, news, and other content delivered to a captured audience.
It could also change the way cars are used. Vehicles could become “experience pods,” places where people can have their hair styled and cut, conduct a meeting, or receive a health screening.
Keep in mind, that this reimagined future doesn’t mean people will necessarily spend less time in cars. One of the great promises of self-driving cars is a reduction in congestion because these vehicles will be able share real-time traffic data and optimize tasks like finding parking.
However, in a more densely populated world, where cities rely on shared autonomous vehicles for public transit, there will be more traffic than ever before. The question is: how do people want to spend their time?

Friday, May 26, 2017

Rocket Lab Nails First Orbital Rocket Launch from a Private Pad

Rocket Lab has successfully launched its 56-foot-tall Electron rocket for the first time. The relatively tiny vehicle, designed to ferry small payloads to orbit, reached outer space around 20 minutes past midnight (Eastern time) on May 25th. Rocket Lab opened its 10-day launch window on May 21st and had to scrub three times due to poor weather conditions. Now that Electron was finally able to head outside our planet's atmosphere, the company also became the first to launch an orbital-class rocket from a private facility.

Rocket Lab chief Peter Beck said in a statement:
"It has been an incredible day and I'm immensely proud of our talented team. We're one of a few companies to ever develop a rocket from scratch and we did it in under four years. We've worked tirelessly to get to this point. We've developed everything in house, built the world's first private orbital launch range [in New Zealand], and we've done it with a small team."
The Electron has a carbon-composite shell and uses the company's proprietary Rutherford engines, which has 3D-printed primary components. It can carry up to 330 pounds worth of cargo to orbit, so its main payloads will mostly be small satellites like CubeSats. The company expects to stage a lift off 50 times a year, though it's legally allowed to launch up to 120 times. That's probably more than what it can realistically book at this point in time -- as Wired points out, there were only 85 overall launches in 2016.

Rocket Lab believes it can eventually do more launches than other aerospace companies, though, since it will offer cheaper services to customers who typically have to pay big money to hitch a ride on larger rockets. It already has clients lined up, including NASA, but before it can officially fulfill their order, it still has to successfully complete its next two test flights. The Rocket Lab team plans to use what it learns from this round to plan for its second flight, which will send an Electron to orbit.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Boeing Will Make the Military’s New Hypersonic Spaceplane

As reported by The Verge: For the last few years, the US military has been looking to make an entirely new hypersonic spaceplane — one that can be reused frequently over a short period of time to deliver multiple satellites into orbit. And now the Department of Defense has picked Boeing to turn that spaceplane into a reality. DARPA, the agency that tests new advanced technologies for the military, has picked Boeing’s design concept, called the Phantom Express, to move forward as part of the agency’s Experimental Spaceplane (XS-1) program. That means DARPA will work together with Boeing to build and test out the company’s vehicle.
The goal of DARPA’s XS-1 program is to create a spacecraft that’s something of a hybrid between an airplane and a traditional vertical rocket. The spaceplane is meant to take off vertically and fly uncrewed to high altitudes above Earth. From there, the vehicle will release a mini-rocket — a booster with an engine that can propel a satellite weighing up to 3,000 pounds into orbit. As the booster deploys the satellite, the spaceplane will then land back on Earth horizontally just like a normal airplane — and then be fueled up for its next mission. DARPA wants the turnaround time between flights to last just a few hours.
But perhaps the most audacious goal is the price DARPA wants for each flight. The agency is aiming for the spaceplane to cost $5 million per mission, a significant bargain considering most orbital rockets cost tens to hundreds of millions of dollars to launch. And Boeing says it’s up to the task. “Phantom Express is designed to disrupt and transform the satellite launch process as we know it today, creating a new, on-demand space-launch capability that can be achieved more affordably and with less risk,” Darryl Davis, president of Boeing Phantom Works, said in a statement.
Boeing was one of three companies vying for the chance to build a spaceplane for XS-1. The other two contenders included Northrop Grumman Corporation and Masten Space Systems. The three companies had all been awarded contracts through Phase 1 of the XS-1 program to determine the feasibility and methods needed to make such a frequently reused spaceplane possible. The three companies each paired up with a commercial launch provider to come up with their designs: Northrop paired with Virgin Galactic, Masten with XCOR Aerospace, and Boeing with Jeff Bezos’ company Blue Origin.
Though it looks like Boeing has decided to go with a different company to make the propulsion system for its spaceplane. The vehicle will use an AR-22 engine, manufactured by Aerojet Rocketdyne, instead of an engine from Blue Origin. The AR-22 is roughly the same type of engine used to power the Space Shuttle, according to Aerojet. “This engine has a demonstrated track record of solid performance and proven reusability,” Eileen Drake, president and CEO of Aerojet Rocketdyne, said in a statement.
Now that Boeing has been selected by DARPA, the company is moving forward into Phase 2 and Phase 3 of the XS-1 program. Phase 2 includes the manufacture and testing of the vehicle’s technologies on the ground through 2019. In Phase 3, which is suppose to begin in 2020, the spaceplane will do 12 to 15 flight tests. A big objective of this phase is to fly the plane 10 times over a 10-day period, to demonstrate that the vehicle can do quick turnarounds. The first of these flights won’t include payloads, but the spaceplane will eventually test out sending payloads weighing 900 and 3,000 pounds into lower Earth orbit.
DARPA says the XS-1 will meet a critical need for the military by decreasing the amount of time it takes to get a satellite into orbit. That could be important if the US needs to get a satellite up in a pinch, perhaps if a crucial satellite in space is suddenly lost. But DARPA also hopes that the technologies created through the XS-1 program will eventually be adopted by the commercial spaceflight industry, to make getting satellites to space a potentially faster and cheaper endeavor.
“We’re delighted to see this truly futuristic capability coming closer to reality,” Brad Tousley, director of DARPA’s Tactical Technology Office (TTO), which oversees XS-1, said in a statement. “Demonstration of aircraft-like, on-demand, and routine access to space is important for meeting critical Defense Department needs and could help open the door to a range of next-generation commercial opportunities.”