An IBM Patent on Midair Handoffs for Delivery Drones

By Jeremy Hsu | May 6, 2017 4:13 pm
The IBM invention described in US Patent No. 9,561,852: In flight transfer of packages between aerial drones helps to extend the range of drones that are delivering packages from a warehouse to a customer's home. Credit: IBM

The IBM invention described in US Patent No. 9,561,852: In flight transfer of packages between delivery drones helps to extend the range of drones that are delivering packages from a warehouse to a customer’s home. Credit: IBM

Amazon and Google’s dreams of delivery drones dropping off packages or pizza still face the problem of short delivery ranges. Most drones have limited battery life that restricts their services to less than a 10-mile delivery radius. A recently-approved IBM patent offers an unusual way to extend delivery ranges by having drones transfer packages in midair. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: technology, top posts

Any Ban on Killer Robots Faces a Tough Sell

By Jeremy Hsu | April 29, 2017 5:11 pm
The Harpy drone made by Israel Aerospace Industries can autonomously loiter in the air until it detects a radar target below. Credit: Israel Aerospace Industries

The Harpy drone made by Israel Aerospace Industries can autonomously loiter in the air until it detects a radar target below. Credit: Israel Aerospace Industries

Fears of a Terminator-style arms race have already prompted leading AI researchers and Silicon Valley leaders to call for a ban on killer robots. The United Nations plans to convene its first formal meeting of experts on lethal autonomous weapons later this summer. But a simulation based on the hypothetical first battlefield use of autonomous weapons showed the challenges of convincing major governments and their defense industries to sign any ban on killer robots.

In October 2016, the Chatham House think tank in London convened 25 experts to consider how the United States and Europe might react to a scenario in which China uses autonomous drone aircraft to strike a naval base in Vietnam during a territorial dispute. The point of the roleplaying exercise was not to predict which country would first deploy killer robots, but instead focused on exploring the differences in opinion that might arise from the U.S. and European side. Members of the expert group took on roles representing European countries, the United States and Israel, and certain institutions such as the defense industry, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), the European Union, the United Nations and NATO.

The results were not encouraging for anyone hoping to achieve a ban on killer robots. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: technology, top posts

The Electric Lilium Jet Hints at Future Air Taxis

By Jeremy Hsu | April 28, 2017 11:40 pm
A prototype of the Lilium Jet takes off on a vertical takeoff and landing test flight. Credit: Lilium

A prototype of the Lilium Jet takes off on a vertical takeoff and landing test flight. Credit: Lilium

The old science fiction fantasy of a flying car that both drives on the ground and flies in the air is unlikely to revolutionize daily commutes. Instead, Silicon Valley tech entrepreneurs and aerospace companies dream of electric-powered aircraft that can take off vertically like helicopters but have the flight efficiency of airplanes. The German startup Lilium took a very public step forward in that direction by demonstrating the first electric-powered jet capable of vertical takeoff and landing last week.

The Lilium Jet prototype that made its maiden debut resembles a flattened pod with stubby thrusters in front and a longer wing with engines in back. The final design concept shows two wings hold a combined 36 electric turbofan engines that can tilt to provide both vertical lifting thrust and horizontal thrust for forward flight. Such electric engines powered by lithium-ion batteries could enable a quieter breed of aircraft that someday cut travel times for ride-hailing commuters from hours to minutes in cities such as San Francisco or New York. On its website, Lilium promises an air taxi that could eventually carry up to five people at speeds of 190 miles per hour: about the same speed as a Formula One racing car. And it’s promising that passengers could begin booking the Lilium Jet as part of an air taxi service by 2025.

“From a technology point of view, there is not a challenge that cannot be solved,” says Patrick Nathen, a cofounder and head of calculation and design for Lilium. “The biggest challenge right now is to build the company as fast as possible in order to catch that timeline.” Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: technology, top posts

Meet Uber’s Partners Creating Flying Taxis for 2020

By Jeremy Hsu | April 25, 2017 6:59 pm
A conceptual illustration of the view from a flying car taxi service. Credit: Bell Helicopter

A conceptual illustration of the view from a flying car taxi service. Credit: Bell Helicopter

Uber sees no need for startups to bet on a risky “if you build it, they will come” strategy for flying taxis. Instead, the tech giant believes the demand for a faster aerial commuting option already exists among its 60 million monthly users–especially if the flying taxi service can cost about the same as hailing an UberX car. As a result, Uber has partnered with several companies to help build a “flying car” service that could begin public trials in the city of Dallas-Fort Worth, Texas and Dubai in the United Arab Emirates by 2020.

The announcement for the ambitious 2020 goal kicked off the start of the Uber Elevate Summit being held in Dallas from April 25-27. Besides naming partner cities, Jeff Holden, Chief Product Officer at Uber, introduced the companies partnering with Uber to make those early demonstrations of the “Uber Elevate Network” happen within three years. Such partners include one of the U.S. makers of the military’s tiltrotor V-22 Osprey, the Brazilian aerospace company Embraer that produces both military aircraft and commercial jetliners, and a small Slovenian aircraft manufacturer that is already making and selling electric aircraft.

“Urban Aviation is a natural next step for Uber in this pursuit, which is why we are working to make push a button, get a flight a reality,” Holden said in a statement. “This is Uber Elevate, and we are excited to announce the first group of Elevate partners – a group of visionary industry and government leaders – with whom we will work closely to take that idea off of paper and into reality.”

But first, Uber seems eager to ditch the term “flying car” altogether in favor of more technical terminology. The company’s motivation is understandable given that its flying taxi vision is definitely not about a science fiction vehicle that can go from driving on roads to flying in the air. In any case, having road capability would be redundant and unnecessarily complex from the perspective of developing air taxis that could hop over traffic snarls below.

Read More

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Panther Drone Delivers Package by Air and Land

By Jeremy Hsu | March 30, 2017 3:59 pm
A Panther drone en route during a delivery trial run. Credit: Advanced Tactics Inc.

A Panther drone en route during a delivery trial run. Credit: Advanced Tactics Inc.

A four-wheeled drone’s first aerial package delivery test showed off a special touch by also driving up to the doorstep of its pretend customer. That capability to deliver by both air and land makes the Panther drone an unusual competitor in the crowded drone delivery space. But the drone’s limited delivery range may pose a challenge in competing against the delivery drones of Google and Amazon. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: technology, top posts

‘Logan’ Is a Western Wandering the Sci-Fi Frontier

By Jeremy Hsu | March 24, 2017 12:13 pm
"We don't like strangers in these parts." Credit: 20th Century Fox

“We don’t like strangers in these parts.” Credit: 20th Century Fox

The X-Men films have consistently shown their mutant superheroes as powerful but misunderstood outcasts living in the shadows. One of the loneliest and angriest of them all has been Wolverine: the seemingly ageless mutant played by Hugh Jackman whose superhuman healing powers and retractable metal claws enable him to literally tear through squads of gun-toting enemies. But the third and last film of the standalone Wolverine trilogy, titled “Logan” in a nod to the mutant’s other nickname, finds a weary Logan fending off cyborg gunslingers and eking out an isolated life by the Texas-Mexico border. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: technology, top posts

How to Train Your Robot with Brain Oops Signals

By Jeremy Hsu | March 6, 2017 4:03 pm
A system that interprets brain oops signals enables human operators to correct the robot's choice in real-time. Credit: Jason Dorfman, MIT CSAIL

A system that interprets brain signals enables human operators to correct the robot’s choice in real-time. Credit: Jason Dorfman, MIT CSAIL

Baxter the robot can tell the difference between right and wrong actions without its human handlers ever consciously giving a command or even speaking a word. The robot’s learning success relies upon a system that interprets the human brain’s “oops” signals to let Baxter know if a mistake has been made.

The new twist on training robots comes from MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) and Boston University. Researchers have long known that the human brain generates certain error-related signals when it notices a mistake. They created machine-learning software that can recognize and classify those brain oops signals from individual human volunteers within 10 to 30 milliseconds—a way of creating instant feedback for Baxter the robot when it sorted paint cans and wire spools into two different bins in front of the humans.

“Imagine being able to instantaneously tell a robot to do a certain action, without needing to type a command, push a button or even say a word,” said Daniela Rus, director of CSAIL at MIT, in a press release. “A streamlined approach like that would improve our abilities to supervise factory robots, driverless cars and other technologies we haven’t even invented yet.” Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: technology, top posts

Drones Set to Target Christmas Island’s Feral Cats

By Jeremy Hsu | February 28, 2017 10:56 pm
Australian wildlife officials tested small drones as a possible way to drop poisoned cat bait on Christmas Island. Credit: Department of Parks and Wildlife, Western Australia

Australian wildlife officials tested small drones as a possible way to drop poisoned cat bait on Christmas Island. Credit: Department of Parks and Wildlife, Western Australia

In the land down under, feral cats slaughter an estimated 75 million native animals each day. That threat to biodiversity prompted the Australian government to declare it would kill 2 million feral cats over five years starting in 2015. As part of that campaign, officials plan to enlist a drone air force capable of dropping poisoned cat bait on the Australian territory of Christmas Island.

During flight tests last year, a Sky Hero drone performed airborne drops of cat bait that resembles breakfast sausage links made from kangaroo meat. That proof-of-concept test showed how drones could deliver cat bait to target areas at a cost three times cheaper than hiring manned light aircraft. Starting as soon as next year, wildlife officials could use unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to drop toxic bait as part of the final phase of a plan to wipe out all feral cats on Christmas Island—a distant Australian territory located 2,650 kilometers northwest of the Western Australian capital of Perth. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: environment, technology, top posts

Suicide Robot Boat Blamed for Attack on Warship

By Jeremy Hsu | February 21, 2017 9:48 pm
Houthi rebels used a robot boat packed with explosives to attack a Saudi missile frigate on Jan. 30, 2017. Credit: USNI News

A video screenshot shows a robot boat packed with explosives just moments before it strikes a Saudi missile frigate and explodes on Jan. 30, 2017. Credit: USNI News

A suicide boat attack that killed two sailors aboard a Saudi warship was apparently carried out by an unmanned, remotely-controlled boat. The U.S. Navy says the incident likely represents the first ever use of a suicide robot boat as a weapon on the high seas.

Suicide boat bombings carried out by human crews willing to die in the attacks are nothing new. Such an attack killed 17 sailors and wounded 39 others aboard the U.S.S. Cole, a U.S. Navy destroyer refueling in the port of Aden, Yemen on Oct. 20, 2000. But the deadly debut of the suicide robot boat as first reported by Defense News shows how fairly cheap weapons can be deployed against much more advanced warships without even requiring a human “martyr” to pilot the suicide boat. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: technology, top posts

When US Navy Suicide Drones Went to War

By Jeremy Hsu | February 18, 2017 3:13 pm

An F6F Hellcat fighter converted into a suicide drone sits onboard the aircraft carrier USS Boxer during the Korean War in 1952. Credit: By USN [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

An F6F Hellcat fighter converted into a suicide drone sits onboard the aircraft carrier USS Boxer during the Korean War. Credit: By USN [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

During the Korean War, a life-or-death race took place between a U.S. Navy Hellcat fighter aircraft and a group of North Koreans on a railroad handcar. Apparently believing that the fighter was preparing to attack with its machine guns, the North Koreans frantically pumped the railroad handcar’s arm as they headed for the safety of a railroad tunnel. They made it inside just before the aircraft crashed into the hillside near the tunnel entrance.

The strange incident marked one of the U.S. Navy’s early experiments with suicide drones in 1952. These early drones tended to be older, obsolete aircraft outfitted with TV transmitters that allowed human pilots to see the drones’ cockpit perspective on a TV screen. That enabled the pilots to remotely control the drone aircraft from the relative safety of a nearby “mothership” or “mother plane” by using radio control. Each of the Hellcat drones was loaded up with a 2,000-pound bomb before becoming the first military drones launched from an aircraft carrier to enter combat. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: technology, top posts
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Lovesick Cyborg

Lovesick Cyborg examines how technology shapes our human experience of the world on both an emotional and physical level. I’ll focus on stories such as why audiences loved or hated Hollywood’s digital resurrection of fallen actors, how soldiers interact with battlefield robots and the capability of music fans to idolize virtual pop stars. Other stories might include the experience of using an advanced prosthetic limb, whether or not people trust driverless cars with their lives, and how virtual reality headsets or 3-D film technology can make some people physically ill.
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