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July 05 2013

17:00

What The X-47B Reveals About The Future Of Autonomous Flight

Five things you need to know about the X-47B, the U.S. military's first unmanned, autonomous combat jet.

When the Navy’s X-47B drone screamed skyward off the aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush in May, those of us standing on the flight deck knew we were witnessing history: a robot flying itself--no pilot in the cockpit or on the ground, guiding the aircraft with a joystick. It was the first time an autonomous war plane had completed a catapult launch from a carrier deck.

And it was just the latest milestone for the X-47B. Here are some of the others: It's the first tailless, “batwing”-style airframe (it's technically known as a "cranked kite" design) to takeoff and land on a carrier. It’s the first jet-powered drone to operate from a carrier as well as the first unmanned combat fighter jet analog to come this far in its development. When it lands on a carrier deck sometime later this summer, it will be the first unmanned aircraft to do that, too.

Then it will retire. After some aerial refueling trials that are scheduled for some time next year--those trials won't be conducted by the X-47B air vehicles but by Learjets running the X-47B's flight software, a result of sequestration cuts to the Navy's budget--the entire X-47B program will wind down, its place in aviation history secure.

But the aircraft itself is only part of the story. The X-47B and the Navy’s Unmanned Combat Aerial System (UCAS) program that developed it have engineered a major technological shift, one that will impact both manned and unmanned flight. Over the course of this summer the X-47B, along with the Northrop Grumman contractors who developed it and the U.S. Navy personnel working on the UCAS program, will do things that will change aviation forever. The X-47B isn’t just an aircraft, it’s a whole new paradigm for naval aviation. Here’s what you need to know about the warplane that is transforming flight as we know it:

The X-47B Is Autonomous, Not Intelligent

One major misconception about the X-47B is that it is autonomous and therefore is a simple malfunction away from being Skynet. This is not the case.

Here’s what the X-47B doesn’t do: think.Here’s what the X-47B does: It takes off and lands by itself with input from computers and sensors aboard the carrier as well as input from humans on the carrier. Everything it does in between takeoff and landing is executed by the aircraft’s onboard flight computer. But it’s not controlled by the onboard computer. Where Predator and Reaper drones are remotely piloted by humans with hands on a control stick, the X-47B is operated by humans using keyboard commands and mouse clicks. The operator tells it to go to a certain point on the map, and the X-47B pilots itself there. The onboard computer handles the actual piloting--the banking of the airplane to set a path from point A to point B, for instance--but the human operator is ultimately in control of where it goes and what it does.

Here’s what the X-47B doesn’t do: think. It doesn’t generate its own orders or deviate from what it’s been instructed to do unless human operators change those orders. There are some cases where the aircraft does make a determination on a course of action according to preprogrammed instructions--during landing, for instance, if the flight computer detects some kind of problem with the aircraft’s glide path to the carrier deck it has the option to abort its own approach and landing (an officer on deck can also “wave off” an X-47B that is on landing approach). But even in this scenario, the X-47B goes directly into a preprogrammed flight pattern that will bring it back around for another try at landing.

That is, the aircraft never makes a decision itself that operators haven’t preprogrammed it to make, so the humans always know exactly what it is doing and always maintain the power to change what it is doing. There are lingering and legitimate concerns about these kinds of combat vehicles being hacked or digitally hijacked, and while the Navy acknowledges that this is something that will have to be worked out in the future, cyber security is not one of the technologies the X-47B program is demonstrating. But the point remains: not only is the X-47B’s autonomy not the same as artificial intelligence, it’s not even close. Human operators are always atop the chain of command.

The X-47B Is Not Destined For Active Service

The X-47B has two weapons bays (but no weapons),which has proved troubling to some, especially when coupled with the aforementioned misconceptions about autonomy. The word “combat” is right there in the program title, after all. So isn’t the X-47B basically one of the so-called “killer robots” that some groups have been warning about?

The answer is “no,” or at least “not yet.” The X-47B is a technology demonstrator and is not destined for active service. There are two X-47Bs in existence today, and they are the only two that will ever exist. When they complete their carrier trials later this summer, they are both likely destined for museums, Navy officials say. The weapons bays have never carried anything but ballast or additional sensor equipment for acquiring flight data.

So why give them weapons bays if they’re never going to be used? As a technology demonstrator, the X-47B was designed to mimic the flight characteristics of an armed, unmanned combat jet. And the Navy does indeed plan to create an unmanned, carrier-capable combat jet. It will be developed through a program called UCLASS, or the Unmanned Carrier Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike system (not to be confused with UCAS, which is the X-47B technology demonstration program). The ordering of the words in that title are no mistake; the Navy wants a stealthy, long-range jet that can launch from carriers primarily for use as an intelligence-gathering and surveillance tool. But the Navy also wants something that can penetrate enemy air defenses and deliver precise strikes (say, on a nuclear facility or a missile launch site) in situations in which sending manned strike aircraft might result in pilot casualties. It’s the X-47B’s job to prove out the technologies that will lead to such an aircraft (the Navy hopes to have that future UCLASS aircraft operational by 2020). The X-47B is designed to be as much like a future combat aircraft as possible, right down to the inclusion of weapons bays in its design. But under the Navy's current plans it will never use them.

This Is As Much About Humans As It Is About Machines

The X-47B system really consists of two parts: the aircraft and the aircraft carrier. Up to this point, those two parts have been separate; the aircraft is piloted by a human and the aircraft carrier is cruising across the ocean, and the two try to meet up at high speed on a rolling ocean without killing anybody. Over the years this process has been helped along by technologies that help manned aircraft safely and accurately nail their carrier deck landings, but the carrier landing remains one of the more difficult and dangerous exercises in all of aviation. The X-47B blurs this separation between aircraft and carrier, as the aircraft is essentially a seamlessly integrated extension of the aircraft carrier.

The real innovation driving the X-47B is the translation of human systems into a digital language. Via high-speed data links that constantly exchange information between ship and aircraft, the carrier and the X-47B swap relative positioning and precision GPS data 100 times per second. The carrier knows--day or night, fog or sunshine, rolling swells or placid waters--exactly where the aircraft is from moment to moment, and likewise the aircraft processes every single movement of the ship--every minute pitch and roll of the carrier deck--instantaneously.

Human Navy pilots rely on a system of lights and vocal commands from flight deck officers to line up their landing approaches. But with the carrier and aircraft basically speaking to each other at a rate far beyond the human brain’s capacity to comprehend and respond, the two are basically two parts of the same organism. As such, the margin of error for the precise point at which the X-47B touches down on the carrier deck is remarkably low (within a few meters in any direction).

Please enable Javascript to watch this video

So how is this about humans? If it were just the carrier and the aircraft out there repeatedly launching and recovering X-47Bs, the humans wouldn’t matter. But the aircraft carrier deck is extremely human-centric (not to mention a very dangerous place to work). For a century now flight deck operations have been choreographed through radio voice commands, hand signals between deck personnel and pilots, and other visual cues like signal lights. Robots understand none of these--they think in 0s and 1s. The real innovation driving the X-47B is the translation of this very human system into a digital language that the robot can understand. The Navy brass likes to call this “digitizing the carrier airspace” and it’s what allows them to seamlessly integrate a robot into an environment where other humans--both manned aircraft and deck crew--are going to be working.

This Is An iPod Moment For Naval Aviation

That’s the real takeaway from the UCAS program and the aviation milestones the X-47B is hitting right now. Now that the Navy has a working system--not just a technology or a group of disparate technologies, but a new platform that merges several complex technologies into a single, user-friendly system--it can build something truly game-changing around it.

That game-changing thing will probably be whatever aircraft comes out of the future UCLASS program, which will likely be tailless and stealthy just like the X-47B, have a longer effective range than the F/A-18s that the Navy currently has in its air wing, and could serve as an important strategic counterbalance to recent advances in the range of anti-ship ballistic missiles like China’s DF-21 ”carrier killer” (if something like the X-47B can conduct surveillance and strikes at a greater operational radius than manned fighter/bombers, then carrier groups can stay out of range of land-based missiles and other anti-ship defenses).

The Navy also envisions a new common command and control system that could manage operations for the Navy’s unmanned Fire Scout helicopters and interface with the Navy's new MQ-4C Triton Broad Area Maritime Surveillance (BAMS) drones, which are expected be the future of intelligence-gathering and reconnaissance on the high seas. In this vision, new manned aircraft will be outfitted with the same kind of high-speed data links that currently join the X-47B and the aircraft carrier, further simplifying human-piloted flight and networking all the Navy's many aircraft, surface ships, and submarines together. Aircraft carrier operations--much of which have been stuck in the 20th century--will be pulled into the digital age. The advent of the X-47B and the systems that will follow in its contrails marks a paradigm shift in naval aviation that will unfold over the coming decade.

It’s Going To Impact Manned Flight And Civilian Aviation As Well

Perhaps the most important thing to know about the X-47B is that none of this is happening in a void. Congress has mandated that the FAA integrate unmanned aerial systems into the national airspace for civilian and commercial use by 2015, and some of the biggest technology questions the FAA faces on the civilian side--How do we operate manned aircraft and unmanned aircraft safely in the same airspace? How do we create a means for air traffic controllers to communicate seamlessly with both manned and unmanned systems? How do we learn to trust the robots?--are already being tackled by UCAS and the Navy. Technologies like the precision GPS and relative positioning that make it possible for a robot that cannot see or hear human commands to land on a moving aircraft carrier will eventually roll downhill to the civilian aviation sphere.

Some of this is already happening. The FAA’s NextGen National Airspace System, which will roll out between now and 2025, is essentially an attempt to turn America’s ground-based, largely analog air traffic control system into a satellite-based digital system. In other words, the FAA is trying to digitize the national airspace (sound familiar?) using tools like enhanced data links to share more and better information between controllers, pilots, and aircraft themselves.

All of which goes a long way toward saying that the X-47B might have a relatively short shelf life, but the system underpinning it is going to shape flight for many decades to come.

    


17:00

What The X-47B Reveals About The Future Of Autonomous Flight

X-47B, On The Deck

U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Timothy Walter

Five things you need to know about the X-47B, the U.S. military's first unmanned, autonomous combat jet.

When the Navy's X-47B drone screamed skyward off the aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush in May, those of us standing on the flight deck knew we were witnessing history: a robot flying itself--no pilot in the cockpit or on the ground, guiding the aircraft with a joystick. It was the first time an autonomous war plane had completed a catapult launch from a carrier deck.

And it was just the latest milestone for the X-47B. Here are some of the others: It's the first tailless, "batwing"-style airframe (it's technically known as a "cranked kite" design) to takeoff and land on a carrier. It's the first jet-powered drone to operate from a carrier as well as the first unmanned combat fighter jet analog to come this far in its development. When it lands on a carrier deck sometime later this summer, it will be the first unmanned aircraft to do that, too.

Then it will retire. After some aerial refueling trials that are scheduled for some time next year--those trials won't be conducted by the X-47B air vehicles but by Learjets running the X-47B's flight software, a result of sequestration cuts to the Navy's budget--the entire X-47B program will wind down, its place in aviation history secure.

But the aircraft itself is only part of the story. The X-47B and the Navy's Unmanned Combat Aerial System (UCAS) program that developed it have engineered a major technological shift, one that will impact both manned and unmanned flight. Over the course of this summer the X-47B, along with the Northrop Grumman contractors who developed it and the U.S. Navy personnel working on the UCAS program, will do things that will change aviation forever. The X-47B isn't just an aircraft, it's a whole new paradigm for naval aviation. Here's what you need to know about the warplane that is transforming flight as we know it:

The X-47B Is Autonomous, Not Intelligent

One major misconception about the X-47B is that it is autonomous and therefore is a simple malfunction away from being Skynet. This is not the case.

Here's what the X-47B doesn't do: think.Here's what the X-47B does: It takes off and lands by itself with input from computers and sensors aboard the carrier as well as input from humans on the carrier. Everything it does in between takeoff and landing is executed by the aircraft's onboard flight computer. But it's not controlled by the onboard computer. Where Predator and Reaper drones are remotely piloted by humans with hands on a control stick, the X-47B is operated by humans using keyboard commands and mouse clicks. The operator tells it to go to a certain point on the map, and the X-47B pilots itself there. The onboard computer handles the actual piloting--the banking of the airplane to set a path from point A to point B, for instance--but the human operator is ultimately in control of where it goes and what it does.

Here's what the X-47B doesn't do: think. It doesn't generate its own orders or deviate from what it's been instructed to do unless human operators change those orders. There are some cases where the aircraft does make a determination on a course of action according to preprogrammed instructions--during landing, for instance, if the flight computer detects some kind of problem with the aircraft's glide path to the carrier deck it has the option to abort its own approach and landing (an officer on deck can also "wave off" an X-47B that is on landing approach). But even in this scenario, the X-47B goes directly into a preprogrammed flight pattern that will bring it back around for another try at landing.

That is, the aircraft never makes a decision itself that operators haven't preprogrammed it to make, so the humans always know exactly what it is doing and always maintain the power to change what it is doing. There are lingering and legitimate concerns about these kinds of combat vehicles being hacked or digitally hijacked, and while the Navy acknowledges that this is something that will have to be worked out in the future, cyber security is not one of the technologies the X-47B program is demonstrating. But the point remains: not only is the X-47B's autonomy not the same as artificial intelligence, it's not even close. Human operators are always atop the chain of command.

The X-47B Is Not Destined For Active Service

The X-47B has two weapons bays (but no weapons),which has proved troubling to some, especially when coupled with the aforementioned misconceptions about autonomy. The word "combat" is right there in the program title, after all. So isn't the X-47B basically one of the so-called "killer robots" that some groups have been warning about?

The answer is "no," or at least "not yet." The X-47B is a technology demonstrator and is not destined for active service. There are two X-47Bs in existence today, and they are the only two that will ever exist. When they complete their carrier trials later this summer, they are both likely destined for museums, Navy officials say. The weapons bays have never carried anything but ballast or additional sensor equipment for acquiring flight data.

So why give them weapons bays if they're never going to be used? As a technology demonstrator, the X-47B was designed to mimic the flight characteristics of an armed, unmanned combat jet. And the Navy does indeed plan to create an unmanned, carrier-capable combat jet. It will be developed through a program called UCLASS, or the Unmanned Carrier Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike system (not to be confused with UCAS, which is the X-47B technology demonstration program). The ordering of the words in that title are no mistake; the Navy wants a stealthy, long-range jet that can launch from carriers primarily for use as an intelligence-gathering and surveillance tool. But the Navy also wants something that can penetrate enemy air defenses and deliver precise strikes (say, on a nuclear facility or a missile launch site) in situations in which sending manned strike aircraft might result in pilot casualties. It's the X-47B's job to prove out the technologies that will lead to such an aircraft (the Navy hopes to have that future UCLASS aircraft operational by 2020). The X-47B is designed to be as much like a future combat aircraft as possible, right down to the inclusion of weapons bays in its design. But under the Navy's current plans it will never use them.

This Is As Much About Humans As It Is About Machines

The X-47B system really consists of two parts: the aircraft and the aircraft carrier. Up to this point, those two parts have been separate; the aircraft is piloted by a human and the aircraft carrier is cruising across the ocean, and the two try to meet up at high speed on a rolling ocean without killing anybody. Over the years this process has been helped along by technologies that help manned aircraft safely and accurately nail their carrier deck landings, but the carrier landing remains one of the more difficult and dangerous exercises in all of aviation. The X-47B blurs this separation between aircraft and carrier, as the aircraft is essentially a seamlessly integrated extension of the aircraft carrier.

The real innovation driving the X-47B is the translation of human systems into a digital language. Via high-speed data links that constantly exchange information between ship and aircraft, the carrier and the X-47B swap relative positioning and precision GPS data 100 times per second. The carrier knows--day or night, fog or sunshine, rolling swells or placid waters--exactly where the aircraft is from moment to moment, and likewise the aircraft processes every single movement of the ship--every minute pitch and roll of the carrier deck--instantaneously.

Human Navy pilots rely on a system of lights and vocal commands from flight deck officers to line up their landing approaches. But with the carrier and aircraft basically speaking to each other at a rate far beyond the human brain's capacity to comprehend and respond, the two are basically two parts of the same organism. As such, the margin of error for the precise point at which the X-47B touches down on the carrier deck is remarkably low (within a few meters in any direction).

Please enable Javascript to watch this video

So how is this about humans? If it were just the carrier and the aircraft out there repeatedly launching and recovering X-47Bs, the humans wouldn't matter. But the aircraft carrier deck is extremely human-centric (not to mention a very dangerous place to work). For a century now flight deck operations have been choreographed through radio voice commands, hand signals between deck personnel and pilots, and other visual cues like signal lights. Robots understand none of these--they think in 0s and 1s. The real innovation driving the X-47B is the translation of this very human system into a digital language that the robot can understand. The Navy brass likes to call this "digitizing the carrier airspace" and it's what allows them to seamlessly integrate a robot into an environment where other humans--both manned aircraft and deck crew--are going to be working.

This Is An iPod Moment For Naval Aviation

That's the real takeaway from the UCAS program and the aviation milestones the X-47B is hitting right now. Now that the Navy has a working system--not just a technology or a group of disparate technologies, but a new platform that merges several complex technologies into a single, user-friendly system--it can build something truly game-changing around it.

That game-changing thing will probably be whatever aircraft comes out of the future UCLASS program, which will likely be tailless and stealthy just like the X-47B, have a longer effective range than the F/A-18s that the Navy currently has in its air wing, and could serve as an important strategic counterbalance to recent advances in the range of anti-ship ballistic missiles like China's DF-21 "carrier killer" (if something like the X-47B can conduct surveillance and strikes at a greater operational radius than manned fighter/bombers, then carrier groups can stay out of range of land-based missiles and other anti-ship defenses).

The Navy also envisions a new common command and control system that could manage operations for the Navy's unmanned Fire Scout helicopters and interface with the Navy's new MQ-4C Triton Broad Area Maritime Surveillance (BAMS) drones, which are expected be the future of intelligence-gathering and reconnaissance on the high seas. In this vision, new manned aircraft will be outfitted with the same kind of high-speed data links that currently join the X-47B and the aircraft carrier, further simplifying human-piloted flight and networking all the Navy's many aircraft, surface ships, and submarines together. Aircraft carrier operations--much of which have been stuck in the 20th century--will be pulled into the digital age. The advent of the X-47B and the systems that will follow in its contrails marks a paradigm shift in naval aviation that will unfold over the coming decade.

It's Going To Impact Manned Flight And Civilian Aviation As Well

Perhaps the most important thing to know about the X-47B is that none of this is happening in a void. Congress has mandated that the FAA integrate unmanned aerial systems into the national airspace for civilian and commercial use by 2015, and some of the biggest technology questions the FAA faces on the civilian side--How do we operate manned aircraft and unmanned aircraft safely in the same airspace? How do we create a means for air traffic controllers to communicate seamlessly with both manned and unmanned systems? How do we learn to trust the robots?--are already being tackled by UCAS and the Navy. Technologies like the precision GPS and relative positioning that make it possible for a robot that cannot see or hear human commands to land on a moving aircraft carrier will eventually roll downhill to the civilian aviation sphere.

Some of this is already happening. The FAA's NextGen National Airspace System, which will roll out between now and 2025, is essentially an attempt to turn America's ground-based, largely analog air traffic control system into a satellite-based digital system. In other words, the FAA is trying to digitize the national airspace (sound familiar?) using tools like enhanced data links to share more and better information between controllers, pilots, and aircraft themselves.

All of which goes a long way toward saying that the X-47B might have a relatively short shelf life, but the system underpinning it is going to shape flight for many decades to come.

    


July 01 2013

14:00

The Future Of Flight: Helicopters Will Fly Like Airplanes

Hover Craft

Engineers are designing the first major addition to the U.S. VTOL fleet in more than two decades. The plans are mostly secret, but the craft will likely draw from tilt-rotor, VTOL fixed-wing, and compound helicopter technologies.

Nick Kaloterakis

Two new programs are coming to improve the U.S. Vertical Takeoff and Landing (VTOL) fleet.

In the wake of the unsuccessful Iran hostage-rescue attempt in 1980, when three of eight helicopters failed and crippled the mission, military planners came to a realization: The U.S. fleet was in desperate need of an aircraft that could combine the speed and range of a jet with the vertical lift of a helicopter. In response, they designed the tilt-rotor V-22 Osprey. The V-22 can carry two dozen troops 1,000 nautical miles at speeds around 250 miles an hour. It is one of the most versatile craft in the U.S. Vertical Takeoff and Landing (VTOL) fleet, which includes helicopters and jump jets. It is also the youngest: The V-22 represents the last major addition to the VTOL arsenal in more than 20 years.

As modern warfare evolves to include more lightning-fast, covert strikes similar to the raid on Osama Bin Laden's compound, VTOL is once again a priority for U.S. military planners. Two programs launched this year could improve the speed, range, and hover efficiency of VTOL aircraft: In March, the Army launched a program that officially began accepting designs for technology that could be used in next-generation rotorcraft. Sikorsky and Boeing filed a joint proposal based on Sikorsky's X2 rotor and propeller system; Bell Helicopter, the co-developer of the V-22, submitted an updated tilt-rotor; and European aerospace giant EADS put forth a design likely based on Eurocopter's experimental X3. And in February, DARPA announced a $130 million VTOL X-Plane program that asks aerospace engineers to propose entirely new approaches to VTOL-a fixed wing, a rotary wing, or maybe something in between.

With top speeds of more than 250 mph, improved VTOL aircraft could increase military reach, shorten travel time for combat troops, and deliver personnel and cargo virtually anywhere, regardless of terrain. While the precise designs will remain secret for a while-both the Army and DARPA programs plan to fly demonstrations by 2017-they will likely draw from three existing technologies, as illustrated on the next page. After 24 years without significant innovation, VTOL is flying high once more.

This article originally appeared in the July 2013 issue of Popular Science. See the rest of the magazine here.

    


14:00

The Future Of Flight: Helicopters Will Fly Like Airplanes

Two new programs are coming to improve the U.S. Vertical Takeoff and Landing (VTOL) fleet.

In the wake of the unsuccessful Iran hostage-rescue attempt in 1980, when three of eight helicopters failed and crippled the mission, military planners came to a realization: The U.S. fleet was in desperate need of an aircraft that could combine the speed and range of a jet with the vertical lift of a helicopter. In response, they designed the tilt-rotor V-22 Osprey. The V-22 can carry two dozen troops 1,000 nautical miles at speeds around 250 miles an hour. It is one of the most versatile craft in the U.S. Vertical Takeoff and Landing (VTOL) fleet, which includes helicopters and jump jets. It is also the youngest: The V-22 represents the last major addition to the VTOL arsenal in more than 20 years.

As modern warfare evolves to include more lightning-fast, covert strikes similar to the raid on Osama Bin Laden’s compound, VTOL is once again a priority for U.S. military planners. Two programs launched this year could improve the speed, range, and hover efficiency of VTOL aircraft: In March, the Army launched a program that officially began accepting designs for technology that could be used in next-generation rotorcraft. Sikorsky and Boeing filed a joint proposal based on Sikorsky’s X2 rotor and propeller system; Bell Helicopter, the co-developer of the V-22, submitted an updated tilt-rotor; and European aerospace giant EADS put forth a design likely based on Eurocopter’s experimental X3. And in February, DARPA announced a $130 million VTOL X-Plane program that asks aerospace engineers to propose entirely new approaches to VTOL—a fixed wing, a rotary wing, or maybe something in between.

With top speeds of more than 250 mph, improved VTOL aircraft could increase military reach, shorten travel time for combat troops, and deliver personnel and cargo virtually anywhere, regardless of terrain. While the precise designs will remain secret for a while—both the Army and DARPA programs plan to fly demonstrations by 2017—they will likely draw from three existing technologies, as illustrated on the next page. After 24 years without significant innovation, VTOL is flying high once more.

This article originally appeared in the July 2013 issue of Popular Science. See the rest of the magazine here.

    


May 24 2013

20:45

The World's Most Expensive Weapon Just Got A Little Cheaper

Cost projections for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program declined $4.5 billion last year.

File this under something you don’t see every day. The total projected price for the Pentagon’s F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) program--the most expensive weapons development program in history--has dropped. Though its program history is riddled with cost and schedule overruns alongside unforeseen engineering and design issues, the total price tag for the JSF fell $4.5 billion in 2012, the first time in the program’s history that the projected cost has gone anywhere but up (and up and up).

The cost savings come from the Pentagon’s annual selected acquisitions report (SAR), which reviewed 78 DoD programs and found that to absolutely no one’s surprise the overall cost of Pentagon acquisition programs grew by nearly $40 billion (or 2.44 percent) on the whole last year. But it seems all the talk of federal belt-tightening might be having an impact on Pentagon culture. This was also the first time in a long time that no program in the SAR went 15 percent or more over its budget.

Pentagon officials credited the Better Buying Power initiative, an in-house effort to reform weapons procurement to better allocate resources and reduce redundant or wasteful spending, with helping to curb spending on several programs.

For a program with such a checkered past--it's been considered for the budgetary chopping block more than once--the drop in overall cost is huge for the JSF program and an indicator that it may finally be moving toward initial operating capability. Often a program finds a way to spend the money it already has in its projections, so the downward revision in total price may amount to something the JSF program really needed: a public relations boost at a point when pricey government programs are not popular with anyone.

So not only is the JSF the most expensive weapon ever developed, but it might now hold the title--at $4.5 billion--for the most expensive PR moment ever purchased.

[Defense News]

    


19:00

Big Pic: Hubble Space Telescope Captures The Ring Nebula In Astonishing Detail

Astronomers love to point their telescopes at the Ring Nebula. Located 2,000 light years away in the constellation Lyra, this ring of glowing gas has a distinctive elliptical shape when seen from Earth. But new images captured by the Hubble Space Telescope suggest that the nebula actually looks a lot more like a football or a misshapen doughnut.

Scientists now believe that the blue and green gaseous material at the center of the ring is a large football-shaped region sheathed by a ring of cooler gas (the yellow and orange ring) at its fattest point near the center. So the ends of the hotter football-shaped gas cloud protrude from either end of the ring, and we’re looking directly at the end of the football, so we see the enveloping cooler gas as a ring encircling the hotter blue/green gas.

What does all that mean? If you’re an astronomer it means you have a better understanding of the Ring Nebula. That in turn provides insight into the way our own sun’s nebula will form in another six billion years or so when it runs out of fuel, sheds its outer gasses, and collapses in on itself (it won’t look like this because our sun isn’t as big, but nonetheless there will be similarities). For the rest of us, it means look at that amazing image of the Ring Nebula!

[NASA]

    


May 23 2013

17:00

Big Pic: Eruption Of Alaska's Pavlof Volcano, As Seen From The International Space Station

The crew aboard the International Space Station managed to snap these three striking images of Alaska’s Pavlof Volcano a few days ago, which capture (via their oblique angles) just how far these plumes can stretch and how huge they can be (we usually see these images from directly above, so it’s hard to tell just how big they really are).

Pavlof is in the Aleutian Island arc, some 625 miles southwest of Anchorage. It began erupting last week, spewing an ash plume 20,000 feet into the air. For orientation purposes: The plume is extending southeastward, back toward the mainland United States.

[NASA Earth Observatory]

    


16:30

Obama Set To Reboot Drone Strike Policy And Retool The War On Terror

In a major counterterrorism address today, President Obama is expected to announce a significant shift in the drone policy that has been the cornerstone of his war on terror.

At 2 p.m. ET today, President Obama will address a crowd at National Defense University in D.C. to spell out some of the biggest vagaries of his administration--policies that are central to America’s security and foreign policy that, nonetheless, have been shrouded in official secrecy, opaque statements of accountability, and open-ended legal jargon that leaves a lot of room for interpretation.

In today’s speech, Obama is expected to discuss the closing of the prison at Guantanamo Bay (which, despite 2008 campaign promises, remains open) and the future of America’s war on terror now that Osama bin Laden has been, how shall we say, rendered irrelevant. But policy wonks and national security nerds are mostly interested in Obama’s spelling out of the legal rationale that will govern lethal drone strikes going forward.

These three topics are deeply intertwined, of course. With the drawdown of troops in Iraq and Afghanistan and a reduced American presence in the regions regarded as power bases for the likes of al-Qaeda, al-Shabab, and the Taliban, American security and intelligence forces have only two real options. Strike at suspected terrorists with drones, or somehow capture those suspects and detain them (at some place like Guantanamo).

It would seem that if the war on terror is going to continue (and it is--for another 10 or 20 years according to one recently-quoted Pentagon official) then it seems that either detention or the use of lethal strikes must increase. But that’s not really the case, and in today’s speech Obama is expected to outline why the administration thinks so.

In his first major counterterrorism address of his second term, the President is expected to announce new restrictions on the unmanned aerial strikes that have been the cornerstone of his national security agenda for the last five years. For all the talk about drone strikes--and they did peak under Obama--such actions have been declining since 2010. And it seems the administration finally wants to come clean (somewhat) about what it has been doing with its drone program, acknowledging for the first time that it has killed four American citizens in its shadow drone wars outside the conflict zones of Afghanistan and Iraq, something the public has known for a while now but the government has refused to publicly admit.

The Obama administration will also voluntarily rein in its drone strike program in several ways. A new classified policy signed by Obama will more sharply define how drones can be used, the New York Times reports, essentially extending to foreign nationals the same standards currently applied to American citizens abroad. That is, lethal force will only be used against targets posing a “continuing, imminent threat to Americans” and who cannot be feasibly captured or thwarted in any other way. This indicates that the administration’s controversial use of “signature strikes”--the killing of unknown individuals or groups based on patterns of behavior rather than hard intelligence--will no longer be part of the game plan. That’s a positive signal, considering that signature strikes are thought to have resulted in more than a few civilian casualties.

Reportedly there’s another important change in drone policy in the offing that President Obama may or may not mention in today’s speech: the shifting of the drone wars in Pakistan and elsewhere (likely Yemen and Somalia as well) from the CIA to the military over the course of six months. This is good for all parties involved. The CIA’s new director, John Brennan, has publicly said he would like to transition the country’s premier intelligence gathering agency back to actual intelligence gathering and away from paramilitary operations--a role that it has played since 2001 but that isn’t exactly in its charter.

Putting the drone strike program in the Pentagon also places it in a different category of public scrutiny. The DoD can still do things under the veil of secrecy of course, but not quite like the CIA can (the military is subject to more oversight and transparency than the clandestine services in several respects, and putting drones in the hands of the military also changes the governing rules of engagement).

So what does this all mean for the war on terror? If Obama plans to create a roadmap for closing Guantanamo Bay and draw down its drone strike program, it suggests that the administration thinks we are winning--as much as one can win this kind of asymmetric war. It appears the war on terror is shifting toward one in which better intelligence will lead to more arrests and espionage operations to thwart terrorists rather hellfire missile strikes from unseen robots in the sky.

The drones aren’t going anywhere--they’ll be a key technology piece deployed in those intelligence gathering operations. But much to the relief of drone-strike opponents, it appears America’s policy of using lethal drone strikes to regularly eliminate her enemies--and whoever happens to be standing in proximity--will be put on a much tighter leash. Counterterrorism will go back to being more of a law enforcement exercise than a military “seek and destroy” mission. Lethal drone strikes will still occur, but their more judicious application is a welcome shift in policy for many Americans--and certainly for people in the parts of the world where they have been most prevalent.

    


May 22 2013

21:15

Navy Completes First Flight Of Game-Changing MQ-4C Triton Spy Drone [Video]

The long-range maritime drone will give the U.S. unprecedented surveillance of the world's oceans.

For the U.S. Navy and Northrop Grumman, it's shaping up to be a banner year in unmanned flight. While the carrier-based autonomous X-47B continues to hit milestones aboard the USS George H.W. Bush somewhere off the East Coast, out west in Palmdale, Calif., today the Navy flew its MQ-4C Triton maritime drone for the first time, marking the beginning of a sea change (pardon the pun) in the way the U.S. military patrols the oceans. The drone flew for 80 minutes and reached an altitude of 20,000 feet.

The Triton isn’t a completely new platform. If it looks familiar, that’s because everyone from the U.S. Air Force to NASA has been using its cousin--Northrop Grumman’s reliable Global Hawk--for years now, for intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, environmental monitoring, and meteorological data gathering, among other things. Triton is essentially an upgrade of the Global Hawk, optimized for maritime environments, with a strengthened airframe and de-icing features that allow it to rapidly ascend to and descend from high altitudes.

Those upgrades allow Triton to fly at altitudes nearly ten miles above sea level (its ceiling is listed as 60,000 feet, though it will likely stick to the 53,000-55,000 for most missions) for 24 hours at a time. That high vantage point allows its advanced sensors to take in a 2,000-nautical-mile view of the ocean in every direction. Carrying the Broad Area Maritime Surveillance (BAMS) sensor package (Popular Science awarded BAMS a Best of What’s New award last year) along with a classified advanced radar system, Triton will be able to both detect and identify ships on the water.

That is, rather than registering as a simple blip on the radar screen, BAMS will be able to generate a picture of the shape of the ship and use that to identify it by profile. In that way, it will be able to tell a container ship from a Chinese frigate from a surfacing Russian submarine--from up to 2,000 nautical miles away (we felt that point was worth stressing here). Triton's strengthened airframe, augmented with de-icing technology, will then allow it to rapidly descend and ascend, so it can swoop in for a closer look at vessels of particular interest.

That’s if everything works as advertised, and both Triton and BAMS are still in the early stages of development. The first flight by Triton is a big step forward. Though it’s built on the back of the tested Global Hawk platform, the tweaks that have been made to the design are significant. In fact, a Global Hawk lent to the Navy by the Air Force for testing crashed at Naval Air Station Pax River last year--an event that was seen at the time as a potential setback for Triton and BAMS. So today’s first flight is significant, as it marks the first airborne tests of a Triton and the beginning of the shift toward a brand new maritime capability.

That new capability is also quite significant. The Navy wants 68 Tritons based at five locations around the globe. Flying in rotations, they will be able to keep unprecedented tabs on the world’s critical sea lanes and important littorals, working alongside and supporting the manned P-8A Poseidon mission (the Poseidon is replacing the P-3 Orion anti-sub warfare aircraft; basically the Triton, which is unarmed, will conduct the ISR and the Poseidon will handle any kinetic strikes or electronic warfare, should it be necessary). And because the Triton is unmanned and autonomous, it will require less intensive human labor to fly as well as less risk to human pilots.

"When operational, the MQ-4C will complement our manned P-8 because it can fly for long periods, transmit its information in real-time to units in the air and on ground, as well as use less resources than previous surveillance aircraft," said Rear Adm. Sean Buck, Patrol and Reconnaissance Group commander, in a statement. "Triton will bring an unprecedented ISR capability to the warfighter."

That’s still a few years away, but today marks a critical step for the maritime capability, and a second huge leap forward for autonomous flight in just more than a week.

    


17:15

This Newer, Stronger 3-D Printed Gun Costs Just $25

A Wisconsin engineer has produced a cheaper, more durable version of Defense Distributed's 3-D printed pistol on an inexpensive, consumer-grade printer.

Defense Distributed’s plastic, 3-D printed “Liberator” single-shot handgun was here for a moment and then it was gone in more than one sense. For one, the news cycle turned over. Moreover, the State Department came down on Defense Distributed asking it to pull the CAD file for the Liberator off its servers until the lawyers could figure out if putting a free, downloadable CAD file up on the Web violated any arms export regulations. But the Liberator is back and--presumably to Defense Distributed co-founder Cody Wilson’s glee--it is evolving.

By the time the State Department asked Defense Distributed to pull down the CAD file for the Liberator, it was already replicating across the Web. And one of the people who appears to have gotten his hands on it is a Wisconsin engineer who identified himself to Forbes only as “Joe.” Joe has printed what he adorably calls the “Lulz Liberator” on a $1,725 Lulzbot A0-101 consumer-grade 3-D printer--a printer that is far less expensive than the industrial-grade one used by Wilson and company to create the original Liberator, which essentially was a disposable pistol--one shot and the barrel breaks, requiring the user to print another.

Joe’s Lulz Liberator--cost: $25--successfully fires eight rounds through a single barrel (and a ninth round through a replacement barrel) in the video below, proving that plastic guns have already leapt beyond the one-shot-per-print limitation. The Lulz Liberator is still a single-shot weapon--that is, it only holds a single round at a time--but it can be reloaded and fired multiple times using a single barrel.

Joe made his Lulz Liberator from PA-747 ABS plastic, a standard kind of ABS that is the working material for most consumer-grade 3-D printers. Yet he claims that it’s stronger than the more expensive stuff Wilson prints with in his larger, more costly Stratasys printer. Joe also augmented his version with a few components not found on the original Liberator, which is all plastic except for the firing pin made from a standard nail. The Lulz Liberator uses a metal nail for a firing pin, but also employs metal screws--available for pennies at your local hardware store--to hold the body of the firearm together rather than relying on plastic pins as Wilson's does. And like Wilson’s, it contains a non-functioning piece of steel designed to bring it into alignment with the Undetectable Firearms Act.

The Lulz Liberator reportedly misfired several times during tests, and some of the screws and firing pins had to be replaced throughout the testing. Reloading is also no simple matter; each spent .380 cartridge expanded enough that they had to be pounded free of the chamber with a hammer. So it’s not like the Lulz Liberator is a rapid-fire, or even a semi-rapid fire plastic firearm.

What it is: A confirmation that Wilson’s Liberator design indeed functions the way he says it does, as well as proof that now that this thing is out there in the maker ecosystem it’s going to evolve independent of Wilson and Defense Distributed.

One key difference between Wilson’s Liberator and Joe’s Lulz Liberator: the Lulz Liberator design file is not available for download online and it’s unclear if or when Joe might release it into the wild. But it doesn’t really matter. Defense Distributed’s file is still circulating out there, and it’s unlikely Joe is the only maker out there tinkering with new ways to make better firearms from cheap plastic.

[Forbes]

    


May 21 2013

20:58

IBM's Watson Is Bringing "Cognitive Computing" to Customer Service

It will be powering smartphone apps by the end of the year too.

IBM’s Watson computing platform made a name for itself on Jeopardy, but its incremental roll-out into the real world has been no less impressive. It has worked in finance at Citi helping to assess risk and at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center sifting through medical cases and data to help oncologists make the right diagnoses. Now the supercomputer is rolling out to the masses as a computerized customer service agent designed specifically to help customers connect with the information they want at a variety of firms in a variety of businesses, including Australian finance house ANZ, at media ratings maker Nielsen, and at Royal Bank of Canada.

This new offering of Watson, known as IBM Watson Engagement Advisor, will give customer service transactions a layer of cognitive computing help, leveraging Watson’s unique skills to make those transaction go more smoothly. Those unique skills include Watson’s ability to understand context and to learn as it goes, giving it far deeper insight and the ability to return far more meaningful answers than a simple Web search can.

The reason Watson can do this is because it is more or less designed like a human brain. That is, where a Web search is great for finding certain blocks of text out there on the Internet or sifting through structured data sets, Watson works well with unstructured data, or data that hasn’t been organized into a database. Web search can find you a snippet of text within a sea of words as directed by the terms of your search. Watson can understand both the nuance of your question and the context of the text surrounding your potential answer, wherever it lives out there on the Web. As such, Watson’s answers tend to be more meaningful.

On top of that, Watson can learn as it goes. So imagine Watson working alongside your financial planner. Your planner asks you questions, you answer, Watson remembers your answers. Watson is also sifting through an Internet’s worth of financial data as well as your specific financial data, looking at your transactions and the economy in your city and state and the global economy and several anecdotal, unstructured stories and opinion on the municipal bond market, in which you have invested a meaningful portion of your savings. You can ask your advisor a specific question about your portfolio and its prospects for the near term, and he or she might have to get back to you with the answer. Watson can put a good answer in front of the both of you instantly.

And it doesn’t stop there. Beyond being a client-relations assistant, IBM is also bringing Watson directly to the masses via an “Ask Watson” feature that offers help to customers via various channels, including email, text, and chat. Considering nearly half of the 270 billion customer-service-related calls go unresolved every year, Watson’s cognitive ability could go a long way toward alleviating load stress on call centers and in resolving customer service issues (imagine calling the help desk only to find you can’t get a live person on the phone and you still get to walk away satisfied).

IBM Watson Engagement Advisor will roll out with a handful of companies (including those listed above over the next few months, during which it will be evaluated for a variety of tasks (ANZ will use it to evaluate insurance portfolios to help customers determine where they are over-insured and where they are exposed, while Nielsen will roll it into the software tools that help its clients in media planning figure out where to buy their ad space) before being released into the larger ecosystem.

Keep an eye on it, as it will likely grow into something larger, and quickly (IBM says the first Watson-powered consumer apps will emerge later this year). Imagine a voice-activated Watson assistant that understands your linguistic nuance and learns from your past queries what to expect in the future. In other words, imagine a Siri that really works.

[IBM]

    


19:02

Russia Is Building Robots To 'Neutralize' Terrorists

Though it hasn't explained exactly how, the Russian government says it is building robots that will minimize casualties during terrorist attacks and engage terrorists directly.

It’s hard to tell sometimes what’s real and what’s bluster in the world of arms development, but it’s notable nonetheless that Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin has publicly revealed that Russian experts are developing robots designed specifically to minimize casualties in terrorist attacks. Oh, and also to neutralize those terrorists. What could possibly go horribly, horribly, terribly wrong?

The Russian defense industry (which Rogozin oversees) has not yet revealed exactly what these robots will be capable of or when they will be deployed, only that it is building them and that they would be able to evacuate injured soldiers and police or civilians from the scenes or terrorist attacks. They will also be able to engage terrorists at a distance without harming any hostages they might have.

Again, they haven’t said exactly how they are going to engage terrorists at a distance without harming hostages, but what’s most important here is that they’re going to. The robots are being developed alongside other anti-terror technologies, including those that can see terrorists through obstacles.

Ostensibly these robots will also be able to disperse crowds of terrorists, round up terrorists for imprisonment or questioning, or even “neutralize” terrorists that haven’t yet done anything wrong but that the Russian state finds to be potential threats. Fortunately these robots will only be used against terrorists, because if you replace “terrorist” with just about any other group of people this paragraph becomes fairly unsettling.

[RIA Novosti]

    


12:56

Russia's 'Space Ark' Returns All Of Its Lizards And Half Its Mice Safely To Earth

The longest orbital experiment dedicated purely to biology has returned to Earth.

Less than half of the rodents, lizards, fish, and other small animals that were lofted skyward last month made it back alive, but nonetheless Russian researchers are calling their so-called “Space Ark” mission--the longest-duration space mission ever dedicated purely to biological study--a success. After spending a month in space, the Russian Bion-M landed slightly off-target but safely in a Russian field yesterday.

The mission, which launched from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on April 19, marks the first time animals have flown in space for this long on their own. The study was designed to study the effects of long-term space flight on cell structure.

The animals are now on their way to Moscow for further study during which researchers from the Institute of Medical and Biological Problems (part of the Russian Academy of Sciences) will try to define and understand the effects of long-duration spaceflight on animal cells. That in turn should help pave the way for future human flights into space beyond Earth orbit.

[NBC]

    


May 20 2013

20:30

Norwegian Geologists Begin Drone-Guided Quest For Oil

Using data collected by drones, a research team is building 3-D maps of Norway's geology to help companies track down hidden mineral wealth.

We’ve heard a lot from the unmanned aerial systems (UAS) community about the potential for drones to assist in oil and gas exploration, yet we’ve seen relatively little by way of example as companies across the world wait for aviation law to catch up with the technological reality. Not so in Norway, where a team from the Center for Integrated Petroleum Research (a joint project between the University of Bergen and Bergen-based Uni Research) is using UAS to look for oil reserves on land at at sea.

Members of the center's Virtual Outcrop Geology group are employing an octo-copter loaded with all kinds of sensors—high-definition cameras, infrared sensors, LIDAR scanners, etc.—to map the geography and geology of the Norwegian landscape from above. The group used to do this by sending teams out into the wilderness with ground-based laser scanners and other equipment to create digital maps of the terrain from the ground. But given Norway’s diverse geography, such ground mapping was often impossible, which forced the team to lease helicopters to capture what they couldn’t get themselves, often at very high cost.

The new drones can perform the same aerial mapping tasks as helicopters, quickly reaching high elevations and other inaccessible areas to generate 3-D terrain maps that can be integrated with data from geological and seismological studies to produce three-dimensional pictures of the Earth’s crust. These in turn can tell geologists a lot about where oil is likely to be hiding both on land and underneath the surrounding seabed.

And of course the drones can do all of this at a fraction of the time and cost of more traditional methods—which is one of the most promising aspects of UAS technology regardless of application. By putting the means to conduct aerial survey in the hands of individual users at a relatively reasonable cost, everything from wildlife management to geological survey to infrastructure maintenance has the potential to become more precise, more effective, and ultimately less expensive. Virtual Outcrop Geology's work is a case in point—even if cheaper oil and gas exploration methods aren’t going to translate into savings at the gas pump any time soon.

[University of Bergen]

    


19:00

Another Big Milestone For The X-47B: Its First Touch And Go Landing

The Navy's unmanned, autonomous combat jet demonstrator continues to successfully pass milestones for unmanned aviation

The Navy’s unmanned and autonomous X-47B continues to hit new milestones. Less than a week after completing its first catapult launch from a carrier deck last Tuesday the Unmanned Combat Aerials System (UCAS) executed its first touch and go landings--that's when an aircraft touches down like it's landing but then accelerates and takes off again--aboard the USS George H.W. Bush on Friday, bringing this technology demonstrator ever closer to being fully carrier-capable.

The X-47B is the Navy’s first modern unmanned fixed-wing aircraft to operate from a carrier deck and is currently proving out a suite of technologies that will enable a future program (known as Unmanned Carrier Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike system, or UCLASS) to produce an actual unmanned, autonomous combat jet for Navy service. Critical to UCLASS are the precision GPS and relative navigation technologies aboard both aircraft and carrier that link the two together into a seamless system, and that’s what we’re seeing at work in the video below.

In the video, the X-47B makes two passes over the carrier deck before executing a couple of touch and go maneuvers, which are essentially aborted landings wherein an aircraft touches down on the carrier deck and takes off again. They are a typical training maneuver, used when a pilot is practicing landing approaches. In carrier ops touch and go maneuvers are quite a bit more significant, as pilots must quickly take off again if they miss the arresting cable on the carrier deck when landing (although technically this is called a “bolter” rather than a “touch and go).

The two initial flyovers aren’t just for show, however, and that’s perhaps the most interesting part of the this video. During the two approaches wherein the X-47B doesn’t touch down it is basically practicing its landing approach plus a “wave off” in which either the Landing Signal Officer on the flight deck or the aircraft itself decides the landing is unsafe. This could be because something on the flight deck becomes unsafe (a person or vehicle wanders into the landing area, for instance) or because the X-47B’s flight computers detect something amiss with the aircraft’s glide path or angle of approach.

In other words, those first two flyovers are testing the ability of the carrier and aircraft to talk to each other over the super-fast datalink that they share--which is really the linchpin of this system. And the touch and go moments show the system working spectacularly, putting the X-47B on the deck and then sending it skyward again off the other end. The Navy is still certifying the X-47Bs tail hook and landing capability on a terrestrial carrier simulator at nearby Naval Air Station Patuxent River on Maryland’s Chesapeake Bay (the USS George H.W. Bush is tooling around at some undisclosed set of coordinates off the Virginia/Maryland coast so the aircraft can fly between the two), but by the looks of things it shouldn’t have any problem completing carrier landings--and its mission--once it is cleared to do so.

[U.S. Navy]

    


15:00

Mars Rover Opportunity Travels Farther Than A NASA Vehicle Has Ever Traveled On Another Planet

To the 22.22 mile marker, and beyond.

Curiosity may be everyone’s favorite Mars robot these days, but it has a long way to rove if it’s going to catch up to the Mars rover Opportunity. Last week, Opportunity traversed 263 feet of Martian frontier near Endeavour Crater, bringing its total trip odometer up to 22.22 miles--the longest distance ever traveled by a NASA vehicle on the surface of a planet not named Earth.

Opportunity isn’t surpassing another robotic rover. During Apollo 17, Eugene Cernan and Harrision Schmitt drove the Lunar Roving Vehicle 22.21 miles over the lunar surface. That was in 1972--so suffice it to say, it’s taken NASA a while to cover the same amount of ground on Mars as we did during the Apollo missions, albeit under much different and more challenging circumstances.

But with this milestone Opportunity still isn’t the most traveled surface vehicle in the non-Earth solar system. That distinction belongs to the Soviet Union’s Lunokhod 2 robotic rover, which covered 23 miles of lunar surface in 1973. But that record is poised to fall to Opportunity in the coming weeks as well. This week the rover embarked on a multi-week journey from the area where it has been working for a couple of years now toward a target known as “Solander Point” about 1.4 miles away. Expect Opportunity to hit another space exploration distance milestone any day now.

[JPL]

    


May 17 2013

17:56

Video: MIT's Cheetah Robot Trots, Then Gallops

The robot can course at 22 kilometers per hour.

Boston Dynamics’ Cheetah robot may be the fastest, but MIT’s version of the DARPA-backed quadruped robot is proving to be the most efficient. In a newly released video, MIT’s Biomimetic Robotics Lab shows off it’s new and improved Cheetah, which can move along at a respectable 13.7 miles per hour and carry its own power source. Outside of the lab on the open savannah, that’s a critical capability.

But while MIT’s Cheetah isn’t the fastest--we’ve seen Boston Dynamics’ Cheetah set a land speed record for running robots at 28.3 miles per hour--that’s not really what we’re looking for in the video below. There are two primary aspects of MIT’s design that set it apart: one is it’s biomimetic design that reduces stress on joints and improves efficiency (things like Kevlar tendons in the legs that act like real tendons, helping the limbs return to zero without requiring power from the Cheetah’s electric motors). These gains in efficiency mean that the Cheetah can theoretically carry its own power source, something other running robots can’t do (in the video below power is being supplied externally, but the lithium polymer batteries Cheetah would carry are simulated by the addition of nearly seven pounds of dummy weight).

The second breakthrough, which you can witness in slow motion in the second half of the video, is the gait transition from trot to gallop, which is pretty impressive (the video goes slo-mo at about 1:20). Right at about 13 miles per hour Cheetah shifts seamlessly from a stuttering trot to a loping run--much as a real cheetah would as it transitions into high gear.

Then there’s a third major design breakthrough, which is the decorative cheetah print detail and wicked sculpted cheetah head that’s been added to the front of the ‘bot. See it all come together in the video below.

    


May 16 2013

18:30

Harvesting Wind Energy By Covering Skyscrapers in Piezoelectric 'Hairs'

In the future, all buildings will resemble massive toilet brushes. Perhaps not, but that’s the net-zero energy future of skyscrapers envisioned by Belatchew Arkitekter in an idea called STRAWSCRAPER which, in spite of the toilet brush comparison, is actually pretty cool. The general idea here is to cover tall buildings in a skin covered with piezoelectric fibers that harvest energy to power the building from the wind.

Belatchew’s model for this concept is Södermalm’s South Tower in Stockholm, Sweden, which was completed in 1997 but at only 26 stories rather than the originally-planned 40 stories (the architect that designed the building apparently left the project after losing control of the design). Belatchew’s STRAWSCRAPER would return the building to its original proportions, extending it 14 stories skyward by way of adding huge vertical rods covered in piezoelectric filaments. The other 26 stories would also be sheathed in piezoelectric ribs that would ripple in the breeze, thus creating electricity.

Piezoelectricity is, simply put, an electric charge that builds up as the result of mechanical stress. Think of it as a small jolt of electricity generated by the flexing of a material. Covered in these piezoelectric fibers, even a light breeze rippling through the South Tower’s fibers would generate power, which in turn could keep the building running without pulling energy from the grid.

And, being the brainchild of an architecture firm, there’s an aesthetic aspect to STRAWSCRAPER as well. Covered in these functional fibers buildings, once static monoliths, become undulating, rippling, living things in the urban landscape. Like trees. Or cleaning implements.

[David Report]

    


18:30

Concept Skyscraper Generates Its Own Energy, Looks Like A Toilet Brush

The, erm, splashy future of skyscrapers

In the future, all buildings will resemble massive toilet brushes. Perhaps not, but that’s the net-zero energy future of skyscrapers envisioned by Belatchew Arkitekter in an idea called STRAWSCRAPER which, in spite of the toilet brush comparison, is actually pretty cool. The general idea here is to give tall buildings a skin of piezoelectric fibers that harvest energy to power the building from the wind.

Belatchew’s model for this concept is Södermalm’s South Tower in Stockholm, Sweden, which was completed in 1997 but at only 26 stories rather than the originally planned 40 stories (the architect who designed the building apparently left the project after losing control of the design). Belatchew’s STRAWSCRAPER would return the building to its original proportions, extending it 14 stories skyward by way of adding huge vertical rods covered in piezoelectric filaments. The other 26 stories would also be sheathed in piezoelectric ribs that would ripple in the breeze, thus creating electricity.

Piezoelectricity is, simply put, an electric charge that builds up as the result of mechanical stress. Think of it as a small jolt of electricity generated by the flexing of a material. With piezoelectric fibers, even a light breeze would generate power. That in turn could keep the building running without pulling energy from the grid.

And, being the brainchild of an architecture firm, there’s an aesthetic aspect to STRAWSCRAPER as well. Covered in these functional fibers, buildings--once static monoliths--become undulating, rippling, living things in the urban landscape. Like trees. Or cleaning implements.

[David Report]

    


16:30

How NASA Could Save Kepler

Scott Hubbard, former director of the NASA Ames Research Center, speculates on how NASA could revive the ailing space telescope.

Yesterday NASA officials confirmed that the exoplanet-hunting Kepler space telescope had suffered a mechanical failure, throwing into question the telescope's ability to continue its mission.

But Kepler is not dead just yet. Speaking to Stanford News Service, consulting professor of aeronautics and astronautics Scott Hubbard--the former director of NASA Ames Research Center who was present during much of Kepler’s construction--says that there are still a couple ways mission handlers might be able to revive Kepler and get its photo-detector array pointed back at the more than 100,000 stars it monitors for signs of orbiting exoplanets.

The problem: Kepler contains four gyroscope-like reaction wheels that spin within the telescope to keep it perfectly steady when observing this huge field of faraway stars. At least three of these wheels must be functioning for Kepler to maintain a steady field of view. One of these wheels failed about a year ago, and now a second has also locked up, causing Kepler to cease operations. On May 12, Kepler entered safe mode, when it realized it was drifting out of position. NASA mission operators woke Kepler up on the 14th and tried to get the newly stuck wheel moving again, but to no avail.

So where to go from here? Hubbard offers a couple of potential solutions:

There are two possible ways to salvage the spacecraft that I'm aware of. One is that they could try turning back on the reaction wheel that they shut off a year ago. It was putting metal on metal, and the friction was interfering with its operation, so you could see if the lubricant that is in there, having sat quietly, has redistributed itself, and maybe it will work.

The other scheme, and this has never been tried, involves using thrusters and the solar pressure exerted on the solar panels to try and act as a third reaction wheel and provide additional pointing stability. I haven't investigated it, but my impression is that it would require sending a lot more operational commands to the spacecraft.

Even if mission operators can’t get Kepler working again, the telescope survived its planned mission lifetime and leaves behind an 18-month backlog of data in the pipeline that still needs to be analyzed. So sure, this might be the end of Kepler’s active mission, but scientists will be making discoveries based on Kepler for a long time to come.

[Stanford News Service]

    


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