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Monday, September 26, 2016

SpaceX Test-Fires 'Raptor' Rocket that will Take Humans to Mars

As reported by EngadgetSpaceX has done its first test of the Raptor rocket engine that will take humans to Mars as early as 2024, Elon Musk said in a series of tweets. It was fired at the company's McGregor, Texas facility on a stand that can handle the extreme thrust.

Pointing out the "mach diamonds" from the test (above), Musk said the "production Raptor goal is a specific impulse of 382 seconds and thrust of 3 MN [680,000 pounds]," more than three times that of the current Falcon 9.

The methane fuel-powered Raptor will be more powerful than any current rocket. It'll eventually lift the Interplanetary Transport System (ITS), formerly known as the Mars Colonial Transporter, loaded with 100 tons of cargo, toward the red planet. The company plans to launch an unmanned craft to Mars by 2018 and get humans there by 2024. That's an ambitious target, especially considering its recent launchpad mishap.

Elon Musk will give a speech tomorrow at the International Astronautical Conference in Mexico, titled "Making Humans a Multiplanetary Species." He's expected to unveil the design of the Interplanetary Transport System and overall plan for colonizing the red planet. Musk will also reportedly talk about the budget and try to convince government and the scientific community to help pay for the undertaking. After the recent disaster, a successful test-firing of the Raptor will no doubt help his cause.

Friday, September 16, 2016

Tesla: Mobileye Tried to Stop Our In-House Chip Development

As reported by EngadgetTesla and former pal Mobileye aren't quite done airing controversial statements against each other. After the company behind Autopilot's image recognition hardware said it severed its ties with the automaker because it was "pushing the envelope in terms of safety," Tesla fired back with its own feisty response. A company spokesperson told Reuters that Mobileye wasn't happy when it learned that Tesla decided to work on its own vision chips for Autopilot. She said Mobileye "attempted to force Tesla to discontinue this development, pay them more and use their products in future hardware."  

Mobileye and Tesla parted ways following the fatal Model S crash in Florida that put the carmaker's Autopilot feature in hot water. The exchange of words started after that -- Musk's company once said that its ex-partner couldn't keep up with its rate of innovation.  

Besides revealing that Mobileye tried to dissuade Tesla from developing its own chips, the spokesperson also said that the other company started talking about safety concerns only after the EV manufacturer refused to give in:

"When Tesla refused to cancel its own vision development activities and plans for deployment, Mobileye discontinued hardware support for future platforms and released public statements implying that this discontinuance was motivated by safety concerns."

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Comma.AI Says it'll Make Your Car Semi-Autonomous for $999 and $24 a Month

As reported by TechCrunchAt TechCrunch Disrupt SF this year, famed iPhone and PlayStation hacker George Hotz unveiled the first official product of his automotive AI startup, The Comma One is a $999 add-on shipping before the end of the year, with a $24 monthly subscription for its software, which Hotz says will be able to drive your car from Mountain View to San Francisco without requiring a driver to touch the wheel, the brake or the gas.

This isn’t a kit that makes your car into a fully self-driving vehicle, Hotz is quick to note, but it is a system that can provide powers equivalent to Tesla’s Autopilot, without requiring that you buy a whole new car. “It’s Mountain View to San Francisco without touching the wheel,” Hotz said. At launch, Comma One will support a small group of specific vehicles, but over time the startup hopes to add compatibility with more models.
Hotz contends that Comma’s key ingredient is “shippability,” a key ingredient he says other companies lack. Automakers and other startups are fond of announcing self-driving car projects (another was announced earlier today, in fact), but Hotz points out that many of these companies don’t even have hardware, let alone products they can sell to consumers.
“It is fully functional. It’s about on par with Tesla Autopilot,” Hotz said. It doesn’t have a lot of sensors as the Comma One relies on built-in car front radars and comes with a camera. “The key sensors that we’re getting back is the cam. We’re actually getting back the video, even Tesla isn’t doing that.” Hotz said. “We have all the video data.
The exceptions almost start and end with Tesla, he notes. The company’s Autopilot system is in active use, and in fact just got an update this past weekend that should vastly improve its performance and decrease the possibility that the car doesn’t brake when it should. “If they are the iOS of self-driving cars, we want to be Android,” Hotz said.
Hotz also spent some time talking about Tesla’s fatal crash. “40,000 people die a year from not paying attention. It isn’t like it is a special case ‘a self-driving car killed him’, it was the case of a driver not paying attention,” Hotz said. “It did unfortunately happen with Tesla. And I think Tesla’s response was very appropriate.”
Hotz’s system stemmed from critiques of offerings used by many major automakers, like the ones from Mobileye, and the intent of the Comma One is to provide features that automate highway driving to an even greater extent than existing adaptive cruise control and lane assist tech. “If you’re looking to Mobileye to build the software of the future — don’t,” he said during the interview.
The $999 price point is designed to be affordable, and is possible because of the components Comma uses in its product, which tend to be inexpensive off-the-shelf electronics. “We’re going to try our best to ship it before the end of the year. Again, in very limited quantity,” Hotz said. More info about its release and availability will be revealed soon.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Watch Autopilot Save an Unconscious Jet Pilot From a Fatal Crash

As reported by The VergeIn newly declassified footage from the US Air Force Arizona Air National Guard, we see a student pilot undergoing training on an F-16 jet fighter. As the pilot attempts a roll, his body is subjected to about eight times the normal force of gravity, causing him to black out. The plane begins to take a nosedive toward the ground with its afterburner engine still firing at full tilt.

The student was accompanied by an instructor in a separate F-16 who then began to desperately shout commands to his unconscious student. According to a report at Aviation Week, the student's jet drops from an altitude of 17,000 feet down to 12,320 feet as the command "2 recover" can be heard across the communications link. Then again at 10,800 feet, we hear the instructor calling to his student "2 recover." The student's jet plummets another 2,000 feet down and the instructor calls again, before the Automatic Ground Collision Avoidance System (Auto-GCAS), takes over and rights the jet.
It's a harrowing video, but luckily one with a happy ending. And it's a powerful reminder that while much of the talk about autonomous transportation is still theoretical, there are already systems in place that are saving lives. Recently a man claimed that his Tesla saved his life, driving him to the hospital after an embolism incapacitated him while he was driving on the highway. Incidents like these stand as a counterpoint to the first fatal accident blamed on an autopilot, which occurred in a Tesla on autopilot driving through Florida.

Monday, September 12, 2016

Jeff Bezos' Next Rocket is a Massive, Reusable Booster

As reported by EngadgetJeff Bezos isn't about to let SpaceX have the private heavy-duty rocket field to itself. Blue Origin has introduced New Glenn (named after astronaut John Glenn), a massive reusable booster rocket that makes SpaceX's Falcon Heavy look modest. The two-stage model already dwarfs the Falcon at 270 feet tall, while the three-stage version is nearly as tall as the legendary Saturn V at 313 feet. Yes, it's more than a little Freudian, but it'll be helpful getting both satellites and people into space.  

There is a good reason for that oddly suggestive size, though. New Glenn will lift off with 3.85 million pounds of thrust. That's not as powerful as Falcon Heavy's 5.1 million, but it's contained within a single structure (SpaceX uses three Falcon 9 rockets at its core). Blue Origin probably won't be first to the launchpad, though. While SpaceX has had to push back Falcon Heavy more than once, Bezos and crew are only promising that New Glenn will blast off from Cape Canaveral before the decade is out. At least there's more coming: the company is teasing a New Armstrong rocket sometime in the future.

Elon Musk Explains Tesla Autopilot’s New Capacity to See Ahead of the Car in Front of You

As reported by One of the most impressive new features that Tesla announced today with the Autopilot’s new radar processing capacity is the ability for the system to see ahead of the car in front of you and basically track two cars ahead on the road.

Tesla’s Autopilot currently has the ability to track a vehicle in front of you on the road (like the blue car in the picture above) and accelerate, decelerate or brake according to that vehicle, but what happens if that vehicle’s response time is not good enough and your Tesla ends up simply following it into a crash?

The upcoming v8.0 software update has a solution. It’s able to bounce the radar signal around the car in front you and see beyond it.

Here Musk explains the system during a conference call with the press on Sunday (Transcript by Electrek):
"Radar sees through rain, fog, snow, dust, and essentially quite easily. So even if you are driving down the road and the visibility was very low and there was a big multi-car pileup or something like that and you cant’ see it, the radar would and it would initiate braking in time to avoid your car being added to the multi-car pileup.

In fact, an additional level of sophistication – we are confident that we can use the radar to look beyond the car in front of you by bouncing the radar signal off the road and around the car. We are able to process that echo by using the unique signature of each radar pulse as well as the time of flight of the photon to determine that what we are seeing is in fact an echo in front of the car that’s in front of you. So even if there’s something that was obscured directly both in vision and radar, we can use the bounce effect of the radar to look in front of that car and still brake.
It takes things to another level of safety."
Additionally, when asked by a reporter whether the new feature could also work if the car in front of the Tesla is very low – implying that it would block the signal – Musk answered:
"It would have to be very very low. The radar transmitter-receiver is located on the lower grill at the center of the car so it’s really maybe – I’m just guessing here – a foot above the ground. Even if there was a 6-inch clearance or less on the car in front, it would still be able to see the echo. It will also try to bounce around the car, through the glass house of the car, it really going to be listening for everything that is an echo that still as the original signature – each pulse as little signatures – so even if it is faint it notices that pulse because of the signature.
We have this to tell us that it’s that pulse and not a prior pulse, and we have the photon time of flight. That’s how we are able to see something beyond the car in front of you."

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Centimeter-Level GPS Positioning for Cars

As reported by IEEE SpectrumSuper-accurate GPS may soon solve three robocar bugbears: bad weather, blurred lane markings, and over-the-horizon blindspots. These are things that cameras and LIDAR can’t always see through, and radar can’t always see around.

A group led by Todd Humphreys, an aerospace engineer at the University of Texas at Austin, has just tested a software-based system that can run on the processors in today’s cars, using data from scattered ground stations, to locate a car to within 10 centimeters (4 inches). That’s good enough to keep you smack in the middle of your lane all the time, even in a blizzard.  
“When there’s a standard deviation of 10 cm, the probability of slipping into next lane is low enough—meaning 1 part in a million,” he said. Today’s unaided GPS gives meter-plus accuracy, which raises the chances that the car will veer outside of its lane to maybe 1 part in 10, or even more, he adds.
Image result for autonomous car 10 cm accuracy
Those aren’t great (well, at least not desirable) odds, particularly if you’re driving a semi. Lane-keeping discipline is non-negotiable for a robocar.
The Texas team, which was backed by Samsung, began with the idea of giving smartphones super-GPS-positioning power. But though that idea worked, it was limited by handsets’ inadequate antennas, which neither Samsung nor any other vendor is likely to improve unless some killer app should come along to justify the extra cost.
“We pivoted then, to cars,” Humphreys says.
Image result for Radiosense cm GPS
Humphreys works on many aspects of GPS; just last month, he wrote for IEEE Spectrum on how to protect the system from malicious attack. He continues to do basic research, but he also serves as the scientific adviser to 'Radiosense', a firm his students recently founded. Ford has recently contacted them, as has Amazon, which may be interested in using the positioning service in its planned fleet of cargo-carrying drones. Radiosense is already working with its own drones—“dinner-plate-size quadcopters,” Humphreys says.
Image result for semi in a snow storm
Augmented GPS has been around since the 1980s, when it finally gave civilians the kind of accuracy that the military had jealously reserved to itself. Now the military uses it too, for instance to land drones on aircraft carriers. It works by using not just satellites’ data signals, but also the carrier signals on which the data are encoded. And, to estimate distances to satellites without being misled by the multiple pathways a signal may take, these systems use a range of sightings—say, taken while the satellite moves in the sky. They then use algorithms to locate the receiver on a map.
But until now, it only worked if you had elaborate antennas, powerful processing, and quite a bit of time. It could take one to five minutes for the algorithm to “converge,” as the jargon has it, onto an estimate.
“That’s not good, I think,” Humphreys says. “My vision of the modern driver is one who’s impatient, who wants to snap into 10-cm-or-better accuracy and push the ‘autonomy’ button. Now that does require that the receiver be up and running. But once it’s on, when you exit a tunnel, boom, you’re back in.” And in your own lane.
Another drawback of existing systems is cost. “I spoke with Google,” says Humphreys. “They gave me a ride in Mountain View, Calif. in November, and I asked them at what price point this would be worth it to them. They originally had this Trimble [PDF] thing—$60,000 a car—but they shed it, thinking that that was exorbitant. They [said they] want a $10,000 [total] sensor package.”
Image result for Radiosense gpsThe Texas student team keeps the materials cost of the receiver system in the car at just $35 per car, running their software-defined system entirely on a $5 Raspberry Pi processor. Of course, the software could piggyback, almost unnoticed, on the powerful robocar processors that are coming down the pike from companies like Nvidia and NXP.
Just as important as the receivers is the ground network of base stations, which the Texas team has shown must be spaced within 20 kilometers (12 miles) for full accuracy. And, because the students’ solar-powered, cellphone-network-connected base stations cost only about $1000 to build, it wouldn’t be too hard to pepper an entire region with them.
Image result for gps in urban canyons
You’d need more stations per unit of territory where satellite signals get bounced around or obscured, as is the case in heavily-built-up parts of most cities. It’s tough, Humphreys admits, in the urban canyons of Manhattan. Conveniently, though, it is in just such boxed-in places that the robocar’s cameras, radar, and lidar work the best, thanks to the many easily recognized buildings there that can serve as landmarks.
“Uber’s engineers hate bridges, because there are not a lot of visual features,” Humphreys notes. “They would do well to have 10-cm precise positioning; it can turn any roadway into a virtual railway.”
So, what’s next, after cars? Humphreys is still looking for the killer app to justify super-accurate GPS in handheld systems.
“We’re looking into outdoor virtual reality,” Humphreys says. “You  could put on a visor and go on your favorite running trail, and it would represent it to you in a centimeter-accurate way, but artistically enhanced—maybe you’d always have a blue sky. You could craft the world to your own liking.” While staying on the path, of course.