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Thursday, December 24, 2015

Laser X-rays to Help Nab Nuclear Smugglers

As reported by GizMagWith over 100 million cargo containers in transit each year, screening them for illicit nuclear material is a major problem. To keep commerce flowing while maintaining an eye on nuclear terrorism and smuggling, a team of scientists at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL) is developing a laser-based X-ray machine that can image a uranium disk the size of a stack of three US nickels hidden between three-inch (7.6 cm) steel panels.

Nuclear smuggling is a much larger problem than many people realize. It isn't just a question of preventing the doomsday scenario of a terrorist group trying to sneak a nuclear warhead or dirty bomb past customs. There's also the matter of stopping the smuggling or theft of civilian nuclear materials for engineering or medicine that could fall into the wrong hands or endanger the public through improper disposal.

The problem is that equipment for routine scanning is expensive and tends to be on the bulky side, with some systems running to dimensions equivalent to those of a small stadium. This is not helped by the fact that detecting radioactive material is even more difficult if it's sealed in a shielded container.
The UNL team led by Donald Umstadter, director of the Diocles Extreme Light Laboratory at UNL, is working on a nuclear material imager that uses a laser-driven X-ray source based on the laser-wakefield-accelerator-driven inverse-Compton-scattering (LWFA-ICS) device. Put very simply, this is a device developed by UNL in 2013 that scatters lasers off of an electron beam generated by a synchrotron accelerator. In the UNL imager, this scattering produces a narrowly focused X-ray beam that can be directed like a laser pointer and can travel long distances.
Shouyuan Chen, UNL research assistant professor of physics and astronomy, shows a uranium disk and steel casing
According to UNL, the new imager reduces the size of stadium-sized facilities to that of a trailer truck. It's lighter, more portable, and uses lower energy levels, so it's safer to use with people in the vicinity. In proof-of-principle experiments, it imaged a coin-size sample and the teams says that it can detect uranium in smaller amounts than the required one-kilogram (2.2 lb) standard through steel much thicker than that used in shipping containers.
The UNL team is currently working on improving the performance and precision of the device, so it can identify shielded nuclear materials while the US government reviews the technology. The team sees the device as having applications in not only curtailing the smuggling of nuclear materials, but also in physics research and as a nuclear site inspection tool.
"It's not unusual for scientists to go beyond basic research to develop new technologies, as we did with our device," says Umstadter. "However, the great urgency and importance of detecting smuggled nuclear materials compelled us to go even further and be the first to apply the new technology."

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

This Drone Can Fly Through the Air and Under Water

As reported by TNW NewsWhile drones have been getting a bad rap for dropping from the skies at inopportune moments, a new drone from Rutgers University can swim as well as fly.

Recently a World championship skier was nearly hit by a falling
drone during the World Cup in Italy.
Funded by a grant from the Office of Naval Research, the Naviator can be deployed for either aerial reconnaissance or for snooping underwater.
“They have submarines that can launch things from the submarine and it pops out into the water and goes and does some things, but it can’t come back,” explains Marco Maia, a Rutgers doctoral student who worked on the project.

“It does one mission and one mission only. Then you have airplanes that deploy vehicles from the air that can dive into the water, from then on they’re in the water and cannot come back out. This vehicle does all those things.”
The Office of Naval Research has taken a keen interest in the project as it can help with the maintenance of ships, explains associate professor Javier Diez.
“They have a number of applications we’ve been talking about. You can do ship inspections. You can deploy from the bridge and quickly be able to make the decision on whether to call a repairman or not. If you have an oil spill you can use this to see how far and how deep the spill goes.”

The naviator is just a concept for now. But the team from Rutgers are looking to improve speed and its ability to carry bigger payloads.

➤ The Naviator, A Drone Capable of Flying in the Air and Maneuvering Through Water [Laughing Squid]

Monday, December 21, 2015

SpaceX Makes History: Successfully Launches, Lands Falcon 9 Rocket

As reported by NBC NewsSpaceX successfully launched a Falcon 9 rocket on Monday night, the first from the private spaceflight company since its rocket exploded on liftoff in June.

The first stage of the rocket, used to propel the payload to 100km (62 miles) or so until the second stage takes over, then successfully landed on Earth again at a prepared landing zone. This is the first time SpaceX has ever attempted to land a rocket on land, and the first successful attempt to recover a rocket from an orbital flight. Previous attempts, all unsuccessful, were attempted on floating landing pads.
The Falcon 9's first stage seconds after landing successfully - the first time a rocket has successfully been recovered this way. SpaceX
SpaceX has come close to landing a rocket but until now, never actually pulled the feat off. Blue Origin, founded by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, stuck a landing last month — but SpaceX founder Elon Musk pointed out that was a suborbital trip, the requirements for which are considerably different. Creating reusable rockets is important for lowering the cost of space travel, which could make space tourism and a trip to Mars more feasible.
The launch's payload, 11 ORBCOMM satellites destined to join others in the communications company's network, was also successfully deployed with no problems.

The Falcon 9's stage 2 rocket heats up after igniting, driving the payload into orbit. SpaceX

On June 28, a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket carrying a Dragon spacecraft filled with cargo for the International Space Station exploded a few minutes after lift-off.
The launch was originally scheduled for Sunday night, but was delayed because there was a 10 percent better chance of a successful landing on Monday, according to Musk.

Below is a shot which showcases the scale of the concrete landing pad where the rocket booster landed. That’s a person standing right there in the middle in case you couldn’t tell.  
But on to the good stuff. Here we have a long exposure shot showcasing the rocket launch, re-entry, and landing burns. 
In this photo, we have another shot of the booster landing. 
Next we have a nice still of the first stage landing right before making impact. 
And of course, here’s the booster resting comfortably after a successful landing. 


Driverless Cars Always Obey the Law—Why That Could be a Problem

As reported by Business Insider: Earlier in November, Google got some interesting press when one of its cars was pulled over for, of all things, driving too slowly.  

But the incident shined a spotlight on a very real issue with driverless cars: they're too safe, and that simply doesn't mesh with the way humans drive.
The fact of the matter is humans don't obey traffic laws all the time — sometimes we zip through yellow lights or commit a rolling stop at stop signs.
 But when you combine human error with the consistent precision of driverless cars, accidents are inevitable.
That's why programmers are currently debating whether it's time to teach self-driving cars to commit infractions, according to a Bloomberg article.
“It’s a constant debate inside our group,” Raj Rajkumar, co-director of the General Motors-Carnegie Mellon Autonomous Driving Collaborative Research Lab in Pittsburgh, told Bloomberg. “And we have basically decided to stick to the speed limit. But when you go out and drive the speed limit on the highway, pretty much everybody on the road is just zipping past you. And I would be one of those people.”
When Rajkumar offered rides to members of Congress in the lab's driverless Cadillac SRX SUV, the car ended up swinging across three lanes of traffic to merge on I-395 because it didn't know how humans make room when there's a lot of traffic build up.
Although a human took control, thereby avoiding a potential accident, it showed how driverless cars struggle to interpret how humans drive.
“It’s a dilemma that needs to be addressed,” Rajkumar said.
The cop who pulled over the robot Google car that was driving too slow at 24 miles per hour in a 35 mile per hour zone also noted the issue with driverless cars being too cautious.
"“The right thing would have been for this car to pull over, let the traffic go and then pull back on the roadway,” Sergeant Saul Jaeger, the Mountain View cop, told Bloomberg. “I like it when people err on the side of caution. But can something be too cautious? Yeah.”
To address the issue, Google is working on making its cars more aggressive to "naturally fit into the traffic flow," Dmitri Dolgov, principal engineer of the program, told Bloomberg.
“Driving is a social game," he said.

Friday, December 18, 2015

Galileo Program Adds Pair of Satellites to GNSS (EU GPS) Constellation

As reported by The RegisterTwo new satellites blast off, eight now in orbit.
Europe is now two satellites closer to firing up its Galileo SatNav system following the launch of Galileos 11 and 12.

The pair blasted off from the European Spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana, atop a Soyuz rocket at 11:51 GMT December 17th 2015. While the Russian lifter hoisted the satellites into low orbit, the final task of getting them to their final Medium Earth Orbit at an altitude of roughly 23,500km is a job for the restartable, autonomous Fregat upper stage.

Artist's impression of Fregat and the satellites separating from the Soyuz upper stage
The satellites and Fregat (right) separate from the Soyuz upper stage (left). Artist's impression by ESA/J.Huart

The Galileo project kicked off in earnest back in October 2011, with the launch of two operational satellites as part of the In-Orbit Validation (IOV) phase of the program. Two further IOV satellites were sent heavenwards in October 2012, before the "Full Operational Capability" (FOC) launches commenced.

With today's lift-off, the Galileo FOC fleet aloft now comprises eight satellites. Galileos 5 and 6 launched in August 2014. Galileos 7 and 8 departed planet Earth back in March 2015, followed by Galileos 9 and 10 in September.

The full-fat system, comprising 24 operational satellites and six orbiting spares, is due to be up and running by 2020, offering one-meter accuracy. The European Space Agency says: "The Galileo navigation signals will provide good coverage even at latitudes up to 75 degrees north, which corresponds to Norway's North Cape - the most northerly tip of Europe - and beyond.

"The large number of satellites together with the carefully optimized constellation design, plus the availability of the three active spare satellites per orbital plane, will ensure that the loss of one satellite should have no discernible effect on the user."

Thursday, December 17, 2015

SpaceX Selects 124 Engineering Teams to do Battle in Hyperloop Pod Design Competition

As reported by GizMagSpaceX itself might not be building Elon Musk's Hyperloop, but it is making every effort to push things along. Earlier this year it announced the construction of a 1-mile (1.6-km) test track and it has now invited over 120 engineering teams to show off design concepts for a Hyperloop pod to a panel of judges in January. The most promising will then put their human-scale prototypes through their paces at SpaceX HQ the following US summer.  
SpaceX announced its Hyperloop Pod Competition in June, encouraging engineering teams to develop their own designs for passenger capsules that could be shuttled through the system's frictionless tubes at up to 760 mph (1,223 km/h). Since then it has received more than 1,200 submissions, but has now whittled that number down to 124 entrants who will present their concepts at the SpaceX Hyperloop Pod Competition Design Weekend at Texas A&M University on January 29 and 30.
Universities from all over the world will be represented, including teams from India's Vellore Institute of Technology and Uzbekistan's Turin Polytechnic University in Tashkent, along with names already well established in engineering circles like Stanford University and MIT. The full list can be viewed here.

The teams will present their designs to a panel made up of judges from SpaceX, Tesla and Texas A&M. From there, a number will be shortlisted and move on to building functional prototypes for the final phase of the competition. This will take place in the coming US summer at SpaceX's Hyperloop test track adjacent to its California headquarters.
Two unrelated companies are in the process of building their own Hyperloop test tracks, with the view to making the futuristic transport system more than a pipe dream. Hyperloop Transportation Technologies is constructing a 5-mile (8-km) track in Quay Valley, a proposed self-sustaining model town in California's Central Valley. The similarly named Hyperloop Technologies plans to begin open air-testing on its own track next month.

When it Comes to a Moon Base, the FAA says it Takes a Global Village

As reported by Space NewsA Federal Aviation Administration advisory committee has recommended that the FAA start discussions with the European Space Agency about commercial participation in an international lunar base concept promoted by the agency’s leader.
The FAA’s Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee (COMSTAC) unanimously approved a recommendation that the FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation begin discussions with ESA on ways American companies could participate in what’s known as “Moon Village.” The vote was conducted by email after COMSTAC held a meeting via teleconference on the topic Dec. 10, committee chairman Mike Gold said Dec. 15.
The recommendation states that the FAA, “after consulting with the appropriate U.S. agencies, engage directly with ESA in support of the ‘Moon Village’ concept, with the goal of fostering the participation of U.S.-based commercial entities in the planning and creation of the ‘Moon Village.’”
The Moon Village concept is a proposal by ESA Director-General Johann-Dietrich Woerner, and is something he has discussed prior to become the head of the agency in July. It would involve the development of an international lunar base, with countries providing different elements or services to support it.
Woerner, who participated in the COMSTAC teleconference, said he was open to participation by companies as well as countries. “We are putting together different users, different competencies, be it private or public,” he said. Companies in both the U.S. and Europe have already contacted him about ways they can take part, including using the base for tourism and mining.
FAA officials have already expressed an interest in supporting a commercial role in the concept. “Private industry has the potential to play an important role, and it need not be exclusively as a government contractor,” said George Nield, FAA associate administrator for commercial space transportation at an October COMSTAC meeting here.
COMSTAC members expressed support for a private-sector role in such a concept, even if some were skeptical that it could be commercially viable. “It might be hard in the near term to think of a profit-making venture that can work on the moon such that it would be in the time horizon of a rational investor,” said Mike Griffin, the chairman and chief executive of Schafer Corporation and a former NASA administrator. However, he said, commercial ventures could support a government-led facility there by transporting cargo.
The Moon Village concept is, for now, just that: a concept without a specific technical design, budget or schedule. “It’s an open situation,” Woerner said at a Space Transportation Association luncheon here Dec. 10. “It depends totally on what the different entities would like to provide and at what time.”
Woerner reiterated that at the later COMSTAC teleconference. “There are people trying to convince me already about the architecture” of the facility, he said. “For me, the more important thing is that we together decide on a global, international scheme.”

California Drafts Road Rules for Autonomous Cars, Upsets Google

As reported by GizmagTo many, the concept of self-driving cars will still seem absurd. In California, however, they are very real. Not only has testing been allowed on its public roads since last year, but the California Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) has now drafted regulations for the public use of autonomous cars.  

California issued its first permit for testing an autonomous vehicle on its public roads to Audi in last September. Only this week we reported on its most recent license for testing, awarded to Ford. Now, though, the DMV is looking to set down what will be required in order for members of the public to operate autonomous cars as a matter of course.

The DMV says the "draft regulations are intended to promote the continued development of autonomous vehicle technology in California, while transitioning manufacturers from testing to deployment of self-driving cars." Among the issues that the regulations seek to address are vehicle safety, certification, operator responsibilities, licensing and registration, privacy, and cyber-security
The regulations will not simply be dictated from on high, however, but will be publicly consulted on first. Workshops will be carried out to gather input from industry, consumer and public interest groups, academics and the public.
"The primary focus of the deployment regulations is the safety of autonomous vehicles and the safety of the public who will share the road with these vehicles," says DMV director Jean Shiomoto. "We want to get public input on these draft regulations before we initiate the formal regulatory rule making process."

Key points

The DMV has outlined four key facets of the regulations. Firstly, manufacturers must certify that their autonomous cars comply with safety and performance standards and must allow the vehicles to undergo an independent performance verification carried out by a third-party.
If approved, manufacturers will be awarded three-year provisional permits. As part of the licensing, they will be required to report regularly on the performance, safety and usage of their vehicles. The provisional permits are described as a "first step towards the full deployment of autonomous vehicles in California," and the data collected will be used to inform subsequent regulations by the DMV.
With regards to privacy and cyber-security, not only must manufacturers let the DMV know if any information is to be collected other than that required to safely operate their autonomous cars, they must also seek permission to collect the additional information. The vehicles must also be able to detect and respond to cyber-attacks or other unauthorized intrusions, alert the operator and allow for an operator override.
Finally, a licensed driver, or "operator," must be in the vehicle when it is in use and able to take control of it in the event of a problem. Cars designed to be completely driverless, like that being tested by Google, are to be initially excluded from being granted licenses until their safety and performance can be further evaluated and the regulations revised accordingly.

Google "disappointed"

As you would expect, this final point appears not to have gone down well with Google. The New York Times reports that Google spokeswoman Courtney Hohne wrote in an emailed statement: "Safety is our highest priority and primary motivator as we do this. We're gravely disappointed that California is already writing a ceiling on the potential for fully self-driving cars to help all of us who live here."
Google will no doubt take the opportunity to make its opinions known during the consultation period and the regulations may yet be altered before they are set in stone. Even then, of course, there may be opportunities for the regulations to be revised to allow for the roll-out of fully driverless autonomous cars on California's roads. If not, Google may have to consider keeping the steering wheel and controls with which it's been testing its cars for an initial public roll-out.
Two public workshops addressing the draft regulations will take place at California State University in Sacramento on Jan. 28 and at the Junipero Serra Building in LA on Feb. 2.
The full text of the draft regulations can be found on the California DMV website.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

The First Person to Hack the iPhone Built a Self-Driving Car. In His Garage.

As reported by The VergeBloomberg Business has a profile this week of George Hotz — better known to some as "Geohot," a pioneer in the early iPhone jailbreaking scene that let owners put custom apps on their devices for the first time. Now, he's got a very different hobby: making an autonomous car based on an ordinary Acura ILX sedan. It seems to actually work, sort of, which is especially incredible considering that he's working on it alone and he just started on the project in October.
The electronics in George Hotz’s glove compartmentHotz, a prodigy who has spent years bouncing between high-tech jobs that he hasn't found intellectually satisfying, is going it alone with a company he calls His goal is to take down Mobileye, a supplier of driving assistance systems that helps power Tesla's Autopilot system, among others in the auto industry. Intriguingly, Bloombergreports that Hotz's work has caught the attention of Elon Musk himself, who had offered him a job working on homegrown Autopilot software — "I'm happy to work out a multimillion-dollar bonus with a longer time horizon that pays out as soon as we discontinue Mobileye," Musk is said to have emailed — but Hotz declined, citing Musk's ever-changing deal terms.
George Hotz in his Acura ILX
Hotz says his system is substantially different from those on the market today, because he doesn't rely on preprogrammed rules about driving; everything his system knows is through artificially intelligent deep learning that it gathered by "watching" Hotz drive. (He says he'll be driving Uber for a few months to train the system rapidly.) The problem may be that an optimal self-driving car doesn't always behave like a human driver — humans make mistakes, and many of us simply aren't very good drivers in the first place — but perhaps substantial learning from a wide set of drivers would even it out over time.
There's no immediate plans for commercialization; Hotz just started working on this a few weeks ago, after all, and the interior of the ILX looks like a mess of computers, modules, and wires. But longer term, he'd like to sell his system to automakers or as a kit directly to consumers for about $1,000 (California-based Cruise is trying to do something similar). In a few months, he plans to film a video of his system "outperforming" a Model S in Autopilot mode across the Golden Gate Bridge, which Tesla's system apparently struggles with due to poor lane markings. After that, perhaps Musk — or any one of the dozens of other companies going full-bore on autonomous tech — will make him an offer he can't refuse.
George Hotz in his garage

Hyundai Fuel Cell Vehicles Testing Autonomous Driving Features in the US

As reported by GizMagAfter receiving the all clear from the state of Nevada, Hyundai has commenced testing a pair of fully autonomous Tucson Fuel Cell vehicles on the state's public roads. The program is aimed at gauging the cars' performance in real-world conditions and fast-tracking the Korean automaker's autonomous driving technologies.  

Tae-Won Lim, Vice President, Central Advanced Research and Engineering Institute of Hyundai Motor Group with Deputy ...
Tae-Won Lim, Vice President, Central Advanced Research and
Engineering Institute of Hyundai Motor Group
with Deputy Administrator of Nevada Department
of Motor Vehicles, Robin Allender in front of a fully autonomous
Tucson FCV
Although this is the first test of a fully-autonomous Fuel Cell vehicle on public roads in the US, but Hyundai has been testing the capabilities of its autonomous Tucson Fuel Cell in Korea since November 2014. In that time it has covered more than 10,000 mi (16,100 km) of highways, city streets and private test tracks to assess how the car handles traffic signals, signs, pedestrians, cyclists and other hazards.  

Equipped with an around view monitor, GPS, blind spot radar, cruise control radar, ultrasonic sensor and LIDAR, the self-driving Tucson Fuel Cell boasts four main autonomous features. These include the ability to drive autonomously on controlled roads, track the vehicle in front amongst moderate to high traffic at up to 37 mph (60 km/h), pull over to the side of the road in case of emergency and autonomously guide itself through narrow roads.  

"A great deal of research and rigorous product testing will need to be undertaken in order to make the 'self-driving car' a reality," says Tae-Won Lim, Vice President, Central Advanced Research and Engineering Institute of Hyundai Motor Group. "Thanks to this license we will be able to accelerate the testing of our latest autonomous technologies. We are confident that our latest innovations, both for partially- and fully-autonomous driving, will ultimately make driving safer for all road users."