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Friday, July 31, 2015

Even The Oil Industry Asks: Does Tesla Mean The End Of Hydrocarbon Fuels?

As reported by Green Car ReportsIt's not just the cars made by electric-car startup Tesla Motors, or the fact that it's the first new automaker in decades that appears to have a serious chance of long-term success.

The Silicon Valley company is also viewed as a potential disruptor of established players.

In just three years, the Tesla Model S has emerged to become a legitimate competitor to traditional luxury cars from companies that have been around for more than a century.

Not to mention that Tesla's direct-sales model is viewed as a dire threat by traditional franchised auto dealers, who have launched armies of lobbyists to make Tesla direct sales illegal in as many states as possible.

Now a new article suggests that Tesla might eventually take down a much bigger target.

Speculation about whether Tesla could mean the end for hydrocarbon vehicle fuels was the cover story in a recent issue of oil-industry trade magazine Alberta Oil (via Charged EVs).

The cover shows a Model S emerging from a black background, with the headline "Hell On Wheels."

In the article, author Max Fawcett argues that the Model S could be one of the "most dangerous" cars ever made--in terms of its impact on the oil industry.

That's because, by his reckoning, the Tesla sedan has managed to do something that no other electric car has done: "become an object of desire."

Fawcett interviewed Quartz journalist Steve LeVine, author of The Powerhouse, a book on the development of electric-car batteries.

Widening the scope beyond Tesla, LeVine said that improved batteries are more or less inevitable, and that they will dramatically increase demand for electric cars.

He notes that breakthroughs in battery technology don't have to come from carmakers. Electronics manufacturers and other related industries could contribute to the push as well.

And LeVine notes that batteries could be paired with other energy sources--such as hydrogen fuel cells or supercapacitors--to increase the range and performance of zero-emission vehicles.

He predicts the electric-car battery industry could be worth as much as $100 billion by 2030.

That would lead to a major drop in oil consumption, a scenario the oil industry may well not be prepared for.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Some Google Street View Cars Now Track Pollution Levels

As reported by NPR: For years, Google has had eyes in neighborhoods across the world: Google Street View cars armed with cameras, lasers, and GPS devices to filter "360-degree panoramic views" and "locations on all seven continents" to Google Maps.

Now, on top of having eyes, Google's got a nose. It has partnered with Aclima, a company that designs environmental sensor networks, to equip some Google Street View cars with equipment that allows them to track air pollution in real time. The technology will allow the cars to monitor levels of several pollutants: nitrogen dioxide, nitric oxide, ozone, carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, methane, black carbon, particulate matter, and Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs).

A Google technician installing Aclima sensors onto a Street View car.
The Aclima-Google partnership had a test run last year in Denver. Aclima says that experiment clocked 750 hours of drive time and gathered 150 million data points, with just three cars. A new trial has already begun in the Bay Area. That one should wrap up this fall.

"We are for the first time able to really take a city scale snapshot of pollution," Aclima CEO Davida Herzl told NPR. "The existing way that we understand air quality in cities is through government-mandated monitoring stations. But those monitoring stations are sparsely distributed in cities. So we understand kind of what's happening at a regional level, but we don't really understand how pollution moves through a city, how it differs block by block, street by street. ... You can think of it like a photograph with a few pixels. With the partnership with Google, we're now able to fill in those pixels."

The sensor devices, or "mini-mobile labs" as Herzl calls them, fit in the back of the Google Street View cars, and the air samples make it to those sensors from a hole in one of the car windows, through a series of tubes "that look like a jumbo straw." The cars also have small anemometers on the outside that can track temperature and wind flow, among other meteorologic measurements. "It's kind of like we've given the cars a nose," Herzl says.

Google says it's been working with Aclima for years, previously on devices to track pollution within Google buildings. And, Google began working with the Environmental Defense Fund last year, to start tracking methane pollution from underground pipelines.
Google's rendering of how pollution-sensor equipped Google Street View cars "see the air."Aclima
Google says the kind of data Aclima's sensors gather on Google Street View cars could have multiple uses.

"If you're a mother of an asthmatic child you could plan your day using this kind of information," Karin Tuxen-Bettman, Google's lead on the Aclima partnership, told NPR. "If you're a local government, you could look at this kind of information and say, 'What and where can me make some changes on a small scale to have some good impact?' And if you're a scientist you can obviously use this kind of data for models and to help supplement the data that you're already collecting."

The pollution data gathered is being stored in the cloud by Google, and Aclima has already begun sifting through some of that data and publishing some of their findings. Tuxen-Bettman says that right now, Google isn't publishing any of the data itself, but one day, it might. "In the future, yes, Google Earth Engine, Google Earth, and other tools will be used so that all sorts of people can access it [the pollutant data] in different ways." Aclima says its goal is to make the data available to the public as well.

When asked about some of those privacy concerns people might have, Tuxen-Bettman said right now the Google Street View cars equipped with pollution sensors are only taking panoramic views for Google Maps and tracking pollution. "Air quality, right now, that's the only kind of additional experimentation that we're doing [with the Google Street View cars]. Obviously we're exploring what kind of pollutants we could potentially add.

"We understand that a lot of people will have different opinions," she said, "but our intention is that if we provide accurate and useful information about our air, it's gonna do much more good than harm, meaning that the benefits are far going to outweigh any cons. We're excited to finally make the invisible visible."

Whenever there are stories about Google and data, there are questions about just how much data the company is collecting, who can see it, and whether it's being put to good use. You could wonder: If Google Street View cars now have "eyes" and "noses," what else do they have?

Wired previously reported that Google has already come under fire for its Street View cars. A few years ago a Federal Communications Commission document showed that Google Street View cars were collecting Wi-Fi payload data and observing "typical Wi-Fi usage snapshots."

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Amazon Proposes Drones-Only Airspace to Facilitate High-Speed Delivery

As reported by The Guardian:Amazon is proposing that a pristine slice of airspace above the world’s cities and suburbs should be set aside for the deployment of high-speed aerial drones capable of flying robotically with virtually no human interference.  

The retail giant has taken the next step in its ambition to deliver packages via drone within 30 minutes by setting out in greater detail than ever before its vision for the future of robotic flight. It envisages that within the next 10 years hundreds of thousands of small drones – not all of them Amazon’s or devoted to delivery – will be tearing across the skies every day largely under their own automated control.

The company’s aeronautics experts propose that a 200ft slab of air – located between 200ft and 400ft from the ground – should be segregated and reserved for state-of-the-art drones equipped with sophisticated communications and sensing equipment and flying at high speeds of 60 knots or more. A further 100ft of airspace – between 400ft and 500ft – would be declared a no-fly zone to act as a buffer between the drones and current conventional aircraft such as passenger and cargo planes, thus mitigating fears about the impact on manned flight or dangers posed to people on the ground.
Amazon’s plan, unveiled on Tuesday at a NASA UTM Convention at NASA Ames in California, sets out an audacious model for the unleashing of robots above cities and towns across the globe. At the heart of the proposal is the idea that access to the new 200ft slice of airspace would only be granted to those drones equipped with technology that allowed them to fly safely and autonomously.
“The way we guarantee the greatest safety is by requiring that as the level of complexity of the airspace increases, so does the level of sophistication of the vehicle,” said Gur Kimchi, vice-president and co-founder of Amazon’s delivery-by-drone project, Prime Air, who addressed the NASA meeting. “Under our proposal everybody has to be collaborative – vehicles must be able to talk to each other and avoid each other as the airspace gets denser at low altitudes.”
At present there are about 85,000 conventional flights a day in the US involving commercial, cargo, military and general aircraft. Amazon believes that within a decade that number will be dwarfed in the US and globally by unmanned drones flying at low altitudes.
In two new position papers, the online retail company lays down the architecture of a new airspace for drones. It calls for a “paradigm shift” that will allow hundreds of thousands of small unmanned aircraft to fly under their own technological steam without the current involvement of humans through air traffic control.
To realize that futuristic vision safely, Amazon sets out five capabilities that drones must meet if they are to be allowed to fly inside the new 200ft high-speed corridor. They must have:
  • Sophisticated GPS tracking that allows them to pinpoint their location in real-time and in relation to all other drones around them.
  • A reliable Internet connection on-board that allows them to maintain real-time GPS data and awareness of other drones and obstacles.
  • Online flight planning that allows them to predict and communicate their flight path.
  • Communications equipment that allow them to “talk” and collaborate with other drones in the zone to ensure they avoid each other.
  • Sensor-based sense-and-avoid equipment that allows the drones to bypass all other drones and obstacles such as birds, buildings or electric cables.

Under this scenario, drones would take to the skies with virtually no human interaction at all. “We aim to have high levels of safe automation so that the only time intervention is needed is in emergency situations, national security crises and the like,” Kimchi told the Guardian.
The image of the skies filling up with autonomous drones sounds like the script of a Hollywood sci-fi movie. But advances in GPS technology, sensors and internet-based communications are happening so rapidly that the concept is no longer in the realm of fantasy.
Current hobbyist restrictions.
Before it is realized, however, pioneers like Amazon will have to assuage the doubts of privacy activists concerned about the impact on civil liberties and of government regulators worried about how flying robots would interact with manned aircraft. Amazon has been in a long-running tussle with the regulatory Federal Aviation Administration, which the company has accused of dragging its feet over drone innovation.
The other interested party that may take some convincing are amateur drone hobbyists and modelers. Under current rules in the US, they are allowed to fly their aircraft within line of sight up to 400ft as long as they stay away from airports and other out-of-bounds areas.
Under Amazon’s proposals, by contrast, hobbyists would only be allowed to fly within the new 200ft-400ft corridor if their vehicles were equipped with the latest hyper-sophisticated gadgetry for autonomous flight. Otherwise, they would have their activities confined to geographically demarcated airfields in relatively unpopulated areas that would be set aside specifically for the purpose.
Brendan Schulman, who has been building and flying drones as a hobbyist for 20 years and is now a senior executive at the drone manufacturer DJI, said that by far the greatest use of unmanned aerial vehicles today was by amateurs. “That’s currently by far the most common use of the technology, so before you disrupt their experience you want to think carefully about what slice of airspace would really be needed by these new technologies.”
Kimchi said that Amazon did not envisage much change in the way modelers operate under the new proposal. “They will have low-risk areas in more rural areas where they can continue to fly safely to their heart’s content.”
How the FAA regulates American airspace.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Scientists Confirm 'Impossible' EM Drive Propulsion

As reported by Hacked: On Monday, July 27, 2015 German scientists presented new experimental results on the controversial, "impossible" EM Drive, at the American Institute for Aeronautics and Astronautics' Propulsion and Energy Forum in Orlando. The presentation is titled "Direct Thrust Measurements of an EmDrive and Evaluation of Possible Side-Effects."
Presenter Martin Tajmar is a professor and chair for Space Systems at the Dresden University of Technology, interested in space propulsion systems and breakthrough propulsion physics.

A Revolutionary Development for Space Travel
Tajmar's ExperimentThe EM Drive (Electro Magnetic Drive) uses electromagnetic microwave cavities to directly convert electrical energy to thrust without the need to expel any propellant. First proposed by Satellite Propulsion Research, a research company based in the UK founded by aerospace engineer Roger Shawyer, the EM Drive concept was predictably scorned by much of the mainstream research community for allegedly violating the laws of physics, including the conservation of momentum.
However, NASA Eagleworks – an advanced propulsion research group led by Dr. Harold G. “Sonny” White at the Johnson Space Center (JSC) – investigated the EM Drive and presented encouraging test results in 2014 at the 50th Joint Propulsion Conference.
White proposes that the EM Drive’s thrust is due to virtual particles in the quantum vacuum that behave like propellant ions in magneto-hydrodynamical propulsion systems, extracting "fuel" from the very fabric of space-time and eliminating the need to carry propellant. While a number of scientists criticize White's theoretical model, others feel that he is at least pointing to the right direction. The NASASpaceFlight website and forums have emerged as unofficial news source and discussion space for all things related to the EM Drive and related breakthrough space propulsion proposals such as the Cannae Drive.
Shawyer has often been dismissed by the research establishment for not having peer-reviewed scientific publications, but White and Tajmar have impeccable credentials that put them beyond cheap dismissal and scorn. Physics is an experimental science, and the fact that the EM Drive works is confirmed in the lab. "This is the first time that someone with a well-equipped lab and a strong background in tracking experimental error has been involved, rather than engineers who may be unconsciously influenced by a desire to see it work," notes Wired referring to Tajmar's work.
Hacked has obtained a copy of Tajmar's Propulsion and Energy Forum paper, co-authored by G. Fiedler.
"Our measurements reveal thrusts as expected from previous claims after carefully studying thermal and electromagnetic interferences," note the researchers. "If true, this could certainly revolutionize space travel."
The nature of the thrusts observed is still unclear.
"Additional tests need to be carried out to study the magnetic interaction of the power feeding lines used for the liquid metal contacts," conclude the researchers. "Nevertheless, we do observe thrusts close to the magnitude of the actual predictions after eliminating many possible error sources that should warrant further investigation into the phenomena. Next steps include better magnetic shielding, further vacuum tests and improved EMDrive models with higher Q factors and electronics that allow tuning for optimal operation."
Contrary to sensationalist reports published by the sensationalist press, the EM Drive is not a "warp drive" for faster than light travel. It could, however, according to current experimental evidence, be a revolutionary development for faster and cheaper space transportation.
Wired notes that an EmDrive could get to Pluto in less than 18 months and mentions more ambitious ideas including a manned trip to the moons of Saturn with a three-year mission time. "Some damage to our theories of physics is an acceptable payoff if we get a working space drive," concludes the Wired article.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Hawking, Musk and Others Call for a Ban on AI based Autonomous Weapons; but Will it Work?

As reported by EngadgetIf you don't like the thought of autonomous robots brandishing weapons, you're far from alone. A slew of researchers and tech dignitaries (including Elon Musk, Stephen Hawking and Steve Wozniak) have backed an open letter calling for a ban on any robotic weapon where there's no human input involved. They're concerned that there could be an "AI arms race" which makes it all too easy to not only build robotic armies, but conduct particularly heinous acts like assassinations, authoritarian oppression, terrorism and genocide. Moreover, these killing machines could give artificial intelligence a bad name. You don't want people to dismiss the potentially life-saving benefits of robotic technology just because it's associated with death and destruction, after all.

There's nothing legally binding in the letter, but it lends weight to the United Nations' preliminary talk of a global ban on deadly automatons. If officials, academia and the tech industry are all against removing humans from the equation, it's that much more likely that there will be rules forbidding lethal bots. While that doesn't preclude rogue nations and less-than-ethical companies from forging ahead with their own equipment, you might not see a world full of AI-driven warriors.

Perhaps we only need a refresher on Issac Asimov's, Three Laws of Robotics:
1. A robot (or AI system) may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
2. A robot must obey orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.
Later, Asimov added a fourth or zeroth law that preceded the other in terms of priority:  0. A robot may not harm humanity, or, by inaction, allow humanity to come to harm.
Issac Asimov was one of the first to foresee AI/Robotics in the 1960's, and the need for a code of 'morals' for the machines to operate by in order to work cooperatively and safely with humans.  His book of short stories - 'I Robot', was related to the implications of tampering with these basic laws, and their inherent pitfalls.
Any attempts to disable, or circumvent these basic functions should render the system useless; which from a design standpoint is easier said than done.  That is why it may be difficult or impossible to engineer or design into future AI systems in a reliable way.  Keep in mind that 1% (or more) of the human population can and do violate the first law regularly without regard to the social or moral contract with those around them; and they do this even when it's not in their own self-interest; and in some cases simply because it's 'fun'.  
HUM∀NS does a good job of portraying humanoid AI systems
within the 'uncanny valley' of creepiness.
If we are unable to abstract reason within ourselves to uphold such social contracts, embedding them in an intelligent machine that one day could meet or exceed our own level of consciencness our world will evolve in ways that will be fraught with danger previously unimagined in the history of humanity. Without something like the above, we run the risk of creating an intelligence that could be considered purely sociopathic by human standards, while being superior in many ways (think a robotic Hannibal Lecter); which is why we're so fascinated of late with tales of Terminator (Skynet), iRobot, The Matrix, Transcendence, HUM∀NS, The Age of Ultron, and Ex Machina.

However, even if the western societies are in agreement regarding limits on AI, can we depend on other societies with a different view of this technology such as China or Russia to adhere to these rules; especially if it gives them access to a highly competitive technology (think Atomic Bomb)?  What about potential tech savvy terrorist organizations with a desire to destroy any opposing society standing against them (ISIL comes to mind)?  It also seems possible that at some point even benign organizations may consider advanced defensive AI technology out of fear or distrust; and thanks to modern filmmakers, we all have some idea of how that may turn out.

Maybe that is why Elon Musk is shelling out millions to study how to potentially mitigate AI related disasters in the future, as well billions in a technological space-race to establish a Martian colony as quickly as possible.

China Launches Two Satellites as it Builds a GPS Rival

As reported by Physics.orgChina launched two new satellites into space Saturday, state media reported, as it builds a homegrown satellite navigation system to rival the US's Global Positioning System.

A rocket carrying the satellites was launched from the Xichang Satellite Launch Center in southwestern Sichuan province at 8:29 pm (12:29 GMT), the official Xinhua news agency said.
The satellites are the 18th and 19th launched by China as it develops its domestic navigation system Beidou, or Compass. They take the total number launched this year to three.
Beidou is currently centred on the Asia Pacific region but is slated to cover the whole world by 2020.
"The successful launch marks another solid step in building Beidou into a navigation system with global coverage," the satellite launch centre was quoted by Xinhua as saying.
Beidou—named after the Chinese term for the plough or Big Dipper constellation—was announced in 2012, joining the US's GPS, Russia's GLONASS and European Union's Galileo.
It is already used by several Asian countries including Laos, Pakistan and Thailand.
The new satellites will be deployed in "testing a new type of navigation signalling and inter-satellite links" as well as providing , Xinhua said.
The Beidou system is currently used for civilian services such as navigation and messaging, as well as in the transportation and weather forecasting sectors. It also has military applications.
The Beidou system is one of several GPS like systems deployed from various countries around the world.  While the US Global Positioning System was the first and most widely used system, the Russian GLONASS system has been operating for several years as well.  
The EU is currently deploying their version called the GALILEO system.  Japan has deployed the Quazi-Zenith Satellite System (QZSS), a regional tracking system which only covers parts of Asia.  India too is deploying a regional navigation satellite system called the (IRNSS).
Tracking devices that use multiple satellite systems have some advantages over individual or dedicated satellite tracking devices, including redundancy and potential higher position accuracy.  Providers such as the Swiss u-blox can provide devices that will use multiple satellite systems in order to provide higher accuracy positioning for items like cell-phones that can allow for greater E911 location services.
Satellite systems have been known to go down for periods of time.  The Russian GLONASS system suffered a system wide outage in 2014.
In spite of the advantages of using multiple systems, out of concern the FCC in 2014 issued a requirement that all multi-constellation receivers certified for U.S. use ensure that non-GPS constellations were properly licensed in the United States, in spite of the fact that many have been in operation for several years prior to the proclamation.  
A typical Chinese GPS jamming device
for use in a vehicle.  They are illegal to
purchase or use in the USA.
Concerns over interference and potential jamming and 'spoofing' of GPS signals has also prompted the US and the EU to begin deployment of eLoran systems in critical locations throughout the world as a backup to GPS location technology.
The eLoran and GPS systems have come full circle as GPS was designed to provide higher precision location throughout the world by replacing antiquated Loran marine location technology.  Now eLoran technology is coming back to potentially rescue the satellite navigation and location technology which has become so critical to daily life throughout the world.