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Monday, March 30, 2015

Drive from Europe to the U.S.? Russia Proposes World's Greatest Superhighway

As reported by CNN: London to New York City by car?  It could happen if the head of Russian Railways has his way.

According to a March 23 report in The Siberian Times, Russian Railways president Vladimir Yakunin has proposed a plan for a massive trans-Siberian highway that would link his country's eastern border with the U.S. state of Alaska, crossing a narrow stretch of the Bering Sea that separates Asia and North America.

The scheme was unveiled at a meeting of the Moscow-based Russian Academy of Science.

Dubbed the Trans-Eurasian Belt Development (TEPR), the project calls for a major roadway to be constructed alongside the existing Trans-Siberian Railway, along with a new train network and oil and gas pipelines.

"This is an inter-state, inter-civilization, project," the Siberian Times quoted Yakunin. "The project should be turned into a world 'future zone,' and it must be based on leading, not catching, technologies."

"Are we there yet?"
The road would run across the entirety of Russia, linking with existing road systems in Western Europe and Asia.

The distance between Russia's western and eastern borders is roughly 10,000 kilometers (6,200 miles).

Yakunin said the road would connect Russia with North America via Russia's far eastern Chukotka region, across the Bering Strait and into Alaska's Seward Peninsula.

The road would likely enter Alaska some distance north of the town of Nome, where the famed Iditarod sled dog race ends.

How would drivers span the ocean gap between Siberia and Alaska? Ferry? Tunnel? Bridges?

The report didn't offer specifics on the route across the sea.

The main route of the Trans-Siberian railway runs from Moscow to Vladivostok and covers 9,258 kilometers.
The main route of the Trans-Siberian railway runs from Moscow
to Vladivostok and covers 9,258 kilometers.
The shortest distance between mainland Russia and mainland Alaska is approximately 88 kilometers (55 miles), according to the Alaska Public Lands Information Centers.

Relatively isolated even by Alaska standards, no road connects Nome with the rest of the state's road system.

About 836 road-less kilometers (520 miles) across desolate terrain separates Nome from the closest major city and road network in Fairbanks, the unofficial northern terminus of the Alaska Highway.

From Fairbanks, Canada and the 48 contiguous U.S. states can be reached by road.
Assuming a road to Nome were ever built (the idea has been studied by the state of Alaska), a fantasy road trip from London to New York might cover a grueling but presumably photo-op-laden 20,777 kilometers (12,910 miles).

Facebook posts from forlorn Siberian rest stops might alone make the trip worthwhile, though the journey would also easily establish irritating new records for "Are we there yet?" gripes from the kids.

Who's gonna pay for this thing?
Yakunin has been described as a close friend of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Some sources have speculated that he could be Putin's likely successor as president.
TEPR would reportedly cost "trillions of dollars."

According to Yakunin, however, massive economic returns would more than make up for the massive cash outlay -- about which the report also included no details. 

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Watch SpaceX Test its Amazing SuperDraco Rockets from a Few Feet Away

As reported by The VergeThe Space Shuttle was cool in action, but on paper it sounded like a particularly capacious way to get to work in the mornings. Spaceships should really have cooler names. Elon Musk's SpaceX understands this — the private company's newest Dragon craft is equipped with four SuperDraco pods, each with two engines that belch vast plumes of fire that could help the manned module separate in the case of emergency. Were it up to NASA, I bet they'd have called SpaceX's upcoming craft "the Big Flying Bus," or "Sky Subway."

It's those SuperDraco engines being tested in the video above. SpaceX captured its abort procedure in a Vine, showing both engines firing up with a movie-esque woomph, before flaring out in a puff of fire. NASA — which plans to use the SpaceX Dragon craft to ferry its astronauts into space from 2018 — says the successful performance of the engines will ensure the safety of the craft and the precious human cargo it contains.

NASA is Giving the Moon its Own Moon

As reported by the Independent: NASA will use a robotic arm to grab a boulder and send it into orbit around the moon, giving it its own moon, allowing astronauts to study the rock as it flies around the Earth.

The Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) will also allow NASA to demonstrate many of the technologies that will carry humans to Mars. "The option to retrieve a boulder from an asteroid will have a direct impact on planning for future human missions to deep space and begin a new era of spaceflight," said NASA associate administrator Robert Lightfoot.
The technology used could also help NASA defend the planet from future asteroid impacts. During the mission, the agency will try out the techniques that it could use to throw an asteroid off course if it were coming towards Earth.

NASA refers to the robotic arm plan as “option B”, and was selected over another plan that would see an entire asteroid redirected. In the successful plan, a robotic arm will land on an asteroid big enough to have suitable boulders on it, and then throw one of those into orbit around the moon.

NASA said that it will pick an asteroid no earlier than 2019, and will launch the spacecraft carrying the throwing robot about a year later. NASA has identified three candidates already — and expects to find one or two more per year — all of which will be examined for their shape, size, orbit and other characteristics before they are chosen.

When the asteroid is chosen, and the craft landed on it, robot arms will be deployed to grab a boulder. The unmanned ship will then send the boulder into orbit over a number of years.

The same technology could be used in future to save us from asteroids that are headed towards the earth. The robot could eventually defend the planet by using a technique called a “gravity tractor” — if it heads towards the asteroid, the robot’s gravity can throw off the course of an asteroid without touching it. That will work even better if the robot can successfully grab a boulder, giving it more mass and more gravitational pull.

The mission will also be testing out technologies for future missions into deep space.

The plan will make use of Solar Electric Propulsion, for instance, which allows spacecraft to convert sunlight into electric power and use that to move through space. Using that technique is less efficient than burning fuel, but means that space missions will need much less fuel and fewer launches, bringing down costs.

That technology could eventually be used to send out cargo or vehicles to be picked up by astronauts on their way to Mars. Objects could be sent out into space to work as a waypoint, or be ready for humans when they arrive on the red planet.

It will also give a chance to use new systems, as astronauts head out to the asteroid to study it. They will be able to jump out of the Orion space capsule, wearing new space suits designed for deep space missions, and collect samples that could then be returned to Earth for study.

"Asteroids are a hot topic," said Jim Green, director of NASA Planetary Science. "Not just because they could pose a threat to Earth, but also for their scientific value and NASA's planned mission to one as a stepping stone to Mars." 

NASA has been receiving more and more money from the US Congress to fund its asteroid observations work, known as the Near-Earth Object Observations Program. It has been finding an increasing number of near-Earth objects, helping find rocks that could pose a threat to life on Earth.

Recently, the program spotted asteroid 2014-YB35, which will skim past the Earth this Friday.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Delta IV launches with GPS IIF-9

As reported by NASA Spaceflight: United Launch Alliance (ULA) has launched the ninth Block IIF Global Positioning System navigation satellite Wednesday in an afternoon launch from Cape Canaveral. Liftoff, atop a Delta IV rocket, was on schedule at 14:36 EDT (18:36 UTC), at the opening of what was an 18-minute window at  Space Launch Complex 37B.

Delta IV Launch:
The GPS IIF-9 satellite is the ninth of twelve Block IIF satellites intended to replenish and modernise the US Air Force’s Global Positioning System.

A fleet of spacecraft in Medium Earth Orbit dedicated to providing precise navigation data for military and civilian users, the GPS system was developed in the 1970s and 1980s, with deployment of the first operational satellite occurring on 14 February 1989 following a series of eleven test spacecraft.

Those test spacecraft, which were significantly smaller and lighter than their operational successors, have become known as GPS Block I and were carried into orbit by Atlas E/F rockets with SGS upper stages.

Operational flights from 1989 to 2009 made use of the Delta II rocket, with deployed nine Block II and nineteen Block IIA satellites to take the constellation to operational capacity in the mid-1990s. Twenty one Block IIR and IIRM replenishment satellites were launched between 1997 and 2009 to maintain the operational status of the network.

2015-03-25 12_10_18-div_gpsiif9_mob.pdfThe Block IIF series, which began launching in 2010, are an interim batch of 12 spacecraft designed to replenish the constellation and provide new capabilities, such as the L5 navigation frequency, ahead of the introduction of third-generation Block IIIA satellites – now planned for early 2017.

Block IIF satellites are manufactured by Boeing, in contrast to earlier satellites that were built by Lockheed Martin or Rockwell.
With a mass of 1,630 kilograms (3,590 lb), the new spacecraft are slightly lighter than their predecessors, however this is accounted for by their omission of an apogee motor – instead relying on the more powerful Atlas V and Delta IV rockets to deliver them directly into their operational orbits. Each Block IIF satellite is designed to operate for 12 years.

Each satellite in the IIF series has been named after a star. Previous missions have been named Polaris, Sirius, Arcturus, Vega, Canopus, Rigel, Capella and Spica; the GPS IIF-9 mission is Deneb after the brightest star in the constellation Cygnus.

Wednesday’s mission made use of a Delta IV rocket, flying in the Medium+(4,2) configuration. Consisting of a single Common Booster Core (CBC) first stage, a four-metre Delta Cryogenic Second Stage (DCSS) and a pair of GEM-60 solid rocket motors to augment the CBC’s thrust at liftoff, the Medium+(4,2) is the most-flown version of the rocket with liftoff marking its thirteenth flight. Across all configurations it was the twenty-ninth Delta IV to fly.

The rocket was number D371, indicating it as the 371st Delta series rocket to fly. This number is somewhat spurious, however, as the count includes rockets with little relation to the original Thor-Delta series, such as the Delta IV, while excluding closer relatives that were not named Delta, such as the N-I and N-II vehicles produced under licence in Japan.
2015-03-25 12_08_16-index.php (768×960)
First launched in 2002, the Delta IV was developed by Boeing, alongside Lockheed Martin’s Atlas V, to compete for contracts under the US Air Force’s Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) program. Both rockets, along with Boeing’s older Delta II, were transferred to United Launch Alliance (ULA) upon its formation in 2006.

ULA has recently announced plans to retire the Delta IV in favour of the cheaper Atlas and its proposed next-generation vehicle intended eventually to replace both rockets.
ULA currently envisages the Medium and Medium+ configurations being phased out in the next four years, with Delta IV Heavy launches continuing until a new vehicle is certified to carry equivalent payloads.

2015-03-25 12_12_00-index.php (2000×3000)Despite its plans to retire the Delta, ULA announced last week that it had been awarded a contract for deployment of NASA’s Solar Probe Plus (SPP) mission using a Delta IV in July 2018. Due to SPP’s required target orbit, the Delta IV Heavy is the only qualified rocket in the US fleet capable of launching it, and only with the aid of a Star 48B upper stage.

The GPS launch took place from Space Launch Complex 37B at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

Constructed for unmanned tests of the Saturn I rocket during the Apollo program, Launch Complex 37 supported several Saturn I and IB flights in the mid-1960s, ending with the Apollo 5 flight that tested the Lunar Module in Earth orbit.

The old pad was demolished in the 1970s, with Boeing constructing a new facility close to the site when it began the Delta IV program in the late 1990s.

Wednesday’s launch began with ignition of the Delta IV’s RS-68 main engine. At the zero mark in the countdown the two GEM-60 solid rocket motors ignited and the vehicle will begin its ascent towards orbit.

Executing a series of pitch and yaw manoeuvres beginning eight seconds into the flight, Delta 371 flew out over the Atlantic on an azimuth of 46.16 degrees. The rocket reached Mach 1, the speed of sound, 48.4 seconds after liftoff, passing through the area of maximum dynamic pressure (max-Q) thirteen seconds later.
2015-03-25 12_13_12-div_gpsiif9_mob.pdf
Burnout of the solid rocket motors occurred one minute and thirty five seconds after liftoff, the spent motors remaining attached for 5.1 seconds before separating. Four minutes and 28.1 seconds after launch Main Engine Cutoff, or MECO, occurred with the RS-68 shutting down to conclude its burn.

Seven seconds after MECO the spent first stage was jettisoned, with second stage ignition taking place fourteen and a half seconds after staging, once the upper stage engine nozzle had been extended.

The Delta Cryogenic Second Stage (DCSS) is powered by a single RL10B-2 engine which, like the first stage, burns liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen.

Wednesday’s mission calls for it to make two burns, the first to establish a transfer orbit and the second at apogee to circularise the payload’s deployment orbit. Unlike earlier-generation spacecraft, Block IIF GPS satellites are deployed directly into their operational orbits.
The second stage’s first burn lasted eleven minutes and 1.3 seconds, with separation of the rocket’s payload fairing occurring ten and a half seconds after ignition. At the burn’s conclusion, the flight entered a coast phase, with the upper stage and spacecraft drifting towards apogee for the next two hours, 46 minutes and 29.2 seconds.

2015-03-25 12_16_06-div_gpsiif9_mob.pdfA one minute, 46.1-second burn at the end of the coast phase will raise the orbit’s perigee. At spacecraft separation, which will take place ten minutes and 41.4 seconds after the end of the second burn, the vehicle will be in a circular orbit at an altitude of 20,459 kilometres (12,712 miles, 11,047 nautical miles) and an inclination of 55 degrees.

The first Delta IV launch of the year, Wednesday’s mission was the seventh US launch of 2015 and the fourth for ULA – who have already flown three missions since January with their Atlas V and Delta II vehicles.

The next mission for United Launch Alliance will occur in May, with an Atlas deploying the AFSPC-5 mission while the Delta IV’s next flight is slated for July with a Wideband Global Satcom spacecraft. A further Delta launch is expected in September with the NROL-45 mission – expected to be a Topaz radar imaging satellite – from Vandenberg.

Following the launch of the GPS IIF-9 satellite, three Block IIF spacecraft will remain to fly. These are scheduled for Atlas V launches in June, September and next January. The next GPS launch atop a Delta rocket is scheduled for early 2017 when the vehicle will boost the first GPS IIIA spacecraft into orbit.

Tesla Model S Owners Will Benefit From a Twin-Charging Option

As reported by AutoEvolution: We’re beginning to think they never sleep at Tesla Motors, because something is always happening with Elon Musk’s company, there are always two or three things that need improvement and we incline to say that’s a good thing, especially from an owner’s point of view.

This time, Tesla Motors are taking measures regarding their destination charging initiative, a movement that has already gained a lot of momentum in the United States and in other areas around the world such as China and Hong Kong.

But while Europe might be the next target on Tesla’s agenda, the Pato Alto company decided to equip Model S vehicles with dual chargers, in an attempt to boost revenue in the near future.

According to Teslarati, this shift was identified by Tesla Motors Club commenters at the beginning of March, just after Elon Musk’s company removed the twin charger option from the Tesla Design Studio platform. However, there’s no need to worry, as Tesla service centers will install Model S cars with an onboard twin-charger. This won’t be done free of charge, but owners will have to pay $2,000 instead of $3,500.

As you know, any Tesla Model S can be configured with the Single Charger or Dual Chargers. The latter option enables twice the conversion capacity as the Single Charger when power is available, a solution that might tempt current owners who are looking to go on all-electric road trips and need quick charge at their destination.

This could also make life easy for customers who are used to drive around crowded cities all day long and can only afford a short break at the end of the day, before heading back home. Add the HPWC (High Power Wall Charger ) to the equation and range anxiety takes another hit, after the one it suffered after Elon Musk’s press conference from last week.

New Car Tech Can Prevent You From Accidentally Speeding

As reported by Ford Social: Breaking the speed limit is not something we always do on purpose. All the same, it can be costly in terms of fines, and driving bans, as well as playing a significant role in many road accidents.

In the U.K. alone, in 2013, more than 15,000 drivers received fines of £100 or more for speeding.

Ford is now launching Intelligent Speed Limiter, a technology that could help prevent drivers from unintentionally exceeding speed limits.

The system monitors road signs with a camera mounted on the windscreen, and slows the vehicle as required. As the speed limit rises, the system allows the driver to accelerate up to the set speed – providing it does not exceed the new limit.

“Drivers are not always conscious of speeding and sometimes only becoming aware they were going too fast when they receive a fine in the mail or are pulled over by law enforcement,” said Stefan Kappes, active safety supervisor, Ford of Europe. “Intelligent Speed Limiter can remove one of the stresses of driving, helping ensure customers remain within the legal speed limit.”

Further new technologies available for the new S-MAX include the Pedestrian Detection system that will reduce the severity of some collisions involving vehicles and pedestrians, or help drivers avoid some impacts altogether.

The S-MAX is also equipped to help out at junctions where it is difficult to see.  At low speeds a camera fitted in the grill monitors the view from the front of the car, which is then displayed inside the car.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

US Fixing Software Glitch with Boeing GPS Satellites

As reported by Reuters: The U.S. Air Force Sunday it is working to resolve a technical error that affected some Boeing Co Global Positioning System (GPS) satellites, although it did not hurt the accuracy of GPS signals received by users around the world.

Air Force Space Command said the glitch appeared to involve the ground-based software used to index, or sort, some messages transmitted by GPS IIF satellites built by Boeing, but officials were still investigating other possible causes.

Lockheed Martin Corp runs the GPS "ground control" segment, which enables Air Force officials to operate all GPS satellites, including the IIF satellites built by Boeing.

The Air Force said the issue came to light in recent days, but a close examination of archived data showed the problem had gone unnoticed since 2013. It gave no details of the extent of the problem, its impact on the overall system or how it had come to light.

It said the glitch appeared related to the ground software that builds and uploads messages transmitted by GPS satellites, resulting in an occasional message failing to meet U.S. technical specifications.

The Air Force said it had put in place a temporary solution and officials were working on a permanent fix.

Boeing, prime contractor for the GPS IIF satellites, had no immediate comment on the news, which comes days before the Air Force is due to launch the ninth GPS IIF satellite into space.

Lockheed officials also had no immediate comment.

Air Force Space Command spokesman Andy Roake said it was unclear which contractor was responsible for the problem.

GPS is a space-based worldwide navigation system that provides users with highly accurate data on position, timing and velocity 24 hours a day, in all weather conditions.

The system is used by the military for targeting precision munitions and steering drones. It also has a wide range of commercial applications, including verification of automated bank transactions, farming and tracking shipments of packages. Car navigation systems and mobile phones use GPS to determine their location.

Boeing is under contract to build 12 GPS IIF satellites. The first of the GPS IIF satellites was launched in May 2010.

Three GPS/GNSS Satellite Launches Coming Up

Galileo satellites being moved prior to mating with the Fregat stage of a Soyuz rocket in preparation for a March 27th 2015 launch.
As reported by Inside GNSS: Four GNSS satellites will be launched during the coming week: a GPS Block IIF, two full operational capability (FOC) Galileo spacecraft, and an Indian Regional Navigation Satellite System (IRNSS) satellite.

United Launch Alliance (ULA) will send the ninth GPS IIF into space on Wednesday (March 25, 2015) from Cape Canaveral, Florida; a Russian Soyuz rocket will lift the Galileo FOC 3 and 4 into orbit from Korou, French Guiana on Friday, March 27; and India’s Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle will carry the fourth IRNSS payload from Satish Dhawan Space Center on Saturday, March 28.

The Air Force Second Space Operations Squadron (2 SOPS) indicates that IIF-9 (identified by space vehicle and pseudorandom noise code, respectively, as SVN-71/PRN-26) will replace SVN-35 (currently being operated in Launch, Anomaly Resolution and Disposal Operations or LADO status) in the B plane slot 1F.

Meanwhile, SVN-38/PRN-08 will be taken out of the operational constellation prior to SVN-71 payload initialization and sent to LADO. PRN-08 will be assigned to SVN-49 in May and set to test, but is tentatively scheduled for assignment to IIF-10 to launch on June 16.  SVN-35, launched on August 30, 1993, has been in a residual status since March 2013 in an expanded node slot in the B plane, having served 21.5 years, 14.0 years beyond its designed service life.
The launch of India's fourth Navigation Satellite IRNSS-1D is scheduled for Saturday March 28th.

The US Air Force Will Train with Remote-Controlled F-16s

As reported by Engadget: To keep their skills sharp, US Air Force pilots routinely fly simulated sorties against domestic planes with similar flight capabilities to that of enemy planes. For years, this decoy duty has fallen to specially modified, unmanned F-4 Phantom IIs, however these Vietnam-era fighters can no longer keep up with America's modern warplanes. That's why the USAF recently took delivery of a new breed of autonomous target based on the venerable F-16 Fighting Falcon.

Boeing delivered the first of an expected 126 remote controlled QF-16 target drones to Florida's Tyndall Air Force Base last week. "It was a little different to see it without anyone in it, but it was a great flight all the way around," USAF Lt. Col. Ryan Inman said in a 2013 statement. "It's a replication of current, real world situations and aircraft platforms they can shoot as a target. Now we have a 9G capable, highly sustainable aerial target."

Another five QF-16s are currently being outfitted as part of the company's initial pre-production run and are expected to enter service by early October. They'll be employed by the 82nd Aerial Targets Squadron as stand-ins for the MiG-29 Fulcrum and Sukhoi Su-27 Flanker, a pair of fighter jets that our forces are likely to encounter should Russia's recent spate of saber-rattling and annexations lead to actual armed conflict.

Monday, March 23, 2015

US Navy Will Fire Fighter Jets Into the Air With Electromagnets

As reported by Engadget: For the last 60 years, the US Navy has launched fighters from carrier decks using steam catapults. While that made for some atmospheric Top Gun shots, the jerky motion adds wear-and-tear to aircraft and pilots alike. The military is now ready to test the next generation Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System (EMALS) aboard the new USS Gerald R. Ford after successful land trials (see the video below). EMALS uses a prescribed dose of electromagnetic energy to smoothly launch a variety of aircraft at the precise speeds needed, reducing stress on airframes. It's more adaptable to different aircraft and launch conditions than current catapults, and is well-suited for lightweight drone systems like the X-47B now aboard US carriers.

Starting in June, the Navy will start catapulting "dead loads" into a river. Eventually, EMALS will launch F/A-18 Super Hornets, EA-18G Growlers, E2D Advanced Hawkeyes and other craft aboard Ford-class ships, which can pump out three times the voltage (13,800 volts) of older carriers. It will also catapult the controversial F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, which has already been tested with EMALS at the Lakehurst land proving ground. The Navy's F-35C Lightning II variant recently went through a two-week sea trial with 124 successful "cat shots" on a regular steam launcher and is scheduled to go into service by 2018.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Startup Promises Business Insights from Satellite Images Using 'Deep Learning' AI

Orbital Insight is using deep learning to find financially useful information in aerial imagery.  For instance, Orbital insight's software can identify objects such as crude oil containers as shown above.
As reported by MIT Technology Review: The next time you drive to Home Depot you may help a Wall Street firm decide whether it should invest in the company. A startup called Orbital Insight is using commercially available satellite imagery and machine learning to analyze the parking lots of 60 different retail chains to assess their performance.

Founder James Crawford expects images from above to provide all sorts of business intelligence. “We’re just starting to discover what can be done with this kind of large-scale data,” says the alum of both NASA and the Google project that digitized over 20 million books.

The shadows in such images can indicate the fullness of a container.
Interest in satellite imaging is growing, and the cost is coming down. Google snatched up the satellite-image-processing company Skybox Imaging last August, and today Google Ventures and other investors, including Sequoia and Bloomberg Beta, announced they had sunk $8.7 million into Crawford’s company.
Orbital Insight is using a promising new technique known as deep learning to find economic trends through satellite-image analysis. Deep learning uses a hierarchy of artificial “neurons” to learn to recognize patterns in data (see “Deep Learning”).

To predict retail sales based on retailers’ parking lots, humans at Orbital Insights use Google Street View images to pinpoint the exact location of the stores’ entrances. Satellite imagery is acquired from a number of commercial suppliers, some of it refreshed daily. Software then monitors the density of cars and the frequency with which they enter the lots.

Crawford’s company can also use shadows in a city to gather information on rates of construction, especially in secretive places like China. Satellite images could also predict oil yields before they’re officially reported because it’s possible to see how much crude oil is in a container from the height of its lid. Scanning the extent and effects of deforestation would be useful to both investors and environmental groups.

Over time, Orbital Insight’s software can identify trends and make predictions. “Then it’s not an image anymore—it’s some sort of measurement,” Crawford says.

That still leaves open the question of an unwanted eye in the sky. Not everyone likes the idea of being monitored as they run errands, and businesses may reject the idea of being watched from space. Crawford says satellites are already collecting this information—intelligence agencies have been using it for decades—and Orbital Insights is just making sense of the data.

“A satellite can cover every square inch of the earth every two weeks. You can’t stop that,” he says. “We don’t drive what imagery the satellite takes.”

Farmers of the Future Will Utilize Drones, Robots and GPS

As reported by Today's agriculture has transformed into a high-tech enterprise that most 20th-century farmers might barely recognize.

After all, it was only around 100 years ago that farming in the US transitioned from animal power to combustion engines. Over the past 20 years the (GPS), and other new tools have moved farming even further into a technological wonderland.

Beyond the now de rigeur air conditioning and stereo system, a modern large tractor's enclosed cabin includes computer displays indicating machine performance, position and operating characteristics of attached machinery like seed planters.

And as amazing as today's technologies are, they're just the beginning. Self-driving machinery and flying robots able to automatically survey and treat crops will become commonplace on farms that practice what's come to be called precision .

The ultimate purpose of all this high-tech gadgetry is optimization, from both an economic and an environmental standpoint. We only want to apply the optimal amount of any input (water, fertilizer, pesticide, fuel, labor) when and where it's needed to efficiently produce high crop yields.

Global positioning gives hyperlocal info
GPS provides accurate location information at any point on or near the earth's surface by calculating your distance from at least three orbiting satellites at once. So farming machines with GPS receivers are able to recognize their position within a farm field and adjust operation to maximize productivity or efficiency at that location.

Take the example of soil fertility. The farmer uses a GPS receiver to locate preselected field positions to collect soil samples. Then a lab analyzes the samples, and creates a fertility map in a geographic information system. That's essentially a computer database program adept at dealing with geographic data and mapping. Using the map, a farmer can then prescribe the amount of fertilizer for each field location that was sampled. Variable-rate technology (VRT) fertilizer applicators dispense just exactly the amount required across the field. This process is an example of what's come to be known as precision agriculture.

Info, analysis, tools
Precision agriculture requires three things to be successful. It needs site-specific information, which the soil-fertility map satisfies. It requires the ability to understand and make decisions based on that site-specific information. Decision-making is often aided by computer models that mathematically and statistically analyze relationships between variables like and the yield of the crop.

Finally, the farmer must have the physical tools to apply the management decisions. In the example, the GPS-enabled VRT fertilizer applicator serves this purpose by automatically adjusting its rate as appropriate for each field position. Other examples of precision agriculture involve varying the rate of planting seeds in the field according to soil type and using sensors to identify the presence of weeds, diseases, or insects so that pesticides can be applied only where needed.

Site-specific information goes far beyond maps of soil conditions and yield to include even satellite pictures that can indicate crop health across the field. Such remotely sensed images are also commonly collected from aircraft. Now unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs, or drones) can collect highly detailed images of crop and field characteristics. These images, whether analyzed visually or by computer, show differences in the amount of reflected light that can then be related to plant health or soil type, for example. Clear crop-health differences in images – diseased areas appear much darker in this case – have been used to delineate the presence of cotton root rot, a devastating and persistent soilborne fungal disease. Once disease extent is identified in a field, future treatments can be applied only where the disease exists. Advantages of UAVs include relatively low cost per flight and high image detail, but the legal framework for their use in agriculture remains under development.

Let's automate
Automatic guidance, whereby a GPS-based system steers the tractor in a much more precise pattern than the driver is capable of is a tremendous success story. Safety concerns currently limit completely driverless capability to smaller machines. Fully autonomous or robotic field machines have begun to be employed in small-scale high profit-margin agriculture such as wine grapes, nursery plants and some fruits and vegetables.
Autonomous machines can replace people performing tedious tasks, such as hand-harvesting vegetables. They use sensor technologies, including that can detect things like location and size of stalks and leaves to inform their mechanical processes. Japan is a trend leader in this area. Typically, agriculture is performed on smaller fields and plots there, and the country is an innovator in robotics. But autonomous machines are becoming more evident in the US, particularly in California where much of the country's specialty crops are grown.

The development of flying robots gives rise to the possibility that most field-crop scouting currently done by humans could be replaced by UAVs with machine vision and hand-like grippers. Many scouting tasks, such as for insect pests, require someone to walk to distant locations in a field, grasp plant leaves on representative plants and turn them over to see the presence or absence of insects. Researchers are developing technologies to enable such flying robots to do this without human involvement.

Breeding + sensors + robots
High-throughput plant phenotyping (HTPP) is an up-and-coming precision agriculture technology at the intersection of genetics, sensors and robotics. It is used to develop new varieties or "lines" of a crop to improve characteristics such as nutritive content and drought and pest tolerance. HTPP employs multiple sensors to measure important physical characteristics of plants, such as height; leaf number, size, shape, angle, color, wilting; stalk thickness; number of fruiting positions. These are examples of phenotypic traits, the physical expression of what a plant's genes code for. Scientists can compare these measurements to already-known genetic markers for a particular plant variety.

The sensor combinations can very quickly measure phenotypic traits on thousands of plants on a regular basis, enabling breeders and geneticists to decide which varieties to include or exclude in further testing, tremendously speeding up further research to improve crops.
Agricultural production has come so far in even the past couple decades that it's hard to imagine what it will look like in a few more. But the pace of high-tech innovations in agriculture is only increasing. Don't be surprised if, 10 years from now, you drive down a rural highway and see a very small helicopter flying over a field, stopping to descend into the crop, use robotic grippers to manipulate leaves, cameras and machine vision to look for insects, and then rise back above the crop canopy and head toward its next scouting location. All with nary a human being in sight.

U.S. Regulators Give Amazon Go-Ahead for Drone Tests

As reported by Reuters: Inc has won approval from U.S. federal regulators to test a delivery drone outdoors, as the e-commerce company pursues its goal of sending packages to customers by air, even as it faces public concern about safety and privacy.

The Federal Aviation Administration said on Thursday it issued an experimental airworthiness certificate to an Amazon business unit and its prototype drone, allowing test flights over private, rural land in Washington state.

The FAA also granted Amazon an exemption from other flight restrictions so the experimental drone can conduct those flights.

The approval is a win for Seattle-based Amazon, the largest e-commerce company in the United States, and advances plans by the company and others to deliver packages using small, self-piloted aircraft.

There are limitations, however. The experimental certificate applies to a particular drone and Amazon must obtain a new certification if it modifies the aircraft or flies a different version, making it difficult to adapt the model quickly in the field. Amazon's petition for permission indicated it was testing several iterations of a drone at an indoor facility in Seattle.

Amazon must keep flights below 400 feet (120 meters) and keep the drone in sight, according to the FAA.

The company had asked for permission to fly at altitudes up to 500 feet (150 meters.)

The drone operators must have private pilot licenses and current medical certification. Amazon must supply monthly data to the regulators.

The company did not respond to requests for comment. Amazon public policy chief Paul Misener is set to testify at a congressional hearing on drones next Tuesday.

As part of Amazon Chief Executive Jeff Bezos' plan to deliver packages under a program dubbed "Prime Air," the company is developing drones that fly at speeds of 50 miles per hour (80 kph), operate autonomously and sense and avoid objects. Amazon also is working with NASA on an air-traffic management system for drones.

Amazon sought permission from the FAA to test drones in outdoor areas near Seattle, where one of its research and development labs is developing the technology. The company has conducted test flights outside the United States, in countries with looser restrictions.

In February, the FAA proposed long-awaited rules to try to set U.S. guidelines for drones, addressing growing interest from both individual and corporations in using unmanned aerial vehicles. The draft rules still must undergo public comment and revision before becoming final, which is expected to take at least a year.

Additionally, Amazon announced one-hour delivery services called 'Prime Now' in Baltimore and Miami.

The service will be available in select zip codes to Amazon Prime subscribers, who pay $99 a year for unlimited free two-day delivery on more than 20 million items. The one-hour service, available through the Prime Now mobile app, costs $7.99, while two-hour delivery will be free.

Amazon Prime's success has blown away the company's projections and "petrified" local and national retailers, said Howard Davidowitz, chairman of Davidowitz & Associates, a national retail consulting and investment banking firm headquartered in New York City.

"If you're a retailer and you're not scared of Amazon ... you should be," he said. "They are the change agent. They are leading the change in retail."

Davidowitz expects the Prime Now program to catch on rapidly in Baltimore the way it has in New York.

The service is made possible by the state-of-the-art fulfillment technology in Amazon's new 1 million-square-foot distribution center in Southeast Baltimore, at the site of the former General Motors plant on Broening Highway and a short drive from much of the city.

That facility will open in the next couple of weeks, said Amazon spokeswoman Kelly Cheeseman.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Tesla's Musk Touts Self-Driving Car, Promises to end 'Range Anxiety'

As reported by the LA Times: New Tesla vehicles will soon be able to steer themselves, park themselves and brake in an emergency, Tesla Motors Chief Executive Elon Musk said.

Such vehicles, already being tested, have driven from San Francisco to Seattle with virtually no driver input, Musk said.

And current Tesla Model S sedans will now be able to tell you exactly how much juice you have in the battery, and exactly what to do about it.

During an invitation-only telephone news conference, the Silicon Valley-based billionaire touted software updates for his company's all-electric Model S that will dramatically reduce the electric vehicle condition known as range anxiety -- the fear that the car will run out of power before it reaches its destination.

Musk said new updates, which will download wirelessly to Model S cars already on the road some time in the next 10 days or so, will scan the locations of all Tesla charging stations and tell drivers exactly how far it is to the best one, and then recommend the best route for getting there.

The new features "are going to make a key difference to people driving the car and their perception of it as they are driving the car," Musk said. "It makes it impossible to run out of range unintentionally. The car will always take care of you."

Musk also promised another set of software updates that will make it possible for the car to drive itself on highways and major roads -- "parking lot to parking lot," he said.

During test drives along a route from the Bay Area to the Northwest, he said, "We are able to travel almost all the way without the driver touching any controls at all."

Perfecting those features will require "a lot of validation testing," Musk cautioned. But these capabilities could be a reality "in three months or so."

The car will also be its own valet, Musk said, though not in public parking lots.

"On private property you will be able to press the 'summon' button and your car will be able to find you," he said. "You can press it again and the car will put itself to bed in the garage, and close the garage door."

Though Musk's motor vehicles are by far the most expensive electric cars on the road -- the lowest-priced Model S goes for over $70,000, while many cost more than $110,000 -- they already offer the greatest range.

Currently, a top-end Model S sedan can get as much as 295 miles out of a single charge, the company has said. Even the entry-level Model S can go 265 miles before recharging.

No other electric vehicle offers even half that. While many EVs now on the road can go 80 to 100 miles between charges, only the Toyota RAV 4 EV cracks the century mark -- and only at an estimated 103 miles.

And, unlike other electric cars, the Tesla comes with a substantial charging infrastructure where most drivers can, for free, refresh their battery life in a short time.

Refueling the battery on a household 110-volt plug could take more than 24 hours. But a Tesla "supercharger," at stations the company has installed across North America, can replenish 80% of the battery's juice in 30 to 40 minutes.

The 12-year-old company currently has only the Model S sedan available through its unique no-dealership sales arrangement.

The company said at the time of its fourth-quarter earnings reports in February that it produced 35,000 Model S vehicles in 2014.

Tesla's long-delayed midsized crossover SUV, the Model X, is expected to begin delivery late this year. The company has said it already has more than 20,000 orders for the highly anticipated falcon-wing X.

Musk said all the dramatic new features currently being applied to the Model S will be available on the Model X as well.