Subscribe to Popular Science feed
Updated: 2 hours 4 min ago

New York City Restaurant Inspectors May Be Issued Google Glass

Tue, 04/15/2014 - 15:53

Google Glass Flickr/giuseppe.costantino

New York City health inspectors might soon be donning Google Glass as they head out to check restaurants for rats and other hazards, under a recently proposed legislation.

New York City Councilman Vincent Ignizio (R-Staten Island) suggested a yearlong pilot program that requires 10 percent of the current 160 health inspectors to wear video devices — including Google Glass — last week, the New York Post reported.

“I think it would limit the abuses on both sides of the table, and it would allow for a more objective view by the judge on the violations that have been cited,” said Ignizio.

Currently, the bill has gained 22 out of 51 council members’ support. Many signed on because of complaints from both sides, inspectors and restaurants, that better documentation of inspections is needed. The photos and videos would serve as hard evidence for violations that lead to fines.

Backers of the bill want the equipment to be around $200 apiece — Google Glass’s retail price of $1500 plus tax might make it harder to close the deal.

A similar piece of legislation introduced by councilman James Vacca (D-Bronx) would require photographic evidence be present when the violation leads to fines, such as sanitation and health code violations as well as parking offenses, according to the NY Daily News

“People have a right to insist that there be evidence of what they’re being charged with,” Vacca said. “People are basically found guilty until they prove their innocence. I want people to be innocent until proven guilty.”

In related news, today (also Tax Day) Google is opening up registration to the Glass Explorer program for all U.S. residents over 18, giving the nation a one-day-only chance to purchase the $1500 (plus tax) device in various styles.

Snowboarder Glides With Handheld Airplane Thrusters

Tue, 04/15/2014 - 14:00

Dreamscience Propulsion

Dreamscience Propulsion's snowboard thrusters are difficult to describe. It's like: if you stuffed airplane engines in American Gladiator batons? It's like: if you took a boom mic and used it to swat a drone out of the air? Words fail me.

But, here they are: The thrusters, created by the U.K.-based company, let snowboarders—or surfers, or skateboarders—semi-automate their sport. Just hold on to the stick, and you get propelled along. The jet engine simile is probably appropriate, since the gadget uses tiny engines spinning at up to 30,000 RPM, sucking in air to hurtle the snowboarder forward.

Here is a very funny diagram: 

Dreamscience Propulsion

And here is a video of a human being who has made the transformation into a cyborg airboat:



[Dreamscience Propulsion via Laughing Squid]

Finally, A Way To Harvest Hydroelectric Energy From Toilet Flushes

Tue, 04/15/2014 - 12:53



The average American flushes 24 gallons of water down the toilet daily, while—don't get me wrong, toilets; we appreciate all of your hard work—maybe some of the energy used in a flush could be put to an additional use.

Here's one way: harvest some of the energy from the water and use it for power. A team of researchers in South Korea have created a transducer that translates water motion—from toilets, raindrops, or other water-based uses—into electricity. The technical side is wonky, but essentially, by using the motion from a tiny droplet of water—30 microliters—the team was able to power a small green LED. It's a proof-of-concept demonstration, but scale up to a flushing toilet or a rainstorm, and you can see the appeal. 

You can watch the process yourself in the video above.

Robot Sub Searching For Malaysian Jet Finds Itself Out Of Its Depth

Tue, 04/15/2014 - 11:15

A Bluefin-21 AUV at the Surface of the Water After a Mission Bluefin Robotics

The search for Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 has moved underwater, but it's still not easy. A robotic submarine deployed yesterday returned to the surface sooner than expected because it encountered depths beyond its capabilities, Australian broadcaster ABC reports. The search is occurring in the southern Indian Ocean, northwest of the Australian city of Perth.

BBC News has great graphics showing the sea-floor geography around the search area and the ocean-depth capabilities of different robotic submarines. It also has a graphic showing the workings of the robot sub used in this search, a model called Bluefin-21 by Bluefin Robotics. Bluefin-21 is able to operate in depths up to 4,500 meters. If it encounters depths greater than that, it's programmed to automatically return to the surface to protect itself, the BBC reports. As long as the weather is favorable, it's able to operate on its own 24 hours a day, The Boston Globe reports. But the vehicle searchers dropped into the ocean yesterday came up after only six hours underwater, ABC reports.

Searchers plan to put the sub back into the water "later today," ABC reported about 10 hours ago.

Searchers decided to use an autonomous underwater vehicle once they narrowed the search area enough for the vehicle, which moves more slowly than surface ships. Another driving factor was that searchers think the plane's black boxes ran out of battery and are no longer sending out pings that ships can pick up. Bluefin-21 is able to examine the seafloor using sonar and high-definition cameras.

[ABC, BBC News, The Boston Globe]

The Top Patent-Holders In The U.S. [Infographic]

Tue, 04/15/2014 - 08:55

Patent data from IFI claims top 1,000 U.S. assignees for 2013


This article originally appeared in the May 2014 issue of Popular Science.

How Hard Is It To Shoot Down A Small Drone? [Video]

Mon, 04/14/2014 - 15:00

Before the Predator attached the name "drone" to an anti-terror war machine, many militaries flew unmanned planes as targets, so that pilots and anti-aircraft gunners could practice shooting moving objects. Target drones are still flown today, both specific target models and ones converted from old jets specifically for this purpose. In the past, targets were generally plane-sized, and militaries used anti-aircraft weapons to shoot them down.

A group of hobbyists with a weirdly extensive machine gun collection decided to try a modern update to drone target practice. In this case, the targets were smaller drones ranging in size from remote-control toy airplanes to larger flying wings, about as big as the Army's hand-tossed RQ-11 Raven. Instead of special anti-air weapons, they tried a few different machine guns, which are more representative of the weapons insurgents might aim at drones. While many of the bullets fired hit the drones, it took direct hits to the tiny drone engines to make them stop flying. 

Verdict: It's possible to bring down small drones with a machine gun, but it takes good aim and many shots—and it helps if the drone is just flying back and forth in front of you.

This target practice was part of the Big Sandy Shoot, an event in Arizona put on by a group of machine gun enthusiasts. Their spring shoot was the first week of April. For added fun and insanity, there was a night shooting session, where people shot at drones bedecked with glowsticks.

[The Aviationist]

Trolls In Their Natural Habitats: An Analysis Of Comments On TED Talks

Mon, 04/14/2014 - 14:15

Regina Dugan, Former Director of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, Gave a TED Talk in 2012

Think of it as a study of the natural behaviors of the troll. A team of information science researchers recently analyzed the comments people make on recorded TED talks. Actually, the researchers found that the majority of comments related to the content of the talks (progress!). But they also found that about six percent of YouTube comments on TED talks are insults and that female TED presenters are more likely to have commenters assess their appearance and style than male presenters (not progress).

TED is a nonprofit dedicated to putting on conferences with short lectures. It also posts its lectures online. This analysis of TED comments comes at a time when news and science media are still trying to figure out what to do about commenters. This weekend, the Chicago Sun-Times announced it's temporarily shutting off comments while it puts in a new system designed to "encourage increased quality of the commentary." Here at Popular Science, where we have a small staff for the website, we decided to remove comments from our homepage about seven months ago. You can still reach us via email, Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram and snail mail.

TED talks are supposed to be fun and good for you, kind of like chocolate-chip granola bars.

In a paper they published in the journal PLOS ONE, the TED-analyzing researchers said they were hoping to gather some insight for science communicators. TED talks are 18-minute lectures about intellectual ideas, aimed at non-experts. They're supposed to be fun and good for you. Kind of like chocolate-chip granola bars? Anyway, the largest portion of the talks are about science and technology. As of November 2013, the researchers counted 917 science and technology TED talks, compared to 313 talks about design and 265 talks about entertainment. So the researchers, a team from the U.S., the U.K. and Canada, looked at TED talks as a proxy for, How do people respond to popular science media? They restricted their analysis to comments on science and technology talks only.

One of their big findings was that the website people use matters. TED talks are posted both on and YouTube, but comment trends differed a bit on the two platforms. After analyzing comments for the same set of 595 talks, the research team found that people were more likely to talk about the content of the video—rather than, say, about the speaker's looks or themselves—on the TED website than on YouTube. That said, the comments weren't always that deep. Many comments just reiterated points from the talk, the researchers noted. And the majority of YouTube comments, 57 percent, still referred to the content of the TED talk. It's just that an even larger portion of comments were on topic, 72 percent.

People were more likely to throw around personal insults on YouTube (5.7 percent of comments) than on (less than one percent of comments). YouTube did have one advantage. YouTubers were more likely to engage with one another than commenters. But if they're just insulting each other, maybe that's not so helpful.

Commenters were more likely to discuss female presenters' looks than male presenters' looks. 

Another major finding was that commenters react differently to male and female TED presenters. Commenters were more likely to discuss female presenters' looks (15 percent of comments) than male presenters' looks (10 percent of comments). Female presenters were also more likely to elicit both positive and negative comments about themselves than male presenters. People react really emotionally to lady TED talkers, I guess. Male and female TED presenters didn't have any statistically significant differences in the positive and negative comments they received about the content of their talks.

So it sounds like TED-talk comments aren't necessarily super intellectual, but they aren't a cesspool, either. Yay? In addition, perhaps TED should keep a sharper eye out for off-topic or hateful comments about its female speakers. It might help if the organization had more talks led by women in general. Another analysis, published about a year ago, found that women give less than a quarter of TED talks. 

Kill Switches Will Save Your Smartphone

Mon, 04/14/2014 - 08:27

iPhone 5S with iOS 7 Apple

On an otherwise ordinary Saturday, someone grabbed Kristine Swartz’s iPhone from her gym locker. At first she was annoyed—phones are expensive and filing a police report takes time, with little hope of recovery—but then she considered other implications. “There are a lot of details that I didn’t think were revealing until my phone was in someone else’s hands,” she says. Fortunately for her, she could use a new iOS 7 feature, activation lock, to remotely disable her phone. Unfortunately for those without iPhones, activation lock isn’t an option. 

Activation lock is a type of kill switch, a piece of software that allows a phone’s owner to remotely deactivate and wipe a lost device, effectively turning it into a fancy paperweight. Until now, it’s been up to individual smartphone makers to add kill switches to phones. But with smartphone theft on the rise—one estimate puts the spike in New York City at 40 percent since 2012—so is the need for kill switches. In February, U.S. Senators proposed a law that would require manufacturers to include a kill switch on all new phones (California and New York legislators have also proposed similar laws). By destroying the worth of a stolen phone, the law would also destroy any incentive to steal one in the first place. It’s a good idea, but the lawmakers have a fight on their hands.

The mobile-phone industry doesn’t see things the same way. The Cellular Telecommunications & Internet Association (CTIA) insists that kill switches aren’t necessary. They assert that users should instead password-protect their handsets and install third-party apps, such as Prey or Cerberus, that offer kill-switch-like functionality. In reality, most people aren’t that careful. According to a Consumer Reports survey, less than half of users set a passcode on their device. For those that do, some of the most-popular PINs are still “1234,” “1111,” and “0000.” Also, two thirds of users prefer to remain logged into any accounts. A lost phone can be a goldmine. 

Less than half of users set a passcode. For those that do, some of the most-popular pins are “1234” and “1111.”

Rather than get behind kill switches, the CTIA, in partnership with the FCC, recently developed its own theft-protection system. The association compiles the unique ID numbers of phones reported as stolen, and the carriers agree to not reactivate phones on the blacklist. That’s certainly better than nothing, but the database only applies to the U.S. and Europe, and a lot of stolen phones end up outside those regions. An iPhone on the black market in Hong Kong, for instance, can fetch $2,000.

So, why does the CTIA—and by extension carriers—oppose a kill switch? Some suggest that it’s a conspiracy to sell insurance. For a nominal monthly fee, users can insure phones against damage or loss; it’s a $7.8 billion business. Discourage theft, and insurance becomes less necessary. The CTIA isn’t commenting on that, but the association does warn that kill switches could open up security threats, in which hackers start killing phones at will. What that argument is missing, though, is a clear incentive for the presumed hackers—you know, like the one that thieves have to target phones right now.  

Transforming Helicopter-Truck Hybrid Makes First Flight

Fri, 04/11/2014 - 13:30

First Flight Of The Black Knight Advanced Tactics

Yesterday Advanced Tactics announced the successful first flight of their Black Knight Transformer, a hybrid truck helicopter designed for military missions. In December, the truck completed driving tests. 

One of the more modern features of the transformer, besides being a freaking flying truck, is that pilots can fly it either while sitting inside it, or remotely. For this first test, it obtained an altitude of less than 10 feet off the ground and was remotely piloted. While it's still a long way from entering military service, the successful flight and drive tests mean the concept at least works at a human scale. Its transformation between the two modes is subtle—eight rotors, four on each side, spring out for takeoff, fold in for driving through tighter streets, and tilt forward in the air for faster flight. 

In the future, the Pentagon may want the Black Knight Transformer (or its smaller sibling, the Panther Transformer) to carry and retrieve troops from difficult to reach places. Sometimes flying is the better way to do that, getting the Transformer over canyons and clear of landmines. Once past obstacles, the Transformer can drive out to where it needs to be, letting troops evacuate their wounded right from the site of battle. There are other ways to accomplish this, like trucks carried inside V-22 Ospreys, but the Transformer combines that usefulness into one body, and a remotely pilotable one at that.

Black Knight In The Air This is a drone filming a drone. The Transformer here is unmanned, and the picture comes from an unmanned quadcopter, flying even higher. Advanced Tactics

Software Shows What Children Will Look Like In 70 Years, With Unprecedented Accuracy

Fri, 04/11/2014 - 12:45

100 Years of Life, As Extrapolated By Software You might notice the algorithms were unable to remove the milk mustache from its original reference photo. U of Washington

Look at a kid under the age of five, and it's hard to imagine what he'll look like in 70 years. But this new piece of software does just that. Check out this series of photos, which compares actual photos of a boy as he grows up (photos on the right) with photos generated by the new aging software, using only the three-year-old picture as a reference (photos on the left):

Software-Generated Pictures vs Real Photos U of Washington

Of course, many computer scientists have tried to make face-aging software before. The umbrella field of getting computers to recognize human faces is a hot topic of research; Facebook recently published some work on getting its "DeepFace" software to recognize people from the side, given only head-on pictures. This new work is based on the largest-yet database of photos for aging software—40,000 pictures of people ages 0 through 100. The new software is also unusual in its ability to create accurate results from photos of very young children.

Software like this would be especially helpful to missing children searches, Seattle TV station KOMO News reports. Right now, expert artists try to help with searches by making drawings of missing kids at their current age. The artists use a combination of photos of the kids, the looks of the kids' older family members, and current knowledge about how faces age. (Scientists already know, for example, that people's faces and noses lengthen as they get older.) The craft of interpolating how a person will have aged is "part art, part science and a little intuition," as one firm describes it.

This new software boosts the science part of that a bit. It's based on measurements of about 1,500 people for every age group, including very narrow age groups for kids, who can change drastically from year to year. The photos came from, well, the internet. In a paper, the software's creators—three researchers from the University of Washington and Google—described how they searched for photos to analyze:

To analyze aging effects we created a large dataset of people at different ages, using Google image search queries like 'Age 25', '1st grade portrait,' and so forth. We additionally drew from science competitions, soccer teams, beauty contests, and other websites that included age/grade information.

Aha, so that's who's been looking at those old photos of you competing in Math Olympiad.

The team wrote algorithms that calculate, based on its database of photos, what's different between photos of people at age X versus photos of people at age Y.  How do face shapes develop between those two ages? How do skin textures change? The algorithms also deal with things like funny facial expressions and weird lighting that might show up in a reference photo. All the software needs is one photo of a child to create a series of images for ages up to 80.

One of the software's creators, Ira Kemelmacher-Shlizerman, told KOMO News she contacted the Center for Missing and Exploited Children about her work. But the software isn't ready for crime-fighting yet. The team wants to try to add other things to make it more accurate, including hair color changes and ethnicity-specific data, if that's relevant. (To my untrained eye, the algorithm already appears to work well for people of a few different ethnicities.)

You can see many more age series like the one above in Kemelmacher-Shlizerman and her colleagues' website and paper. They will present the paper at an Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers conference in June.

Stick-On Monitoring Patch Moves And Stretches With Skin

Thu, 04/10/2014 - 11:00

Credit: John Rogers

Bracelets or belts that track your activity and vitals may soon be a thing of the past. Engineers from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and Northwestern University have produced a health-monitoring device that looks like a Band-Aid. The thin, soft patch can stick to and move with the skin, all while wirelessly sending vital updates to your designated cellphone or computer.

To track physiological signs, you need hard integrated circuit chips, rigid sensors, batteries, and other electronic components. The skin, on the other hand, constantly moves around, so wearable electronics that stick to the surface have long been an engineering challenge.

The research team, led by John A. Rogers of UIUC and Yonggang Huang of Northwestern, has found a way of embedding hard chips inside skin-soft patches that move with the skin. Their findings are published in the April 4 issue of Science.

The chips used in the device are made of silicon with a plastic casing. A thin membrane made of silicone rubber encloses the chips. Within this enclosure, a silicone fluid permeates around the chips. The plastic casing of the chips isolates the active components from the fluid, and the fluid itself is an electrical insulator, so it doesn’t influence the behavior of the devices.

To ensure the device doesn’t break while stretching with the skin, the team used an origami-inspired design in constructing the electrical wiring. Essentially, the wiring is in a folded-up configuration that can unfold in a very controlled yet natural way as the device stretches with the motion of the skin. The crucial part is the unfolding process, as it allows the distances between the chips to change without disrupting the wiring interconnect.

Moving forward, the team hopes to improve the device's ability to cope with overstretching, and to develop biochemical sensors for the device. For example, the ability to sample sweat coming out of the skin and being able to do chemical analysis on that sweat on the spot can open up a whole new range in the realm of health monitoring. Professor Rogers is a co-founder of MC10, an electronics startup company responsible for pursuing commercialization for the device, and he hopes to unveil a commercial product within two years.  

“The body’s a vehicle for doing sophisticated, clinical quality physiological status monitoring,” Professor Rogers said. “The skin is a great window into body processes.” 

Here is a video demonstration of the device, showing its flexibility. 

Good Idea/Bad Idea: Use A Stun Gun To...

Thu, 04/10/2014 - 10:35

Good Idea: Lift Fingerprints

On a hunch, crime scene investigator Richard Warrington, now retired, found a new way to fight crime with a stun gun: lifting prints. Warrington’s hack involves placing a sheet of sun-blocking film over a freshly dusted print. He attaches the loose end of a wired probe to one outer contact of a stun gun. While holding the wire’s probe one quarter inch above the film, he turns on the gun and slowly guides the electricity-shooting probe around the perimeter of the film, electrostatically charging it. Then Warrington turns off the gun, waits 10 to 15 seconds, and glides a foam brush across the film’s surface to attract a reverse image of the print for forensic analysis.

Bad Idea: Remove Poison From Wounds

For two decades, survivalist forums and even some doctors have recommended shocking snake and spider bite wounds to neutralize venom. Science says this idea bites: You’re most likely to get burned—and remain poisoned.

WARNING: Stun guns are very dangerous, so try the "good idea" at your own risk. And by "bad idea," we mean never attempt it! 

This article originally appeared in the May 2014 issue of Popular Science.


Say Hello To The Little Space Race That Could

Thu, 04/10/2014 - 09:46

(In numerical order) Courtesy: SkyCube, Hojun Song, Kicksat

A CubeSat crams the advanced hardware of enormous satellites into a box slightly larger than a Rubik’s Cube. The satellites’ small size and light weight have made it cheaper than ever to launch spacecraft into orbit. Here are three citizen-led CubeSats paving an ever-more-accessible path off planet Earth.

1) SkyCube

In 2011, after watching NASA’s final space shuttle launch, astronomy-app developer Tim DeBenedictis decided to crowdfund SkyCube with the help of his company, Southern Stars. The 2.9-pound CubeSat launched to the International Space Station on January 9, 2014, and astronauts deployed it February 28. Backers can use an app called Satellite Safari to take photos and tweet from orbit. After its 90-day mission, SkyCube will inflate a polyethylene balloon, drag itself into the atmosphere, and burn up.

Time: About 1 year

Cost: $250,000

2) OSSI-1

South Korean artist Hojun Song used off-the-shelf parts to build his spacecraft, OSSI-1. Like other newcomers to CubeSats, however, he had to navigate a maze of bureaucracy designed for national space programs (rather than private individuals) to launch it. On April 19, 2013, after years of work, his craft finally flew aboard a Russian Soyuz 2-1b rocket. OSSI-1 successfully entered orbit, but due to financial constraints, Song has yet to team up with a company that can establish contact with the spacecraft.

Time: 5 years

Cost: $200,000

3) KickSat

Why launch one satellite when you can send up dozens? That’s the idea behind KickSat, a spacecraft designed to release 120 postage stamp–size satellites into low-Earth orbit on March 30 (at press time). Each tiny satellite, called a Sprite, has a microcontroller, solar cells, and a radio that allows it to transmit a small amount of data. Michael Johnson, a former KickSat team member, has since made an even thinner and lighter version of Sprites, called Scouts, that he hopes to launch to the moon in 2015.

Time: 7 years

Cost: About $375,000

This article originally appeared in the May 2014 issue of Popular Science.

This Badger Fits Inside An Osprey

Thu, 04/10/2014 - 09:00

Phantom Badger Boeing's Phantom Badger at the Sea Air Space Exposition 2014 Kelsey D. Atherton

Phantom Badger. "Phantom Badger?" Phantom Badger. "Phantom Badger," Phantom Badger, "Phantom Badger." Phantom Badger.

At the Navy League's Sea Air Space Exposition this year in National Harbor, Maryland, there was an unusual craft on display next to Boeing's usual display of aircraft. It was a jeep-like thing, both narrower and longer than expected. Dubbed the "Phantom Badger," it solves a very specific problem: it fits (just barely) inside Boeing's tiltrotor V-22 Ospreys used by Marines and Special Forces. Now when those troops deploy far ahead and into tricky places, they can finally bring a working vehicle with them.

To understand the Badger, first one must understand the Osprey. The V-22 Osprey is a tilt-rotor aircraft. This means that it can land and take off like a helicopter, which greatly expands the number of places it can go. In air, the rotors tilt forward, so it carries troops fast, carrying up to 32 troops or 10,000 pounds of cargo where it needs to be. The problem with the V-22, then, is that it can get into  many places, and few other aircraft can go where it goes. So special forces or Marines operating from Ospreys can only use what Ospreys can carry with them, and for a long time that meant only small vehicles, similar to commercial ATV four-wheelers, were the only ground transportation an Osprey could supply.

The Badger lets troops do more, and gives them a better vehicle for Osprey-accessible areas than they could otherwise get. It can go 80mph on roads, ford up to three feet of water, and the entire back can be converted into a few different versions, depending on the modules available. These include a stretcher rack that can wounded back to an Osprey for evacuation, a machine gun mount, and others. It's not going to be as durable as an MRAP, but at under 8,000 pounds and only 60 inches wide, it can go a lot of places a heavier vehicle can't.

Phantom Badger And Osprey It's a snug fit. Boeing

At the exposition, Popular Science spoke with Boeing's Garret Kasper about the Phantom Badger. This isn't exactly the first time Boeing's designed a car, Kasper quipped. "Back in the 1960s we made the lunar rover." Still, land vehicles are relatively new for the company. For the Badger, they collaborated with North Carolina's MSI Defense Solutions. 

On Tuesday, Boeing announced that the U.S. Navy has certified the Phantom Badger for flight onboard military V-22s Ospreys. And at the expo, Kasper shared this: there's "an undisclosed Department of Defense customer" interested in the Badger, and it's not the Marine Corps. That's a truth by omission: the only part of the military outside the Marine Corps that uses V-22 Ospreys are Air Force Special Operations.


New Document Security Layer Makes It Easier For Government To Keep Secrets

Wed, 04/09/2014 - 15:38

Monday morning in National Harbor, Maryland, Popular Science met with BAE Systems Director of Business Development & Intelligence Security John Murphy to discuss SIBA, a new way of keeping and sharing secrets. Unspoken in the interview, which took place at the Sea Air Space expo, was Chelsea Manning, the former Army private first class responsible for leaking hundreds of thousands of secret documents to Wikileaks, but everything about BAE's new SIBA system seems like it is written with her impact in mind.

SIBA stands for “Secure Information Broker for big datA,” and it's a cloud-based information security system made for the military but designed for anywhere that needs to balance dispensing information while keeping some of it secret. At its heart, Murphy explains, it takes a document on the cloud and then lets the original author of that document filter that document in layers of relevance down to the people below.

Here's an example. The Department of Homeland Security, the FBI, New Mexico state police, and the Mexican government are all looking at some dangerous individuals running arms from Las Cruces across the Mexican border. Homeland Security writes the report on the gang, with everything they know about the individuals, including names, pictures, whereabouts. It also includes connections those gang members have to cartels and other groups across the border. When writing the report, DHS chooses to apply three filters. The first shows information that stays within DHS – not everything is relevant for everyone. That's the high security setting, and on the original document it appears highlighted in blue.

The second layer is highlighted in yellow, and that's information important for sharing with the FBI and the Mexican government, but not information the New Mexico state police need to know. When looking at the document, they see everything except the blue parts from the DHS original version.

The third layer is everything highlighted in red. It's the minimal version, and it shows the New Mexico state troopers the pictures they need, the location of who they're looking for, and that's about it. When they get a tip about one of the gang members, they add it to the document, and DHS then decides at what level that information gets shared with everyone else.

Of course, it's not just first responders interested in that information. If a journalist files a Freedom of Information Act request for the Department of Homeland Security's Las Cruces Report, then DHS can create a version of that document with what Murphy called “granular redaction,” limiting what is published down to the specific character, so that the agency retains control over the information. No unsightly blacked-out names, no awkwardly limited paragraphs, just a deceptively clear and excerpted version of the full truth known by the government.

At present, information sharing among agencies, locals, and allies is a tricky process. Part of this is an agency's inclination to hold onto its own information, and the federal government's desire to retain authorship of its own intelligence. Another challenge is that state and local government still need a person with a clearance to access the intelligence. There's also rules about what computers and information systems can access what level of clearance, and finally there's a sanitization process for sharing information further down the chain without revealing too much.

SIBA integrates with Microsoft products Sharepoint, Powerpoint, and Word. It saves one original copy in the cloud for the original author and sends out the filtered versions of that copy over a secure pipeline to each other person accessing the document. Murphy says the original author retains “ultimate version control,” which limits the reach of information that the author doesn't want out. The term BAE uses is “Realtime Human Review.” This, according to Murphy, keeps a person watching the document and the filters, making sure that first responders, say, have new information as it's added while also making sure that they aren't handed extra irrelevant facts. In a lot of ways this seems designed to counter security leaks like the one caused by Chelsea Manning, where a low-level intelligence analyst released hundreds of thousands of government files to Wikileaks.

It could also pose a challenge for journalists working with government information. When documents are declassified under FOIA requests, redacted information is clearly obscured but because it's usually blacked out, the very existence of redaction is visible. A document that can be released while appearing complete doesn't just hide information the government chooses to keep secret, it hides that there were even any secrets in the document the government chose to keep.

The Navy Wants To Fire Its Ridiculously Strong Railgun From The Ocean

Tue, 04/08/2014 - 11:30

BAE Railgun Naval Sea Systems Command

In 2016, the U.S. Navy is going to test a railgun—a weapon that can repeatedly launch a projectile at more than 5,000 MPH—from a boat. In 2018, they're going to do it again. And in the 2020s, the Navy is going to figure out just what to do with a gun that seemed like science fiction decades ago.

Speaking at the Navy League's Sea Air Space exposition in National Harbor, Maryland, Rear Admiral Bryant Fuller told the assembled crowd of journalists, servicemen, and defense contractors that railgun shots cost 1/100th the price of a “standard” missile. (In the age of austerity, even something as futuristic as a railgun is sold on the premise of cost savings.)

A railgun works by generating a strong electromagnetic current that flows from one rail, through a U-shaped back end of the projectile, and into another parallel rail. This generates three magnetic fields—a parallel one around each of the rails, and a perpendicular one around the projectile. Squeezed forward by the magnetic fields, the projectile accelerates rapidly along the rails and is then launched forward, breaking the circuit. The end result is a large metal slug that can go very far, very fast.

Here's a video explaining the physics:

Scientist figured out the physics behind rail guns a while ago, and have tested them on land, but the main constraint on making a practical one is generating enough electrical power.

That's understandable. A railgun system needs 25 megawatts of energy flowing through it, and according to Captain Michael Ziv, the Navy's program manager for rail guns and energy weapons. Most currently serving destroyers don't have more than nine megawatts of electricity that they can shift around. 

Future ships like the Zumwalt class of destroyers with "integrated power systems" that make it really easy to assign electrical power can get around this. The Navy is keeping open the option of outfitting current ships with railguns, as they can bring batteries storing the extra power needed on board. The Navy is going to test the railgun at sea in 2016 from the back of the USNS Millinocket, a transport and supply ship. 

How far the shot goes depends on the power supplied. Smaller railguns might release a projectile at 20 megajoules, which means that at flying level it can go up to 60 miles. A larger railgun, the kind that draws 25 megawatts of power, can release projectiles at 32 megajoules of energy, where they will travel up to a 110 miles at a level trajectory. With the 25 megawatts, a railgun can also fire up to 10 times a minute, creating an anti-ship or anti-coastal weapon that's fast firing, cheaper than a missile, and at least as deadly.

If the tests go well, it's not just the Navy that's interested. The U.S. Army is working with the Navy to develop the railguns, meaning the weapon could one day attack both from the sea and the land.

Here, by the way, is what one of these looks like firing from land:

Machine That Makes You Mingle Before Coffee Is An Introvert Torture Device

Tue, 04/08/2014 - 08:31



Good morning! Have you enjoyed a cup of caffeine yet? No? Then perhaps you would prefer not interacting with people, lest your office turn into the set of Maxine cartoon or something.

But what if I told you: interact with someone, or coffee will be withheld from you. Great idea, right? Surely this would serve to facilitate human interaction and not result in two bumbling messes chit-chatting awkwardly about the weather while they wait for a paper cup of ambrosia. 

This is apparently a real idea created by Singapore's Economic Development Board (EDB). With this dystopian torture device, two people input their names, then stand there and wait for coffee dispersal. From EDB:

"Let's grab coffee" often means more than just coffee. It signifies the start to relationships, opportunities and business decisions. In Asia, Singapore often facilitates connections between companies and successful business ventures with a wealth of resources. Our machine, the Coffee Connector, is this symbolic idea brought to life.

Oh, my. Just chain two people to the same desk chair. Please, don't do this.


Watch This Charger Fully Juice A Smartphone In 30 Seconds

Mon, 04/07/2014 - 14:05

I still remember flipping through paper magazines while waiting for webpages to load on my family's PC, in the 1990s. Maybe one day waiting for your phone to charge will seem as antiquated.

An Israeli startup recently demonstrated a prototype charger that fully charges a smartphone in 30 seconds. You can watch it above, oooh.

As you can probably guess, the charger isn't exactly ready for the market yet. It's about the size of a laptop charger, so its creators are working on making it smaller, The Wall Street Journal reports. The company, called StoreDot, plans to have a charger ready for production by late 2016.

StoreDot's technology depends on nano-size crystals, called quantum dots, that are made of biological materials. Researchers have studied quantum dots intensely because they have cool electrical and optical properties that could improve electronic displays and data storage. Usually, however, researchers make quantum dots out of non-biological minerals such as silicon or cadmium selenide. In November, The Wall Street Journal reported that by putting its biological crystals in the electrolyte of a power cell, StoreDot made the power cell hold five times as much charge.

[The Wall Street Journal, Gizmag]

The Week In Drones: Rescuing A Puppy, Crashing In South Korea, And More

Fri, 04/04/2014 - 14:06

A Beagle Puppy Looks like this pup won't need a drone to escape his predicament. Diablito63 via Wikimedia Commons

Here's a roundup of the week's top drone news, designed to capture the military, commercial, non-profit, and recreational applications of unmanned aircraft.

Drone Saves Puppy

In January, a drone helped firefighters at a quarry in Stony Creek, Connecticut. After that incident, the fire department acquired its own Phantom Vision drone. Last week, that drone helped save a puppy

A one year old beagle pup named Harley got stuck in the cattails of a cold and muddy swamp, and was lost there for almost 24 hours. Firefighters in wetsuits and galoshes tried searching for him on foot, but were unsuccessful. While it was difficult to make out Harley's fur from the reeds, the sound of a drone flying overhead roused him and he began to make noise again, which led the firefighters to his location.

Small North Korean Drones Crash On South Korean Island

On Monday, two North Korean drones crashed into the South Korean island of Baengnyeong. Called variously "toys" or "antiques", these robin's egg blue drones were not much more than model airplanes with cameras. In one photo, the commercial DSLR camera inside one of the drones is visible. That's an accurate assessment, but it obscures a greater truth: Most drones are model airplanes with cameras attached.

Using off-the-shelf components to make simple unmanned aircraft is part of what makes drones such an accessible and cheap tool for aerial photography. These drones may lack the sophistication of advanced military drones like the U.S. Air Force's Reapers or Global Hawks, but they also come with a much lower price tag. Which is good for the cash-starved hermit nation, as it means their diplomats don't need to sell as much meth to afford new drones.

Suspected North Korean drones found in South Korea in recent weeks, via @Dest_Pyongyang. 1 on left crashed on island

— James Pearson (@pearswick) April 2, 2014

Dakota Nights

Police in North Dakota are the first in the nation authorized by the FAA to fly drones at night. In December, North Dakota was selected as one of six FAA test sites for drones, and the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks has already worked with law enforcement to fly drones for traffic monitoring and missing person searches. The night-flying announcement, which came last Friday, is the logical next step. 

Colorado Town Doesn't Adopt Drone Hunting License

Deer Trail, Colo., caught the public eye when it first considered an ordinance that would let people buy licenses to hunt drones. The tiny town voted overwhelmingly against the measure, which means that people who shoot at drones in Deer Trail won't have even the flimsy armor of a $25 certificate as legal protection against the FAA.

DJI Phantom Drone Clément Bucco-Lechat, via Wikimedia Commons

Pentagon Prepares Drones For Sky Battles

Right now, America doesn't often have to deal with airplanes getting shot down. Insurgencies, like the kind waged in Iraq after Saddam Hussein fell or fought by the Taliban in Afghanistan, don't usually have access to the kinds of weapons needed to shoot planes out of the sky. This has made drones, like the slow-moving prop-engined Predator, an ideal choice for hunting down insurgent groups: There are no hostile aircraft to worry about, so the drone can focus entirely on looking for a target on the ground.

Not only are the skies forgiving, but the signals are too. Because drones communicate wirelessly with remote pilots, when the signal goes dead the drone becomes not just unmanned but unpiloted. Interfering with the way drones communicate is a good way to render them useless. DARPA, the advanced research arm at the Department of Defense, wants to make sure this doesn't happen in the future. In early April DARPA is assembling contractors to work on developing better drone autonomy, both for individual drones and for drones working together. This, together with better connections between human controllers and drones, as well as open architecture for ease of collaboration, could let military drones of the future work even in hostile skies and with signal interference.

Did I miss any drone news? Email me at


Simple Invention For Sealing Gunshot Wounds Gets FDA Approval

Fri, 04/04/2014 - 10:48

XStat Photograph by Ralph Smith

The pocket-sized XStat, a hemorrhage-stopping invention we wrote about in February, yesterday received approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration as a first-of-its-kind medical dressing. This means that the U.S. Army, which funded development of the sponge-filled syringe, can now purchase XStat to be carried by military medics. 

XStat plugs gunshot and shrapnel wounds faster and more effectively than the standard battlefield first aid. Currently, medics treat hemorrhage by stuffing gauze as deep as five inches into an injury—a painful process that doesn't always work. Of soldiers who died between October 2001 and June 2009 of wounds that weren't immediately fatal, blood loss was the killer in an estimated 80 percent of cases.

The 2.5-ounce syringe slides deep into a injury, such a bullet track, and deposits pill-size sponges that soak up blood and rapidly expand to stem bleeding from an artery. Each sponge is coated with chitosan, a substance that clots blood and fights infection. The FDA says the sponges are safe to leave in the body for up to four hours, allowing enough time for a patient to get to an operating room. To ensure they don't get left inside a wound, X-shaped markers make each sponge visible on an x-ray image.

Created by veterans and engineers at Portland-based startup RevMedx, XStat is the first battlefield dressing designed specifically for deep, narrow wounds in areas like the armpit or groin, where medics can't place a traditional tourniquet. RevMedx, along with Oregon Health and Science University, is now developing a version of the device to stop postpartum bleeding.

Read more about XStat here.