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Engineered Bacteria Excrete Propane Fuel

39 min 50 sec ago

Propane Tank Jessie Eastland aka Robert DeMeo

Propane, the gas that fuels your barbecue (and perhaps one day your car), may soon have a new, renewable source.

Researchers in Finland and England developed a genetic process that puts E. coli bacteria to work producing the flammable compound. They altered the bacterium’s metabolism so that it it churns out propane gas.

Propane is itself considered an environmentally friendly fuel under the Clean Air Act, because it breaks down into carbon dioxide and water when it burns. However, until now the gas has been produced only as a byproduct of the refining and processing of other compounds such as natural gas and petroleum, both of which are fossil fuels with serious environmental downsides.

This is not the first push for renewable methods of producing hydrocarbon energy. In May, researchers with the US Navy flew a model airplane with kerosene derived from sunlight and seawater.

The Week In Drones: Google Delivery, Reaper Gods, And More

Fri, 08/29/2014 - 15:00

Pumpkin King Scarecrow Imagine how much scarier this would be with a drone controlling it. SolarSurfer via Wikimedia Commons

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

Drone Pilots Puppet

Disney, whose theme parks are known for their animatronic robots, recently filed a patent for “Aerial Display System With Marionettes Articulated and Supported by Airborne Devices.” The puppet is suspended from a six-rotor hexacopter drone. In addition to moving with the drone as it flies, three arms below the drone manipulate the puppet like a human puppeteer would. It’d make an ideal addition to the Haunted Mansion. 

Insurgents Drone Back

Drones made their name in wars against insurgent forces in both Iraq and Afghanistan, where long flight times and powerful cameras let conventional militaries find small bands of fighters. Now, the violent terror group Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has a drone, and used it to scout out an attack against an airbase in Syria. The drone appears to be a commercial DJI Phantom, with a good camera. The aerial footage provided by the drone allowed the group to find weak points before attacking. 

USDA Wants A Robot Farmer

The Department of Agriculture posted a solicitation for a drone for “low-altitude imaging of crops.” The solicitation specifies that the drone be at least as good as a DJI S1000, can hover, carry over four pounds, fly for at least 15 minutes, and gimbal-mount a camera underneath. Agriculture is one of the low-hanging fruits of drone development, with winemakers using them to find ripe grapes and Minnesota farmers explorer the potential of cheap field photography. 

The Church Of The Flying Robot Metaphor

Pastor Ed Young heads Fellowship Church in Grapevine, Texas. For a sermon series on the all-knowing and all-powerful God, he’s seized on a strangely modern metaphor: drones. As noted by Vox, drones are neither omnipresent nor omnipotent, so perhaps it’s not exactly the best metaphor for a strictly defined Abrahamic deity. Watch a trailer for his lecture series below:

Drone Delivery In Australia

In the works for two years, Project Wing by Google X is a drone delivery system which has now been tested in rural Australia. Key to the system is a vertical-takeoff drone that flies like a plane. From our story on Project Wing:

The drone is a tail-sitter, taking off vertically with its body perpendicular to the ground. At rest, it looks like a tiny spaceship from a 1930s comic book. It’s a type of Vertical Takeoff and Landing (VTOL) rarely done with humans on board, because that transition, from vertical to horizontal and back again, is difficult for onboard human pilots to manage. For the drone it works fine, and the design lets the wing fly fast like a plane. It also means the drone can hover, and that’s where the delivery mechanism of Project Wing shines.

Project Wing Drone Google

Reno Reaps Rewards from the Drone Economy

Ashima Devices makes a strange-looking drone. Dubbed the “hexpuck,” it is six small rotors contained within a larger disk, looking as much like the magazine in a revolver as an aircraft. They have different versions for police, law enforcement, security, and marine needs. To further their business, the company announced this week that it’s moving its headquarters to Reno. Nevada, one of six test sites for drones selected by the FAA, became operational in June. Ashima’s move is expected to bring 400 jobs to the town, and hints at the economic potential of the drone industry for places that embrace it.

Hoverbike Harbinger

Malloy Aeronautics, a helicopter company founded in Australia and transplanted to England, wants to make a helicopter for people as nimble as a motorcycle in the sky. To fund it, they first developed a remote control drone version that’s one-third the size. Here’s how we reported the bike:

Malloy Aeronautics’s first hoverbike used two large ducted fans for lift, something it had in common with other hoverbike designs. The new version, as seen in Drone 3, is instead a quadcopter, using four rotors in a sleeker, more balanced fashion. The fans partially overlap, and the whole drone can fold up to fit within a special backpack carrying case. Drone 3 is remotely piloted, but the hoverbikes it finances will fly both manned and unmanned.

Did I miss any drone news? Email me at

Google Already Testing Delivery Robots In Australia

Fri, 08/29/2014 - 11:16

Project Wing Drone Delivers Google

In rural Australia, a drone delivers dog treats to a farmer. The robot is a proof of concept, part of Project Wing by Google X. The program is designed to show that delivery drones are possible, and it seems to be doing just that. Next for Google: figuring out the path from proven prototype to everyday utility.

The drone is a tail-sitter, taking off vertically with its body perpendicular to the ground. At rest, it looks like a tiny spaceship from a 1930s comic book. It’s a type of Vertical Takeoff or Landing (VTOL) rarely done with humans on board, because that transition, from vertical to horizontal and back again, is difficult for onboard human pilots to manage. For the drone it works fine, and the design lets the wing fly fast like a plane. It also means the drone can hover, and that’s where the delivery mechanism of Project Wing shines:

Mechanical engineer Joanna Cohen, trained at Cal Tech and MIT, designed the contraption. It consists of a few key parts. The first is the winch itself, which spools out the hi-grade fishing line. The second is the “egg,” the little gadget that goes down with the package, detects that it has reached the ground, releases the delivery, and signals that it should be cranked back up to the hovering UAV. If something goes wrong, there is an emergency release mechanism at the top of the line—“basically a razor blade,” Cohen told me—that allows the UAV to cut and fly.

A working delivery mechanism is the first step for the service. With the prototype in place, the next challenge is creating an infrastructure for drones so that they can travel safely through skies without hitting other vehicles. Google’s driverless car program is an obvious touchstone for this project, but it’s a limited one. Cars on roads travel in close proximity and only move in two dimensions. Aircraft operate in vast, empty skies, and do so on three axes. Training a car to sense and avoid other cars is simpler than doing the same for an aircraft. Still, Google’s development and prior experience with cars is a strong sign that this work will continue and ultimately yield fruit. Michael Toscano, CEO of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, said that

Google’s announcement of its planned UAS delivery service further demonstrates the potential of UAS technology. It also highlights how this technology will revolutionize industries and the importance of the FAA keeping the integration process on track.

It’s worth noting that Google tested this technology in Australia first. While the FAA clearly wants drones to sense and avoid other aircraft, its been slow to implement changes and create a regulatory framework that lets innovation like this happen stateside. If the drone industry wants to change the world, it’ll need an FAA that lets it deliver. Watch the drone in action below, and read more about Project Wing at The Atlantic.

Big Pic: Stunning Images From The Worlds Sharpest Commercial Satellite

Fri, 08/29/2014 - 07:00

Madrid From Space. DigitalGlobe

The WorldView-3 satellite, which launched on August 13, has sent back its first images. They’re gorgeous, and kind of creepy.

The new satellite can see to a resolution of 31 centimeters. That means each pixel of the camera captures one square foot of land, which is sharp enough to see home plate at Yankee Stadium, to map crops by pattern and type, to identify the type and speed of cars and trucks, and measure population density, all from 383 miles above the Earth’s surface. 

WV-3 isn’t the sharpest satellite ever--some military satellites have a resolution of 15 to 20 centimeters--but it does have the highest resolution of any commercial satellite in the world. (The previous record-holder, GeoEye-1, had a resolution of 46 centimeters.) 

But WV-3 is important for another reason. Up until now, U.S. regulations prevented companies from selling images with resolutions finer than 50 centimeters to anyone but the military. But WV-3’s maker, DigitalGlobe, has been granted tentative permission to break that rule. Starting six months from now, they’ll be able to sell images with a 30-centimeter resolution to anyone who’s willing to buy.

The images shown here have a resolution to 40 centimeters, because the company isn’t allowed to start showing the 30-centimeter images until the six-month waiting period is over.

Bayan Obo Mine, China DigitalGlobe

Airport in Madrid, From Space DigitalGlobe Madrid. You can even see the people in the swimming pool. DigitalGlobe

This Weird Tumbleweed Robot Might Change Planetary Exploration

Thu, 08/28/2014 - 10:15

Super Ball Bot An early prototype of the robot V. SunSpiral et al. As the Mars Curiosity rover's "Seven Minutes of Terror" video showed us, landing on a distant world can be extraordinarily difficult. Now scientists are envisioning a robot that could just be dropped from space onto Saturn's largest moon Titan, a ball-shaped droid that wouldn't need an airbag to soften its fall, since its entire flexible body is essentially a cushion. Then, after the robot flattened on impact on Titan's surface, it could roll around like a tumbleweed to explore the alien landscape.

This "Super Ball Bot" is the vision of NASA roboticist Vytas SunSpiral — yes, that's his real name — along with Adrian Agogino and their colleagues, who plan to have a full prototype by mid-September. In the process of developing this droid, they may have helped pioneer a revolutionary new class of robots.

The Super Ball Bot looks a bit like a cat's cradle of wires and sticks. Motors, batteries, sensors and electronic control systems located at the ends of the rods can loosen or tighten the tension of the cables. By varying which wires are loose and which are tense over time, the robot can collapse, expand or roll. The robot would suspend its payload of scientific instruments in the middle of its body, and lower them to the ground to analyze surfaces and collect samples when necessary. Wireless communications systems in the robots will allow users to control the droids remotely.

The robot is a "tensegrity structure," or "tensegrity" for short — a structure that combines elements under tension, the cables, with elements that are rigid, the rods. This structural principle was first discovered by sculptor Kenneth Snelson in the 1940s and explored for use in architecture by inventor Buckminster Fuller in the 1960s. Subsequent research found tensegrities all throughout biology — for instance, the human spine relies on both the vertebrae and the muscles, tendons, and ligaments that surround and support the bones.

"We're pushing beyond the traditional approach of building rigid robots, where forces magnify around joints and other common points of failure, and relying on tensegrity, which dissipates forces throughout structures, to build cutting-edge robots," SunSpiral says. "By having a robot that has a very robust ability to absorb forces, you can have a system that both lands and moves, instead of, say, having an airbag you use once and throw away. That saves a lot of mass you would need to fly on a mission, which in turn saves on cost."

When it comes to Titan, the researchers envision dropping Super Ball Bots that are each covered by a heat shield to protect them from burning up in Titan's atmosphere. Titan has a surface gravity a little more than one-seventh that of Earth, which means the terminal velocity of the robots — the fastest they will fall in Titan's thick atmosphere — is about 33 mph, roughly equivalent to the speed reached after a 30-foot drop on Earth. "Early prototypes we dropped could survive that type of impact," SunSpiral says.

These robots would find it more difficult to survive a drop onto Mars, since the red planet has both a thinner atmosphere and stronger gravity than Titan, meaning they would reach a higher terminal velocity. "But maybe a simple parachute could slow them down enough for a safe landing," SunSpiral says. "We're still answering the question of what the highest speeds these robots can land at are."

Even if any parts of one of these robots breaks upon landing, the fact that each part of a tensegrity is interdependent on the others means that if a few parts get broken, the robot's other parts can pick up the slack. "We are anticipating that some parts might fail," says researcher Ken Caluwaerts, a roboticist at Ghent University in Belgium. "We're developing a distributed system of control so that if, say, a quarter of the motors fail, the structure should be able to continue rolling."

"You could roll them off the edges of cliffs or down lava tubes."

The potential robustness of these robots could mean they can take risks traditional robots might not dare — "you could roll them off the edges of cliffs or down lava tubes," SunSpiral says. Moreover, tensegrity robots can often be packed into compact shapes, which is vital on space missions where space is tight. In addition, the fact that all the control systems of the robots fit into caps at the ends of each rod "means we can build robots of a variety of scales — we can make the robots twice as big or half as small if we wanted to by changing the lengths of the rods," SunSpiral says.

"This is very fascinating work," says roboticist Sam Felton of Harvard University, who did not take part in this research. "These tensegrity robots have huge potential, and I'm looking forward to see what other tricks these robots can learn."

Although tensegrity structures get their strength from how each part is interdependent on every other part, this feature also makes designing and controlling robots with tensegrity structures extremely challenging, SunSpiral says. "Modeling all the way these structures can also interact with their environments is also very difficult," he added.

To control these biologically inspired robots, SunSpiral and his colleagues have developed a biologically inspired control system. They developed algorithms for controlling the robots that mimic central pattern generators, neural circuits in animals often vital to activities such as locomotion, chewing, breathing and digesting, which would allow the robots to automatically roll "in the same way that you or I can breathe without thinking about it," Felton says. In addition, the researchers also developed a way for the robots to learn how to roll on their own with the help of evolutionary algorithms, which is valuable for robots operating by themselves on another planet where the rules for movement might differ from those on Earth.

The prototype the scientists are developing is roughly spherical, approximately 35 lbs, and 5 feet across. SunSpiral and his colleagues anticipate having it ready to roll in an outdoor rover test facility by mid-September. But "a great deal more work is needed before this ever becomes a NASA mission," SunSpiral says.

To help make tensegrity robots a reality, SunSpiral and his colleagues have released the open-source NASA tensegrity robotics toolkit, which is online for free and built on the Bullet Physics engine, a game physics simulator. They are also developing "a low-cost, easy-to-use tensegrity robotics kits to make it easy for people to put together new tensegrity robots, for students and researchers to tinker around with them," SunSpiral says. "We want to get people around the world exploring this revolutionary concept to help break new ground."

Tensegrity Robot This robot was constructed from a DIY kit. V. SunSpiral

Man 3-D Prints A Concrete Castle In His Backyard

Thu, 08/28/2014 - 07:00

Where Dreams Come True Andrey Rudenko, Total Kustom

This is a castle that a man 3-D printed from concrete, using a printer he built himself. We like how variations in the concrete's color stretch perfectly across the castle—the product of care and engineering on the part of the maker, Andrey Rudenko. As he wrote on his website:

Layering cement was an extremely difficult task- it required extensive tuning of the printer on a programming level, as well as using exact quantities for the cement mix. . . . I was able to calibrate the machine so that it prints nearly perfect layers now, and I played with various heights and widths of the cement layers. My current standard is 10 millimeters in height by 30 millimeters in width, but countless other options are available with just the click of a button.

But the castle, meant to be a kids' playhouse, is just a warm-up for Rudenko's ultimate goal: To print an entire house, in one piece.

Rudenko is not the only one with this idea. At least a couple of architects around the world have announced plans to make one-time 3-D printed house projects, while the Guardian recently reported on a Chinese company that aims to produce 3-D printed houses for mass sale. The Guardian's video of the Chinese printer even looks a lot like the below video of Rudenko's extruder, although argues Rudenko's house will be of better quality.



There's no doubt that Rudenko's project is the DIYest of them all. We salute his dedication and wish him the best of luck and speed.

China's Future Submarine Could Go The Speed Of Sound

Wed, 08/27/2014 - 15:13

Supercavitating Submarine South China Morning Post

The submarine of the future may come to America in a super fast bubble, traveling under water. Researchers at China's Harbin Institute of Technology developed a new concept for submarine “supercavitation,” where an underwater vessel creates a pocket of air around itself. Inside this bubble, the submarine can travel much faster without friction of water creating drag and slowing it down. Theoretically, a supercavitated vessel using rocket engines could travel inside that air pocket at almost the speed of sound.

While the exact science of forming an air cavity within a liquid for submarines is complex, the phenomenon is easy to observe in a simple college prank. Clanking one full beer bottle on top of another compresses the beer in the bottom bottle, causing it to release air bubbles rapidly and overflow. For submarines, the bubbles come from a gas ejected out of a special nozzle at the nose, but the vessel has to be going a fast speed--thus compressing the air in front of it--in order for supercavitation to take effect. Once it's going super fast inside a pocket of air, steering becomes hard as the vessel behaves almost like a missile.

The Harbin researchers’ concept may help the submarine get up to the speed where supercavitation can start to happen. First, the vessel releases a special liquid membrane over itself, reducing drag before the supercavitation takes effect. Then, to steer the craft, the drivers alter how much and where the liquid membrane gets replenished, creating areas of lesser and greater friction that turn the vessel. (The finer details of the design and how it works are being kept secret by the military.) 

Membrane steering is a breakthrough for supercavitation, but the scientists at Harbin’s Complex Flow and Heat Transfer Lab acknowledge that it alone isn’t enough to make super fast submarines possible. Such a craft still needs a rocket engine that works underwater, and one that can last long enough to complete the cross-Pacific journey.

Supercavitation itself isn’t new. Military researchers from multiple countries started working on the idea decades ago. In the 1960s Russia started work on the Shkval supercavitating “underwater rocket,” which had a maximum range of about four miles. The United States started working on a supercavitating torpedo in 1997, and DARPA announced a program to develop a supercavitating mini-submarine in 2006. Range and steering posed problems for all of these projects, but the Harbin Institute’s liquid membrane might be the breakthrough needed that lets submarines fly underwater like rockets. With luck, the supersonic submarine will fare better than attempts at hypersonic missiles.

What Could Cause A Nationwide Internet Outage?

Wed, 08/27/2014 - 11:52

Partial Map of the Internet, 2005 "Internet map 1024" by The Opte Project - Originally from the English Wikipedia. Licensed under CC BY 2.5.

If you looked at the news or Twitter this morning -- or perhaps you couldn't, because your Internet was malfunctioning -- you might have heard: Time Warner suffered a major outage in its Internet service at about 4:30 a.m. Eastern. The outage, affecting much of the U.S., lasted two hours, Reuters reported. Maps created by the outage-tracker DownDetector showed problems throughout the country. So how exactly could this happen?

Popular Science talked with Purdue University computer scientist Sonia Fahmy, who researches network performance, to get her guesses on the culprit.

She hypothesizes that Time Warner was updating the software that its routers use to talk with one another and route information. "Typically, these outages are due to the routing protocols," she says. That's the kind of foundational function that, if there's a bug in it, could cause widespread problems.

"Either they upgraded the software on some of the routers, and there was some kind of bug in it, or sometimes, it's a human error," she says. Configuring routers for a software update is a complex task, so people make mistakes.

Routers that are part of the Internet's largest, core networks -- the so-called Internet backbone -- use something called the Border Gateway Protocol to tell each other what paths to use to send information on to the right destination. Fahmy thinks Time Warner could have been updating the software it uses to implement the BGP, which is often involved in major outages.

"Either they upgraded the software on some of the routers and there was some kind of bug in it, or sometimes, it's a human error," Fahmy says.

It's the extent of the outage that makes Fahmy guess the problem was related to software rather than hardware. Service providers such as Time Warner have enough redundancies in their hardware that prevent these kind of widespread issues. A broken router or cable normally causes smaller, more regional outages, she says.

Noticeable, hours-long outages may be becoming more frequent. Fahmy says she's seen reports like Time Warner's occur once every month or two. In addition to software problems, it seems companies' routers are aging and running out of memory -- which is more of a hardware problem, but also, a systematic one.

Researchers are working on making routing protocols less likely to fail. One promising solution is called Software Defined Networking, which lets companies use one machine, called the controller, to configure many routers at once. That way, there are fewer chances for a human expert to make a mistake when configuring a router.

Mysterious Phony Cell Towers Could Be Intercepting Your Calls

Wed, 08/27/2014 - 11:00

Unencrypted Connection Les Goldsmith Like many of the ultra-secure phones that have come to market in the wake of Edward Snowden's leaks, the CryptoPhone 500, which is marketed in the U.S. by ESD America and built on top of an unassuming Samsung Galaxy SIII body, features high-powered encryption. Les Goldsmith, the CEO of ESD America, says the phone also runs a customized or "hardened" version of Android that removes 468 vulnerabilities that his engineering team team found in the stock installation of the OS.

His mobile security team also found that the version of the Android OS that comes standard on the Samsung Galaxy SIII leaks data to parts unknown 80-90 times every hour.  That doesn't necessarily mean that the phone has been hacked, Goldmsith says, but the user can't know whether the data is beaming out from a particular app, the OS, or an illicit piece of spyware.  His clients want real security and control over their device, and have the money to pay for it.

To show what the CryptoPhone can do that less expensive competitors cannot, he points me to a map that he and his customers have created, indicating 17 different phony cell towers known as “interceptors,” detected by the CryptoPhone 500 around the United States during the month of July alone.  Interceptors look to a typical phone like an ordinary tower.  Once the phone connects with the interceptor, a variety of “over-the-air” attacks become possible, from eavesdropping on calls and texts to pushing spyware to the device.

“Interceptor use in the U.S. is much higher than people had anticipated,” Goldsmith says.  “One of our customers took a road trip from Florida to North Carolina and he found 8 different interceptors on that trip.  We even found one at South Point Casino in Las Vegas.”

Who is running these interceptors and what are they doing with the calls?

Who is running these interceptors and what are they doing with the calls?  Goldsmith says we can’t be sure, but he has his suspicions.

“What we find suspicious is that a lot of these interceptors are right on top of U.S. military bases.  So we begin to wonder – are some of them U.S. government interceptors?  Or are some of them Chinese interceptors?” says Goldsmith.  “Whose interceptor is it?  Who are they, that's listening to calls around military bases?  Is it just the U.S. military, or are they foreign governments doing it?  The point is: we don't really know whose they are.”

Ciphering Disabled Les Goldsmith

Interceptors vary widely in expense and sophistication – but in a nutshell, they are radio-equipped computers with software that can use arcane cellular network protocols and defeat the onboard encryption.  Whether your phone uses Android or iOS, it also has a second operating system that runs on a part of the phone called a baseband processor.  The baseband processor functions as a communications middleman between the phone’s main O.S. and the cell towers.  And because chip manufacturers jealously guard details about the baseband O.S., it has been too challenging a target for garden-variety hackers.

“The baseband processor is one of the more difficult things to get into or even communicate with,” says Mathew Rowley, a senior security consultant at Matasano Security.  “[That’s] because my computer doesn't speak 4G or GSM, and also all those protocols are encrypted.  You have to buy special hardware to get in the air and pull down the waves and try to figure out what they mean.  It's just pretty unrealistic for the general community.”

But for governments or other entities able to afford a price tag of “less than $100,000,” says Goldsmith, high-quality interceptors are quite realistic.  Some interceptors are limited, only able to passively listen to either outgoing or incoming calls.  But full-featured devices like the VME Dominator, available only to government agencies, can not only capture calls and texts, but even actively control the phone, sending out spoof texts, for example.  Edward Snowden revealed that the N.S.A. is capable of an over-the-air attack that tells the phone to fake a shut-down while leaving the microphone running, turning the seemingly deactivated phone into a bug.  And various ethical hackers have demonstrated DIY interceptor projects, using a software programmable radio and the open-source base station software package OpenBTS – this creates a basic interceptor for less than $3,000.  On August 11, the F.C.C. announced an investigation into the use of interceptors against Americans by foreign intelligence services and criminal gangs.

An “Over-the-Air” Attack Feels Like Nothing

Whenever he wants to test out his company’s ultra-secure smart phone against an interceptor, Goldsmith drives past a certain government facility in the Nevada desert.  (To avoid the attention of the gun-toting counter-intelligence agents in black SUVs who patrol the surrounding roads, he won't identify the facility to Popular Science).  He knows that someone at the facility is running an interceptor, which gives him a good way to test out the exotic “baseband firewall” on his phone.  Though the baseband OS is a “black box” on other phones, inaccessible to manufacturers and app developers, patent-pending software allows the GSMK CryptoPhone 500 to monitor the baseband processor for suspicious activity.  

So when Goldsmith and his team drove by the government facility in July, he also took a standard Samsung Galaxy S4 and an iPhone to serve as a control group for his own device.

”As we drove by, the iPhone showed no difference whatsoever.  The Samsung Galaxy S4, the call went from 4G to 3G and back to 4G.  The CryptoPhone lit up like a Christmas tree.”

Though the standard Apple and Android phones showed nothing wrong, the baseband firewall on the Cryptophone set off alerts showing that the phone’s encryption had been turned off, and that the cell tower had no name – a telltale sign of a rogue base station.   Standard towers, run by say, Verizon or T-Mobile, will have a name, whereas interceptors often do not.

Some devices can not only capture calls and texts, but even actively control the phone and send spoof texts.

And the interceptor also forced the CryptoPhone from 4G down to 2G, a much older protocol that is easier to de-crypt in real-time.  But the standard smart phones didn’t even show they’d experienced the same attack.  

“If you've been intercepted, in some cases it might show at the top that you've been forced from 4G down to 2G.  But a decent interceptor won't show that,” says Goldsmith.  “It'll be set up to show you [falsely] that you're still on 4G.  You'll think that you're on 4G, but you're actually being forced back to 2G.”

So Do I Need One?

Though Goldsmith won’t disclose sales figures or even a retail price for the GSMK CryptoPhone 500, he doesn’t dispute an MIT Technology Review article from this past spring reporting that he produces about 400 phones per week for $3,500 each.  So should ordinary Americans skip some car payments to be able to afford to follow suit?

It depends on what level of security you expect, and who you might reasonably expect to be trying to listen in, says Oliver Day, who runs Securing Change, an organization that provides security services to non-profits.

“There's this thing in our industry called “threat modeling,” says Day.  “One of the things you learn is that you have to have a realistic sense of your adversary. Who is my enemy?  What skills does he have?  What are my goals in terms of security?”

If  you’re not realistically of interest to the U.S. government and you never leave the country, then the CryptoPhone is probably more protection than you need. Goldsmith says he sells a lot of phones to executives who do business in Asia.  The aggressive, sophisticated hacking teams working for the People’s Liberation Army have targeted American trade secrets, as well as political dissidents.

Day, who has written a paper about undermining censorship software used by the Chinese government, recommends people in hostile communications environments watch what they say over the phone and buy disposable “burner” phones that can be used briefly and then discarded.

“I'm not bringing anything into China that I'm not willing to throw away on my return trip,” says Day.

Goldsmith warns that a “burner phone” strategy can be dangerous.  If Day were to call another person on the Chinese government’s watch list, his burner phone’s number would be added to the watch list, and then the government would watch to see who else he called.  The CryptoPhone 500, in addition to alerting the user whenever it’s under attack, can “hide in plain sight” when making phone calls.  Though it does not use standard voice-over-IP or virtual private network security tools, the CryptoPhone can make calls using just a WI-FI connection -- it does not need an identifiable SIM card.  When calling over the Internet, the phone appears to eavesdroppers as if it is just browsing the Internet.

Army's Hypersonic Missile Explodes During Testing

Tue, 08/26/2014 - 13:29

Advanced Hypersonic Weapon Concept Launch Test From the November 18, 2011 test. Courtesy photo, U.S. Army

The art of the war is complicated, but the science of war is often just a matter of shooting something pain-inducing at the other guy faster and from further away. The Army’s Advanced Hypersonic Weapon program wants to do just that, by creating a missile that moves faster than Mach 5, or almost 3,800 miles per hour. That hypersonic future may be just a little further away than expected. During testing of the weapon in Alaska early Monday morning, the rockets propelling the missile exploded four seconds after liftoff. No one was injured, but the cause of the failure has yet to be determined. 

The U.S. Army Space and Missile Defense Command conducted the test at the Kodiak Launch Complex on Kodiak Island in Alaska. Here's what the facility looks like after the explosion:

The missile was designed by Sandia National Laboratories, in part as an alternative to Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles, or ICBMs. ICBMs are a mainstay of America’s nuclear arsenal, so while they can cover great distances quickly, it’s hard to know until they hit their target whether the warhead they’re carrying is nuclear or not. The hypersonic missile is designed to carry a conventional warhead, so it doesn’t look like a nuclear missile but still allows the military to attack quickly and hit something that’s far away. Not looking like a nuclear attack is important because it's less likely to provoke an immediate nuclear retaliation.

Carried inside a rocket, the hypersonic missile is released at high altitude, screaming through the atmosphere in a flight pattern that's clearly different from that of an ICBM, which launches into space from silos in the ground or submarines, traveling at speeds of over Mach 20, before returning to Earth.

Besides for not looking nuclear, the hypersonic missile has the advantage of being able to fly fast past the advanced anti-aircraft defenses that threaten the much slower B-1 and B-2 bombers, both of which top out at around Mach 1. This is a big plus for hypersonic weapon proponents, who see the missile playing a valuable role in potential future conflicts between the United States and China. For their part, China appears to be actively pursuing similar technology.

Failure with high speed weapons has precedence. The weapon is similar to a DARPA program for a hypersonic aircraft that could travel at over 13,000 miles per hour. In 2012 the test vehicle failed when the hypersonic part accelerated through its own skin. So far, the Army version has been the most successful hypersonic weapon platform, but following Monday’s failure to launch, it remains to be seen if the program can deliver on its promises, or if it’s just overhyped.

Why Are Israeli Startups Leading The Tech World?

Mon, 08/25/2014 - 13:30


Cyber Shield Course Two trainees participate in an Israeli Defense Forces cyber-defense course. IDF Spokesperson's Unit People lined both sides of Boylston Street, rounds of cheers going up as runners approached the end of the 2013 Boston marathon. Then white smoke plumed. Windows splintered. Fifteen seconds later, another explosion, and glass shattered onto blackened cement. The detonations knocked athletes to the ground, in some cases blowing the shoes off their feet. Three people died, and another 264 were injured.

The FBI started investigating while first responders were still rushing to the scene. Within three days -- just 101 hours -- the bombers were apprehended.

FBI agents sifted through 13,000 videos and more than 120,000 photographs, drawn from surveillance cameras and onlookers' cell phones. To sort through the piles of footage, law enforcement turned to new technology that can condense an hour of video into just a minute of playback time.

The method, called video synopsis, was invented by an Israeli company called BriefCam, which counts all the right three-letter agencies as clients. (The FBI declined to comment on the specifics of the Boston investigation.)

Video synopsis works in a variety of ways, but most programs layer actions that occur at the same place at different times, making it possible, for example, to see simultaneously every person who walks in a door on a given afternoon. Other notable inquiries have also used BriefCam, like Norway's national security service after Anders Breivik bombed a children's camp there in 2011.

Shmuel Peleg, a co-founder of BriefCam and a professor of computer science at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, says the original intention for the tool was a long way from law enforcement. "One of my students had three kids," he said, and was hoping to come up with a better way of viewing their home videos. The eureka moment came when "one of our friends said most video on earth comes from stationary cameras," Peleg said. "He was in the military at the time," Peleg explained, and immediately thought of surveillance footage. Security cameras at Israel's borders watch for tunnel activity, but it can be hard to identify suspicious behavior in real time. "BriefCam makes it possible to integrate information that happens in a large temporal space," Peleg says, making it perfect for consistent monitoring.

Israel's environment provides a primal urgency that headquarters in Silicon Valley strewn with kegs and Ping-Pong tables can lack.

But that a civilian idea was immediately put to military use is not surprising. BriefCam's origin story reveals a common trend in Israel. "The general awareness people here have for risk is always present," Peleg says, and this mentality has made its mark on the country's business climate, influencing technological developments. "Maybe Israelis learn less things [in school] but they know how to come up with ideas, how to manage to survive," Peleg said. "Every one of us is concerned with security." Military life has left an indelible mark on Israel's booming start-up scene, leading the country to the frontlines of the tech ecosystem in odd ways.

This sway manifests most obviously in the security world. After spending six years in an elite tech unit in the Israel Defense Forces, Giora Engel, another Hebrew University alumnus, co-founded a start-up called LightCyber. LightCyber detects computer glitches in corporate environments, focusing on a new wave of electronic threats, which have moved past malware to specifically targeting companies ("like the Target data breach this last November," Engel says.) While in the Defense Forces (IDF), Engel, who has bright red hair and freckles, managed high-risk projects, including coding mission-critical systems. He says Israel is leading the world in cyber-security because people leaving the Army bring "expertise that was previously only found in the defense industry." He continued, "The nation-state cyber-breaks we were accustomed to in the military have now proliferated into the [tech] industry."

Peleg echoed Engel, saying that because of Israel's mandatory army participation, "my students are often called away from their research for reserve service." He said, "You can't think creatively while in service. You only care about survival." But upon his students' return, "new ideas come," enriching research programs.

Shmuel Peleg

In addition to fresh thinking, working in an environment where there are often immediate applications of new developments has driven quick innovation. Mantis Vision, a company that uses 3D imaging for a variety of mapping applications, had the Israeli government as an early client for a confidential project. "What I can tell you is this wasn't a product developed for a lab, but a real product that was used," said co-founder Amihai Loven.

Israel is an environment where "there's zero tolerance for work-arounds," Loven said. Part of what's pushing the country's tech boom, he said, is that "there's a lot of pressure to develop something something that actually works, and not just in lab environments." This provides a primal urgency that headquarters in Silicon Valley strewn with kegs and Ping-Pong tables can lack.

"Look at the recent conflict," Loven said, referring to July's deadly flare-up between Hamas and Israel. "The Iron Dome performance is like nothing you can develop in an R&D environment without a threat." The anti-missile system is designed to blow up incoming missiles before they land, and has been deployed frequently in the last month. Despite concerns the Iron Dome is actually less effective than the IDF claims, and setting aside much debate about the imbalance of force between the two sides of the conflict, the Iron Dome is far more sophisticated than alternative anti-rocket systems.

In the long run, the perceived pressure to make things that actually work can be a good thing for the market. "Products need to start high-end from the beginning in order to mature into consumer products," Loven said, citing GPS's beginnings as a defense tool. "If it's just starting as a gadget, there's a glass ceiling" on its utility, he explained.

So perhaps it makes sense there's an unusual amount of governmental support for new ideas. Giora Engel of LightCyber says government organizations are often slow adopters, taking their time in using new technology. But Israel was one of the first countries to develop a cyber-security division, all the way back in 1997. Since then, the country's quietly dominated all sorts of cyber projects -- not least Stuxnet, the notorious computer worm designed in a joint project between U.S. and Israeli forces that took out a fifth of Iran's nuclear centrifuges in 2010.

More recently, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu upped the ante, in 2011 creating the National Cyber Bureau (NCB), which reports directly to Netanyahu's office and increased the country's cyber-defense budgets by 30 percent. He made no bones about its purpose, saying, "We established the National Cyber Bureau for the purpose of transforming the state of Israel into a cyber superpower." NCB trickle-down extends to the startup world: "There's a lot of support for new technology from the government," Engel said, "because they realize that startups can bring them the most cutting edge technology and are valuable to the economy." Statistics suggest the strategy is working: 14.5 percent of all firms worldwide garnering cyber investment are owned by Israelis.

Of course, there are disadvantages of running a business in a region plagued by violence and dominated by the military. Engel said that in July, while business has continued, more or less as usual, in the startup scene, "Some people have been called to their reserve duty in their military units. And it's hard to have conference calls when any moment you may have to run to a bomb shelter."

"In this crazy country, you're always under pressure," Loven said. "If it's not defense, it's to win in the market."

Watch A Robot Ride A Hovercycle

Mon, 08/25/2014 - 11:15

The Drone 3 In Flight I bet this would've caught Luke Skywalker on Endor. Malloy Aeronautics

A white plastic robot zooms a hoverbike over the English countryside, grains blowing beneath the bike's four fans. The robot's 3-D printed body is lightweight, and where its face would be there’s a GoPro camera instead, filming the flight. This isn't a scene from a dystopian science fiction movie; The bike is less than four feet long, and combined robot and bike weighs a maximum of 15.4 pounds. Created by Malloy Aeronautics, the Drone 3 hoverbike is a 1/3rd scale model of the version ultimately intended for human pilots and passengers.

The hoverbike is available as a reward for Kickstarter backers pledging just shy of $1000 USD. The campaign, which concludes on August 31st has already surpassed its goal. Making and selling Drone 3 is just the first part of the plan for Malloy Aeronautics. The company, founded in Australia and transplanted to England, envisions hoverbikes using the sky alongside helicopters the same way cars and motorcycles share the same roads. In particular, and in strikingly Australian fashion, the hoverbike makers say it could be used for "one man operational areas like cattle mustering and survey," replacing the more conventional helicopters that presently perform this role.

Malloy Aeronautics’s first hoverbike used two large ducted fans for lift, something it had in common with other hoverbike designs. The new version, as seen in Drone 3, is instead a quadcopter, using four rotors in a sleeker, more balanced fashion. The fans partially overlap, and the whole drone can fold up to fit within a special backpack carrying case. Drone 3 is remotely piloted, but the hoverbikes it finances will fly both manned and unmanned.

Watch it in flight below:

U.S. Copyright Office Denies Monkeys Rights To Their Selfies

Fri, 08/22/2014 - 14:09

Smile Wikimedia Commons

In 2011, British wildlife photographer David Slater was traveling through the jungle in Indonesian when a crested black macaque grabbed his camera and started snapping selfies. Somebody posted the images in Wikipedia Commons, meaning anybody could use them for free. A legal battle ensued, with Slater claiming the images belong to him, and Wikipedia countering that the images belong to the public since they weren't created by a human.

The U.S. Copyright Office addresses the dispute in the latest draft of its “Compendium Of U.S. Copyright Office Practices”, which was published on August 19. The previous compendium stated clearly that “Materials produced solely by nature, by plants, or by animals are not copyrightable.” The new 1,222-page report makes their stance on animal artwork abundantly more clear by referring specifically to photographs taken monkeys. “[T]he Office will refuse to register a claim if it determines that a human being did not create the work.”

Other fun and somewhat-related highlights from the new report:

  • [T]he Office cannot register a work purportedly created by divine or supernatural beings.
  • To be copyrightable, musical works, like all works of authorship, must be of human origin. A musical work created by solely by an animal would not be registrable, such as a bird song or whale song. Likewise, music generated entirely by a mechanical or an automated process is not copyrightable. For example, the automated transposition of a musical work from one key to another is not registrable. Nor could a musical composition created solely by a computer algorithm be registered.
  • To qualify as a work of authorship a choreographic work must be created by a human being and it must be intended for execution by humans. Dances performed or intended to be performed by animals, machines, or other animate or inanimate objects are not copyrightable and cannot be registered with the U.S. Copyright Office.
  • To qualify as a work of authorship, a pantomime must involve “the real pantomime of real men.” Kalem, 222 U.S. at 61-62. Pantomimes performed by animals, robots, machines, or any other animate or inanimate object are not copyrightable and cannot be registered with the U.S. Copyright Office.

Not everyone is smiling over the new rules. Circa reports that the photographer is facing some $17,000 in legal fees, and they quote Slater: "Photography is an expensive profession that's being encroached upon. They're taking our livelihoods away… For every 100000 images I take, one makes money that keeps me going. And that was one of those images. It was like a year of work, really."

But since Slater is a British citizen and there are no international copyright laws, it's not clear how the case will pan out or whether Slater will continue to press the matter. The Telegraph notes that, “In the U.K., under the Copyright Designs and Patents Act 1988, a photographer can claim rights over an image even if he or she did not press the shutter button if the results are their “intellectual creation”... However, such a case has never been tried in court and the outcome would be uncertain.”

For now, at least, Wikipedia continues to list the photos under public domain.

The Future Of Urban Planning: Zoning For Drones

Fri, 08/22/2014 - 10:15

Drone Zones At Human Level Mitchell Sipus

A century ago, as cars first emerged into the world, cities and laws that were designed for horses suddenly had to adapt to a whole new presence in their space. Cities didn’t know how to handle these fast machines, and fatal accidents in the early age of cars led to legal battles between pedestrians and cars over who had the right to the road. Now,  commercial drones are approaching their Model-T moment, and planners can get ahead of this by plotting out their cities in color-coded three-dimensional blocks of sky.

Urban designer Mitchell Sipus, who’s done work for the mayors of both Kabul and Mogadishu, has sketched out a rough idea of possible zoning laws for drones. Sipus draws an explicit parallel between traffic law and drone law. He tells Popular Science:

“It’s not really that different than regular automobile traffic. Back in the day, cars were invented, people who could afford them started driving like crazy, getting drunk, driving off the road, driving into trees, causing all sorts of chaos. But clearly there were a lot more benefits to having automobiles than sticking to the old horse and buggy system. So instead of banning cars altogether, people were reasonable in trying to develop traffic laws, and infrastructure to support those traffic laws, like four-way stop signs, lanes on the road, speed limits, don’t get drunk. If we think of this the same way, for a pilot, ‘don’t drink and drive’ becomes ‘don’t drink and drone.’”

Sipus says that presently we're risking implementing a set of drone ‘laws that crush opportunity.” For example, a law considered by Hawaii  would restrict how police could use drones, and at the same time prevent anyone else from using a drone at all. That’s a shame, because then the world would lose out on great aerial photography of the islands. The answer is creating laws that allow for the good potential. “There are new markets this could create. Why are creating regulatory frameworks to hinder that? We should be creating frameworks that encourage that.”

Sipus’ system would let cities plot out volumes of space where drones are okay, places where there are restrictions, and places where they’re forbidden without special approval. For his concept, he used the familiar colors of traffic lights: “green areas are free-use, yellow and orange maintain various restrictions according to the time of day and day of week, while red areas are restricted at all times.”

Here’s what that model looks like in a slice of Chicago:

Zones For Drones Along the Chicago waterfront. Mitchell Sipus

The green area covers an open space near a park and a fountain, where people are likely not too crowded together, and where there’s a body of water.

Orange and yellow spaces represent buildings where it would be okay to fly drones some of the time but not all the time. The yellow covers a large block of housing, which could restrict drones during the day but allow them above a certain altitude at night. One of the buildings in orange is an observatory, where daytime flights might be fine but nighttime droning could obstruct the telescope.

The red area in the example is Soldier Field, where the Chicago Bears play. Here, personal drones with cameras would be explicitly banned for privacy and licensing concerns, unless explicitly authorized by the stadium and the NFL.

If done responsibly, a system like this could protect the privacy and safety of the community while allowing for exciting innovation. Done poorly, it could fail to provide even one part of that. “I like laws, I like taxation, I like regulation, but I like it when it serves a purpose,” said Sipus. Zoning for drones could be a gentle way to give necessary control over just how flying robots enter the daily lives of millions of Americans.

Check out more of Sipus's drone zone design at Humanitarian Space.

Fighter Pilot Films First Person View Of Flight Over Fjords

Thu, 08/21/2014 - 14:30

DYE Radar Station 2 From A Freaking Fighter Jet Window The snow is also Greenland. Screenshot of video by John Kristensen, YouTube Being a fighter pilot is a lot of work. Maintence, years of training, planning for missions, paperwork -- all just to pilot one of the faster, deadlier machines ever created by human hands. Seems like a real hassle, right?

Fortunately for everyone who isn't a fighter pilot, John Kristensen, a Danish Air Force pilot who flew missions in Afghanistan between 2002 and 2003, brought along his GoPro for a flight in an F-16 Fighting Falcon over Greenland. The resulting video is stunning, as he races past icebergs, glaciers, ice floes, snow-covered plains, and fjords. There's a lot that's frozen on the Greenland ice sheet, it turns out. He also flies in formation with other pilots from Fighter Wing Skrydstrup

Watch the video below:


Interested in more headspinning flight captures? Check out this Slovenian airplane undergoing a spin test.

Weapons Can Be Carried Easily Through The TSA's Full-Body "Naked" Scanners

Thu, 08/21/2014 - 13:07

Hovav Shacham, one of the security researchers who conducted the study, poses for a full-body scan. Erik Jepsen/UC San Diego Publications Since 2010, the Transportation Security Administration has largely dismissed the public's worries about the use of full-body x-ray security scanners. The official line is that the “naked scanners,” despite privacy and health concerns, are crucial to prevent individuals from sneaking weapons, explosives, and other dangerous materials onto aircraft or into a government building.

As it turns out, the scanners are actually pretty easy to fool.

On Thursday, security researchers from UC San Diego, the University of Michigan, and Johns Hopkins presented results from a months-long study that show how someone can hide weapons from the scanners through a number of simple tricks. From using Teflon tape to cover an object or just strategic placement of an object around the body, to more cunning approaches like installing malware onto the scanner's console, a person could get away with a concealed weapon or explosive with little trouble.

Although the scanners the researchers tested – the Rapiscan Secure 1000 machines – haven’t been used in airports since 2013, they are still widely used in federal buildings like jails and courthouses. It cost taxpayers over $1 billion to have them installed in more than 160 airports.

Wired has more details on the study. One of the more striking aspects is how the researchers approached their testing, which differs from past experiments:

Unlike others who have made claims about vulnerabilities in full body scanner technology, the team of university researchers conducted their tests on an actual Rapiscan Secure 1000 system they purchased on eBay. They tried smuggling a variety of weapons through that scanner, and found—as [blogger Jonathan] Corbett did—that taping a gun to the side of a person’s body or sewing it to his pant’s leg hid its metal components against the scan’s black background. For that trick, only fully metal guns worked; An AR-15 was spotted due to its non-metal components, the researchers report, while an .380 ACP was nearly invisible. They also taped a folding knife to a person’s lower back with a thick layer of teflon tape, which they say completely masked it in the scan.

If all it takes is some money spent on eBay to acquire a full-body scanner, there’s no telling what a motivated group of would-be attackers with time on their hands could learn, especially if they had access to more advanced physical and digital equipment. The researchers are imploring the TSA and other security agencies to conduct more of the type of aggressive, "adversarial" testing the researcher's themselves ran.

“These machines were tested [by the TSA] in secret, presumably without this kind of adversarial mindset, thinking about how an attacker would adapt to the techniques being used,” says [study-coauthor J. Alex] Halderman […]“They might stop a naive attacker. But someone who applied just a bit of cleverness to the problem would be able to bypass them. And if they had access to a machine to test their attacks, they could render their ability to detect contraband virtually useless.”

So far, the TSA has yet to comment substantively on the study or its results.


How The Panama Canal Changed The Shape Of War

Wed, 08/20/2014 - 13:15

Enlarging The Canal For Bigger Battleships Click here for a larger image. Popular Science

One hundred years ago, the Panama Canal opened for the first time. A triumph of turn-of-the-century engineering, it connected Pacific and Atlantic, expanding the worlds of maritime commerce and re-writing the sea lanes of the Western Hemisphere.

But with the canal came one major constraint: size. The locks of the canal are only so wide and so long and so deep, and while much of the ocean itself is boundless in what its depths can accommodate, the canal is a finite place. The maximum size for a modern vessel that wants to use the canal is known as Panamax. A Panamax vessel can be no longer than 965 feet, no wider than 106 feet, may extend no more than 190 feet above the waterline or 39 feet 6 inches below it, and no more than 65,000 deadweight tons.

The limitation was seized upon by naval theorists as soon as it was created. In 1916, Commander William Adger Moffet of the U.S. Navy wrote about the possible maximum size of warships, and came pretty close to the Panamax limit. Popular Science reported on it then in “The Thousand-Foot Battleship”:

“In an article published in “Sea Power,” Commander Moffet points out that only the size of the locks of the Panama Canal limits the size of the battleships. That limit applies to the warships of the entire word as well; for no power would sacrifice the advantage of being able to send its fleet through the canal.”

Included with the story was an estimation that the theoretical size limit of battleships was 995 feet in length and with a displacement of 60,000 tons. Moffet’s theorized ship would have been as long as the American battleships Oregon and Pennsylvania, which were in service at the time, stuck together end-to-end.

The Proposed Panama Limit Ship Click here to enlarge. Popular Science

Shortly after the Great War, this limit became less an exciting space to fill and more a cage that impeded ship size. In response to submarine attacks during the war, British vessels attached pontoon boats around the outsides of many vessels (this is what's known as "blistering" a ship). In a 1919 articlePopular Science wondered if blistering American warships would mean forsaking the canal:

That causes the Navy Department of the United States to ponder.

The locks of the Panama Canal are 110 feet wide; the beam of our latest dreadnought, 97 feet wide; and the plans for future dreadnoughts call for a beam of more than 100 feet. Add 16 feet of pontoon --eight on a side--to these ships and they will be wider than the locks!

If our ships are “blistered,” how shall we travel from coast to coast? Shall we change the width of the locks, of the ships, or of the pontoons? Or will it come to sending our largest ships around Cape Horn, as of old?

Panama Canal Limitations For Warships Popular Science

One possible solution to the narrow canal was adding another, larger set of locks. The United States, which completed construction of the canal and retained formal control over the canal zone for decades afterwards, attempted an expansion in the 1940s. The plan? Add a new set of locks at each entrance, and let more traffic traverse the main stretch of canal. “Enlarging the Panama Canal for Bigger Battleships,” in the September 1940 issue of Popular Science detailed this process, and explained the rationale behind it:

Why the new locks? First and foremost, they will assure the U.S. Fleet of unobstructed passage between the oceans, in cases of emergency. Canal authorities long have been jittery over the possibility of sabotage or direct attack on the present locks. A vessel might be blown up, or time bombs might be dropped, in a lock chamber; or the locks might be bombed by raiding planes. If a heavy explosion or a lucky hit from the air happened to destroy two side-by-side lock chambers at once, the entire Canal would be put of out commission. Therefore, for many months, a force of several thousand men has been working night and day to equip the old locks with "special protective devices" of a secret nature.  But the Navy will feel still more comfortable when the new locks are built, from a quarter mile to a half mile away from the old ones, so that both cannot be attacked simultaneously. Every known safeguard against bombing and sabotage will be built into them, from the foundation up.

The project continued until 1942, when the demands of actually fighting the war caused the United States to cancel the project.  

In the years since, most warships have remained within the constraints of the canal, but a few haven’t. The U.S. Navy’s Enterprise- and Nimitz-class carriers are all too big for the canal (at around 1100 feet long and 130 feet wide), and the new Gerald R. Ford class of carriers will be as well, even after the canal finishes its latest expansion project. Commander's Moffet's prediction was almost true: there was just one power willing to sacrifice the ability to send its ships through the canal, and that's the same superpower that built it.

Turning Old Lead Batteries Into New Solar Energy

Wed, 08/20/2014 - 08:30

Used Batteries elizaIO on Flickr

Used car batteries can leech chemicals and create lead pollution when they're incorrectly trashed. A team at MIT believes that this lead can be cut out of the waste stream entirely -- and put to good use creating emissions-free energy.

In newly published research, the scientists show that recycled lead from car batteries works as well as fresh lead when used in solar cells made with organolead halide perovskite film, a compound that is fast becoming competitive with silicon in solar power technology. The process is also cost-effective.

Quoting MIT energy professor Angela Belcher, a study co-author, an MIT press release notes that with time ticking down on lead-acid batteries in favor of lithium ion cells, we need to be thinking ahead on handling a looming toxic waste problem:

One motivation for using the lead in old car batteries is that battery technology is undergoing rapid change, with new, more efficient types, such as lithium-ion batteries, swiftly taking over the market. “Once the battery technology evolves, over 200 million lead-acid batteries will potentially be retired in the United States, and that could cause a lot of environmental issues,” Belcher says.

Today, she says, 90 percent of the lead recovered from the recycling of old batteries is used to produce new batteries, but over time the market for new lead-acid batteries is likely to decline, potentially leaving a large stockpile of lead with no obvious application.

The group's work demonstrates that the perovskite created from the lead in just one old car battery could provide materials for 30 households-worth of solar energy cells. Perovskite solar panels are also less energy-intensive to build compared to silicon-based cells, and the leaded film would be completely contained within other materials.

The research, “Environmentally-responsible fabrication of efficient perovskite solar cells from recycled car batteries,” was recently published online by the journal Energy and Environmental Science.

The team has put this video online to demonstrate their process:

Twitter Bot Helps Chicago Officials Find Dirty Restaurants

Tue, 08/19/2014 - 14:45

Food Poisoning From an infographic for Foodborne Chicago by Payal Patel Designs

Those moules frites you had at the French bistro last night were delicious, but now you're feeling kind of funny. Worse than funny. Actually, you're trapped in your bathroom, suffering from food poisoning. Who are you going to tell about this?

Many cities have hotlines where citizens can report getting food poisoning from restaurants, but not everybody uses them. So, in a recent project, the city of Chicago sought food poisoning cases by setting an algorithm to mine Chicago-area tweets for complaints. The Chicago Department of Public Health's Twitter bot, plus a new online complaint form, helped the department identify 133 restaurants for inspections over a 10-month period. Twenty-one of those restaurants failed inspection and 33 passed with "critical or serious" violations. Not a bad haul.

Chicago is now working with the health departments of Boston and New York to see if its system could work in those cities, according to a report city researchers published with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Plus, Twitter isn't the only social media platform cities are looking to mine for public health violations. In May, New York City's department of health reported on using an algorithm to spot Yelp reviews that point to food poisoning cases. New York's Yelp project led the city to discover three restaurants that had multiple violations. All the Yelp cases the city inspected had otherwise gone unreported, New York officials wrote in their own CDC report.

The Chicago bot was pretty simple, as Twitter-reading computer programs go. It searched for tweets geo-located to Chicago and its surrounding suburbs that mentioned "food poisoning." Human staff then read the tweets to determine if they were relevant. (Sounds fun.) Staff marked tweets as relevant or not relevant, to give the algorithm data to better learn what tweets to pull in the future. Then staff members responded to relevant tweets themselves. Here's a sample tweet and reply:

@BillWest5 Sorry to hear you're ill. The Chicago health department can help.

— Foodborne Chicago (@foodbornechi) August 15, 2014

The link leads to a new online form, called Foodborne Chicago, where city residents can report problematic restaurants.

Between March 2013 and January 2014, the Chicago bot culled 2,241 tweets, of which 270 were relevant and staff replied to them. Thirty Twitter users went to Foodborne Chicago directly from the link the health department sent them. An additional 163 people submitted complaints to Foodborne Chicago, but staff don't know if they learned about the site through Twitter or someplace else. Overall, Foodborne Chicago complaints contributed to four percent of the restaurants the city shut down for violations during the study period.

The city likely would have never caught the majority of those complaints without the Twitter bot, officials wrote to the CDC.

The city has made its Twitter bot open-source. You can see the code on GitHub.

NASA's Greased Lightning Tests Vertical Takeoff

Tue, 08/19/2014 - 13:20

NASA's GL-10 Greased Lightning Vertical Takeoff Test Drone Click here to see a larger version of this image. NASA Langley/David C. Bowman The space missions get all the credit, but the Aeronautics branch of NASA does really cool stuff. Today is National Aviation Day, and to celebrate, NASA shared a picture of their GL-10 Greased Lightning drone. Consider it the little sister to the military's V-22 Osprey. It has a ten-foot wingspan and boasts ten electric engines all on tiltwings. Seen here, the wings are pointed up, letting the drone take off and land like a helicopter. Once airborne, they'll tilt forward, making the plane much faster. It's a best-of-both-worlds configuration, and NASA wants to make it better.

Greased Lightning is part of a NASA program to make efficient hybrid-electric Vertical Takeoff and Landing aircraft. It's one of four concepts, and is the most conventional of the bunch. According to NASA, it recently flew while tethered, and untethered flight tests are planned for this fall.