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Arizona's First Bitcoin ATM Goes Kablooey

Wed, 07/30/2014 - 07:45

Bitcoins via BitcoinTalk

Is there a deity out there who hates cryptocurrency? To the list of disasters that have befallen the bitcoin economy in 2014, including the bankruptcy of the enormous Mt. Gox exchange as well as the theft of about $2.7 million in bitcoins from Silk Road 2.0 (both in February), add this morsel of bad luck: A lightning strike has taken out the only bitcoin ATM in all of Arizona, less than a month after it was installed.

According to, the web site of The Arizona Republic newspaper, lightning hit the Booksmans Entertainment Exchange in Tucson last week, causing a power surge that fried some of the bitcoin ATM's electrical components. Owner-operator Brian Williams told a reporter that he'd started operating the $1,000 machine on July 14. “It's kind of like getting punched in the face,” Williams told The Republic. He also stated that he'd been able to remove and account for all the machine's hard currency, and that the damage had no impact on anyone's accounts.

There are only around two dozen bitcoin ATMs in the U.S. at present, according to industry news site CoinDesk, and no more than 140 worldwide. There's no indication yet of when the Arizona ATM will be back in operation. The nearest alternatives are located in Las Vegas, Nevada and Tijuana, Mexico.

U.S. Army Contemplates 3D-Printed Warheads

Tue, 07/29/2014 - 14:46

Grenade Explosion U.S. Marine Corps, via Wikimedia Commons

Additive manufacturing, more commonly known as 3-D printing, is inherently creative. Materials are layered together and built up, constructing an object from powder and heat and code. In the future, the U.S. Army wants to turn this innovation to far more destructive ends, by printing new warheads.

The latest issue of Army Technology focuses on 3-D printing. Designing new shapes for warheads is one promising new avenue of research. In "ARDEC investigates how 3-D printed metals could transform Army logistics", U.S. Army Armament Research, Development and Engineering Center materials engineer James Zunino explains to author Timothy Rider what additive manufacturing can bring to the science of blowing stuff up. Rider captures the core of it here:

Warhead designers attempt to create blast effects that meet specific criteria, explained Zunino. They may want blast fragments of specific sizes to radiate in specific directions such that their blasts can most effectively destroy desired targets. 

“Once you get into detonation physics you open up a whole new universe,” Zunino said. The limits on what can be produced using machine tools limit warhead shapes. By lifting limitations through the expanded capabilities that come with additive manufacturing, space is used more efficiently. 

“The real value you get is you can get more safety, lethality or operational capability from the same space,” Zunino said.

Directing the explosion of a weapon is a big deal, as it can mean both deadlier military tools and more precise attacks. Last winter missile maker MBDA tested a differently shaped charge on a missile whose narrow explosion is designed to hit a target and nothing else. In the future, 3-D printed warheads could do something similar, giving troops and commanders more options about how and to what extent they should blow something up.

While printed warheads are the shiny tip of the spear, it's almost certain that 3-D printing will make a difference with mundane supply tasks like spare parts first. Multiple stories in the issue focus in on this immediate need. In "Getting to Right Faster," Master Sergeant Adam Asclipiadis of the Army's appropriately named Rapid Equipping Force, describes how they used Statasys Fortus 3-D printers in Afghanistan.

First, REF engineers work directly with the Soldier to understand the challenge. Then, they virtually design a prototype solution, incorporating the Soldier’s unique ideas and concept for operations. The REF engineers 3-D print plastic mock ups and deliver them to the requesting unit for immediate feedback. This allows Ex Lab personnel to ensure proper form, fit and function with the end user up front.... Most solutions require three to five iterations before reaching the final prototype. By using forward 3-D printers, the engineering teams are able to print, assess and turn around follow-on plastic prototypes, sometimes in only a few days.

Further articles in the issue examine the military applications of 3-D printing in medicine, food, new materials, at supply depots and in building miniatures to better understand a battlefield. There's also a look at 3-D bioprinting human tissue for treating wounds, especially burn wounds, suffered in the field of battle– perhaps in new patterns left by creatively shaped 3-D printed warheads. 

The whole issue is available online here.

India Investigates Google Mapping Project

Tue, 07/29/2014 - 07:00

Detail From Top 10 Mapathon India Winners The number one is in Pathankot, which is very near the disputed territory of Kashmir. Google

India's Central Bureau of Investigation is questioning an open-source map project sponsored by Google. Google's possible crime: Revealing information about sensitive military installations. Relying on locals to document the area around them, Google's contest may have documented what was known to locals but unavailable on previous maps of India.

India, like most countries engaged in a long and frustrating military stalemate over territory disputed by a nuclear-armed neighbor, wants to keep details about its own military installations out of the public eye. The government's Survey of India is responsible for maps, and that responsibility includes making sure the Open Series Maps, designed for general consumption, don't contain information from the classified Defense Series Maps.

Google's 2013 India Mapathon project came with no such military purpose behind it. Instead, the internet giant provided mapping tools to contest entrants. Top prizes included Samsung Galaxy Note tablets and cash. Notable in the terms of the contest are the specific features Google wanted map makers to label:

The drawing and annotation tools enable an Entrant to draw roads and features that are visible in the imagery, and label these items based on personal knowledge of a region, city, or town. Additionally, Entrant may use it to create points of interest, such as a school, business, or community feature, and to locate and describe points of interest.

The top ten winners of the contest are shown on the home page for Mapathon 2013. Vishal Saini, ranked number one in the contest, mapped the city of Pathankot, in the northern part of Punjab province. Pathankot is the last Indian city on the national highway to the contested state of Jammu and Kashmir, and has come under military attack before. During the 1965 Indo-Pakistan war, while the two countries fought over control of Kashmir, Pakistan bombed the Indian Air Force base in Pathankot and attempted to attack it with paratroopers.

Now, if you look up Pathankot on Google Maps, in addition to the city, there's a large section of land labeled "military area." The Survey of India claims Google didn't ask for permission before launching their map project. Crucially, the Survey of India claims a monopoly on mapping sensitive and restricted areas, and the appearance of places like Pathankot Military Area on an open map undermine that monopoly, and the national security interest behind it.

Pathankot Military Area Google

The Week In Drones: No-Fly Maps, Protecting Future Japan, And More

Fri, 07/25/2014 - 08:00

A Field Near Madison Wisconsin Yinan Chen, 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 Saves Man

Drones have a lot to offer search and rescue. Crop fields and forests are impenetrable to a naked eye from the ground, and much easier to scan from above. In Wisconsin, searchers using a drone found a missing 82-year-old eye doctor in a bean field.

No-Fly Zones

While eventually the FAA plans to open up some of the sky for drones, large chunks of sky remain off limits. "Don't Fly Drones Here" is a map project that shows what parts of the country are currently known to be off limits. A word of warning: because of the nature of the project, this map identifies what is explicitly off-limits, but shouldn't be trusted as a guide for where drones are permitted. (A particularly glaring example already highlighted on Github: the special Washington, DC ban on all drones is presently missing).

Anti-Poaching Partners

Airware, a drone autopilot company, just completed 10 days of testing in Kenya's 90,000-acre Ol Pejeta animal conservancy. Drones, with low flight costs, ease of use, and ability to watch over large stretches of rural terrain, are an ideal tool for protecting wildlife and fighting poachers. Infrared cameras allow the drones to watch night and day, and the recent partnership between the Conservancy and Airware show a bright future of wildlife protecting drones.

Waterbuck at Sweetwaters Tented Camp, Kenya Jan Arkesteijn, via Wikimedia Commons

Japan's Robotic Skies

Over the next decade, Japan plans to invest over $370 million in drones, according to a senior defense analyst. This is reflected in Japan's 2014 defense budget. According to a provisional English translation from Japan's Ministry of Defense, drones fit into a early warning and surveillance role:

Carry out continuous surveillance across wide areas, strengthen information gathering, warning and surveillance capabilities in the seas and airspace surrounding Japan, and consider the introduction of unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), in order to make early detection of various warning signs possible.

Slow Regulation, Stagnant Markets

The FAA's hesitance to regulate drones and integrate them into regular airspace is holding back both industry and science, two different editorials argue. In The Speaker, a Stimson Center report on the failures of drone integration indicates major challenges for U.S. drone makers. The Speaker says:

Export control rules in the US are ambiguous, the report explained, not clearly drawing a distinction between “unarmed military unmanned aerial vehicles” and other unarmed drones, while subjecting military vehicles to stricter export controls. This prevents manufacturers from measuring the size of their markets, “chilling” their production, according to the report.

Meanwhile, a report at Government Technology notes that slow regulation is impeding the ability of Americans to use drones for science, and therefore hurting science. Gaps in the rules for piloted aircraft and unmanned drones create new and frustrating problems. For example, at a marine sanctuary, "flights aren't allowed below 1,000 feet under sanctuary rules, but can't go higher than 400 feet under FAA rules." Besides legal absurdities, the drone rules themselves hinder scientists who want to use the technology. Jason Hoppin, writing for McClatchy News Service, notes:

While the current regulatory environment allows scientific drone use, Jacobs described rules that sound burdensome. Trained pilots are required to operate the unmanned drones, communication frequencies have to be cleared through the Federal Communications Commission and drones often have to stay within a pilot's line of sight — even though they could be programmed to patrol and explore a much larger area.

It's a frustrating legal environment for a promising technology.

Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary Big Sur coastline looking north to Bixby Canyon Bridge Robert Schwemmer, CINMS, NOAA, via Wikimedia Commons

Did I miss any drone news? Email me at

Happy Birthday, Chandra X-Ray Observatory

Thu, 07/24/2014 - 11:45
Four new images of supernova remnants celebrate the telescope's 15 years of awesome discoveries G292.0+1.8 G292.0+1.8 lacks a catchy name, but it's one of only three known oxygen-rich supernova remnants (SNRs) in the Milky Way galaxy. This image shows the dance of elements in G292-point-yadda's debris cloud, including oxygen in yellow and orange, magnesium in green, and silicon and sulfur in blue. Astrophysicists believe that SNRs containing abundant oxygen are fundamental sources of heavy elements, the matter needed to form every living or inanimate thing in the galaxy. About 4.8 kiloparsecs or 15-20,000 light years from Earth, G292.0+01.8 is also remarkable for the off-center pulsar wind nebula within it: the remains of the original star that exploded, and revealed to Chandra by its X-ray emissions.

Could This Old Warplane Really Shoot Down MH17?

Wed, 07/23/2014 - 10:44

An Su-25 In Flight Wikimedia Commons

Following the downing of Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 over separatist-held eastern Ukraine, Russian state-owned media started focusing a lot on a strange little plane. The Sukhoi Su-25 "Frogfoot" is a jet fighter from the late Cold War, designed to support ground troops from closer overhead, and in the MH17 tragedy, what the Su-25 can and can't do is a centerpiece of Russian denials.

According to some theories, a Ukrainian Air Force Su-25 jet fighter fighter was armed with anti-air missiles and flew to an altitude of 33,000 feet, within 3 miles of MH17–implying that the warplane shot down MH17. Primarily Russian media (including Russia's state-owned English language television network RT, Russian state-owned media news agency RIA Novosti, and are reporting this version of events. Russia is hardly an unbiased party in this conflict. But if there was going to be a rumor about the Ukrainian government shooting the airliner, it couldn't have fixated on a less ideal jet.

The Sukhoi Su-25 "Frogfoot" is not designed to destroy airplanes. Instead, it's a close air support or ground attack aircraft. First flown in 1979, it serves in the air forces of many post-Soviet states, including Ukraine. It's primarily used for destroying tanks, armored vehicles, trucks, and bunkers, where the Frogfoot's armor and 9,000 lbs of armaments make it a deadly force. Among those armaments can be AA-8 Aphid anti-air missiles, which are usually limited in range to under two miles. But there's an upper limit to the plane's performance: it can only fly up to 23,000 feet, well below MH17's reported 33,000 cruising distance. For an anti-tank plane, that's not a problem, but it poses a challenge to theories that Ukraine used one to down an airliner.

On Monday morning, someone from an IP address in Moscow edited the Su-25's Russian Wikipedia page to increase the maximum height the plane can reach by about 10,000 feet. 

On the website of the Su-25's manufacturer, the maximum service ceiling reflects the first version, and also the actual capabilities of the plane. It's not just absurd that a Ukrainian Su-25 shot down the airliner, it's almost technically impossible.

Instead, it looks like the Su-25 has a more somber connection to MH17. Earlier today, two Ukrainian Air Force Frogfeet were shot down in the same region of separatist-held eastern Ukraine where MH17 met its grim fate.

Su-25 At Kubinka Air Base Dmitry A. Mottl, via Wikimedia Commons


Could Lasers Be The Future Of Anti-Missile Weapons?

Tue, 07/22/2014 - 10:31

American Concept Art Of Soviet Laser. From 1986. Edward L. Cooper, via Wikimedia Commons

On Thursday, July 18th, Malaysian Airlines flight MH-17 was struck by a missile. The United States believes the missile was a Soviet-designed Buk, and American infrared satellites pinpoint the location of that missile's launch to territory in Eastern Ukraine held by Russian-backed separatists. Is it possible that, while Cold War technology launched the missile, and modern technology identified where it was launched, future laser technology could shoot missiles out of the sky?

The answer is a strong and definitive maybeOutfitting modern commercial airliners with anti-missile lasers is a much more expensive and complicated process than simply not flying over war zones, and even if current lasers work against small missiles, they can't yet stop larger anti-air weapons. A recent op-ed in the Wall Street Journal argues that anti-projectile lasers, for weapons smaller than missiles, are feasible now. The National Defense Magazine sees a more gradual development of anti-missile lasers. Though the technology is still in labs and proving grounds, the growing field of energy weapons suggests that a future filled with protective lasers is possible. 

The Current State Of Anti-Projectile Weapons

Hitting objects in mid-air is hard, and it's expensive. American efforts in ballistic missile defense, a long-promised countermeasure to nuclear attack, are often so unsuccessful that Congress recently specified that new tests must be realistic when it authorizes funding. Even when not stopping nuclear armed intercontinental ballistic missiles, hitting a rocket with a rocket is tricky. Israel's Iron Dome rocket defense system costs $45 million for a group of launchers and $40,000 for each counter-rocket fired. The rockets it's designed to stop cost around $750 apiece to make. That's $40,000 for each attempt to stop a $750 rocket, which means the system can be quite costly monetarily and in human lives if Iron Dome's accuracy is less than explicitly promised

Lasers could change that equation. Laser systems are expensive to develop; the U.S. Navy has already spent $40 million and counting to build a laser that would shoot down drones, and improving the laser will undoubtedly cost more. Once developed and put into use, though, lasers get very, very cheap. As designed, the Navy laser system costs about $1 a shot, making it cheaper than bullets used for the same purpose.

Because lasers are beams of light, they travel faster than any other projectile weapon. Lasers are thus ideal for stopping other projectiles. In the words of Lockheed CTO Ray Johnson, "It’s game changing. Should you develop an operational weapon that operates at Mach a million, that’s game changing." To get to that gamechanging point, lasers will need to be a lot more powerful than they currently are. 

Laser Weapons Today

Johnson estimates that 100 kilowatt lasers will debut over the next few years, and he thinks 300kW lasers will be feasible eventually. Even at 10kW, today's lasers show promise. Last winter, the U.S. Army's "High Energy Laser Mobile Demonstrator" (HEL MD) used a 10kW beam to "engage" mortar rounds in midair. "Engage" is a bit of a dodgy word here that means "aimed at and hit" while not specifying "until successfully destroyed." The Army plans to keep developing the HEL MD at 50kW and 100kW levels, with the goal of creating a laser so powerful it can damage mortar rounds, steer them of course, and maybe even blow them up. Israeli defense company Rafael is also developing a laser weapon system, and the Office of Naval Research is looking into a truck-borne version for U.S. Marines

The fundamental challenge for laser weapons is that, unlike in science fiction where lasers fly like bullets, a laser weapon in the real world has to stay focused for a long time, burning through the target the way a child might use a magnifying glass on a beetle. For the kid, the insect is easily trapped. For the laser, it has to stay focused on a moving target while burning it. This burning need not destroy the missile completely. Instead, by targeting a stabilizing fin, the missile may simply be disabled.

There's still considerable debate about how much laser is needed to disable what kind of missile, and whether it's even possible for lasers to destroy missiles. A report by the Congressional Research Office found several competing claims.

Laser Power Levels Congressional Research Service

The Future Of Lasers

Because the technology is still in development, we don't yet know how strong lasers will get, or if they'll be able to do all that they promise. But here's how those promises look:

From Boeing, this video demonstration of HEL MD is all about targeting and tracking flying objects with lasers:


Lockheed demonstrated a laser against a tethered rocket, and the video below shows how that laser burnt through the missile's head, blowing it up:

The Airborne Laser Testbed was a project by Boeing and Northrop Grumman for the U.S. Missile Defense Agency, which put a giant laser on the nose of a 747. Now canceled, it was plagued by high cost and repeated failures that undermined its promise of safety through superior laser power. Here it is in action:

In this concept video, BAE puts their future laser on a concept plane, firmly placing the laser as a technology of tomorrow, with shooting down airborne missiles just one of the many new things about future aircraft.


This Week In Numbers: A Surprising Comet, A Creepy Robot, And More

Fri, 07/18/2014 - 16:00

250,000,000 miles: how far away the Rosetta spacecraft is from Earth. However, Rosetta is just 8,000 miles from its target, a comet that is called 67P and is surprisingly shaped like a rubber ducky.

2,700,000: the number of Wikipedia articles written by this one bot. That's 8.5 percent of all the articles on Wikipedia. The bot mostly creates those short "stubs" you might have run into on the online encyclopedia.

2,000: approximate number of people who attended this year's Porcupine Freedom Festival, AKA "Burning Man for libertarians." Check out Lois Parshley's story for a look at the scene.

Legged Support System Robot In Hawaii U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Matthew Callahan

400 pounds: weight that the four-legged LS3 robot is able to carry. The U.S Marines hope that in the future, LS3 could carry supplies for them during invasions. They tested the robot in Hawaii last week.

3,000 pounds: weight that U.S. Department of Defense's Ares Combat Drone will be able to carry. Ares could undergo test flights as early as next year.

These "fat-rumped sheep" appear in Thomas Pennant's two-volume "History of Quadrupeds," 1793, which were among the books in Darwin's library on the Beagle. "The buttocks appear like two hemispheres, quite naked and smooth," wrote Pennant, "with the os coccygis between scarcely sensible to the touch…[T]hese Cheep grow very large, even to two hundred pounds weight, of which the posteriors weigh forty."

404: the number of books in the library of the HMS Beagle, the ship on which Charles Darwin sailed while gathering some of the key data for his theory of evolution. Room availability being what it is on Victorian ships, Darwin worked and slept in the library. Now you can peruse that whole book collection online.

Vantablack, As Seen Under a Scanning Electron Microscope Evangelos Theocharous et al., Optics Express, 2014

99.965 percent: amount of visible light Vantablack, a newly invented material, absorbs. Vantablack is the blackest material known to humankind. You can't even see folds in it.

The Color of Pee Inset Cleveland Clinic

20: the number of times a day a newborn pees. Learn more about baby bladder control (I mean, don't you want to?) from Popular Science's KinderLab.

40 inches: size of this fossilized piece of poop, allegedly the longest to go on sale. Own it for a mere $8,000!


The Week In Drones: Wedding Photographers, Prison Guards, And More

Fri, 07/18/2014 - 15:00

Cold Spring, New York. An aerial view of the town where NY Representative Sean Patrick Maloney used a drone to film his wedding. Joe Mabel, 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.

Weddings, Investigated

When New York Representative Sean Patrick Maloney got married in upstate New York in June, he did something fairly common: took video of the wedding, and put it online. The only problem? The camera was on a drone, and now the FAA is investigating to see if it's a case of an illegal use of a drone. The video has since disappeared from YouTube, and so long as the rules remain vague and the FAA enforces selectively, it'll be hard to tell the legality of any drone photography. Of course, Representative Maloney and wedding guest Nancy Pelosi could, as members of Congress, introduce or move legislation to clarify the legality of filming from a drone.

Stealth Drone Is Actually Stealthy

BAE Systems, in conjunction with the U.K. Ministry of Defense, revealed this week that their experimental stealth drone Taranis is in fact stealthy, once they remove all the weird and superfluous antennas. The drone, a grey flying "V", is similar to the American X-47B in that it's a testing tool, designed to collect data for future projects. If both Taranis and X-47B are any indication, the future of air combat is flying grey triangles.

Taranis At Night BAE Systems

Robots On The Outside, People On The Inside

The Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction is thinking about having drones watch over their prisons. Under consideration are quadcopters, fixed-wing drones, and unmanned tethered helium balloons. Ohio is also considering infrared cameras for the drones, and says that these drones could stop people tossing contraband (weapons, drugs, tobacco) over the fence at night. That's nothing a second layer of fences couldn't solve, but at least with drones there's the added dystopic feel of robots keeping humans in cages.

There's still plenty of time left in the state's 30-day window for people to submit comments.

Homemade Drone Over Gaza

As part of the ongoing strife in the Gaza Strip, Hamas released video of a drone it claims to have used against Israel. Upon close examination, the drone appears to be a converted toy with fake or ineffectual weapons. For their part, Israel claims that one of their Patriot missiles destroyed a Hamas drone.

Fighting Illegal Fishing

By the nature of their ocean habitats, fish populations are tricky to protect. Laws put in place to cordon off areas or protect certain species are a good first step, but police need a way to catch illegal fishers, and capture them in the act. It's rather hard for boats to sneak up on each other at sea, so in Belize, the people protecting fisheries use small, fast drones to spot criminals.

Watch a video of it below: 


Did I miss any drone news? Email me at

What Sort Of Weapon Shot Down Flight MH-17?

Thu, 07/17/2014 - 11:43

Slovenian Soldiers With MANPADS These are SA-18 Igla Man Portable Air Defense Systems. MORS, via Wikimedia Commons

Earlier today, Malaysia Airlines flight MH-17, flying from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, was shot down over Eastern Ukraine, killing all 295 people on board. Following Ukraine's ouster of Russian-backed President Viktor Yanukovich, and the subsequent seizure of Crimea from Ukraine by Russia, a violent and armed separatist movement emerged in Eastern Ukraine, centered around the city of Donetsk. These Donetsk rebels, with help from a certain foreign backer, have successfully shot down several Ukrainian military aircraft. Now, it looks like intentionally or not, they destroyed a civilian aircraft.

Previously, the Donetsk rebels used Man Portable Air Defense Systems (MANPADS) to shoot down Ukrainian military attack helicopters, surveillance aircraftmilitary cargo planes, and other aircraft. But in this case, instead of a MANPADS, it's likely a larger anti-air missile shot down the airliner. The cargo plane was shot down near an airport. The Hind helicopters shot down can't fly above 15,000 feet, and typically operate at less than half that altitude. The An-30 surveillance plane can fly higher than both, but at the time it was hit still flying low enough for the small anti-air missile to get it.

Infantry firing at airplanes is as old as using airplanes in war, but anti-air missiles for infantry really got their start in the 1950s, with the United States' Red Eye missile. The Red Eye could hit targets almost 3 miles away, but only if they were below 9000 feet in elevation. Since then, countries developed many newer and better MANPADS systems, but the fundamental constraint remained: there is only so high a shoulder-fired missile can go. The SA-18 Igla, one of the more advanced MANPADS in existence and one the Donetsk separatists likely have, can only hit targets at an altitude of 11,500 feet.

MANPADS are still a deadly small weapon. The Federation of American Scientists estimates there are over 500,000 in the world today, and if fired near an airport they can cause tremendous damage and loss of life. But there are limits to MANPADS, and one of them is limited altitude. When shot down, MH-17 was flying at 33,000 feet, well beyond the reach of a man-carried missile.

Early information comes from an advisor to the Ukrainian interior minister, Anton Gerashenko. In a Facebook post he says the plane was "hit by a missile fired from a Buk launcher."

The Buk missile and launcher (these things tend to be paired) entered Soviet service in 1979. It's 18 feet long, carried on the back of an armored, tracked vehicle, and can hit targets at almost 50,000 feet in the air. The Buk missile could certainly shoot down an airliner, though there is no confirmation yet of any Buk missile systems in Donetsk. That said, in late June  Russian state-owned radio news service Voice of Russia claimed Donetsk rebels captured a Ukrainian base containing many Buk missile launchers. If it was a ground missile that shot down flight MH-17, it's likely it was a Buk or something similar.

Ground-to-air missiles aren't the only way to shoot down an airliner. In 1983, when Korean Airlines Flight 007 from New York to Seoul by way of Anchorage drifted a little from its flight path into possible Russian airspace, Soviet jets shot it down. While the Donetsk separatists are unlikely to have any aircraft of their own, a Russian fighter could easily shoot down an airplane. Without Cold War tensions behind it, though, it's unlikely this is the case.

Buk Missile System Stanislav Kozlovskiy, via Wikimedia Commons


A Drone For Dangerous Missions

Thu, 07/17/2014 - 07:00

As early as next year, the Depart­ment of Defense will test-fly an entirely new type of combat drone. The craft is called Ares, for Aerial Reconfigurable Embedded System, and it’s designed to take off and land vertically. Unlike airplane-esque drones, which are cumbersome to launch and land, Ares could drop into a tight spot, unload supplies or rescue soldiers, and then zip up and away.

The remote-controlled prototype, now under construction by helicopter manufacturer Pia­secki Aircraft and defense giant Lockheed Martin, relies on two massive, articulating ducted fans for lift and forward thrust in flight, much like the tilt-rotor Osprey used by the Marines. If all goes as planned, a fully autonomous production version is next, capable of carrying up to 3,000 pounds and forever changing the art of warfare. 

The Ares Courtesy Lockheed Martin Ares Combat Drone

Weight: about 7,000 lbs.

Payload: 3,000 lbs.

Wingspan: 42 feet

Range: 250 nautical miles

Top speed: 230 mph


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

Marines Prepare For Future War With Robot Horses And Swimming Trucks

Wed, 07/16/2014 - 15:11

Legged Support System Robot In Hawaii U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Matthew Callahan

Last week in Hawaii, a squad of U.S. Marines brought a robot deep into the jungle. The Legged Support System (LS3) robot walks on four legs, carries 400 pounds, and shambles its way over rough terrain, like a mechanical mule in a future war. It’s all part of the Advanced Warfighting Experiment, and if the Marine Corps thinks the tests went well, future invasions may come with robotic horses doing some heavy lifting.

The whole experiment is a subset of a larger multinational military exercise. Dubbed RIMPAC (for Rim of the Pacific, not to be confused with the Guillermo del Toro robots-versus-monsters movie), the exercise is held by the U.S. Navy and includes participants from 22 nations, with 55 ships, 200 aircraft, and 25,000 people. It also includes three LS3 robots

Marines typically carry between 100 and 135 pounds of gear, which includes not just weapons and ammunition but also water and food. While it's important for troops to carry food with them when operating far from base, they don't need to have their lunch physically on their person at all times. That's where the Legged Support System comes in. Major Christopher Orlowski, program manager of the LS3 program for DARPA, told Popular Science that the program's greatest success is "meeting the requirements, demonstrating an unmanned legged system than can carry upwards of 350, 400 pounds of gear, and demonstrating it effectively. In this case, DARPA set out a goal and it was able to meet that goal."

DARPA just creates the technology, and leaves it up for the rest of the military to determine how best it's used.

Lieutenant Colonel Don Gordon of the U.S. Marine Corps spoke to Popular Science about the how the Marines are using LS3 in their Warfighting Experiment. The LS3 carries food, water, and ammunition supplies for a squad of seven to nine marines. According to Gordon,

What’s unique about the LS3 is normally you take additional supplies and put it on a vehicle and distribute it around to companies. The LS3 can maneuver with companies down to the squad level over terrain that you couldn’t necessarily get a wheeled or tracked vehicle through just due to the density of trees and the kind of terrain. ... [S]o it can go out around on patrol and carry supplies to those marines as they maneuver about the battlespace.

That's the theory, at least. Having the Legged Support System at these exercises is, according to Gordon, "really the first opportunity for the Marine Corps to put it into an exercise and provide it to a force that’s actually exercising the same way they would in actual operations.” There was one immediate challenge. While the Marines landed in an MV-22 Osprey, there wasn't enough room for both the Marines and their robotic mule. Instead, after arriving, the Marines met up with another group that handed off the robot.

Here's what it looks like in action:

To get gear like the LS3 from ships onto the beaches, marines are testing other new technologies. When I spoke to Gordon, he was watching a swimming cargo mover land on the Hawaiian beach. Marines, as a rule, think about beaches differently than most folk, and the cargo mover Gordon described was no idle beach comber. Named the Ultra Heavy-lift Amphibious Connector, or UHAC, the vehicle looks like the treads of a giant future tank stuck on the body of a small modern tractor. Gordon explained the vehicle:

One of the Marine Corps concepts as we face a future environment, embedded in a document called Expeditionary Force 21, is looking at ways to move supplies from ship to shore. UHAC is one of the technologies we're looking at to embark in the well deck aboard a ship, load it up with equipment, and carry that equipment from the ship to the beach. What's really neat about the UHAC is I’m watching it crawl across terrain right now that would normally be impossible for some of our current ship-to-shore connectors  to cross.

Here's what the UHAC looks like in water:

UHAC Swims To Hawaii U.S. Marine Corps

And here it is triumphantly on land.

Marine UHAC Storms A Beach Ultra Heavy-Lift Amphibious Connector swam from the USS Rushmore to land on a Hawaiian beach as part of military exercises there. U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Matthew J. Bragg

Does 'The Ocean Cleanup' Stand Up To Peer Review?

Wed, 07/16/2014 - 12:00

Ocean Plastic Debris All of these pieces of plastic were removed from the stomach of a single north fulmar, a seabird, during a necropsy at the National Wildlife Health Lab. Carol Meteyer, USGS

Dutch engineering student Boyan Slat has a plan to cull millions of tons of animal-killing, economy-hurting plastic debris out of the world's oceans. Called “The Ocean Cleanup”, the plan involves putting specially-designed V-shaped booms in the world's major marine gyres. As the water flows under the booms, specially designed filters hanging beneath them would collect the plastic.

According to its website, Slat believes his device could clean a given gyre of plastic bits in 7-10 years, at costs 33 times lower than current cleanup methods, and that “a major part of these costs” could be recouped by selling the collected plastic for re-use.

Slat came out of nowhere when he proposed this idea a couple years ago at age 17, and has become global sensation on the new-thinking, TED-talk, social enterprise circuit: The notion of using the ocean's own energy and motion to clean up our mess seems elegant. The possibility that a kid might invent something that solves a serious and all but intractable pollution problem seems Hollywood-ready.

The plan itself also has an entrepreneurial, this-can-pay-for-itself angle that flies well during a rocky economy, and the guy making it happen is a soulful, optimistic young man with the best of intentions. The project has raised over $1.16 million of a $2 million crowdfunding goal with 59 days to go, and has just released a first feasibility study.

But whether or not it can really work still seems uncertain. According to two marine scientists at Deep Sea News, the feasibility study has fundamental scientific shortcomings that include:

  • An “overarching use of average rather than extreme current speeds to estimate operational limits in the design process”
  • No real solutions for how biofouling – the growth of marine life on the boom assembly – would affect its durability and functions. “As currently designed, the moored array is under-engineered and likely to fail.”
  • Inadequate sampling of plastic pollution at depth
  • No substantial plans on how to address environmental issues, snaring unwanted critters, or “high seas law”

Deep Sea News apparently knew they were taking a tiger by the tail with this review, the first time they've covered The Ocean Cleanup since March 2013. “Originally, we had decided not to engage with this project again, since being a naysayer is neither fun nor professionally rewarding,” they note. But with the amount of approval, attention and money flowing into the project, it warrants the same kind of scrutiny that scientific work in similar fields regularly receives.

“We believe in the peer review process, both before publication and post-publication,” writes DSN. “Science is built on criticism. While peer review is by no means perfect, we have both found that a robust peer review process has greatly improved our own science. Since crowdfunding sidesteps the formal grant review process and makes funding requests public, it is appropriate that the review be public as well.”

The plastic debris problem may also be more complex than The Ocean Cleanup's initial feasibility study accounted for. A new, first-of-its-kind map of ocean plastic debris has revealed a surprising absence of the stuff on the water's surface. Scientists involved are not yet sure where the plastic is going, or which organisms may be affected. It's research that Slat probably needs to consider as he continues to develop and promote his project.

In Flight Test, British Stealth Drone Is Actually Stealthy

Tue, 07/15/2014 - 12:38

Taranis Drone In Flight BAE Systems

Last week, the U.K. Ministry of Defense announced that, after a successful series of trials, BAE Systems' Taranis test drone is as stealthy as hoped. This is good news for people who like stealth drones, and bad news for people who want to shoot them down. 

The major challenge for a stealthy drone is making it invisible from hostile detection while communicating with the people piloting it. America's similarly shaped X-47B got around this problem by flying autonomously, with computers inside the vehicle making flight decisions. While possible, it's unlikely that the Taranis did that here, as its first flight was done with remote piloting. Instead, BAE changed the signals the antennas broadcast. To make sure it looked as small as possible on radar, BAE also removed the large front probe (visible above) which was required for earlier testing.

With that narwhal-nose removed, the Taranis finally demonstrated the stealth promised by the plane's flat shape and rounded edges. Much about Taranis remains unknown, and a successful stealth flight doesn't mean the United Kingdom is going to start flying stealth combat drones anytime soon. Instead, data collected from the tests will inform future design decisions, and lessons learned from Taranis could end up in a new war drone of the future.

The Air Force Is Working On A New Bomber

Mon, 07/14/2014 - 15:08

Boeing Long Range Strike Bomber Concept Art Boeing

The U.S. Air Force is quietly ramping up spending on a future bomber, according to a report by the Congressional Research Service published earlier this month. The Air Force also sent requirements for the program to the industry earlier this week. The goal is a new group of bombers to serve two functions: replace the aging bomber fleet, and safely attack despite future defensive weapons. 

Work on Air Force's next bomber began years ago. Here's what Popular Science said about it in 2012:

Patents and bid proposals from Northrop Grumman, maker of the B-2, suggest that the new bomber will be narrower than the B-2 but maintain the familiar flying wing design, which reduces radar reflection by minimizing hard edges. Engineers are also testing new types of radar-absorbing coatings that could be customized to individual defense systems. And so a picture of the next generation of stealth bombers is beginning to emerge.

Such a bomber would greatly expand the ability of the Air Force to hit protected places in enemy countries, places beyond the safe reach of America's still-flying Cold War-era B-52 bombers. The Air Force expects to field between 80 and 100 of the new Long Range Strike Bomber, and they plan to have them ready for action by the mid 2020s.

Lockheed Long Range Strategic Bomber Concept Art Lockheed Martin

In March, people reported and photographed what appeared to be a new, v-shaped aircraft flying over Texas. This theory meshes well with the Congressional Research Service report, which saw a rapid budget increase and notes that:

the projected LRS-B budget increases more than 10-fold in the current Future Years Defense Program, from $258.7 million in FY2013 to $3,451.2 million in FY2019. Aviation analysts and industry officials confirm CRS's assessment that this funding stream resembles a production program more than a typical development profile. This may indicate that significant LRS-B development has already been completed, presumably in classified budgets. Such prior development would also help explain how the Air Force intends to get the system from a Request for Proposals to initial operational capability in about 10 years, when equally or less-complicated systems like the F-22 and F-35 have taken more than 20.

Despite corporate maneuvering about the contract, both the Air Force and potential industry partners are keeping quiet about the development. In a triumph of blandness, Air Force secretary Deborah Lee James told the U.S. Naval Institute in a statement that "The [Long range Strike Bomber] is a top modernization priority for the Air Force. It will be an adaptable and highly capable system based upon mature technology." 

Cyberbullies Can’t Be Stopped. But They Could Be Quarantined.

Mon, 07/14/2014 - 13:19

25 percent of teens identify themselves as victims of cyberbullying Flickr/workingword

In March, a new blog called the Vancouver Taddler popped up on Tumblr. Reportedly inspired by TV’s Gossip Girl, it was billed as a tool for teens to exact revenge on one another. The blogger posted pictures of teens defaced with scribbled genitals, gossip about drug use and sexual exploits, and even private text messages. Within a week, local authorities identified the culprit, and the blog was taken down. But the damage to reputations and psyches has undoubtedly remained. The incident, and others like it, prompts a question that’s now all too common: What can stop cyberbullying?

Bullying is a growing threat on the Web, particularly as social media and online gaming continue to grow. Take, for example, Facebook. According to a survey conducted by anti-bullying charity Ditch the Label, bullying is twice as likely to happen on Facebook than on any other site. To help curb the problem, Facebook rolled out a Bullying Prevention Hub last November. There, users can learn how to deal with, report, and block bullies. Once alerted to a problem, Facebook administrators might take down offending posts and warn or even remove offenders. Reddit, Instagram, Twitter, and others have similar reporting systems in place.

Most anti-bullying tactics have a fundamental flaw: they can’t stop attacks before they happen.

Those tactics are better than nothing, but they still have a fundamental flaw: They can’t stop attacks before they happen. This spring, Microsoft took a step in that direction by introducing a reputation-tracking system in the Xbox Live community. Multiplayer online games, such as Call of Duty and League of Legends, are home to more than one-quarter of all reported bullying incidents, according to one survey. In Microsoft’s system, an algorithm monitors how frequently a player is muted or blocked and assigns him a color—green indicates a “good player,” yellow marks one that “needs work,” and red shows ones to avoid. Jerks risk losing privileges, such as the ability to broadcast gameplay, and they’ll have a harder time finding people to play with in the future.

For creeps, the system creates a self-fulfilling prophecy. As their reputation worsens, they’ll theoretically match with fewer and fewer good-natured gamers. Other ranking systems, such as the karma ratings assigned to Redditors, merely suggest whether someone’s posts are worth reading; reputation tracking, by comparison, might actually cordon off people not worth your time.

That said, reputation tracking isn’t a silver bullet, warns Sameer Hinduja, co-director of the Cyberbullying Research Center. If companies wish to punish bad behavior or reward good, he says, the incentives would need to be substantial. And beyond gaming, incentives are hard to come by—there are no bonus levels or new characters to earn. What’s more, bullies probably won’t care if they lose touch with a part of the community. In fact, Hinduja suggests, jerks are just as happy to hang out with other jerks—they may even egg each other on. Still, if the rest of us can work, play, and share in peace, with the creeps out of sight, that’s certainly a good start.

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

Guns, Drugs, And Partial Nudity: PopSci Goes To A Techno-Libertarian Bash

Mon, 07/14/2014 - 12:00

Drone And Flag Josh Noone flies one of his custom-built aerobots over the main field for an aerial group photograph. Privacy rights concerns have caused the FAA to get involved with drone regulations, and amateur pilots are unhappy about potential government restrictions. Lois Parshley

LANCASTER, N.H.—As the sun goes down north of the White Mountains, lasers flare on and Buzz’s Big Gay Dance Party begins. It’s the end-of-week blow-out for the 2,000-odd people who have been at Roger’s Family Camping Resort and Motel for the festival affectionately termed “the Burning Man for libertarians.” Inside, as true dark falls, flushed bodies move below the winking disco lights, surrounded by brilliant strobes, a whomp-whomp beat, enough haze to make you think this is already a dream.

Mark Warden, State Representative of New Hampshire, District 39, is dancing in a red boa and man-skirt. Michael Sylvia, New Hampshire District 6, is there too, and both former senator Robert C. Smith and Andrew Hemingway, candidate for New Hampshire governor, have been seen floating around camp, looking to pick up libertarian votes.

This is the 11th summer “liberty-minded” folks have ventured into the mountains for the bacchanalia of the Porcupine Freedom Festival. Nights can get rowdy at PorcFest, but under clear summer skies, vendors’ tents cluster near maple trees and families fire up grills or listen to clean-cut kids play kickass bluegrass in the shade. Ashes from several nights of bonfires smolder in the main meadow. The only thing separating PorcFest from any other summer festival are the guns, bristling from thigh holsters and slung casually across sunburned shoulders.

PorcFest is the largest and most visible program of the Free State Project, which started in 2001 when a 24-year-old Yale grad student wrote a manifesto suggesting that people stop complaining about mainstream politics and do something about their fears: “establish residence in a small state and take over the state government.” By 2003, the F.S.P. was recruiting members and voting on which state should be home base for the “libertarianvasion” that was scheduled to launch once 20,000 people signed on to move. (While the “Live Free or Die” state might seem like the obvious choice, Wyoming was actually a close runner-up.) Several thousand members have already moved to New Hampshire, and the F.S.P. says it's only 4,000 signatures shy of setting the move-date for the rest of the members. 

As Free Staters trickle into New Hampshire, they’ve begun to make their mark on local culture. It’s no longer unusual to see Bitcoin ATMs and 3-D printers here, 3,165 miles from Silicon Valley. PorcFest sponsors have included such tech-notables as Bitcoin big-shot Eric Voorhees, and from the Satoshi Salon to Bitcoin Not Bombs and the Liberty Hackathon, the tech world is inescapable at PorcFest.

As high-tech meets rural New England, the state has become an interesting proving ground. Despite the irony inherent in a community of isolationists, F.S.P. has gathered some of the country’s brightest minds in the pursuit of a do-it-yourself life philosophy, a quest that has led to the cutting edge of both politics and technology.

PorcFest About 2,000 people paid $45-100 dollars in order to camp out for the week at PorcFest. The festival has been held here for the last 11 summers. Lois Parshley Internet Cowboys, Bang-Bang

Cody Wilson has a cleft chin and a jawline prone to stubble. He spent his childhood in Little Rock, Arkansas, and told the Guardian he was named for a town in Wyoming, a sort of nomenclature-as-manifest-destiny. Cody, the town, was named after William Frederick Cody, more commonly known as Buffalo Bill, and Cody, the person, certainly embodies the Wild West spirit. A self-identified “crypto-anarchist,” Wilson’s an Internet cowboy who made headlines last year by releasing the first plans for a 3-D printed gun. Before the State Department took the file down, one hundred thousand copies were downloaded within two days.

Bill Domenico was one of the F.S.P. members who got a copy of Wilson’s file. “I spend every day of my life with electronics in a 4,000-square-foot lab,” Domenico says. A compact man with wire glasses, he built a 3-D printer of his own design last spring in Manchester, mostly with parts he already had on a shelf. “You start out getting blobs,” he says. “The first thing you try to print is anything.” By chance, the same week Domenico got his printer working, Wilson released his CAD files. Seven days later, Domenico had successfully printed a copy of Wilson’s gun.

He thinks he’s the first to have done so. He hasn’t fired it. The point seems to be that he should be allowed to print whatever he is able to innovate.

For Domenico, his technologist's outlook meshes well with Ayn Rand's argument that individuals should act in their own self-interest, unbounded by government. “I’ve asked myself why this is such a technology-heavy crowd. The number of software engineers is off the charts,” he says. “When you think about things from a cause-and-effect vantage point, you see, wow, this [mainstream government] isn’t working out the way it’s supposed to.”

3-D Printed Liberator Bill Domenico's 3-D printed gun Lois Parshley

Mark Warden—who, when he’s not wearing a boa, splits his time between a real estate office and the New Hampshire legislature—also noted F.S.P’s tech-heavy demographic. “A larger than normal percentage of libertarians are tech-savvy,” Warden says. Known as the Free State Realtor, he has a broad perspective on who’s actually moving to the Live Free or Die state. “It’s easier for [tech people] to relocate because they can work remotely or from home,” Warden says, “but secondarily, Free Staters are generally tech-savvy because they’re very rational creatures. There’s quite a bit of natural overlap between the liberty mindset, which is empirical, and IT people.”

According to Warden, increasing gun legislation in the aftermath of a tragedy like Sandy Hook is “hysteria.” Bearing arms is important for many libertarians, and the idea of restricting personal choice, even to increase safety, is a tough sell. 3-D guns is just a fresh head on an old argument. As the price of printers plummets, the technology is becoming fairly accessible, even for non-geeks. A basic 3-D printer now retails for around $500, and while a gun is just one of many shapes, as Wilson’s fond of putting it, for those worried about gun safety it’s a frightening trend.

While Domenico can’t legally transfer—sell, trade, or give away—guns, he’s had several potential buyers, and it irks him on principle to have to turn them down. To what extent the rights of an individual like Domenico should be protected as they come into conflict with societal goals (like school safety) is the unanswered question at the core of most of our recent national controversies, underlying the debate on everything from the Hobby Lobby decision to Obamacare to marijuana legalization. Forget red or blue. In terms of the zeros and ones of politics, there are those who think the building block of society is individual action—and those who don’t.


The Silk Road, the Dread Pirate Roberts, and the Difference Between Politics and Political Theory

On Oct. 1, 2013, Ross Ulbricht was spending a warm sunny afternoon in the science-fiction section of the Glen Park branch of the San Francisco public library. The baby-faced 29-year-old was working on a laptop when he was surrounded by federal agents, who had a straightforward mission: to capture Ulbricht without letting him close his screen.

"Free Staters are generally tech-savvy because they’re very rational creatures. There’s quite a bit of natural overlap between the liberty mindset, which is empirical, and IT people.”

The F.B.I., after months of sleuthing, claimed that Ulbricht was Dread Pirate Roberts, the mastermind behind the notorious Silk Road, an online black market for drugs and other illicit activity. Since January of 2011, the Silk Road had seen more than $1.2 billion dollars of business, and become a place where, using Bitcoin and highly encrypted servers, anyone with an Internet connection could purchase, say, “5G [of] Pure Cocaine Cristal,” ordering online and receiving drugs swiftly by mail. The business made the Dread Pirate Roberts (D.P.R.) a cyber-millionaire, and, he wrote, hopefully made drug-trafficking safer for all parties. D.P.R. described the site as a way to “abolish the use of coercion,” posting about Austrian economics and what state regulations and taxes do to markets. In many ways, the Silk Road was a Randian economic model taken to its logical extreme.

Had Mr. Ulbricht closed his laptop during his arrest, the hard drive could have become “an encrypted lump.” As it was, the government found files allegedly including revenue from the Silk Road worth $80 million dollars, and Ulbricht was arraigned in New York on charges of narcotics trafficking, computer hacking, money laundering, and engaging in criminal enterprise. He was originally charged with planning six murders, and is still facing indictment in Maryland for one murder-for-hire.

Outside the bar tent at PorcFest, as the white canvas flapped in a breeze, Ross’ mother Lyn Ulbricht sips a cold drink. She’s a small woman, a little lost in an oversized T-shirt printed with the “Free Ross” slogan, which is plastered everywhere at the festival. “This case will set precedent for laws that could impact the future and freedom of the Internet,” she says.

Technology has developed so quickly that in many cases, the government doesn’t have specific statutes for Internet-based crimes. Right now, website hosts are protected in civil cases against “transferred intent,” meaning they can’t be held liable for things other people do on their site. Ross Ulbricht is not being tried under these standards because his is a criminal case, meaning that he’s in jail rather than immune as a web host. “In the indictment, the prosecution said, ‘Federal laws are expansive and adaptable,’” Ulbricht explains. “That’s totally unconstitutional. It’s a slippery slope. If website hosts feel like they’re potentially liable, does that lead to censorship?” She asks, “What does that do to the Internet?”

Law, like 3-D printing, is iterative, and setting aside Lyn Ulbricht’s vested interest in seeing her son proved innocent, the question of who should regulate new technological developments, and how, is stubbled with controversy.

Too Big To Fail A banner strung over PorcFest attendees' tents. Lois Parshley


Hey, What Is Freedom Anyway?

As the Snowden leaks and the subsequent privacy brouhaha helped demonstrate, the Internet in its adolescence has reached a voice-cracking sort of puberty where belief systems are being called into question. After Ron Paul’s failed Presidential campaign, libertarians are in a similar phase.

New technologies, like Bitcoin and 3-D printing and, yes, the Internet, have tended to empower individuals, democratizing information and access. But what’s laudable in the abstract often gets tricky in the collective details.

For libertarians, as banners around PorcFest proclaim in bold letters, government has only one function, and that is to protect the rights of the individual. But even a society on the scale of PorcFest finds itself in the position of setting regulations. The official program has a whole page on firearm etiquette, including such common-sense rules as, “Don’t mix mind-altering substances and firearms. You should not carry when you are drinking, toking, or otherwise impaired.” The festival is self-policing—as the PorcFest Prickler put it, “Of course, with freedom comes responsibility”—but the tricky fact remains that groups of people usually need governing, and translating zeros and ones into practical reality may always be a challenge.

After all, “Man,” as Ayn Rand wrote, “has no automatic code.”

A Beautiful Mind: Can Ariel Garten's Brain Wave Interface Improve Your Outlook On Life?

Mon, 07/14/2014 - 07:00

Ariel Garten Photographs by Chris Thomaidis

In college, Ariel Garten started a clothing line that took its inspiration from neuroscience. She hooked people up to an electroencephalograph (EEG) to record their brain waves, then emblazoned T-shirts with the spiky patterns reflecting their mental activity. She also sewed skirts with 37 pockets, a reference to the number of different brain faculties described in the Victorian pseudoscience of phrenology, and filled them with bric-a-brac to represent the subconscious. At age 34, Garten is still making geek-chic designs—only now her creations can actually read people’s minds.

Garten is shoeless as she leads me through the Toronto headquarters of InteraXon, the start-up she co-founded in 2007. Her long brown hair nearly brushes her elbows as she pads along the wood flooring in brightly patterned socks. A whiteboard scribbled with nerdy wordplay and equations spans the length of one wall; neon Post-its are applied liberally elsewhere. Garten pushes open the door to a conference room called the Cerebroom and takes a seat at the table.

“I was always exploring relationships between art and science,” she says. During her stint as a fashion designer, Garten was double-majoring in psychology and biology at the University of Toronto, where she also began working with professor Steve Ma­nn. A pioneer of wearable computers, Mann created digital eyewear to augment vision in the early 1980s. (“He basically developed Glass before Google,” Garten says.) Mann had also engineered a primitive brain-computer interface at MIT in the 1990s. Garten and some classmates decided to resurrect it to explore thought-controlled computing.

As a pilot project, the team produced a series of concerts at which audience members wore a version of the device. By manipulating their brain states, the spectators could influence the pitch and volume of synthesized instruments on stage. “We kept getting deeper and deeper into brain-wave technologies and what we could do with them,” Garten says. As they grew more ambitious­—at points inventing a thought-controlled beer tap and levitating chair—the team formed InteraXon. For the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, they created an installation in which visitors could use a headset to control light displays on landmarks across the country, including Toronto’s CN Tower, Ottawa’s parliament buildings, and Niagara Falls, in real time.

“After the Olympics, we began looking at more complex applications,” Garten says. “And we realized we had a system that allowed you to form a relationship with technology.” InteraXon then set to work developing, in essence, a Fitbit for the brain—a wearable biofeedback device that measures neural activity, much like an activity tracker records steps and calories burned. “I think we’re all very curious about our own minds,” says Garten, “but we just may not have the tools to channel that.”

I think we’re all very curious about our minds, but we just may not have the tools to channel that.

Garten passes me a sleek white headband called the Muse, the company’s first commercial product. The human brain contains billions of neurons that communicate via electrical impulses, and aggregate into waves of different amplitudes: Alpha, for instance, dominate when we’re relaxed or focused; beta kick in we problem-solve. The Muse transforms this brain activity into information that can be tracked wirelessly on a tablet or smartphone.

Muse is intended for daily use with an app called Calm, which features a three-minute exercise designed to help people manage stress. Through headphones, users can hear their brain waves represented as the sound of wind. Calm states beget gentle winds; distracted or agitated states elicit a roiling tempest.

Psychologists at Harvard University have shown that people spend 47 percent of their waking hours thinking about something other than whatever it is they’re trying to focus on. Neuroscientists call this tendency toward mental drift the “default mode network.” With neurofeedback, Garten believes people can build their cognitive strength. “If you’re having a crappy day, it can help you gain control of your mind,” she says. “Like, ‘I’m not calm now, but I know what to do to get there.’ ”

The Calm app follows in the tradition of the Buddhist principle of awareness, and the instructions it issues are similar to the Japanese Zen breath-counting meditation known as susokukan. Mindfulness, as such practices are popularly known, has been a growing focus of Western empirical research. The National Institutes of Health, for example, has funded dozens of studies that test mindfulness techniques.

Because InteraXon emphasized comfort when designing Muse, the device could be a valuable tool for scientists conducting such research. Norm Farb, a doctoral candidate in experimental psychology at the University of Toronto, is developing a six-week pilot study to measure the extent to which Muse can help control stress. “A lot of my research has looked at meditation and yoga, and there’s evidence that these can work for people with a mood problem,” Farb says. “So can Muse be training wheels for that?” With McMaster University in Ontario, InteraXon is examining how Muse can improve cognitive function, and an education lab at New York University is measuring the effect of Muse on learning.

There’s an obvious irony to the notion of computer-aided meditation. Many seek practices like mindfulness as an antidote to the distractions of today’s technology. We unplug to find calm. Garten appreciates this but says that sometimes people need a more accessible tool to achieve focus. “There are potential places that technology can take us that we can’t reach on our own,” she says.

Using InteraXon’s software, anyone can design compatible apps. Garten envisions a broad array of possibilities, including apps that treat children with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder and help athletes prepare for games. Eventually companies might get alerts when the brain waves of workers in high-stress jobs, such as air-traffic control, signal fatigue.

We leave the Cerebroom and walk past engineers conferring around workspaces cluttered with cables and prototypes. In the center of InteraXon’s office, a sitting area contains two egg-shaped chairs with speakers at ear level. Garten settles into one and gestures for me to take the other. “Imagine coming home and Muse senses you’ve had a stressful day,” she says, “and so the lighting adjusts and your home stereo starts playing your favorite relaxing music.” Garten sinks back into the chair with a slight, serene smile and closes her eyes.

How It Works: Muse

InteraXon’s Muse is among the first wearable computers that read brain waves, much like a heart-rate monitor detects a pulse. CEO Ariel Garten says it can train users to achieve greater focus anytime, anywhere.

The Muse headset Photographs by Chris Thomaidis InteraXon's Muse

Calibration: Once placed on a person’s head, Muse’s seven EEG sensors amplify and measure the neural oscillations that generate brain waves to establish a baseline for the session.

Instruction: The device sends data to a corresponding app via Bluetooth. The app instructs the wearer how to focus on breathing to create calm. It then takes 250 measurements per second and analyzes the data to determine if the wearer is focused or distracted.

Practice: If focused, a beach scene on a tablet or smartphone will portray calm. As the mind wanders, conditions on-screen deteriorate. Maintaining a calm state for an extended period is rewarded with the sound of chirping seabirds.

Results: When the session ends, the app shows how much time has been spent in calm, neutral, and active states. The app is game-ified, and a calm state earns points. It also tracks results over time, incentivizing the wearer to learn how to control stress.

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

The Week In Numbers: GMO Safety Testing, Guinea Worm Infections, And More

Fri, 07/11/2014 - 16:00

Golden Rice Compared to regular white rice, "golden" rice, at the top, has been genetically modified to produce beta carotene, a precursor to vitamin A. International Rice Research Institute via Wikipedia

1,700: the number of peer-reviewed safety studies that GMO foods have undergone. Learn more about the research behind GMOs in this month's Popular Science.

$550: how much it will cost you to build a drivable tank for your goldfish. So worth it.

16 years: how long this new prototype hormonal birth control implant is designed to last. A remote control lets users click the implant on or off, depending on whether they want to get pregnant at a certain time.

Fish on wheels Photograph by Studio diip

6: the number of vials U.S. federal labs found this month containing unauthorized samples of smallpox virus.

7: the number of new dwarf galaxies astronomers recently discovered.

8: the number of lenses on the telescope the astronomers used.

Eight-Lensed Dragonfly Telescope Yale News

305: the number of exoplanets that will be up for public naming next year. Sign up to vote!

What Kepler-186f Might Look Like If It Has Clouds and Seas NASA Ames/SETI Institute/JPL-CalTech

3.5 million: the number of guinea worm infections reported around the world annually in the 1980s.

17: the number of guinea worm infections reported around the world so far this year.

The Guinea Worm. Creepy, but still here... for now. Coastal Courier

42 percent: the proportion of English words that are loanwords from other languages.

91 percent: similarity between the proteins found on the surface of dog tumors and on the surface of human tumors. The discovery helped researchers develop the first antibody therapy for canine cancer.

The Ballad Of Ron Allum

Fri, 07/11/2014 - 14:40

Ron Allum. Brook Rushton/National Geographic In late March 2012, an oblong lime-green submersible broke the surface of the Western Pacific near Guam. On the deck of a nearby ship, the Mermaid Sapphire, an 80-person support team and a film crew cheered wildly. The team winched the peculiar-looking craft on board and released the hatch. The door swung open and, to even louder cheers, James Cameron, the legendary

Hollywood action-film director, emerged. He had just dived nearly seven miles to the deepest point in the ocean, becoming the first person to ever reach the pitch-black depths of the Mariana Trench alone.

With his seven-hour dive, Cameron achieved what the world’s top ocean explorers could not, and the eerie scenes he filmed in the frigid darkness form the basis of a documentary, Deepsea Challenge 3D, set to be released in August. But if the tale of a Hollywood director turning into a deep-sea pioneer isn’t odd enough, the story of how he got there—all but forgotten behind the news of his dive—is even stranger.

That story centers on a stocky, gray-haired figure standing shyly at the edge of the crowd that early-spring day. Ron Allum, a 65-year-old Australian broadcast technician, co-designed and built the Deepsea Challenger despite having no background in mechanical engineering, no qualifications in oceanic science, and no education beyond a trade-school certificate. For seven years, he toiled in secret on Cameron’s submersible, eventually ending up in a clandestine workshop jammed between a plumbing-supply business and a furniture maker in suburban Sydney.

How did this unknown, self-trained engineer build a sub capable of getting James Cameron to the bottom of the ocean? It’s complicated, and it involves $10 million worth of scientific research, along with a can of car lubricant and a KitchenAid cake mixer. 

Before 2005, Ron Allum never aspired to build submarines. For the previous decade, he had worked with a documentary filmmaker named Andrew Wight, building the camera rigs Wight needed to shoot his subjects—crocodiles, sharks, volcanoes, and other natural hazards. The two men had forged a partnership while scuba diving in caves beneath the central Australian desert. When Cameron hired Wight to help him shoot a documentary about the sunken wreck of the German battleship Bismark in 2001, Allum joined the team as a technical assistant.

The relationship between Allum and Cameron got off to a bumpy start. “I couldn’t understand a word Ron said at first because of his thick Aussie accent, and he’s so damned quiet,” Cameron says. But the director quickly realized how valuable his new team member would be. Early on, he watched Allum fix an electrical problem aboard their support ship by jury-rigging five malfunctioning circuit boards into a single working one. Allum fast became the troubleshooter on complex problems. On another occasion, Cameron needed a biodegradable compound as packing for a fiber-optic cable box; Allum stuffed the box with sliced bread from the ship’s galley. And after Cameron bought two mini submarines in 2004 for his film Aliens of the Deep, Allum refitted their electronics and thruster systems.

“Ron will figure out solutions that are so off-the-wall when you first hear them,” Cameron says. “Then they slowly reveal their brilliance and their elegance as you get into them.”

During their long days at sea, Cameron often talked with Allum about a fantasy he’d had since childhood: taking a submarine to the bottom of the Mariana Trench. Inspired by his deep-ocean film projects, which include a live-broadcast dive on the Titanic, Cameron saw a mission to the trench as equal parts research expedition and movie shoot. His submarine would need Hollywood-ready 3-D cameras and LED systems along with a hydraulic arm to collect scientific samples. At the end of 2005, as the director prepared to start work on Avatar, he commissioned Allum to build the craft. 

Built in secret, the Deepsea Challenger was the first submersible to reach the bottom of the Mariana Trench in 52 years. Mark Thiessen/National Geographic It was the Everest of underwater challenges. Only one manned vehicle had ever reached the bottom of the Mariana Trench, a submersible called the Trieste. In January 1960, it carried the Swiss oceanographer Jacques Piccard and U.S. Navy Lieutenant Don Walsh there for a fleeting 20 minutes. But that brief mission faced problems. At a depth of almost seven miles, the weight of the ocean reaches nearly 200,000 tons, and the pressure cracked Trieste’s Plexiglas window. No manned sub had ever repeated the journey.

Technical challenges aside, the project would be dauntingly expensive, even for someone of Cameron’s means. The world’s most advanced deepwater submersible, the Japanese Shinkai 6500, had cost $60 million to build and couldn’t descend much further than four miles. The U.S. Navy’s submersible, Alvin, maxed out at about two-and-a-half miles, and scientists estimated the cost of replacing it at nearly $22 million.

“I was expecting a world-class workshop and machine shop. But it was basically Ronnie’s shed, scaled up.”

The mission would also come with unexpected competition. In 2005 another millionaire, Tennessee-born businessman Steve Fossett, had likewise fixed his sights on a solo dive into the trench, potentially eclipsing Cameron’s bid. Fossett had hired Graham Hawkes, a leading oceanic engineer, to build his submersible. Hawkes had founded five technology companies, engineered remote-controlled vehicles for NASA, and said that he’d had the blueprint for a submarine capable of diving to seven miles since 1993. Allum had neither the designs nor even a workshop. His research started in the laundry room of his Sydney home, where he tested the tolerance of a high-density battery system using a hand-primed pressure pump. 

From the very beginning, Allum and Cameron took an unorthodox approach to the Deepsea Challenger’s design. Most subs have a horizontal orientation and move through the water like a gliding bird. Allum and Cameron instead decided to build the Deepsea Challenger along a vertical axis so that in the water, it resembled a gigantic cigarette lighter with stumpy fins at each end. It would descend quickly, then move across the seabed like a seahorse with the aid of small thrusters. They also rethought the sub’s basic construction. Rather than use an expensive titanium shell, like most other submersibles have, they would build the chassis of their craft almost entirely from syntactic flotation foam, a buoyant material made from epoxy resin embedded with tiny glass spheres. They would then nest a steel pilot sphere just large enough for Cameron and the controls within it. The foam would adjust to the pressure automatically, and Allum could build the lights, batteries, cameras, and thrusters directly into it. 

The first hurdle would be to find the right foam. Allum requisitioned a number of samples, but at 16,500 pounds per square inch, most of them failed—a bad sign for his boss. After months of frustration, he resolved to invent his own. Allum had a hunch that the foam would be strongest if the glass microspheres were evenly distributed throughout a thick, doughlike resin. After ordering canisters of various gases and bulk containers of small glass balls and resin, he drove to his local shopping center and bought a cake mixer to blend them, opting for a top-of-the-line $500 KitchenAid. “It was just before Christmas,” he recalls, “and the saleslady said, ‘Boy, your wife’s going to be happy!’ ” After months of trials, he arrived at a formulation that passed the pressure test.

Then he had to build Cameron’s steel pilot sphere. It needed to be small enough to minimize weight but large enough to fit a 6'2" auteur and his control systems. Allum found a metallurgist in Melbourne to press two seven-ton ingots of steel into “pennies” seven feet in diameter and five inches thick, then mold and weld them into a sphere. He also recruited the Tasmanian structural engineer Phil Durbin; they’d met while playing underwater hockey, a grueling sport in which swimmers push a 1.5-kilogram lead puck around the bottom of a swimming pool while holding their breath. Durbin created a computer model of the sphere and foam frame to measure the anticipated stress. Then he and Allum shipped the sphere to a U.S. Navy laboratory at Pennsylvania State University, where it passed its final pressure test.

From 2008 to 2010, Allum beavered away in a 2,000-square-foot workshop in Sydney while Cameron took breaks from filming and editing Avatar to study technical specs and conduct Skype conferences with him. By May 2010, Allum had acquired more staff and moved into a larger workshop on a small industrial lot. Dave Goldie, an Australian special-effects engineer brought in as an assistant, was a little surprised when he saw the well-used cake mixer. “I was expecting a world-class workshop and machine shop,” Goldie says. “But it was basically Ronnie’s shed, scaled up.”

Allum created the submersible's portal from a single piece of acrylic; it was the only material that wouldn't crack under 1,100 atmospheres of pressure. Brook Rushton/National Geographic Getting finely calibrated equipment to operate deep underwater and at intense pressure brought up seemingly endless technical problems. For instance, different parts of the sub contracted differently under pressure. At 16,500 pounds per square inch, the foam hull shrank 6.4 centimeters in length, while the steel pilot sphere contracted at a much slower rate. To fix this, Allum suspended the sphere inside the foam housing on a system of elastic polyester straps, allowing it to float freely. Meanwhile, Allum was also having trouble with the “window” Cameron was supposed to peer through—a conical slab of clear acrylic 30 centimeters thick: It kept cracking within its steel housing during testing. Allum surmised that the lubricant surrounding it was failing to protect the Lucite from the pressure, even though it was the standard formulation recommended by the American Society of Mechanical Engineers. So he walked to his local Repco auto-parts outlet and bought a handful of automotive lubricants. Through trial and error, he discovered an aerosol spray called Dry Glide that did the job for $14.

By early 2011, Cameron had announced his intention to dive to the trench, and more personnel arrived in Allum’s workshop to refine the sub’s sonar system, communications, and hydraulics. Then came another surprise. In April, the Virgin Group’s founder, Richard Branson, announced that he and millionaire Chris Welsh were joining forces with designer Graham Hawkes. The mission would pick up where Hawkes had left off following the death of his patron, Steve Fossett, in a plane crash in 2007. Around the same time, Eric Schmidt, then chief executive of Google, announced that he was funding his own “cutting-edge” submarine, Deepsearch, for the same purpose. Once again, the race was on.

In November 2011, Cameron flew to Sydney, booked himself a suite at the Four Seasons hotel, and rented an office adjacent to the Deepsea Challenger workshop. For the next four months, the famous director lived in the city anonymously, holding strategy meetings in the boardroom of the nearby plumbing-supply business as various parts of the submersible were shipped in at all hours (except for the structural beam, which came in under the cover of darkness to avoid attention). “We were hiding in plain sight,” recalls Cameron. “Our roller door was open all the time, and yet no one had a clue what we were doing. It just seemed so improbable. I’m wandering around there every day, going to restaurants and cafes, and nobody realized.”

“I always said if I ever had to go to Mars and I could only take one person with me, I would take Ron. He would just rebuild the spaceship in flight.”

In the final week of January 2012, the Deepsea Challenger was loaded onto a truck at night and taken to the Sydney Naval Dockyards, where it was winched onto the pipeline-inspection ship Mermaid Sapphire for its first test dives. The sub’s odd appearance doubtless helped with the secrecy. A week later, the ship headed out to the ocean with its support team of engineers, robotics specialists, biological scientists, and filmmakers. Then tragedy struck. Cinematographer Mike deGruy and Andrew Wight—the man who had brought Allum and Cameron together more than a decade before—were killed in a helicopter crash on takeoff at a rural airstrip.

Devastated, Allum and Cameron talked about calling off the mission. But Wight and deGruy’s families urged them to carry on, and within weeks the Mermaid Sapphire chugged 2,000 kilometers north, heading to Guam. On March 26, James Cameron became the first human in history to tweet from the bottom of the sea: “Just arrived at the ocean’s deepest pt.,” he typed while crammed inside his tiny pilot sphere. “Hitting bottom never felt so good.”

Director James Cameron piloted the Deepsea Challenger to a depth of nearly seven miles, collecting scientific samples and footage for an upcoming film. Mark Thiessen/National Geographic The dive was not without hitches. As Allum watched from the control room of the Mermaid Sapphire, he saw that the sub’s hydraulic arm and sample door were malfunctioning. And although Cameron had planned to make multiple descents, his scheduled appearance at the premiere of Titanic 3D in London meant that only hours after resurfacing, he would board a charter flight from Guam to Heathrow Airport. By the time he returned, three days later, bad weather had put an end to things: The expedition, which National Geographic and Rolex were underwriting, had already cost $20 million, and Cameron had spent an estimated $10 million on the submersible itself. 

Cameron says the problems were not disastrous. Some sediment samples were lost, but his science team identified 68 new species and made potentially big discoveries about deep-ocean ecology. And the film Deepsea Challenge 3D will still consist largely of 3-D footage shot on the expedition. Last June, Cameron took Deepsea Challenger on a road show across the U.S., appearing before the Senate to plead for more oceanic-research funding before delivering the submersible to the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts. Allum is now refining his deep-sea systems in collaboration with Woods Hole, whose $8 million submersible Nereus was lost in May when it apparently imploded at a depth of 6.2 miles in the waters off New Zealand. He has also patented his flotation foam, Isofloat, and formed a business with Cameron’s financial backing to commercialize it for industrial and military use. “It can take a bullet, and it floats,” says Allum, who has already sold a batch to the Australian defense department. 

To Cameron, Allum is an unsung engineering genius. “I always said if I ever had to go to Mars and I could only take one person with me, I would take Ron, because he would just rebuild the spaceship in flight,” says the director. Whether the two men will get to share another deep-ocean adventure is unclear, though—Cameron has to make Avatar 2, 3, and 4 before he can put his submariner’s hat back on, which could take five years or more. 

For Allum, who never got to dive the Mariana Trench, that is the unfinished business of his Deepsea Challenger adventure. Asked if he’d like to make the dive one day, his eyes light up. “I’d do it in a heartbeat,” he says.  

Science at Depth

When James Cameron surfaced from the Mariana Trench, he came back with more than bragging rights. He carried with him hours of video, samples of sediment, microbes, and even some crustaceans. Since then, scientists around the country have been examining the material. The expedition’s chief scientist, microbiologist Doug Bartlett, describes the discoveries thus far. —Erin Biba

New Species. Bartlett’s team has already identified a number of new amphipods—small crustaceans, some about the size of a thumbnail—and a jellyfish that could be related to moon jellies. They also have dozens of microbial cultures under high pressure (15,000 pounds per square inch) whose DNA they will scan for new species. Solvin Zank/Getty Images Giant Amoebas

Although single-celled, xenophyophores are not micro-scopic. They can grow to the size of a hand. The unusual organisms have been spotted far underwater in other locations, but the Mariana Trench is the deepest sighting.

Microbial Mats

In the trench’s subduction zone, where a tectonic plate plunges into the Earth’s mantle, scientists have found large beds of single-celled organisms. They likely live off chemical compounds seeping up from the depths. With no need for sunlight, they may expand scientists’ understanding of the requirements for life. 

Pillow Lava

Before Cameron dived the Mariana Trench, his team did some shallower tests in the New Britain Trench, located off the coast of Papua New Guinea. Scientists had expected a flat, silty seafloor but found large, lumpy pillow lavas instead. The formations could help explain how the trench was formed. 


Of the five dozen amphipods collected, one has already yielded a surprise: Its tissue contains scyllo-inositol, a compound normally found in coconuts, not animals. “It may be that they’re making these molecules because they help counteract the influence of pressure,” Bartlett says.

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