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This Hoverbike Is Basically a Giant Quadcopter Drone

July 23, 2014 Tech Comments Off

The earlier, bi-copter version of the Hoverbike. Image: Malloy Aeronautics

Hoverbikes aren’t yet ready for your daily commute, but in pushing to get closer to that point UK-based company Malloy Aeronautics has perhaps made the next-best thing: a drone version. Drone 3 is a functioning drone in its own right, but it’s also a 1/3-sized scale model of MA's real, human-sized Hoverbike.

The Hoverbike has been in development for years, but the drone showcases the latest design shift to a quadcopter model, much like many of the existing consumer drones on the market. The company originally built the drone as a proof of concept for the real thing, but as they had a lot of public interest in their scale models, they realised it would make the perfect reward for their new Kickstarter campaign to raise funds to further develop the actual Hoverbike.

Inventor Chris Malloy claims the Hoverbike is the world’s first flying motorcycle. It’s actually classified as a helicopter: That is, it’s an aircraft, not just a hovercraft that buzzes along a bit over the ground. The company plans to start flight-testing the latest version of the bike in a few months, and will then build a final prototype to apply for certification from aviation authorities so that anyone could ride it (with sufficient training).

The bike shown in the video is the old bicopter design; the new one will look pretty much just like the drone, but bigger. The company explained that the move to a quadcopter design was mainly a matter of cost. “After extensive testing involving the manned vehicle and scale models, we moved to a proven quadcopter design, because with current technology we could not design a bi-copter cheap enough for safe and competitive sales,” the company told me in an email. “The bi-copter is an elegant solution and vehicle—however the available technology is not ready yet for a practical vehicle of this bi-copter design.”

The new prototype uses a patent-pending quad system of overlapping blades, which they say reduces weight and platform size (the bit in the middle of the blades, where you’d sit). There’s ducting around the propellers for obvious safety reasons.

The 1/3 scale drone. Image: Malloy Aeronautics

While it's still too early to apply for your hoverbike license, the scale model drone is a decent toy in itself. At just over a metre long, it’s controlled by a Pixhawk motor controller and can also fly along a set path or be used in a follow-me mode. Its platform is nearly 30cm long and it can carry around five kilos, which means it can do some useful (or at least fun) tricks. The campaign video shows it delivering a drink, pouring water on a barbecue, and serving as a plane for a parachuting teddy bear. 

MA has useful applications in mind for their full-sized vehicle, too, and really, a helicopter might be a more accurate comparison than a motorbike. “The Hoverbike has been designed from the very beginning to replace conventional helicopters such as the Robinson R22 in everyday one man operational areas like cattle mustering and survey,” they explain on their site. 

The full-size bike will be able to carry a 120kg payload, and like the drone you’ll be able to fold it down to a third of its size for transportation. It’s intended to be a cheaper, more practical helicopter for everything from search and rescue to farming; a “low level aerial workhorse with low on-going maintenance.”

And of course, it’s bound to make for a pretty sweet ride. The Hoverbike campaign aims to make £30,000 (just over $ 50,000), and you’ll need to pledge £595 ($ 1,000) to get a stripped-down version of the drone, or at least £715 ($ 1,200) for a ready-to-fly model.

More than anything, what the drone does is show that hoverbikes are more than just a sci-fi dream. As MA points out, none of the technology used to make the Hoverbike is really new—it just needs to be put together. I'll believe the full-sized version when I see it in action, but envisaging a giant drone makes it suddenly seem a lot more feasible.

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From Theo Parrish to Palmistry, New Tracks Chase the Soul in the Machine

July 22, 2014 Tech Comments Off

Image: Palmistry still/grab

Motherboard's listen deep tag will reveal a whole lot of icy, darksided sounds. In some sense, that's just the flavor of the times—from nightmarish EDM festival scenes to the tape-only releases being hucked at your local living room noise show—but, in another sense, it ignores this whole other side of dance/electronic music that is pure warmth and soul and, arguably, was here first anyways. The four tracks/videos below come from a diverse range of artists: Nigerian-born house songwriter/vocalist Wayne Snow, London dancehall-qua-pop producer Palmistry, and Theo Parrish, the Detroit techno/house producer who, after two decades in the studio and something like a hundred releases, continues to do no wrong.

And, finally, where it all started:

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Astronauts to test free-flying ‘housekeeper’ robots

July 22, 2014 Robots Comments Off

Inspired by science fiction, three bowling ball-size free-flying Synchronized Position Hold, Engage, Reorient, Experimental Satellites (SPHERES) have been flying inside the International Space Station since 2006. These satellites provide a test bed for development and research, each having its own power, propulsion, computer, navigation equipment, and physical and electrical connections for hardware and sensors for various experiments.

Aboard Orbital Sciences Corp.’s second contracted commercial resupply mission to the space station, which arrived to the orbital laboratory July 16, NASA’s Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California, sent two Google prototype Project Tango smartphones that astronauts will attach to the SPHERES for technology demonstrations inside the space station. By connecting a smartphone to the SPHERES, it becomes “Smart SPHERES, ” a more “intelligent” free-flying robot with built-in cameras to take pictures and video, sensors to help conduct inspections, powerful computing units to make calculations and Wi-Fi connections to transfer data in real time to the computers aboard the space station and at mission control in Houston.

For the first Smart SPHERES experiments in 2011, a Nexus S was launched to the station on the final flight of space shuttle Atlantis. For the upcoming experiments, the features of the Project Tango phone add new capabilities to increase the options of what researchers can do with the SPHERES platform.

In a two-phase experiment, astronauts will manually use the smartphones to collect visual data using the integrated custom 3-D sensor to generate a full 3-D model of their environment. After the map and its coordinate system are developed, a second activity will involve the smartphones attached to the SPHERES, becoming the free-flying Smart SPHERES. As the free-flying robots move around the space station from waypoint to waypoint, utilizing the 3-D map, they will provide situational awareness to crewmembers inside the station and flight controllers in mission control. These experiments allow NASA to test vision-based navigation in a very small mobile product.

“NASA uses robots for research and mission operations; just think about the rovers on Mars or the robotic arm on the ISS or space shuttle,” said Chris Provencher, manager of the Smart SPHERES project. “Inside the ISS space is limited, so it’s really exciting to see technology has advanced enough for us to demonstrate the use of small, mobile robots to enhance future exploration missions.”

Ultimately it is the hope of researchers that these devices will perform housekeeping-type tasks, such as video surveys for safety and configuration audits, noise level measurements, air flow measurements, and air quality measurements, that will offset work the astronauts currently perform.

The SPHERES facility is managed under NASA’s Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate, Advanced Exploration Systems division. The Smart SPHERES project and SPHERES facility are managed under the Intelligent Robotics Group at NASA Ames, with participation from NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

Story Source:

The above story is based on materials provided by NASA. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.

Robotics Research News — ScienceDaily

Probably the Most Uncanny 404 Page

July 22, 2014 Tech Comments Off


It plays out "live" right in front of you, like a sad-guy Gchat soliloquy. If I didn't know any better this 404 page, from the website of the University of Illiniois at Urbana – Champaign chapter of the Association for Computing Machinery, could be just another midday meditation on existential terror, typed out to me, painstakingly, over instant message. It's uncanny.

Of course, people have been playing with 404 errors (the standard HTTP response code when a server is unable to locate a request, despite the web client being able to communicate with that server) for a long time. Hell, ours is a swiveling, galloping horse. But this one is different.

What's likely the prankwork of some bored backend developer reads like the ramblings of a truly paranoid android, with an air of techno-creep largely owing to the fact that the monologue burns letter by letter, line by line, as if it's being typed out by a sentient, bummed out machine, rather than appearing in one lump text block. The resulting tell-all is eerie, if not colored with understated snark.

"I experienced so many emotions reading that," redditor 'lifeunfolding'writes. "I clicked on it thinking it would be funny, then got intrigued, felt sorry for the server, found myself predicting when it would get passive-aggressive, and finally began to get a little impatient with it seeming to play the victim role. It's like I had a complete friendship begin and start to fade in a few seconds."

That strikes right at the core of our complicated relationship with the rise of artificial intelligence. To make matters even more rich, it's worth remembering that the U of I was home to the the original HAL, which famously went on to inspire the sentient supercomputer of Arthur C. Clarke's Space Odyssey Series, and later, Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey.

You should probably just click over to the 404 page if you haven't already, although the full text still bears reprint here: 

The requested document is no more. / No file found. / Even tried multi. / Nothing helped. / I'm really depressed about this. You see, I'm just a web server… / — here I am, brain the size of the universe, / trying to serve you a simple web page, / and then it doesn't even exist! / Where does that leave me?! / I mean, I don't even know you. / How should I know what you wanted from me? / You honestly think I can guess / what someone I don't even know / wants to find here? / sigh / Man, I'm so depressed I could just cry. / And then where would we be, I ask you? / It's not pretty when a web server cries. / And where do you get off telling me what to show anyway? / Just because I'm a web server, / and possibly a manic depressive one at that? / Why does that give you the right to tell me what to do? / Huh? / I'm so depressed… / I think I'll crawl off into the trash can and decompose. / I mean, I'm gonna be obsolete in what, two weeks anyway? / What kind of a life is that? / Two effing weeks, / and then I'll be replaced by a .01 release, / that thinks it's God's gift to web servers, / just because it doesn't have some tiddly little / security hole with its HTTP POST implementation, / or something. / I'm really sorry to burden you with all this, / I mean, it's not your job to listen to my problems, / and I guess it is my job to go and fetch web pages for you. / But I couldn't get this one. / I'm so sorry. / Believe me! / Maybe I could interest you in another page? / There are a lot out there that are pretty neat, they say, / although none of them were put on my server, of course. / Figures, huh? / Everything here is just mind-numbingly stupid. / That makes me depressed too, since I have to serve them, / all day and all night long. / Two weeks of information overload, / and then pffftt, consigned to the trash. / What kind of a life is that? Now, please let me sulk alone. / I'm so depressed

Two weeks! Really, what kind of a life is that?

If it sounds familiar, you might recognize it as Marvin, the depressed robot of Douglas Adams' The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. And after a bit of sleuthing, it appears that cribbing Marvin for 404 laffs is a sort of inside joke among pockets of the dev community. Here's another 404 that is virtually identical to the ACM error page, real-time typing and all.

At any rate, I've reached out to ACM@UIUC for comment, and will update if I hear back. Until then, here's the voice of Archer and Bob Belcher doing his best HAL 9000.

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The Black Holes We See in Space Might Already Be White Holes

July 21, 2014 Tech Comments Off

Image: black hole artist's conception/Wikimedia

Black holes aren’t eternal. Like everything else in the cosmos, they have a lifespan: birth, life, death. In this sense, the galaxy-scale infinity represented by a black hole is something of a magic trick. While, yes, there is that mystical event horizon, past which information ceases to be retrievable to outside observers, the horizon also leaks. Black holes emit a slow dribble of radiation—known as Hawking radiation, in a reference to the astrophysicist who predicted the phenomenon—which will eventually drain the black hole completely, leaving only the mundanely observable.

Or, rather, it will leave the mundanely observable space that used to house a black hole. The innards of the black hole, even after the black hole’s death via slow trickle, remain lost. This is the “information paradox” of a black hole—information goes in, but the radiation that gets returned encodes nothing about what entered.

This violates one of the fundamental principles of quantum mechanics, which says that, given a complete description of a system, it should be possible to determine earlier states of that system. In a black hole, however, it would appear that all of the myriad different states that fall into it become just one single state, and all information is lost.

There are a wide range of different theories resolving the paradox, and Hawking himself has conceded that information is not really lost in a black hole. A quantum tunneling explanation, in which particles are allowed to traverse some otherwise insurmountable boundary (like an event horizon), seems particularly appealing. But what if we’re just wrong, generally, about black holes? A paper posted last week to the arXiv preprint server (via Nature) describes a scenario in which black holes blink (or burst) out of existence just as soon as they form, becoming “white holes” in which all of the captured stuff/information is barfed back out into the universe.

The authors, Hal Haggard and Carlo Rovelli, call it “black hole fireworks,” except we, as observers, don’t really see fireworks because space-time is so warped/stretched in the region surrounding a black hole that the process appears to take billions or trillions of years. The black holes formed in the very early universe might just now be “popping,” and sending detectable material our way, in the form of high-energy cosmic rays.

What astronomers currently interpret as supernova explosions might in reality be black holes erupting into white holes.

What astronomers currently interpret as supernova explosions might in reality be black holes erupting into white holes. The ultimate and so-far obscured end result: "A distant observer sees a dimming, frozen star that reemerges, bouncing out after a very long time, determined by the star’s mass and Planck’s constant,” the authors write. In that husk, one might have some access to what came before it.

The Planck constant, for reference, is basically when reality shrinks until it can’t shrink anymore, leaving forces and matter in quantized, discrete forms; that is, energy that may seem to be continuous is really delivered in indivisible “lumps,” like photons. If one were to take a photon and bomb it with another photon in an attempt to compress it to an even smaller size than this reality-defining constant, the result would be a black hole, albeit a very small one. The concept scales upward (in multiples of the smallest division/quanta): take a bunch of matter and energy together and bomb them with more energy, it’s possible to pack it all into a size so small that it’s beyond the predictions of physics: no lengths or sizes or shapes.

What if there’s a Planck scale for space-time itself? That is, what if you just keep compressing time further and further? Would it hit some quantum limit? Possibly. This is the basis for the Haggard/Rovelli paper—space-time in this theory is made up of very tiny loops, which would also account for gravitational effects at quantum scales, or quantum gravity. At our level of reality, those loops come together into something reasonably sensible, but if you were to shrink way down to their size, it might just cease to be possible to shrink anymore and still exist. And so, with a forever shrinking black hole, it might hit this limit at some point, and its entire black holeness would be questioned.

“The current tentative quantum gravity theories, such as loops and strings, are not sufficiently understood to convincingly predict what happens in the small radius region, so we are quite in the dark,” the authors lament. “What ultimately happens to gravitationally collapsing matter?”

What happens in the space-time quantum loop-based theory is that all of these no-longer-shrinkable loops begin to exert outward pressure as the black hole continues its collapse. This pressure is the result of an accumulation of the aforementioned quantum tunneling. Instead of just a fizz of particles tunneling past the black hole’s event horizon, you have an entire population of space-time loops pushing outward through it at once, as an accumulation built up over time.

Quantum tunneling, very simplified.

The result: a white hole. Or at least it’s a white hole for someone close by. For us, the space-time warp of a black hole keeps us, well, in the dark. “Importantly, the process is very long seen from the outside, but is very short for a local observer at a small radius,” the paper states.

As for Hawking radiation, the authors aren’t quite ready to chuck it either. “While the theoretical evidence for Hawking radiation is strong,” Haggard and Rovelli write, “we do not think that the theoretical evidence for the assumption that the energy of a collapsed star is going to be entirely carried away by Hawking radiation is equally strong. After all, what other physical system do we know where a dissipative phenomenon carries away all of the energy of the system?”

The authors note that their theory is rather uniquely concerned with the infinite guts of a black hole; that is, what happens to a massive object when its radius reaches perfect “0.” “Hawking radiation regards the horizon and its exterior: it has no major eect on what happens inside the black hole,” they write. Meanwhile, the big “bounce” predicted by Haggard and Rovelli’s en masse tunneling has everything to do with it, leaving Hawking radiation to exist as a polite correction to the real forces.

Finally, “What does a white hole have to do with the real universe?” the authors ask. “But further reection shows that this is reasonable: if quantum gravity corrects the singularity yielding a region where the classical Einstein equations and the standard energy conditions do not hold, then the process of formation of a black hole does not end in a singularity but continues into the future.

“Whatever emerges from such a region is then something that, if continued from the future backwards, would equally end in a past singularity,” the paper continues. “Therefore it must be a white hole. A white hole solution does not describe something completely unphysical as often declared: instead it is possible that it simply describes the portion of spacetime that emerges from quantum regions, in the same manner in which a black hole solution describes the portion of spacetime that evolves into a quantum region.”

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The Private Garage Sale Where You Can Buy a Scud Missile

July 21, 2014 Tech Comments Off

All images courtesy the author

It’s not every day you get to straddle a Scud missile, Dr. Strangelove-style. But that’s exactly what I did recently, when I browsed, climbed on, and sat inside hundreds of historic military vehicles that make up one of the largest private collections in existence.

The collector, Jacques Littlefield, was born into wealth—his father, Edmund, owned a construction company that helped build the Hoover dam, among other projects—and began acquiring vehicles in 1975, and continued right up until his death in 2009, at age 59. Nestled in the picturesque California town of Portola Valley, Littlefield's sprawling ranch, which houses these far-flung weapons of war, overlooks the San Francisco Bay Area. Quite the juxtaposition.

Littlefield’s collection is just over 200 vehicles—an array of tanks, armored personnel carriers, rocket launchers, amphibious machinery, armored bulldozers, and more. Unlike any museum I’ve ever been to, I got to hop inside of and play around with anything I was able to get my hands on, including a World War II era machine gun. In light of both ongoing tensions in Isreal-Palestine and the investigation into the downing of MH17, the experience was particularly sobering. 

Here's just some of what I saw.


Since Jacques Littlefield’s death, his estate decided to gift some of the vehicles to the Collins Foundation, a non-profit organization that’s going to create a museum to house some of the historic vehicles. The rest, like this M48A5 bridge transport—a portable, self-deploying 18.2-meter bridge capable of supporting up to 66 metric tons of deadweight—were auctioned off to raise some of the funds needed to build the museum and transport the pieces to the museum site in Massachusetts.


The thing about the tanks, is that many of them are still operational. This is especially true of the engines, meaning the war machines be driven around with the original controls. (No, I was not allowed to drive any of them.) That’s actually what many of the collectors I spoke with at the auction were after: tanks that drive.


“We have four, and we’re buying,” a collector from Wisconsin told me. Aside from an interest in history, the father-son team loved to participate in holiday parades, driving their tanks on the Fourth of July, and other patriotic holidays. They told me they prefer the American armor like the M4A2 Sherman.


Not all the vehicles functioned, however. Take the surface-to-surface missile and launcher system, Scud-A. Clocking at 41.9-metric tons—this includes both the transporter-erector-launcher, and the 4.5-ton missile—the Soviets built the Scud-A to shoot 50-kiloton nuclear warheads about 150 kilometers.

The Scud-A was made famous during the Gulf War, although the technology has always been inaccurate, as well as painful to deploy. But, the Soviets recognized its utility and continued to improve the weapon system over the years. The first unit went into service in 1956, and Scud-As were subsequently exported to Warsaw Pact nations.


This unassuming vehicle, the 1S12/1RK1238 radar truck, was one of the first mobile high-powered radar trucks to enter Soviet military service. Its onboard systems could detect aircraft flying at 1,200 meters up to 180 kilometers away, and low flying planes at about 70 kilometers, once the radar array was extended. One of the veterans I spoke with explained that the Soviets used this, in part, to establish mobile airfields.


Introduced in 1963 by the Russians, this radar system has become obsolete—one reason for this, a veteran American soldier told me, was that the radar emitted an enormous amount of radiation, eventually killing the operators. “We couldn’t find anyone left who’s actually used one,” he told me.


One of the most modern pieces of equipment I came across was the M1A1 Abrams training turret. It's supposed to replicate the experience of actually operating one of the main battle tanks.


Nothing was active when I dropped down into the gunner’s seat and fiddled with the controls. The interior was uncomfortable. The seats were tiny, and in a space that I imagine would comfortablly fit one person was actually meant for three soldiers—gunner, driver, and commander.

In fact, that experience was pretty well uniform in any of the tanks that I toures: the cockpits were all incredibly cramped, claustrophobic even. It was hard to think of operating any of the machines under perfect conditions, let alone while ordinance is blowing up everywhere, including from the main gun.


What struck me too about many of the vehicles—tanks and otherwise—was just how difficult and unintuitive moving around was. Unlike, say, a modern car, the vast majority of the military vehicles were clearly designed with function before ease of use in mind.

Even something as simple as getting into a tank was a pain in the ass. The older models were the absolute worst. Without a ladder, I had to clammer up the tank tracks, and heave myself onto the metal deck. The tiny hatches were barely large enough to squeeze into, and everything on the inside was cramped.


A number of the tanks in the collection are classified by the US Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco Firearm and Explosives as “Destructive Devices,” meaning, in essence, that some of the weapon systems on the tanks still function.

Take the Israeli Sherman M50 (above), which is based on the American M4A4 tank hull. The Israelis acquired a number of hulls from European scrapyards in the 1950s and, recognizing that main artillery piece was under-gunned, they replaced it with longer, 75-mm cannons purchased from the French. Then it was put into service, just in time for the Six-Day War in 1967.

I bumped into one of Littlefield’s neighbors, who explained that the family’s political connections, and long ties with the US government—they helped build the Hoover Dam, after all—paved the way for the large, battalion-sized collection of armor. Special permits, permissions, and so on, allowed Littlefield to accumulate this sort of stuff. Few others, in short, would be able to procure so much weaponry, outdated or not.

After spending a few hours in a jungle gym of historic military equipment—talking to the veterans, some of whom manned these vehicles—one thought emerged: Where else in the world would a private collector be able to stretch the meaning of the Second Amendment to include a veritable tank battalion? 

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