Life-size robo-dinosaur and ostrich backpack hint at how first birds got off the ground

Everyone knows birds descended from dinosaurs, but exactly how that happened is the subject of much study and debate. To help clear things up, these researchers went all out and just straight up built a robotic dinosaur to test their theory: that these proto-birds flapped their “wings” well before they ever flew.

Now, this isn’t some hyper-controversial position or anything. It’s pretty reasonable when you think about it: natural selection tends to emphasize existing features rather than invent them from scratch. If these critters had, say, moved from being quadrupedal to being bipedal and had some extra limbs up front, it would make sense that over a few million years those limbs would evolve into something useful.

But when did it start, and how? To investigate, Jing-Shan Zhao of Tsinghua University in Beijing looked into an animal called Caudipteryx, a ground-dwelling animal with “feathered forelimbs that could be considered “proto-wings.”

Based on the well-preserved fossil record of this bird-dino crossover, the researchers estimated a number of physiological metrics, such as the creature’s top speed and the rhythm with which it would run. From this they could estimate forces on other parts of the body — just as someone studying a human jogger would be able to say that such and such a joint is under this or that amount of stress.

What they found was that, in theory, these “natural frequencies” and biophysics of the Caudipteryx’s body would cause its little baby wings to flap up and down in a way suggestive of actual flight. Of course they wouldn’t provide any lift, but this natural rhythm and movement may have been the seed which grew over generations into something greater.

To give this theory a bit of practical punch, the researchers then constructed a pair of unusual mechanical items: a pair of replica Caudipteryx wings for a juvenile ostrich to wear, and a robotic dinosaur that imitated the original’s gait. A bit fanciful, sure — but why shouldn’t science get a little crazy now and then?

In the case of the ostrich backpack, they literally just built a replica of the dino-wings and attached it to the bird, then had the bird run. Sensors on board the device verified what the researchers observed: that the wings flapped naturally as a result of the body’s motion and vibrations from the feet impacting the ground.

The robot is a life-size reconstruction based on a complete fossil of the animal, made of 3D-printed parts, to which the ostrich’s fantasy wings could also be affixed. The researchers’ theoretical model predicted that the flapping would be most pronounced as the speed of the bird approached 2.31 meters per second — and that’s just what they observed in the stationary model imitating gaits corresponding to various running speeds.

You can see another gif over at the Nature blog. As the researchers summarize:

These analyses suggest that the impetus of the evolution of powered flight in the theropod lineage that lead to Aves may have been an entirely natural phenomenon produced by bipedal motion in the presence of feathered forelimbs.

Just how legit is this? Well, I’m not a paleontologist. And an ostrich isn’t a Caudipteryx. And the robot isn’t exactly convincing to look at. We’ll let the scholarly community pass judgment on this paper and its evidence (don’t worry, it’s been peer-reviewed), but I think it’s fantastic that the researchers took this route to test their theory. A few years ago this kind of thing would have been far more difficult to do, and although it seems a little silly when you watch it (especially in gif form), there’s a lot to be said for this kind of real-life tinkering when so much of science is occurring in computer simulations.

The paper was published today in the journal PLOS Computational Biology.


Source: Gadgets

Blue Origin lofts NASA and student experiments in New Shepard tomorrow morning

The 11th mission for Blue Origin’s New Shepard suborbital launch vehicle is slated for takeoff Thursday morning. The craft will be carrying 38 (!) experimental payloads from NASA, students and research organizations around the world. You’ll be able to watch the launch live tomorrow at about 6 AM Pacific time.

New Shepard, though a very different beast from the Falcon 9 and Heavy launch vehicles created by its rival SpaceX, is arguably a better platform for short-duration experiments that need to be exposed to launch stresses and microgravity. Launching satellites — that’s a job for Falcons and Deltas, or perhaps Blue Origin’s impending New Glenn, and they’re welcome to it. But researchers around the country are clamoring for spots on suborbital flights and Blue Origin is happy to provide them.

Tomorrow’s launch will be carrying several dozen payloads, some of which have been waiting years for their chance to board a rocket. Here are a few examples of what will be tested during the short flight:

  • Evolved Medical Microgravity Suction Device: As more people go into space, we have to be prepared for more and graver injuries. Lots of standard medical tools won’t work properly in microgravity, so it’s necessary to redesign and test them under those conditions. This one is about providing suction, as you might guess, which can be used for lung injuries, drawing blood and other situations that call for negative air pressure.

This little guy will be doing microgravity test prints using metal

  • 3D printing with metal in microgravity: Simply everyone knows we can 3D-print stuff in space. But just as on Earth, you can’t always make your spare parts out of thermoplastic. Down here we use metal-based 3D printers, and this experiment aims to find out if a modified design will allow for metal printing in space, as well.
  • Suborbital centrifuge: It sounds like something the Enterprise would deploy in Star Trek, but it’s just a test bed for a new type of centrifuge that could help simulate other gravities, such as that of the Moon or Mars, for purposes of experiments. They do this on the ISS already, but this would make it more compact and easier to automate, saving time and space aboard any craft it flies on.

The suborbital centrifuge, looking as cool as it sounds

  • BioChip SubOrbitalLab: The largest ever study of space-based health and the effects of microgravity on the human body was just concluded, but there’s much, much more to know. Part of that requires monitoring cells in real time — which, like most things, is easier to do on the surface. This lab-on-a-chip will test out a new technique for containing individual cells or masses and tracking changes to them in a microgravity environment.

It’s all made possible through NASA’s Flight Opportunities program, which is specifically all about putting small experiments aboard commercial spacecraft. The rest of the many gadgets and experiments awaiting launch are listed here.

The launch itself should be very similar to previous New Shepards, just like one commercial jet takeoff is like another. The booster fires up and ascends to just short of the Karman line at 100 kilometers, which (somewhat arbitrarily) marks the start of “space.”

At that point the capsule will detach and fly upwards with its own momentum, exposing the payloads within to several minutes of microgravity; after it tops out, it will descend and deploy its parachutes, after which it will drift leisurely to the ground. Meanwhile the rocket will have descended as well, and made a soft landing on its deployable struts.

The launch is scheduled for 6:30 AM Pacific time — 8:30 AM Central in Texas, at Blue Origin’s launch site. You’ll be able to watch it live at the company’s site.


Source: Gadgets

Facebook’s fact-checkers toil on

Facebook is fielding so many problems, oversights, scandals, and other miscellaneous ills that it wouldn’t surprise anyone to hear that its fact-checking program, undertaken last year after the network was confronted with its inaction in controlling disinformation, is falling apart. But in this case the reason you haven’t heard much about it isn’t because it’s a failure, but because fact-checking is boring and thankless — and being done quietly and systematically by people who are just fine with that.

The “falling apart” narrative was advanced in a recent article at The Guardian, and some of the problems noted in that piece are certainly real. But I was curious at the lack of documentation of the fact-checking process itself, so I talked with a couple of the people involved to get a better sense of it.

I definitely didn’t get the impression of a program in crisis at all, but rather one where the necessity of remaining hands-off with the editorial process and teams involved has created both apparent and real apathy when it comes to making real changes.

No bells, no whistles

Facebook likes to pretend that its research into AI will solve just about every problem it has. Unfortunately not only is that AI hugely dependent on human intelligence to work in the first place, but the best it can generally do is forward things on to human agents for final calls. Nowhere is that more obvious than in the process of fact-checking, in which it is trivial for machine learning agents to surface possibly dubious links or articles, but at this stage pretty much impossible for them to do any kind of real evaluation of them.

That’s where the company’s network of independent fact-checkers comes in. No longer among their number are two former Snopes staffers who left to work at another fact-checking concern — pointedly not involved with Facebook — and who clearly had major problems with the way the program worked. Most explosive was the accusation that Facebook had seemingly tried to prioritize fact checks that concerned an advertiser.

But it wasn’t clear from their complaints just how the program does work. I chatted with Snopes head David Mikkelson and checked in with Politifact editor Angie Drobnic Holan. They emphatically denied allegations of Facebook shenanigans, though they had their own reservations, and while they couldn’t provide exact details of the system they used, it sounds pretty straightforward.

“For the most part it’s literally just data entry,” explained Mikkelson. “When we fact-check something, we enter its URL into a database. You could probably dress it up in all kinds of bells and whistles, but we don’t really need or expect much more than that. We haven’t changed what we do or how we do it.”

Mikkelson described the Facebook system in broad terms. It’s a dashboard of links that are surfaced, as Facebook has explained before, primarily through machine learning systems that know what sort of thing to look for: weird URLs, bot promotion, scammy headlines, etc. They appear on the dashboard in some semblance of order, for instance based on traffic or engagement.

“It lists a thumbnail of what the item is, like is it an article or a video; there’s a column for estimated shares, first published date, etc,” said Mikkelson. “They’ve never given us any instructions on like, ‘please do the one with the most shares,’ or ‘do the most recent entry and work your way down,’ or whatever.”

In fact there’s no need to even use the dashboard that way at all.

“There’s no requirement that we undertake anything that’s in their database. If there’s something that isn’t in there, which honestly is most of what we do, we just add it,” Mikkelson said.

Passive partner or puppet master?

I asked whether there was any kind of pushback or interference at all from Facebook, as described by Brooks Binkowski in the Guardian story, who mentioned several such occasions that occurred during her time at Snopes.

Politifact’s Holan said she thought the suggestion was “very misleading.” In a statement, the organization said that “As with all our work, we decide what to fact-check and arrive at our conclusions without input from Facebook or any third party. Any claim suggesting otherwise is misinformed and baseless.”

“I realize Facebook’s reputation is kind of in the dumpster right now already,” Mikkelson said, “but this is damaging to all the fact-checking partners, including us. We would never have continued a working relationship with Facebook or any other partner that told us to couch fact checks in service of advertisers. It’s insulting to suggest.”

The question of receiving compensation for fact-checking was another of Binkowski’s qualms. On the one hand, it could be seen as a conflict of interest for Facebook to be paying for the service, since that opens all kinds of cans of worms — but on the other, it’s ridiculous to suggest this critical work can or should be done for free. Though at first, it was.

When the fact-checking team was first assembled in late 2016, Snopes wrote that it expects “to derive no direct financial benefit from this arrangement.” But eventually it did.

“When we published that, the partnership was in its earliest, embryonic stages — an experiment they’d like our help with,” Mikkelson said. Money “didn’t come up at all.” It wasn’t until the next year that Facebook mentioned paying fact checkers, though it hadn’t announced this publicly, and Snopes eventually did earn and disclose $100,000 coming from the company. Facebook had put bounties on high-profile political stories that were already on Snopes’s radar, as well as others in the fact-checking group.

The money came despite the fact that Snopes never asked for it or billed Facebook — a check arrived at the end of the year, he recalled, “with a note that said ‘vendor refuses to invoice.’ ”

Partners, but not pals

As for the mere concept of working for a company whose slippery methods and unlikeable leadership have been repeatedly pilloried over the last few years, it’s a legitimate concern. But Facebook is too important of a platform to ignore on account of ethical lapses by higher-ups who are not involved in the day-to-day fact-checking operation. Millions of people still look to Facebook for their news.

To abandon the company because (for instance) Sheryl Sandberg hired a dirty PR firm to sling mud at critics would be antithetical to the mission that drove these fact-checking companies to the platform to begin with. After all, it’s not like Facebook had a sterling reputation in 2016, either.

Both Politifact and Snopes indicated that their discontent with the company was more focused on the lack of transparency within the fact-checking program itself. The tools are basic and feedback is nil. Questions like the following have gone unanswered for years:

What constitutes falsity? What criteria should and shouldn’t be considered? How should satire be treated if it is spreading as if it were fact? What about state-sponsored propaganda and disinformation? Have other fact checkers looked at a given story, and could or should their judgments inform the other’s? What is the immediate effect of marking a story false — does it stop spreading? Is there pushback from the community? Is the outlet penalized in other ways? What about protesting an erroneous decision?

The problem with Facebook’s fact-checking operation, as so often is the case with this company, is a lack of transparency with both users and partners. The actual fact-checking happens outside Facebook, and rightly so; it’s not likely to be affected or compromised by the company, and in fact if it tried, it might find the whole thing blowing up in its face. But while the checking itself is tamper-resistant, it’s not clear at all what if any effect it’s having, and how it will be improved or implemented in the future. Surely that’s relevant to everyone with a stake in this process?

Over a year and a half or more of the program, little has been communicated and little has been changed, and that not fast enough. But at the same time, thousands of articles have been checked by experts who are used to having their work go largely unrewarded — and despite Facebook’s lack of transparency with them and us, it seems unlikely that that work has also been ineffective.

For years Facebook was a rat’s nest of trash content and systematically organized disinformation. In many ways, it still is, but an organized fact-checking campaign works like constant friction acting against the momentum of this heap. It’s not flashy and the work will never be done, but it’s no less important for all that.

As with so many other Facebook initiatives, we hear a lot of promises and seldom much in the way of results. The establishment of a group of third parties contributing independently to a fact-checking database was a good step, and it would be surprising to hear it has had no positive affect.

Users and partners deserve to know how it works, whether it’s working, and how it’s being changed. That information would disarm critics and hearten allies. If Facebook continues to defy these basic expectations, however, it only further justifies and intensifies the claims of its worst enemies.


Source: TechCrunch

Bumblebees bearing high-tech backpacks act as a living data collection platform

There’s lots of research going into tiny drones, but one of the many hard parts is keeping them in the air for any real amount of time. Why not hitch a ride on something that already flies all day? That’s the idea behind this project that equips bumblebees with sensor-filled backpacks that charge wirelessly and collect data on the fields they visit.

A hive full of these cyber-bees could help monitor the health of a field by checking temperature and humidity, as well as watching for signs of rot or distress in the crops. A lot of this is done manually now, and of course drones are being set to work doing it, but if the bees are already there, why not get them to help out?

The “Living IoT” backpack, a tiny wafer loaded with electronics and a small battery, was designed by University of Washington engineers led by Shyam Gollakotta. He’s quick to note that although the research does to a certain extent take advantage of these clumsy, fuzzy creatures, they were careful to “follow best methods for care and handling.”

Part of that is minimizing the mass of the pack; other experiments have put RFID antennas and such on the backs of bees and other insects, but this is much more sophisticated.

The chip has sensors and an integrated battery that lets it run for seven hours straight, yet weighs just 102 milligrams. A full-grown bumblebee, for comparison, could weigh anywhere from two to six times that.

They’re strong fliers, if not graceful ones, and can carry three-quarters of their body weight in pollen and nectar when returning to the hive. So the backpack, while far from unnoticeable, is still well within their capabilities; the team checked with biologists in the know first, of course.

“We showed for the first time that it’s possible to actually do all this computation and sensing using insects in lieu of drones,” explained Gollakotta in a UW news release. “We decided to use bumblebees because they’re large enough to carry a tiny battery that can power our system, and they return to a hive every night where we could wirelessly recharge the batteries.”

The backpacks can track location passively by monitoring the varying strengths of signals from nearby antennas, up to a range of about 80 meters. The data they collect is transferred while they’re in the hive via an energy-efficient backscatter method that Gollakotta has used in other projects.

The applications are many and various, though obviously limited to what can be observed while the bees go about their normal business. It could even help keep the bees themselves healthy.

“It would be interesting to see if the bees prefer one region of the farm and visit other areas less often,” said co-author Sawyer Fuller. “Alternatively, if you want to know what’s happening in a particular area, you could also program the backpack to say: ‘Hey bees, if you visit this location, take a temperature reading.’ ”

It is of course just in prototype form right now, but one can easily imagine the tech being deployed by farmers in the near future, or perhaps in a more sinister way by three-letter agencies wanting to put a bee on the wall near important conversations. The team plans to present their work (PDF) at the ACM MobiCom conference next year.


Source: Gadgets

Lift Aircraft’s Hexa may be your first multirotor drone ride

We were promised jetpacks, but let’s be honest, they’re just plain unsafe. So a nice drone ride is probably all we should reasonably expect. Lift Aircraft is the latest to make a play for the passenger multirotor market, theoretical as it is, and its craft is a sleek little thing with some interesting design choices to make it suitable for laypeople to “pilot.”

The Austin-based company just took the wraps off the Hexa, the 18-rotor craft it intends to make available for short recreational flights. It just flew for the first time last month, and could be taking passengers aloft as early as next year.

The Hexa is considerably more lightweight than the aircraft that seemed to be getting announced every month or two earlier this year. Lift’s focus isn’t on transport, which is a phenomenally complicated problem both in terms of regulation and engineering. Instead, it wants to simply make the experience of flying in a giant drone available for thrill-seekers with a bit of pocket money.

This reduced scope means the craft can get away with being just 432 pounds and capable of 10-15 minutes of sustained flight with a single passenger. Compared with Lilium’s VTOL engines or Volocopter’s 36-foot wingspan, this thing looks like a toy. And that’s essentially what it is, for now. But there’s something to be said for proving your design in a comparatively easily accessed market and moving up, rather than trying to invent an air taxi business from scratch.

“Multi-seat eVTOL air taxis, especially those that are designed to transition to wing-borne flight, are probably 10 years away and will require new regulations and significant advances in battery technology to be practical and safe. We didn’t want to wait for major technology or regulatory breakthroughs to start flying,” said CEO Matt Chasen in a news release. “We’ll be flying years before anyone else.”

The Hexa is flown with a single joystick and an iPad; direct movements and attitude control are done with the former, while destination-based movement, take-off and landing take place on the latter. This way people can go from walking in the front door to flying one of these things — or rather riding in one and suggesting some directions to go — in an hour or so.

It’s small enough that it doesn’t even count as a “real” aircraft; it’s a “powered ultralight,” which is a plus and a minus: no pilot’s license necessary, but you can’t go past a few hundred feet of altitude or fly over populated areas. No doubt there’s still a good deal of fun you can have flying around a sort of drone theme park, though. The whole area will have been 3D mapped prior to flight, of course.

Lifting the Hexa are 18 rotors, each of which is powered by its own battery, which spreads the risk out considerably and makes it simple to swap them out. As far as safety is concerned, it can run with up to six engines down, and has pontoons in case of a water landing and an emergency parachute should the unthinkable happen.

The team is looking to roll out its drone-riding experience soon, but it has yet to select its first city. Finding a good location, checking with the community, getting the proper permits — not simple. Chasen told New Atlas the craft is “not very loud, but they’re also not whisper-quiet, either.” I’m thinking “not very loud” is in comparison to jets — every drone I’ve ever come across, from palm-sized to cargo-bearing, has made an incredible racket, and if someone wanted to start a drone preserve next door I’d fight it tooth and nail. (Apparently Seattle is high on the list, too, so this may come to pass.)

In a sense, engineering a working autonomous multirotor aircraft was the easy part of building this business. Chasen told GeekWire that the company has raised a “typical-size seed round,” and is preparing for a Series A — probably once it has a launch city in its sights.

We’ll likely hear more at SXSW in March, where the Hexa will likely fly its first passengers.


Source: Gadgets

Puma reissues its nerdiest shoe ever, the RS-Computer

No one has any trouble tracking their steps today. But how can you make sure people know you’re doing it? Ostentatiously checking your phone or watch every five minutes is a pain. What if I told you there was a shoe with a step-tracking computer sticking out of it where everyone could see? It’s a Puma . It was born in 1986, and will be reborn in 2018 — briefly.

The RS Computer was among the early stumbling steps of the personal computer era, when everyone thought that, since people were buying Amigas and Macs, they’d probably buy computer shoes as well. It didn’t really pan out, needless to say.

But what was deeply uncool in 1986 is, 30-some years later, strangely compelling. And it helps that you don’t have to attach it to a command line interface with a special 16-pin cable every time you want to check your steps.

Yes, the reissued RS Computer (RS stands for “running system,” not “robo-shoe”) is coming out the day after tomorrow at select retailers and in extremely limited quantity. The electronics have been updated not to be smaller (you could hide them away completely, after all) but simply to work with modern devices. That’s right — no need to break out your Apple IIe or C64.

Instead of that cable you have Bluetooth, and inside the unit is an accelerometer that should more accurately measure steps and distance. It stores up to 30 days of data and you can recharge the shoe via micro USB.

I love that the giant computer unit literally has screws on it, and the red and black buttons — resembling battery poles — probably serve no purpose but were left on anyway. This is definitely a shoe that people will pay attention to. Just try not to overdo the look with a Casio calculator watch and Zack Morris phone. Know your limitations.

The 86 pairs of RS Computers will be available day after tomorrow (the 13th) at Puma stores in London, Berlin (I just left!) and Tokyo, as well as a few other retailers, including Kith. You should probably call your local stockist now and ask.


Source: Gadgets

Mars Lander InSight sends the first of many selfies after a successful touchdown

Last night’s 10 minutes of terror as the InSight Mars Lander descended to the Martian surface at 12,300 MPH were a nail-biter for sure, but now the robotic science platform is safe and sound — and has sent pics back to prove it.

The first thing it sent was a couple pictures of its surroundings: Elysium Planitia, a rather boring-looking, featureless plane that is nevertheless perfect for InSight’s drilling and seismic activity work.

The images, taken with its Instrument Context Camera, are hardly exciting on their own merits — a dirty landscape viewed through a dusty tube. But when you consider that it’s of an unexplored territory on a distant planet, and that it’s Martian dust and rubble occluding the lens, it suddenly seems pretty amazing!

Decelerating from interplanetary velocity and making a perfect landing was definitely the hard part, but it was by no means InSight’s last challenge. After touching down, it still needs to set itself up and make sure that none of its many components and instruments were damaged during the long flight and short descent to Mars.

And the first good news arrived shortly after landing, relayed via NASA’s Odyssey spacecraft in orbit: a partial selfie showing that it was intact and ready to roll. The image shows, among other things, the large mobile arm folded up on top of the lander, and a big copper dome covering some other components.

Telemetry data sent around the same time show that InSight has also successfully deployed its solar panels and its collecting power with which to continue operating. These fragile fans are crucial to the lander, of course, and it’s a great relief to hear they’re working properly.

These are just the first of many images the lander will send, though unlike Curiosity and the other rovers, it won’t be traveling around taking snapshots of everything it sees. Its data will be collected from deep inside the planet, offering us insight into the planet’s — and our solar system’s — origins.


Source: TechCrunch

Mars Lander InSight sends the first of many selfies after a successful touchdown

Last night’s 10 minutes of terror as the InSight Mars Lander descended to the Martian surface at 12,300 MPH were a nail-biter for sure, but now the robotic science platform is safe and sound — and has sent pics back to prove it.

The first thing it sent was a couple pictures of its surroundings: Elysium Planitia, a rather boring-looking, featureless plane that is nevertheless perfect for InSight’s drilling and seismic activity work.

The images, taken with its Instrument Context Camera, are hardly exciting on their own merits — a dirty landscape viewed through a dusty tube. But when you consider that it’s of an unexplored territory on a distant planet, and that it’s Martian dust and rubble occluding the lens, it suddenly seems pretty amazing!

Decelerating from interplanetary velocity and making a perfect landing was definitely the hard part, but it was by no means InSight’s last challenge. After touching down, it still needs to set itself up and make sure that none of its many components and instruments were damaged during the long flight and short descent to Mars.

And the first good news arrived shortly after landing, relayed via NASA’s Odyssey spacecraft in orbit: a partial selfie showing that it was intact and ready to roll. The image shows, among other things, the large mobile arm folded up on top of the lander, and a big copper dome covering some other components.

Telemetry data sent around the same time show that InSight has also successfully deployed its solar panels and its collecting power with which to continue operating. These fragile fans are crucial to the lander, of course, and it’s a great relief to hear they’re working properly.

These are just the first of many images the lander will send, though unlike Curiosity and the other rovers, it won’t be traveling around taking snapshots of everything it sees. Its data will be collected from deep inside the planet, offering us insight into the planet’s — and our solar system’s — origins.


Source: Gadgets

That night, a forest flew

Wildfires are consuming our forests and grasslands faster than we can replace them. It’s a vicious cycle of destruction and inadequate restoration rooted, so to speak, in decades of neglect of the institutions and technologies needed to keep these environments healthy.

DroneSeed is a Seattle-based startup that aims to combat this growing problem with a modern toolkit that scales: drones, artificial intelligence and biological engineering. And it’s even more complicated than it sounds.

Trees in decline

A bit of background first. The problem of disappearing forests is a complex one, but it boils down to a few major factors: climate change, outdated methods and shrinking budgets (and as you can imagine, all three are related).

Forest fires are a natural occurrence, of course. And they’re necessary, as you’ve likely read, to sort of clear the deck for new growth to take hold. But climate change, monoculture growth, population increases, lack of control burns and other factors have led to these events taking place not just more often, but more extensively and to more permanent effect.

On average, the U.S. is losing 7 million acres a year. That’s not easy to replace to begin with — and as budgets for the likes of national and state forest upkeep have shrunk continually over the last half century, there have been fewer and fewer resources with which to combat this trend.

The most effective and common reforestation technique for a recently burned woodland is human planters carrying sacks of seedlings and manually selecting and placing them across miles of landscapes. This back-breaking work is rarely done by anyone for more than a year or two, so labor is scarce and turnover is intense.

Even if the labor was available on tap, the trees might not be. Seedlings take time to grow in nurseries and a major wildfire might necessitate the purchase and planting of millions of new trees. It’s impossible for nurseries to anticipate this demand, and the risk associated with growing such numbers on speculation is more than many can afford. One missed guess could put the whole operation underwater.

Meanwhile, if nothing gets planted, invasive weeds move in with a vengeance, claiming huge areas that were once old growth forests. Lacking the labor and tree inventory to stem this possibility, forest keepers resort to a stopgap measure: use helicopters to drench the area in herbicides to kill weeds, then saturate it with fast-growing cheatgrass or the like. (The alternative to spraying is, again, the manual approach: machetes.)

At least then, in a year, instead of a weedy wasteland, you have a grassy monoculture — not a forest, but it’ll do until the forest gets here.

One final complication: helicopter spraying is a horrendously dangerous profession. These pilots are flying at sub-100-foot elevations, performing high-speed maneuvers so that their sprays reach the very edge of burn zones but they don’t crash head-on into the trees. This is an extremely dangerous occupation: 80 to 100 crashes occur every year in the U.S. alone.

In short, there are more and worse fires and we have fewer resources — and dated ones at that — with which to restore forests after them.

These are facts anyone in forest ecology and logging are familiar with, but perhaps not as well known among technologists. We do tend to stay in areas with cell coverage. But it turns out that a boost from the cloistered knowledge workers of the tech world — specifically those in the Emerald City — may be exactly what the industry and ecosystem require.

Simple idea, complex solution

So what’s the solution to all this? Automation, right?

Automation, especially via robotics, is proverbially suited for jobs that are “dull, dirty, and dangerous.” Restoring a forest is dirty and dangerous to be sure. But dull isn’t quite right. It turns out that the process requires far more intelligence than anyone was willing, it seems, to apply to the problem — with the exception of those planters. That’s changing.

Earlier this year, DroneSeed was awarded the first multi-craft, over-55-pounds unmanned aerial vehicle license ever issued by the FAA. Its custom UAV platforms, equipped with multispectral camera arrays, high-end lidar, six-gallon tanks of herbicide and proprietary seed dispersal mechanisms have been hired by several major forest management companies, with government entities eyeing the service as well.

Ryan Warner/DroneSeed

These drones scout a burned area, mapping it down to as high as centimeter accuracy, including objects and plant species, fumigate it efficiently and autonomously, identify where trees would grow best, then deploy painstakingly designed seed-nutrient packages to those locations. It’s cheaper than people, less wasteful and dangerous than helicopters and smart enough to scale to national forests currently at risk of permanent damage.

I met with the company’s team at their headquarters near Ballard, where complete and half-finished drones sat on top of their cases and the air was thick with capsaicin (we’ll get to that).

The idea for the company began when founder and CEO Grant Canary burned through a few sustainable startup ideas after his last company was acquired, and was told, in his despondency, that he might have to just go plant trees. Canary took his friend’s suggestion literally.

“I started looking into how it’s done today,” he told me. “It’s incredibly outdated. Even at the most sophisticated companies in the world, planters are superheroes that use bags and a shovel to plant trees. They’re being paid to move material over mountainous terrain and be a simple AI and determine where to plant trees where they will grow — microsites. We are now able to do both these functions with drones. This allows those same workers to address much larger areas faster without the caloric wear and tear.”

(Video: Ryan Warner/DroneSeed)

It may not surprise you to hear that investors are not especially hot on forest restoration (I joked that it was a “growth industry” but really because of the reasons above it’s in dire straits).

But investors are interested in automation, machine learning, drones and especially government contracts. So the pitch took that form. With the money DroneSeed secured, it has built its modestly sized but highly accomplished team and produced the prototype drones with which is has captured several significant contracts before even announcing that it exists.

“We definitely don’t fit the mold or metrics most startups are judged on. The nice thing about not fitting the mold is people double take and then get curious,” Canary said. “Once they see we can actually execute and have been with 3 of the 5 largest timber companies in the U.S. for years, they get excited and really start advocating hard for us.”

The company went through Techstars, and Social Capital helped them get on their feet, with Spero Ventures joining up after the company got some groundwork done.

If things go as DroneSeed hopes, these drones could be deployed all over the world by trained teams, allowing spraying and planting efforts in nurseries and natural forests to take place exponentially faster and more efficiently than they are today. It’s genuine change-the-world-from-your-garage stuff, which is why this article is so long.

Hunter (weed) killers

The job at hand isn’t simple or even straightforward. Every landscape differs from every other, not just in the shape and size of the area to be treated but the ecology, native species, soil type and acidity, type of fire or logging that cleared it and so on. So the first and most important task is to gather information.

For this, DroneSeed has a special craft equipped with a sophisticated imaging stack. This first pass is done using waypoints set on satellite imagery.

The information collected at this point is really far more detailed than what’s actually needed. The lidar, for instance, collects spatial information at a resolution much beyond what’s needed to understand the shape of the terrain and major obstacles. It produces a 3D map of the vegetation as well as the terrain, allowing the system to identify stumps, roots, bushes, new trees, erosion and other important features.

This works hand in hand with the multispectral camera, which collects imagery not just in the visible bands — useful for identifying things — but also in those outside the human range, which allows for in-depth analysis of the soil and plant life.

The resulting map of the area is not just useful for drone navigation, but for the surgical strikes that are necessary to make this kind of drone-based operation worth doing in the first place. No doubt there are researchers who would love to have this data as well.

Ryan Warner/DroneSeed

Now, spraying and planting are very different tasks. The first tends to be done indiscriminately using helicopters, and the second by laborers who burn out after a couple of years — as mentioned above, it’s incredibly difficult work. The challenge in the first case is to improve efficiency and efficacy, while in the second case is to automate something that requires considerable intelligence.

Spraying is in many ways simpler. Identifying invasive plants isn’t easy, exactly, but it can be done with imagery like that the drones are collecting. Having identified patches of a plant to be eliminated, the drones can calculate a path and expend only as much herbicide is necessary to kill them, instead of dumping hundreds of gallons indiscriminately on the entire area. It’s cheaper and more environmentally friendly. Naturally, the opposite approach could be used for distributing fertilizer or some other agent.

I’m making it sound easy again. This isn’t a plug and play situation — you can’t buy a DJI drone and hit the “weedkiller” option in its control software. A big part of this operation was the creation not only of the drones themselves, but the infrastructure with which to deploy them.

Conservation convoy

The drones themselves are unique, but not alarmingly so. They’re heavy-duty craft, capable of lifting well over the 57 pounds of payload they carry (the FAA limits them to 115 pounds).

“We buy and gut aircraft, then retrofit them,” Canary explained simply. Their head of hardware, would probably like to think there’s a bit more to it than that, but really the problem they’re solving isn’t “make a drone” but “make drones plant trees.” To that end, Canary explained, “the most unique engineering challenge was building a planting module for the drone that functions with the software.” We’ll get to that later.

DroneSeed deploys drones in swarms, which means as many as five drones in the air at once — which in turn means they need two trucks and trailers with their boxes, power supplies, ground stations and so on. The company’s VP of operations comes from a military background where managing multiple aircraft onsite was part of the job, and she’s brought her rigorous command of multi-aircraft environments to the company.

Ryan Warner/DroneSeed

The drones take off and fly autonomously, but always under direct observation by the crew. If anything goes wrong, they’re there to take over, though of course there are plenty of autonomous behaviors for what to do in case of, say, a lost positioning signal or bird strike.

They fly in patterns calculated ahead of time to be the most efficient, spraying at problem areas when they’re over them, and returning to the ground stations to have power supplies swapped out before returning to the pattern. It’s key to get this process down pat, since efficiency is a major selling point. If a helicopter does it in a day, why shouldn’t a drone swarm? It would be sad if they had to truck the craft back to a hangar and recharge them every hour or two. It also increases logistics costs like gas and lodging if it takes more time and driving.

This means the team involves several people, as well as several drones. Qualified pilots and observers are needed, as well as people familiar with the hardware and software that can maintain and troubleshoot on site — usually with no cell signal or other support. Like many other forms of automation, this one brings its own new job opportunities to the table.

AI plays Mother Nature

The actual planting process is deceptively complex.

The idea of loading up a drone with seeds and setting it free on a blasted landscape is easy enough to picture. Hell, it’s been done. There are efforts going back decades to essentially load seeds or seedlings into guns and fire them out into the landscape at speeds high enough to bury them in the dirt: in theory this combines the benefits of manual planting with the scale of carpeting the place with seeds.

But whether it was slapdash placement or the shock of being fired out of a seed gun, this approach never seemed to work.

Forestry researchers have shown the effectiveness of finding the right “microsite” for a seed or seedling; in fact, it’s why manual planting works as well as it does. Trained humans find perfect spots to put seedlings: in the lee of a log; near but not too near the edge of a stream; on the flattest part of a slope, and so on. If you really want a forest to grow, you need optimal placement, perfect conditions and preventative surgical strikes with pesticides.

Ryan Warner/DroneSeed

Although it’s difficult, it’s also the kind of thing that a machine learning model can become good at. Sorting through messy, complex imagery and finding local minima and maxima is a specialty of today’s ML systems, and the aerial imagery from the drones is rich in relevant data.

The company’s CTO led the creation of an ML model that determines the best locations to put trees at a site — though this task can be highly variable depending on the needs of the forest. A logging company might want a tree every couple of feet, even if that means putting them in sub-optimal conditions — but a few inches to the left or right may make all the difference. On the other hand, national forests may want more sparse deployments or specific species in certain locations to curb erosion or establish sustainable firebreaks.

Once the data has been crunched, the map is loaded into the drones’ hive mind and the convoy goes to the location, where the craft are loaded with seeds instead of herbicides.

But not just any old seeds! You see, that’s one more wrinkle. If you just throw a sagebrush seed on the ground, even if it’s in the best spot in the world, it could easily be snatched up by an animal, roll or wash down to a nearby crevasse, or simply fail to find the right nutrients in time despite the planter’s best efforts.

That’s why DroneSeed’s head of Planting and his team have been working on a proprietary seed packet that they were unbelievably reticent to detail.

From what I could gather, they’ve put a ton of work into packaging the seeds into nutrient-packed little pucks held together with a biodegradable fiber. The outside is dusted with capsaicin, the chemical that makes spicy food spicy (and also what makes bear spray do what it does). If they hadn’t told me, I might have guessed, since the workshop area was hazy with it, leading us all to cough and tear up a little. If I were a marmot, I’d learn to avoid these things real fast.

The pucks, or “seed vessels,” can and must be customized for the location and purpose — you have to match the content and acidity of the soil, things like that. DroneSeed will have to make millions of these things, but it doesn’t plan to be the manufacturer.

Finally these pucks are loaded in a special puck-dispenser which, closely coordinating with the drone, spits one out at the exact moment and speed needed to put it within a few centimeters of the microsite.

All these factors should improve the survival rate of seedlings substantially. That means that the company’s methods will not only be more efficient, but more effective. Reforestation is a numbers game played at scale, and even slight improvements — and DroneSeed is promising more than that — are measured in square miles and millions of tons of biomass.

Proof of life

DroneSeed has already signed several big contracts for spraying, and planting is next. Unfortunately, the timing on their side meant they missed this year’s planting season, though by doing a few small sites and showing off the results, they’ll be in pole position for next year.

After demonstrating the effectiveness of the planting technique, the company expects to expand its business substantially. That’s the scaling part — again, not easy, but easier than hiring another couple thousand planters every year.

Ryan Warner/DroneSeed

Ideally the hardware can be assigned to local teams that do the on-site work, producing loci of activity around major forests from which jobs can be deployed at large or small scales. A set of five or six drones does the work of one helicopter, roughly speaking, so depending on the volume requested by a company or forestry organization, you may need dozens on demand.

That’s all yet to be explored, but DroneSeed is confident that the industry will see the writing on the wall when it comes to the old methods, and identify them as a solution that fits the future.

If it sounds like I’m cheerleading for this company, that’s because I am. It’s not often in the world of tech startups that you find a group of people not just attempting to solve a serious problem — it’s common enough to find companies hitting this or that issue — but who have spent the time, gathered the expertise and really done the dirty, boots-on-the-ground work that needs to happen so it goes from great idea to real company.

That’s what I felt was the case with DroneSeed, and here’s hoping their work pays off — for their sake, sure, but mainly for ours.


Source: Gadgets

California cops bust crime ring that nabbed $1M worth of devices from Apple Stores

Fear not, citizens — the law enforcement apparatus of California has apprehended or is hot on the trail of more than a dozen hardened criminals who boldly stole from the state’s favorite local business: Apple . Their unconscionable larceny amounted to more than a million dollars’ worth of devices stolen from Apple Stores — the equivalent of hundreds of iPhones.

The alleged thieves would wear hoodies into Apple stores — already suspicious, I know — and there they would snatch products on display and hide them in the ample pockets of those garments. Truly cunning.

These crimes took place in 19 different counties in California, the police forces of which all collaborated to bring the perpetrators to justice, though the San Luis Obispo and Oakland departments led the charge. So far seven of the thieves have been arrested, and nine more have warrants out.

In a press release, California Attorney General Xavier Becerra harangued his state regarding the dangers of the criminal element:

Organized retail thefts cost California business owners millions and expose them to copycat criminals. Ultimately, consumers pay the cost of this merchandise hijacking. We will continue our work with local law enforcement authorities to extinguish this mob mentality and prosecute these criminals to hold them accountable.

You hear that, would-be copycats? You hear that, assembling mob? Xavier’s gonna give it to you… if you don’t fly straight and stop trying to stick ordinary consumers with the costs of your crimes. Not to mention California businesses. With Apple paying that $15 billion in back taxes, it doesn’t have a lot of cash to spare for these shenanigans.

Well, I suppose it’s doing okay.

I’ve asked Apple for comment on this case and whether they participated or cooperated in it. Perhaps Face ID helped.


Source: Gadgets