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Lidar is a remote-sensing technology that measures distance by illuminating a target with a laser and analyzing the reflected light. It is used by autonomous vehicles to perceive their surroundings and is also applicable to several essential military capabilities—including chemical-biological sensing, precision targeting and communications, which increasingly rely upon laser-scanning technologies.

One drawback of Lidar systems is that they require mechanical assemblies to sweep the laser back and forth and as a result these systems are expensive.

Now, however, DARPA has come up with a non-mechanical approach that could open the door to a new class of miniaturized, extremely low-cost, robust laser-scanning technologies for military and commercial use. DARPA’s Short-range Wide-field-of-view Extremely agile Electronically steered Photonic EmitteR (SWEEPER) program has successfully integrated non-mechanical optical scanning technology onto a microchip.

Freed from the traditional architecture of gimbaled mounts, lenses and servos, SWEEPER technology has demonstrated that it can sweep a laser back and forth more than 100,000 times per second, 10,000 times faster than current state-of-the-art mechanical systems. It can also steer a laser precisely across a 51-degree arc, the widest field of view ever achieved by a chip-scale optical scanning system.

Phased arrays—engineered surfaces that control the direction of selected electromagnetic signals by varying the phase across many small antennas—have revolutionized radio-frequency (RF) technology by allowing for multiple beams, rapid scanning speeds and the ability to shape the arrays to curved surfaces. DARPA pioneered radar phased array technologies in the 1960s and has played a key role in advancing them in the decades since.

Transitioning phased-array techniques from radio frequencies to optical frequencies has proven exceptionally difficult, however, because optical wavelengths are thousands of times smaller than those used in radar. This means that the array elements must be placed within only a few microns of each other and as such manufacturing or environmental perturbations as small as 100 nanometers can hurt performance or even sideline the whole array. The SWEEPER technology sidesteps these problems by using a solid-state approach built on modern semiconductor manufacturing processes.

SWEEPER technology is being developed further through DARPA’s Electronic-Photonic Heterogeneous Integration (E-PHI) program, which has already successfully integrated billions of light-emitting dots on silicon to create an efficient silicon-based laser.

Under SWEEPER funding, four teams of DARPA-funded researchers have used advanced manufacturing techniques to successfully demonstrate optical phased array technology. These performers include the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; the University of California, Santa Barbara; the University of California, Berkeley; and HRL Laboratories.

SWEEPER research is drawing to a close and DARPA is seeking potential transition partners.


Repeatedly putting an aircraft on an up-and-down parabolic trajectory angled at up to 50° creates brief periods of weightlessness. During the climb and pulling out of the descent, the occupants then endure almost twice normal gravity. Throughout the “Space Race” of the 1960s NASA used two Boeing KC-135 Stratotankers in this way to provide periods of “weightlessness” to train astronauts. Because of the radical flight maneuvers necessary to create this condition the aircraft were nicknamed “vomit comets”. One, a KC-135A known as NASA 930, is estimated to have flown over 58,000 parabolas. The KC-135s were used until December 2004 and have since been retired.

Recently, ESA, France’s space agency CNES and the German aerospace center DLR inaugurated an Airbus A310 dubbed “ZERO-G” and refitted for altered gravity by running 12 scientific experiments. Flying from Bordeaux, France, French company Novespace has been running parabolic flights for more than 25 years. Last year they acquired their new aircraft to replace their Airbus A300 – maintenance costs were growing due to its age. To turn it into a parabolic science aircraft most seats were removed to provide as much space as possible inside , while padded walls provide a soft landing for the passengers – the changes in ‘gravity’ can be hard to handle. Extra monitoring stations have been installed for a technician to oversee the aircraft’s systems while it is pushed to its limits.

During the altered gravity flight program first a person weighing 175lb. on Earth would feel as if they weighed 350lbs. for around 20 seconds. At the top of each curve, the forces on the passengers and objects inside then cancel each other out, causing everything to freefall in weightlessness.

This campaign’s experiments include understanding how humans sense objects under different gravity levels, investigating how the human heart and aorta cope, looking at how plants grow, testing new equipment for the International Space Station, trying out new techniques for launching nanosatellites, investigating whether pharmaceutical drugs will work without ‘gravity’, and understanding Solar System dust clouds and planet formation.

The aircraft offers more than just weightlessness, by changing the thrust and angle of attack, the team of pilots flying the plane can recreate other gravity levels such as those found on the Moon or Mars.


Among the 15 proposals NASA has for study under Phase I of its NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program is one that calls for the use of a soft-robotic “swimming” rover for missions that can’t be accomplished with conventional power systems. This rover would resemble an eel with a short antenna on its back that harvests power from locally changing magnetic fields. The goal is to enable amphibious exploration of gas-giant moons such as Europa.

A proposal from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory aims to develop new mission concepts for in-situ observational atmospheric science on Jupiter and Saturn with high-mobility WindBots, harvesting energy from the strong winds and magnetic fields. Still another selected proposal will look at using two glider-like unmanned aerial vehicles connected by an ultra-strong cable at different altitudes that sail without propulsion. The vehicle would use wind shear in the lower stratosphere (approximately 60,000 ft.), similar to a kite surfer, where the upper aircraft provides lift and aerodynamic thrust, and the lower aircraft provides an upwind force to keep it from drifting downwind. If successful, this atmospheric satellite could remain in the Earth’s stratosphere for years, enabling NASA's Earth science missions, monitoring capabilities or aircraft navigation at a fraction of the cost of orbital satellite networks.

Employing a novel mobility concept, the Cryogenic Reservoir Inventory by Cost-Effective Kinetically Enhanced Technology (CRICKET) proposal explores volatile substances such as hydrogen, nitrogen and water, stored in permanently shadowed regions on planetary bodies. Inexpensive robotic crawlers, hoppers and soccer-ball style buckey-bots would explore the surface of these dark regions for water and other compounds. Multiple bots could be used to develop a high-resolution map to aid in potentially using these resources.

NIAC Phase I awards are valued at approximately $100,000, providing awardees the funding needed to conduct a nine-month initial definition and analysis study of their concepts. If the basic feasibility studies are successful, awardees can apply for Phase II awards, valued up to $500,000 for two additional years of concept development.

NIAC is part of NASA's Space Technology Mission Directorate, which develops, tests and flies hardware for use in NASA's future missions. During the next 18 months, the directorate will make what it calls “significant new investments” to address several high-priority challenges in achieving safe and affordable deep space exploration


The UK is facing a significant skills shortage, with 1.4 million "digital professionals" estimated to be needed over the next five years. To meet this need the BBC has partnered with over 25 organizations in an initiative it calls “Make it Digital”, the centerpiece of which is a small programmable hardware device called Micro Bit; one million Micro Bits will be given without charge to all pupils starting secondary school (age 11-12) in the UK starting in the autumn term. In format the Micro Bit will be a standalone, wearable device with an LED display and a Bluetooth Smart wireless chip (from Nordic Semiconductor). Children will be able to program Micro Bit in a number of ways using entry-level coding by simply plugging into a computer.


The Micro Bit is designed to help youngsters start learning basic coding and programming, acting as a springboard for further learning and more advanced products like Arduino, Galileo, Kano and Raspberry Pi.

The first wave of partnerships in the Micro Bit program includes major corporations like ARM, Barclays, BT, Google, Microsoft, and Samsung as well as educational institutions and organizations across the industry, such as Apps for Good, British Computing Society, Code Club, ComputerScience4Fun, FutureLearn, iDEA, Nesta, TeenTech, Tech City UK, Tech Partnership and Young Rewired State.


In related news BBC’s “Make it Digital” also will include a traineeship to help up to 5,000 young unemployed people boost their digital skills and get a foot on the jobs ladder. Due to launch around the country this summer, the nine-week traineeship includes training from the BBC Academy. It will teach basic digital skills, such as creating simple websites and short videos for the web; involves major BBC brands such as Radio 1; and gets young people ready for work with employability skills and work placement.


The U.S. Department of Energy has awarded a contract to Intel Corp. as prime contractor for two next-generation supercomputers to be installed at the Argonne National Laboratory outside of Chicago..

The contract is part of the DOE’s multimillion dollar initiative to build state-of-the-art supercomputers at Argonne, Lawrence Livermore and Oak Ridge National Laboratories that will be five to seven times more powerful than today’s top supercomputers. DOE says the joint Collaboration of Oak Ridge, Argonne and Lawrence Livermore (CORAL) will help to advance U.S. leadership in scientific research and maintain its position at the forefront of next-generation exascale computing.

Intel was selected as the prime contractor and will work with Cray Inc. as the system integrator and manufacturer of these next-generation high-performance computing (HPC) systems. The largest system, to be called Aurora, is based on Intel’s HPC scalable system framework and will be a Cray “Shasta” supercomputer. The Aurora system will be delivered in 2018 and have a peak performance of 180 petaflops, making it the world’s most powerful system currently announced to date and 18 times more powerful than its predecessor, Mira, while utilizing only 2.7 times the energy usage.


Aurora is expected to include future generations of Intel Xeon Phi processors and the Intel Omni-Path Fabric high-speed interconnect technology, a new non-volatile memory architecture and advanced parallel file system storage using Intel Lustre software.

Research goals for the Aurora system include: more powerful, efficient and durable batteries and solar panels; improved biofuels and more effective disease control; improving transportation systems and enabling production of more highly efficient and quieter engines; and wind turbine design and placement for improved efficiency and reduced noise.

A second system, to be named Theta, will serve as an early production system for the Argonne Leadership Computing Facility (ALCF). To be delivered in the 2016, the system will provide performance of 8.5 petaflops while requiring only 1.7 megawatts of power. The Theta system will be powered by Intel Xeon processors and next-generation Intel Xeon Phi processors, code-named Knights Landing, and will be based on the next-generation Cray XC supercomputer.


Stanford University Professor Hongjie Dai and colleagues have developed a high-performance aluminum battery.


While it has been well known for some time now that rechargeable aluminum-based batteries could offer the possibility of low cost, low flammability and high capacity, research efforts have encountered numerous problems, such as cathode material disintegration, low cell discharge voltage and inadequate life cycles with rapid capacity decay.  A key challenge has been in finding a cathode material that would result in the battery generating sufficient voltage after repeated cycles of charging and discharging.

Recently, Stanford University scientists have developed the first high-performance aluminum battery that's fast-charging, long-lasting and inexpensive.

"We have developed a rechargeable aluminum battery that may replace existing storage devices, such as alkaline batteries, which are bad for the environment, and lithium-ion batteries, which occasionally burst into flames," said Hongjie Dai, a professor of chemistry at Stanford. "Our new battery won't catch fire, even if you drill through it."

Dai and his colleagues described their novel aluminum-ion battery in a paper published in the online edition of the journal Nature.

An aluminum-ion battery consists of two electrodes: a negatively charged anode made of aluminum and a positively charged cathode. For the experimental battery the Stanford team placed the aluminum anode and graphite cathode, along with an ionic liquid electrolyte, inside a flexible polymer- coated pouch. "The electrolyte is basically a salt that's liquid at room temperature, so it's very safe," said Stanford graduate student Ming Gong, co-lead author of the Nature study.

Very fast charging is another benefit of the experimental battery. Smartphone owners know that it can take quite some time to charge a lithium-ion battery, but the Stanford team reported "unprecedented charging times" of down to one minute with the aluminum prototype.

Durability is important as well. Previous aluminum battery attempts usually died after just 100 charge-discharge cycles. But the Stanford battery is said to be able to withstand more than 7,500 cycles without any loss of capacity.

By comparison, a typical lithium-ion battery lasts about 1,000 cycles.

The aluminum battery is also flexible. It can be bent and folded so it has the potential for use in flexible electronic devices. Aluminum is also a cheaper metal than lithium so cost should not be a factor.

Further improvements will be needed, in particular in the area of matching the voltage of lithium-ion batteries.  Dai noted "our battery produces about half the voltage of a typical lithium battery, but improving the cathode material could eventually increase the voltage and energy density.”


The Lane Motor Museum in Nashville TN was established by auto enthusiast Jeff Lane in 2002 based on his personal collection. The museum now has over 400 cars, 150 of which are on display at any time.


Of all the vehicles in the museum, perhaps the strangest is the Helicron (above), which receives its propulsion via an aircraft propeller and engine. It is not a car-and-plane hybrid as it cannot fly and was meant to be driven on public roads. Discovered in a French barn in 2000, having been placed there by the original owner in the late 1930s, the Helicron was constructed in 1932. It has been completely rebuilt but many of the mechanical components are original, such as the frame, wire wheels, dashboard, steering wheel, steering gear, brake pedal, light switch, headlights, and the type plate. The wood frame was sandblasted and treated, the steering gear was rebuilt, and the interior was upholstered. The current engine is a 4-cylinder, air cooled Citroën GS engine with the propeller coupled directly to the crankshaft. The original engine was lost but it is known to have been a horizontally-opposed, two cylinder, four stroke engine. The rear wheel assembly is used to steer the vehicle. The Helicron is reported to have passed a French safety inspection in 2000 and is approved for use on their roads. Speed is controlled by a throttle and top speed is said to be around 75 mph.



Perhaps more unusual is the fact that the Helicron isn’t the only propeller-driven car in the Lane Museum’s collection; it’s joined by several Marcel Leyat creations.  The image above shows the 1919 Leyat Helico. Marcel Leyat believed that propeller-driven cars were the wave of the future. He thought they would be popular because they were simpler – they contained no rear axle and no transmission, differential or clutch were required. Steering was handled via the rear wheels. In the front the giant propeller was powered by an 8 horsepower Scorpion engine that provided movement for the vehicle.

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If you saw the 2014 film American Sniper (or read the book on which it is based,  telling the story of Chris Kyle) much time was spent showing the preparation military snipers go through to acquire moving targets, especially in unfavorable conditions such as high winds and dusty terrain. There is good reason for this preparedness: any shot that doesn’t hit a target risks the safety of troops by exposing their presence and location.


DARPA’s Extreme Accuracy Tasked Ordnance (EXACTO) seeks to revolutionize rifle accuracy and range by developing a guided small-caliber bullet--the EXACTO 50- caliber round-- and accompanying optical sighting technology. Its objective is to combine a maneuverable bullet and a real-time guidance system to track and deliver the projectile to the target, allowing the bullet to change path during flight to compensate for any unexpected factors that may drive it off course.


Technology recently developed in Phase II of the smart bullet’s development focused on the design, integration and demonstration of aero-actuation controls, power sources, optical guidance systems and sensors. The program has now included a system-level, live-fire test, which the agency recently discussed, showing how smart bullets maneuver in mid-air to hit moving targets. During the test an experienced shooter using the technology demonstration system repeatedly hit moving and evading targets. Additionally, a novice shooter using the system for the first time hit a moving target.


The agency says the live-fire demonstration used a standard rifle and showed that EXACTO is able to hit moving and evading targets with extreme accuracy at sniper ranges unachievable with traditional rounds. Fitting EXACTO’s guidance capabilities into a small .50-caliber size is considered to be a major breakthrough and opens the door to what could be possible in future guided projectiles across all calibers of ammunition.


The U.S. Navy's X-47B unmanned combat air system demonstrator (UCAS-D) successfully completed its first aerial refueling last week, quite an achievement given that it doesn't have a pilot to help maneuver it to capture the tanker's fueling probe in mid-air.


The X-47B vehicle 2, also known as Salty Dog 502, was launched from the Naval Air Station at Patuxent River, Maryland. It received over 4,000 lbs. of fuel from an Omega Aerial Refueling Services Boeing 707 tanker aircraft while flying off the coast of Maryland and Virginia.


The X-47B uses preset software programs and is not remotely piloted. When it was 1 mile. behind and 1,000 ft. below the tanker, it requested permission to move closer using GPS. The operator on the ground at Patuxent River then only had to push a button to initiate the refueling process subroutine, after which the computer on the aircraft took over. Once it was 20 ft. behind the tanker the X-47B navigated using a vision system comprised of two electro-optical and two infrared cameras, which provided a three-dimensional image of the tanker and drogue. When the two aircraft were eight feet apart the vehicle extended a fueling probe to meet up with the tanker's hose and drogue. The refueling process lasted over 11 minutes, during which time the two aircraft were “station keeping”—maintaining their relative position while flying in close formation. After refueling the X-47B autonomously disengaged the drogue, maneuvered away from the tanker and returned to base.

The X-47B was built by Northrop Grumman to demonstrate that an unmanned aircraft can be integrated into an aircraft carrier's operations. In July, 2013 it made the first unmanned-aircraft arrested landing and catapult takeoff from an aircraft carrier at sea. Since it was never meant to be an operational aircraft the X-48B will now be retired to make way for the next generation Unmanned Carrier Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike system (UCLASS), which is scheduled to begin operations in the early 2020s.


Artist’s rendition of the Tactical Laser Weapon Module deployed on a drone aircraft.

Perhaps it was apropos that around the same time trailers for the upcoming Star Wars movie “The Force Awakens” were circulating on the blogosphere General Atomics Aeronautical Systems announced that a U.S. Government appointed independent measurement team had completed beam quality and power measurements of its Gen 3 High Energy Laser System (HEL).

The new laser represents the third generation of technology originally developed under the High Energy Liquid Laser Area Defense System (HELLADS, Gen 1) program. The Gen 3 Laser employs a number of upgrades resulting in improved beam quality, increased electrical to optical efficiency, and reduced size and weight. The recently certified Gen 3 laser assembly is very compact at only 1.3 x 0.4 x 0.5 meters. The system is powered by a compact Lithium-ion battery supply designed to demonstrate a deployable architecture for tactical platforms.

The laser’s run time is said to be limited only by the magazine depth of the battery system. During testing, beam quality was reported to be constant throughout the entire run, which was more than 30 seconds. These measurements confirm that the  beam quality of this new generation of electrically-pumped lasers can be maintained above the 50 kilowatt level.

The Gen 3 HEL tested is expected to be used on the Tactical Laser Weapon Module (TLWM) currently under development. Featuring a flexible, deployable architecture, the TLWM is designed for use on land, sea, and airborne platforms and will be available in four versions at the 50, 75, 150, and 300 kilowatt laser output levels. GA-ASI expects deployment of the TLMW on the Predator C Avenger by 2018. The U.S. Office of Naval Research (ONR) also has asked industry to provide a 150-kw laser weapon suitable for installation on future DDG-51-class destroyers.




CERN’s Large Hadron Collider (LHC) is the world’s largest and most powerful particle accelerator. It consists of a 27-km ring of superconducting magnets with a number of accelerating structures to boost the energy of the particles along the way. It first started up on September 10, 2008.


In its last series of runs in 2012-13 the ATLAS and CMS experiments at the LHC observed and confirmed the existence of a new particle in the mass region around 126 gigaelectronvolts (GeV). This particle is consistent with the Higgs boson, predicted by what physicists refer to as the Standard Model, which explains how the basic building blocks of matter interact, governed by four fundamental forces. On October 8, 2013 the Nobel Prize in physics was awarded jointly to François Englert and Peter Higgs "for the theoretical discovery of a mechanism that contributes to our understanding of the origin of mass of subatomic particles”.


Now, after a period of maintenance and upgrades to the machine,  proton beams have circulated in the LHC for the first time in two years.


LHC operators and systems experts kept the beams at their injection energy of 450 GeV, far below the target energy of 6.5 teraelectronvolts (TeV) per beam. The operators will now test the accelerator's subsystems and key beam parameters in preparation for increasing the beam intensity and ramping up the energy.


Only when the machine is sufficiently tuned – and the team declares "Stable Beams" with the beams in collision at the new energy of 6.5 TeV per beam – will the physics data taking begin. This work will take many weeks.


Researchers and maintenance crews will spend a great deal of this time checking and rechecking subsystems on the LHC. For example, the Machine Protection subsystem ensures that the LHC is protected from its own beams. It includes the beam dump, beam interlock system, collimators, and beam-energy tracking devices. 'Loss maps' tell the team where the beam is losing particles along the ring. Similarly, Beam Instrumentation systems includes position monitors, beam-loss monitors and synchrotron-light monitors among other devices. There are also radiofrequency, vacuum, beam-optics and injection systems, which all need to be tested and double-checked.


Despite the LHC's complexity, increasing the beam energy is a simple enough process: ramp up the current in the magnets and allow the radio frequency system to increase the energy of the beams. The current in all the magnets (and hence the magnetic field seen by the beam) is carefully increased as the beam energy rises. The main dipoles provide the necessary centripetal force to bend the beams around the ring. Other magnets such as quadrupoles have to carefully track along with the increasing dipole field.


Particle collisions at an energy of 13 TeV could start as early as June.


Facebook plans to go aloft to beam Internet access down from a fleet of solar-powered drones. Aquila is the code name for the social media giant’s V-shaped unmanned vehicles, one of which which recently completed its first test flight in the U.K., a fact announced last week by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg on—where else—his Facebook page.  Last year Facebook acquired the UK- based drone maker Ascenta, which created early versions of the Qinetiq Zephyr, the world’s longest flying solar-powered unmanned aircraft. In 2010, the Zephyr 7 set a world endurance record of 336 hr., 22 min., reaching an altitude of 70,740 ft.

The Ascenta team, working with Facebook's Connectivity Lab now has come up with a design for a solar-powered craft that can soar at 60,000 feet for up to three months at a time, and use a laser to beam high-speed data to the remotest regions of the world. The fleet of Aquila drones is part of an Internet.org project that aims to bring Internet access to the 5 billion people that don't have it yet. Internet.org is a Facebook-led initiative in partnership with leading technology companies such as Samsung, Qualcomm, and Microsoft, whose goal is to make affordable basic internet services available to everyone in the world.

"Aircraft like these will help connect the whole world because they can affordably serve the 10% of the world's population that live in remote communities without existing Internet infrastructure," said Facebook’s Zuckerberg.

At Facebook’s  developer conference in San Francisco last month Chief Technology Officer Mike Schroepfer said the final design of the solar-powered UAV “will have a wingspan greater than a 737 (about 120 ft.) but will weigh less than a small car”.

Aquila is Latin for “eagle” and, like the constellation of the same name, represents the bird who carried Zeus/Jupiter's thunderbolts in Greco-Roman mythology. Google has a similar project to Aquila in the works; its Project Loon will employ flying balloons to beam down WiFi to areas without Internet service.


A human crew in orbit around Mars controls a suite of robotic surrogates, including a rover, climbing-bot, and miniature sample-return rocket.


Before Apollo 11 landed on the moon Apollo missions 8 and 10 tested various components while orbiting the moon, and returned photography of the lunar surface, paving the way for Neil Armstrong’s “One Giant Leap for Mankind”


A workshop was held recently by the Planetary Society to build consensus on the key elements of a long-term, cost constrained, executable program to send humans to Mars. The 70 attendees suggested a similar, orbit-first approach to human exploration of the red planet.


The questions explored during the event included: is it possible to find an approach that is affordable within a plausible NASA budget for the next 15 years (i.e. 2% - 3% growth to match inflation)? Would it be valuable scientifically? Would people find it engaging?


The Planetary Society’s CEO Bill Nye (yes, “The Science Guy”) and members of the Society’s Board of Directors this week presented results of the workshop. Said Nye: “Getting humans to Mars is far more complex than getting to Earth’s Moon. But space exploration brings out the best in us. By reaching consensus on the right set of missions, we can send humans to Mars without breaking the bank.”


Called “Humans Orbiting Mars,” the plan explored the idea of taking an orbit-first approach to an extended program of human exploration of the planet.  It was pointed out that this isn’t orbit-only, but simply considered the idea of intermediate steps within a long-term program as a way to constrain the cost.


Workshop attendees concluded that an orbital mission in 2033 is required that will enable scientific exploration of Mars while exploring Mars’ moons Phobos  or Demos in person and developing essential experience in human travel from Earth to the Mars system. The 30-month human mission to Mars orbit in 2033 would provide approximately one year spent at the planet. During that time the crew could explore and tele-operate rovers on the planet’s surface with a much shorter communications lag than from Earth. Landing humans on Mars could then more affordably and logically follow later, perhaps in 2039.


It has been estimated that sticking with NASA’s human spaceflight budget as it exists and using NASA’s current  “Evolvable Mars” strategy would place humans on Mars not sooner than 2050.


Under “Humans Orbiting Mars” the Planetary Society would expect NASA to complete work on its heavy-lift Space Launch System and Orion crew vehicle as planned, and once the International Space Station reaches its expected shutdown date in 2024 NASA would shift the budget it uses for ISS to the Mars-mission project. An independent cost estimate showed that such a program would fit within a budget that grows with inflation after NASA ends its lead role in the ISS.


A full report on the “Humans Orbiting Mars” workshop will be released later in the year.

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Artist illustration of the jet-powered Quicksilver

For some of us, our occupation involves a higher than normal risk to our safety and perhaps even our lives. For others, such as those brave individuals who have tried to break the World Water Speed record, “higher than normal risk” does not do justice to an undertaking in which nearly 85% of the drivers that have made a serious attempt at breaking the record since 1940 have died trying. Eleven in all have perished in the attempt.

Having just written the above paragraph I am struck by how appropriate the word undertaking is in this context, as it has two possible meanings: “task” and “the funeral business”. Exactly.

In all these world water speed record tragedies the main cause of disaster has been the boat becoming unstable, generally for one of two reasons: 1) because too much air gets under the boat and the resulting aerodynamic lift has the boat impersonating an airplane (and a very bad airplane at that). Or 2) because the boat has hit a disturbance or debris in the water. Getting calm water is difficult and most of the accidents on record attempts perhaps predictably come during the second run; the quick turnaround required by the record rules may not leave enough time for the water to settle down. Since 1930 these rules, which along with the record certification, have been set by the Union Internationale Motonautique (UIM), stipulating that a craft must make two runs over a timed kilometer course in opposite directions, with the record being the average speed of the two runs.

The current world record of 317.60 mph is held by self-taught Australian engineer and boat builder Ken Wilby, who set the mark on Oct. 8, 1978 (and lived to tell the tale) at Blowering Dam Reservoir, Australia. Wilby used a wooden boat he’d built in his backyard, called the Spirit of Australia, which was powered by a second-hand jet engine.

To put 317 mph on water into perspective consider that the fastest commercial passenger ship of any kind is the ferry Francisco, which shuttles passengers across the River Plate between Buenos Aires in Argentina and Montevideo in Uruguay. With a capacity of over 1,000 passengers and 150 cars, the 325 foot catamaran can travel at speeds of up to 58 knots, or 67 mph. The vessel, which was made by Australia’s Incat shipyards, uses a pair of General Electric LM2500 turbines, which generate 59,000 horsepower.


The ferry Francisco


World Water Speed Record attempts are generally long build projects—a decade or more is not uncommon. Most teams of challengers exist on a threadbare diet of whatever private funding they can scrape up (a speed-record team is not a profitable venture and the risk scares off many big corporate donors), along with the loyal support of their teams and an unyielding enthusiasm for the effort. Let’s now take a look at two teams preparing to take a shot at the record.


Spirit of Australia II under construction

Spirit of Australia II. Ken Warby has teamed up with his 46-year-old son Dave to build a new boat. This time Dave will be in the cockpit, which is a purpose-built carbon/Kevlar construction that is equipped with a radio, fire extinguisher and water-activated Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon (EPIRB) locator. Although the wooden boat resembles its predecessor, it is slightly longer and lighter and carries a Bristol Siddeley Orpheus jet engine taken from an Italian Fiat Gina G-91 fighter plane. Construction of Spirit of Australia II’s hull was completed in October, and the boat has been described as “pretty much finished with the motor and the steering in place” with the electrics, gauges, switches and plumbing all being fitted.Warby’s team is targeting a midyear launch for testing on the water.


Don’t look for propellers on these boats; jet engines provide the propulsive force.

Project Quicksilver. The design of this British challenger relies on a modular construction with the main body consisting of a front section with a steel space frame incorporating the engine, a 35,000 hp Rolls-Royce Spey Mk.101 turbine (photo above), and the rear section a monocoque extending to the tail. The front sponsons are also modules, one of which contains the driver. The effort is managed by Nigel Macknight a professional writer who has authored articles and books with subjects ranging from the Space Shuttle to Formula 1 racing cars and the Tomahawk cruise missile. Macknight will also take the controls of the craft for its trials, development runs and record attempts. In the past he has involved himself in many of his subjects, competing in kart racing and Formula Ford motor-racing for seven years and participating in high-performance flights with some of the world’s top pilots, including NASA test pilot Ed Schneider and British Aerobatic Champion Iain Weston.


Good luck, gentlemen.



Iris biometric authentication is going mainstream. This type of authentication validates a person’s identity via recognizing the pattern of that person's iris, the ring around the pupil of the eye, which is unique for each individual, much like a fingerprint.

Fujitsu has built an iris authentication system into a prototype smartphone. The user's iris gets read instantaneously when he or she looks at the smartphone's screen, enabling the smartphone to be unlocked. A prototype was exhibited and demonstrated at Mobile World Congress 2015 earlier this month.

In the Fujitsu system the iris pattern is read by shining an infrared LED light on the eyes and taking an image of them with an infrared camera to acquire the iris pattern, which is registered and used to verify matches (see illustration below). Fujitsu uses ActiveIRIS from Delta ID as its iris recognition engine. This system can be used at a normal smartphone viewing distance, rather than within the 10-cm range that most existing iris recognition systems require. The company reports that In standard photobiological safety testing (IEC 62471), the infrared LED light was verified to be safe for the eyes.


Schematic of smartphone prototype equipped with an infrared camera and infrared LED.

Previously, in the case of smartphones and tablets, a user would employ either a password or a fingerprint scan for authentication purposes to unlock the screen or access information. Fujitsu's iris recognition method is reliable since the pattern of one's iris does not change much if at all after the age of two, and the pattern is difficult to falsify. It is also convenient to use; the screen can be unlocked simply by looking at it. This method eliminates the shortcoming of fingerprint analysis systems, such as having to use one's hands outdoors during winter when one is wearing gloves.

Back in January, at the 2015 International Consumer Electronics show Voxx International displayed a 2015 Jeep Wrangler that used iris biometrics technology from EyeLock to validate the driver and authorize the car to start following an eye scan, without using the ignition switch. EyeLock's technology looks at over 240 points in each eye, and the vehicle starts only after the scan is matched to the driver's iris template.


The 2015 Jeep Wrangler is a test bed for the EyeLock iris recognition system

For its Jeep Wrangler iris authentication application VOXX is working with EyeLock’s myris technology. Myris is a USB-enabled iris identity authenticator that works by converting an individual's iris patterns to a code unique only to that person, to grant access to devices and digital platforms.

With the EyeLock ID vehicle application installed, even if someone unauthorized got a hold of your keys they would not have the ability to start the car.  Only an authenticated user can start the vehicle. The authentication process is said to take less than five seconds to complete and is as simple as looking in the mirror on the visor. Aside from granting access to start the vehicle, the EyeLock ID vehicle application could also offer users customized vehicle settings that would automatically set seat and mirror positions, radio presets, or any other customized features offered by the vehicle.  The solution will offer up to five registered users' access to the vehicle.

EyeLock says that the odds of a false ID with myris are one in 2.25 trillion and that only DNA provides a more accurate means of verification. A small, mouse-like myris device also can be connected to a user's computer via USB and employs video to scan over 240 points on each iris and generate a unique 2048-bit digital signature for the user. After the initialization users need only hold the device up and look into its mirrored lens to gain access to their digital accounts.

Iris authentication promises not only to improve online security for users but it would also eliminate the need to remember the myriad of different passwords required for our different digital accounts.

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