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MIT Plan Envisions Orbital Fueling Stations for Future Moon Missions

When you travel from the earth to the moon, you usually assume it's a non-stop trip where you have to launch with everything you need for the journey. But an MIT team has thought up a way to create orbital fueling stations that don't require expensive, long-term servicing missions and could even survive NASA's budgetary ups and downs.

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Smartphone Voting Reduces User Errors in Mock Election

Downloading an election app on your smartphone could someday replace the need to join long lines of fellow voters, and it might make elections work better. Researchers have found that smartphone owners make fewer errors using a mobile voting system than when using traditional voting methods.

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Is It a Helicopter? Is It a Plane? Is It a Jeep? Yes.

A plane that laughs at short runways, a helicopter that sneers at slow airspeeds, a Jeep that jumps over IEDs, a robot that fears nothing as it ferries cargo and wounded soldiers in and out of battle zones—all these machines in one small, convenient package—that's what the military calls "Darpa hard."

As for Darpa itself—the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency—it used to call the experimental vehicle the Transformer, in a nod to the television series about reconfigurable robots. Now, though, the agency has rechristened the vehicle Ares, after the Roman god of war and a tongue-twisting acronym (Aerial Reconfigurable Embedded Systems). 

A tip o' the hat goes to Graham Warwick, a British-trained aeronautical engineer who got the story last week for Ares, the defense blog of Aviation Week, where he's managing editor. Another hat tip goes to our own Evan Ackerman, who blogged about this back in August (without video but with plenty of great artist's impressions of the machine).

Here's that video:

Reason for the name-change: Darpa lost interest in the idea of jeep that could fly; instead it preferred to focus on an autonomous flyer that could carry a Jeep, or a medevac capsule, or a box of stuff--anything that can fit between the vehicle's splayed legs. After strapping on the load, the ducted, two-propeller, autonomous craft would hold its props in the horizontal plane for liftoff, then rotate them to or nearly to the horizontal plane for forward flight. The tricky part is in melding all elements of the craft into a single, seamless system of flight control, which involves manipulating the variable-pitch rotors and pointing the exhaust stream in the appropriate direction.

The contractors are Piasecki Aircraft, known for its helicopter expertise, and Lockheed Martin. The first test flight is due sometime next year. Possible customers include the U.S. Army, Marine Corps. and Special Forces.


Taiwan Engineers Around Export Restrictions and Winds Up with a Better Satellite

Since it launched its first satellite in 1999, Taiwan has been operating at a disadvantage. It’s had to maneuver through a thicket of export restrictions from European countries, such as France, Germany, and the United States to acquire a key component, without which its satellites would be lost. That component, a space-based GPS receiver helps fix the flying direction for a satellite and accurately calculate which way a spacecraft’s antenna should point. 

According to Chen-Tsung Lin, director of Flight Control Division of the National Space Organization (NSPO), dealing with those country’s export restrictions regarding space systems could take up to six months, and the lengthy process has seriously hampered Taiwan’s satellite projects.

Three years of hard work by Lin’s team resulted in the creation of Taiwan’s first home grown space-based GPS receiver. What’s more, the receiver is actually better than what Taiwan had been able to import in several ways.

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Tesla's $5 Billion Battery Factory: Spending Big to Save Big

Tesla Motors plans to build a huge U.S. battery factory capable of supplying 500 000 electric cars annually by 2020. The $5-billion "Gigafactory" is expected to produce more lithium ion batteries in 2020 than all the lithium-ion batteries produced worldwide in 2013—a huge step on the road to driving down the cost of battery packs and mass-market electric cars.

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The Future of Bitcoin Exchanges: Comments From a Mt. Gox Competitor

[UPDATE: According to news reports, Mt. Gox has filed for a form of bankruptcy in Japan.]

Mt. Gox, the Japan-based exchange which until recently handled the majority of trades between Bitcoin and fiat currencies, went offline this Tuesday, hours after the media got its hands on a document (supposedly leaked from within Mt. Gox) that described the company as insolvent and preparing for bankruptcy. Panic quickly spread among traders many of whom are still waiting for reimbursement from the exchange.

While some questioned the document's authenticity, there's little doubt now about its provenance. Shortly after shutting down his website, Mark Karpeles, the CEO of Mt. Gox, agreed to an IRC chat with an "industry specialist," named Jon Fisher. Fisher asked him point blank, "Is that Crisis Strategy Draft even legit?" To which Karpeles (writing under his well-known pseudonym, "MagicalTux") replied, "More or less. As the name suggests it's a draft, and it's a bunch of proposals to deal with the issue at hand, not things that are planned and/or done [sic]."

With Mt. Gox teetering on the brink of collapse, one of the biggest questions Bitcoiners will have to ask themselves is: How did we arrive at a situation where a currency, which was explicitly designed to be decentralized and transparent, is so intimately tied to the fate of an opaque, centralized institution such as Mt. Gox? And what, if anything, can be done to put trust back into the system?

I threw this question out to Michael Gronager, the chief operating officer at Kraken, an up-and-coming Bitcoin exchange.

Gronager shared some damning insights about the state of affairs at Mt. Gox. While stressing that he has no internal knowledge of their finances, and that his comments do not reflect an official statement from Kraken, he wrote in an email:

I rather believe that they ran the exchange in two to three years as a complete fractional reserve business. According to the leaked documents, Gox are also short in USD. They probably started buying up bitcoin on their exchange to ensure the bitcoin prices stayed higher there. That would ensure more sellers than buyers of bitcoin on their exchange. They might even have purposely delayed their USD withdrawals to further secure the trend of a high bitcoin price.... Don't subscribe to malice what can be explained by stupidity. But the levels of stupidity involved here are just overwhelming.

When these things happened in the past (although Mt. Gox's transgressions are the biggest yet, they were by no means the first), they unfolded before a select audience of early adopters. That audience has now grown to include law makers, regulators, and potential investors. 

And already, they are responding. The Manhattan U.S. attorney has served subpoenas to Mt. Gox and other competing exchanges. Joe Manchin, a U.S. senator for West Virginia also made news today when he sent a letter to regulators requesting a complete ban on Bitcoin. 

This situation puts people like Gonager in an interesting position. The downfall of Mt. Gox opens the market for a new wave of Bitcoin exchanges—for Kraken, and for its competitors, BitStamp and BTC China. But Mt. Gox's unnerving death spasms have managed to erode the trust necessary to operate a functioning exchange. Regardless of who fills the hole that Mt. Gox has left, they will once again be responsible for securing client funds. 

One alternative would be a decentralized exchange, where buyers and sellers can trade with each other directly by negotiating over a peer-to-peer network, thus eliminating the trusted third-party from the equation. This idea gains traction whenever Bitcoiners find themselves betrayed by an exchange. So far, however, no one has found a way to do it. There is still some hope that Ripple (a very different digital currency system detailed here) or MasterCoin (which enhances the functionality of Bitcoin by building layers on top it), will introduce a functioning P2P currency exchange.

But, according to Gronager, any time you have fiat money trading hands, trust will be part of the equation.

He writes:

If you want to exchange fiat for crypto you need to impose trust—you need to trust either an escrow to store the cash safely or the receiver to hand them to you as part of the deal. It is intrinsic to the nature of normal money. Hence, building a decentralized exchange will no matter how you twist it involve trusting someone, which to a large extent voids the whole purpose of a decentralized exchange.... What you need is to be able to ensure trust on your escrow, that is the exchange, for a bitcoin to fiat deal. You need to ensure that he is not spending your fiat but actually keeps them safe, and also that he is not spending your crypto.


Because Bitcoin exists as a public ledger, there are ways for exchanges to prove that they are holding the amount of cryptocurrency that they claim. But the same is not possible with government issued currencies. 

And this is why, according to Gronager, exchanges will have to reinforce the trust of their customers by resorting to old fashioned measures.  

"My take on this entire distrust in exchanges issue is actually plain old normal audits! You ask Deloitte to audit your customers funds, that they are there and that they are kept reasonably secure. They will then weigh in on this in their audit report which you can make public and do so four times a year or even more often."

At the moment, he says, professional auditors such as Deloitte, probably don't know enough about Bitcoin and how it works to handle the job. As they are catching up, the community would have to find some other trusted party. Gronager suggests pulling from Bitcoin's group of core developers. "I see this only as a temporary solution until one of the Big Four learn enough about bitcoin to be able to provide such reviews," he says.

Image: iStockphoto

Nanotubes Make Logic Circuits that Use Both Light and Current

Engineers trying to speed up communication between computer chips have been working on using beams of light to replace the copper traces that shuttle data between microprocessors. Now a pair of researchers at Northeastern University in Boston think they can turn up the speed even more by doing some of the computing with light as well.

Physicist Swastik Kar and mechanical engineer Yung Joon Jung lay belts of carbon nanotubes on top of a silicon wafer. The junction created by the intersection of the two materials proved to be highly sensitive to light; shining a laser spot on it caused a sharp rise in the light-induced current. That allowed the pair to build logic circuits that could be manipulated both electrically and optically.

“What we’ve done is built a tiny device where one input can be a voltage and the other input can be light,” Kar says.

The researchers built an optoelectronic AND gate and a two-bit optoelectronic ADDER/OR gate. They also built a four-bit digital-to-analog converter. Shining spots of light onto an array of these junctions converts the digital signal of the laser into an analog current, with the strength of the current depending on the on/off pattern of the laser.

Jung creates the nanotubes in solution, and they can then be placed on a patterned silicon/silicon oxide substrate, so the technology should be compatible with existing CMOS processes, he says. The process should also be reproducible and scalable to large numbers of junctions.

Using light to both move data around a chip and perform some of the logic operations should save time and make the chip work faster, according to the pair. Just how much faster they can’t say yet, as this is only an early step toward an actual chip.

A paper describing the work was published online in the journal Nature Photonics.

Image: Getty Images

Netflix Ad Spoofs Amazon's Drone Dreams

In my recently posted article, "Chris Anderson's Expanding Drone Empire," I made the bold claim that Amazon's Jeff Bezos got "one of the biggest free advertisements in high-tech history" in November, when CBS broadcast his company's video pre-enactment of a program to deliver packages to customers' doors.

But you get what you pay for. It turns out Bezos also opened himself up to an epic wave of mockery. Of course, most of the catcalls have come from the peanut gallery, but now comes a full-scale, mocking faux advertisement [above] that hits Amazon right in the nose. And it comes from no less a corporate archrival than Netflix:

Note how the ad mentions, in passing, how trivial it will be to work out the bugs in the "Drone2Home" scheme. 

It's easy for Netflix to laugh at Amazon—Netflix is well into a long-planned transition from the postal delivery of things to the Internet-based transmission of bits.

Car Food the Volvo Way

A computer-scientist friend of mine opined long ago that the Internet will truly come of age only when he can download a beer. He was referring to the last-meter problem of online shopping: that of getting stuff through the door of an unoccupied house.

Maybe someday robot trucks will push containerized products through cat-flap-style openings in your garage. But why go to the garage when you can have access to the trunk of the car?

That's the solution proffered this week by Volvo. The company's plan for “roam delivery” would have stores deliver groceries straight to your locked car, using a one-time-only public encryption key. The transaction relies on Volvo on Call, an app that helps owners keep track of their cars when they’re away from them. The app tells the store where your car is parked so a courier can fill the trunk with groceries. Or maybe a hot pizza.

Tests went well in Sweden, an extremely orderly country, by all accounts. There are certain sectors of New York City, however, that I wouldn’t advise this app to invade, at least not until sensor-rich cars are able to instantly photograph whoever tries to open their trunks.  

Mitsubishi Planning Predictive User Interface for Cars

It’s Saturday afternoon and you have to drive your daughter to soccer practice and pick up her friend on the way. You also want to listen to a particular radio program and make some important phone calls. To make your driving experience easier, Mitsubishi Electric is developing predictive technology that will suggest a route based on your previous driving history, come up with an alternative route if you hit a traffic jam, and make it simple as pushing a button to find that radio program, make those phone calls, and even adjust the air conditioning to boot.

Mitsubishi expects to ship its Ultra-simple HMI (human-machine interface) technology for in-car operations to auto manufacturers from spring 2018. It demonstrated a prototype system in a recent Open House event at its headquarters in Tokyo.

In a mock-up driver’s seat, the driver was able to easily operate four main functions: navigation, phone, air conditioner, and audio-visual system. This was done in one or two steps using a set of three buttons on the steering wheel while viewing three predicted operations on a 44-cm heads-up display (HUD) on the windshield above the dashboard—operations such as Go to soccer practice ground, Call boss, Tune to radio station XYZ.Voice commands can also be used to control such operations and is activated by long-pushing one of the buttons. For navigation control, the voice recognition technology uses “data stored on board, as well as up-to-date cloud-stored destinations data covering about 10 million locations,” explains Hiroaki Sugiura, general manager of Mitsubishi’s design center.

The predictive technology relies on such operational history as past destinations and routes taken, and previous use of in-car functions, as well as time and day, location, speed, fuel level, and current traffic and driving conditions. It then estimates the three most likely operations to be used and displays them on the HUD. They can be overridden using a set of four separate buttons that provide direct access to the main functions.


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