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Google Lunar Race Teams Discuss Next Steps, House on the Moon

The 18 teams still running for the Google Lunar X Prize are gathered today and tomorrow in Budapest, Hungary, for the competition's annual summit, where they'll describe their progress, trade notes, and get updates on the next stages of the race. Some also served hors d'oeuvres via rover (photos 14 and 15 in the slideshow)

Time is getting short for the main course, though. Google and X Prize Foundation announced the Lunar X Prize in 2007, and the competition is set to expire at the end of 2015, though the organizers have already extended the original 2012 deadline once.

No teams have announced firm launch dates, but of the 18 participants, a group of five teams has demonstrated good progress. These teams have been named finalists for $6 million in additional milestone prizes if they are able to perform a series of imaging, mobility, and landing tasks. While the results won't be announced until September, the teams are already showing off rover technology.

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Google Aims for Billion Dollar Satellite Fleet to Spread Internet Access

Google has considered both balloons and drones in its quest to spread high-speed Internet access across the globe. Now the Internet giant aims to go even higher by investing billions in a fleet of satellites that could help reach "the other 3 billion" people who live in regions of the world lacking broadband Internet access.

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Conflict Minerals Reporting Deadline Makes Tech Companies Scramble

Yesterday marked a tough deadline for technology companies: It was the date by which U.S. companies had to report on their use of conflict minerals. According to early reports, tech giants such as Apple, Intel, and HP met the deadline, but many other companies have yet to file or they've filed incomplete reports. 

Conflict minerals are mined in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and their sale can profit warlords in the country's violent eastern provinces. In an attempt to deprive these militias of funds, new U.S. regulations require companies to declare whether they use tin, tantalum, tungsten, or gold in their products. If they do, the companies were required, by June 2, 2014, to audit their supply chains to determine the source of these minerals. 

While the rules affect many industries, they're having a particular impact in the tech world. Electronics companies use all four of the metals in various products, and the electronics industry is the biggest consumer of tantalum, which is used in capacitors. 

The Electronic Industry Citizenship Coalition (EICC), a trade group, has been helping companies prepare for the filing deadline for years, says Julie Schindall, the EICC's director of communications. "Because of the breadth of who’s affected, we do still have a lot of companies who don’t know what’s going on," Schindall told IEEE Spectrum. "We’re working on getting those companies to the table, and giving them the resources they need to go conflict-free."

The biggest resource may be the conflict-free smelter program that the EICC helped set up. That program audits smelters that deal in the four metals in question, and determines whether their ores are sourced from the Congo's conflict mines. 

Apple and Intel have been notably proactive in addressing conflict minerals concerns, with Apple pledging in February to remove all conflict minerals from its supply chain. Apple's report says it has already ensured that its entire supply of tantalum comes from conflict-free smelters. Intel has been heavily involved in the conflict-free smelter program, and its report states that all of its microprocessors are now conflict-free. Campaigners hope those companies that haven't yet scrutinized their supply chains will follow the tech giants' lead, if only to avoid the bad publicity of being linked to the war in the Congo. 

The campaign against conflict minerals is gaining some ground elsewhere. In March, the European Commission proposed a voluntary self-certification program for European companies that sell the raw minerals. 

Solar Plane With Global Aims Makes First Flight

Solar Impulse 2, a solar-powered airplane built to fly around the world next year, took its first test flight yesterday morning. Test pilot Markus Scherdel took off in the plane at 5:38 Central European Time from Payerne airport, Switzerland, and landed at 7:52, according to the Solar Impulse website. Scherdel reported some unintended vibration but the team attributes it to the landing gear.

Solar Impulse is a project spearheaded by Bertrand Piccard, an adventurer who circumnavigated the Earth in a hot air balloon in 1999, and is funded by a large private consortium. The consortium built a prototype, dubbed Solar Impulse 1, in 2009. That plane achieved solar-powered flights across the Mediterranean and across the United States with four stops. It also flew for an entire night, using energy it had captured during the previous day's flight (see also IEEE Spectrum's Q&A with a Solar Impulse rep during the first 24-hour solar-powered flight).

Solar Impulse 1's bigger, more advanced sibling weighs 2300 kg, of which 633 kg are lithium batteries for storing the energy generated by the plane's 17 000 solar cells. The batteries have new electrolytes intended to achieve an energy density of 260 watt-hours per kilogram, and the plane uses a new kind of carbon fiber that keeps its weight down. The plane takes off at bicycle speeds, which is handy since its wings, which span 72 meters, need spotters on bicycles to ensure that they do not strike the runway.

The team will spend this summer testing and certifying the new model ahead of next year's attempt.

GE Brings ByteLight-enabled Smart LED Lights to Stores

Controlling LED light bulbs in your home with a smart phone certainly makes for a cool demo. But lighting companies think they have a more compelling commercial application for smart lighting: retail. 

Next week, General Electric and startup company ByteLight will demonstrate a network-connected lighting system for stores at the LightFair industry conference in Las Vegas. The idea is to offer repeat customers personalized offers, perhaps based on their shopping history, as well as maps to find items in stores.

GE will embed chips made by ByteLight in its LED-based overhead lights, the type normally used in offices and big-box stores. The chips will communicate with consumers' smart phones and use sensors to track the direction a person is moving inside a store.

Until now, ByteLight only made a chip that communicated via Visual Light Communications (VLC), which uses light pulses to transmit data. The flickers are too fast to be detected by the human eye, but a smart phone's image sensor can read the signals.

VLC can accurately locate a person to within less than a meter, but it can't "talk" to a phone that's inside a pocket or purse because the link requires line of sight.

The technology demonstrated with GE will include a chip that can communicate via both VLC and Bluetooth Low Energy, or BLE. The Bluetooth radio signal can alert a customer to a special offer, inducing him or her to pull out the handset to read the come-on. Once the phone is out, it can can communicate using VLC, a company representative explained.

At this point, the companies do not have any commercial customers, but will be targeting big-box retailers, such as Walmart, which last month said it will upgrade to GE's LED lights. 

Upgrading to efficient LED lighting can save companies on energy bills. But increasingly, LED companies are pitching the benefits of electronic controls. For example, by adding sensors for daylighting to overhead office lights, LED lights can dim automatically and save more energy.

Connected LED lighting allows store owners or, say, museums to go further by using lights as network access points that consumers connect to. "The value proposition for LED lighting is becoming less about elimination and more about innovative applications and services that digital light enables," said ByteLight CEO Dan Ryan in a statement.

Apple has already started using its iBeacon technology, which uses iPads and other devices to communicate with consumer smart phones using Bluetooth. New York City drugstore chain Duane Reade said earlier this month that it will use iBeacon to offer coupons and other services to shoppers with iPhones.

And earlier this year, Phillips introduced its own VLC-based smart LED lighting system and said it is testing it with retailers.

As light fixtures become more intelligent and potentially track people's movements, they raise privacy concerns. But for consumers who love a special offer, smart lighting could make shopping a new interactive experience. 

Requests to be Forgotten: Now on Google

Time to do some spring cleaning on your Google vanity search. Tired of looking up your name only to find reminders of past bankruptcies or acrimonious court cases? If you can persuade Google or a European data protection agency that search results about you are “inadequate, irrelevant or no longer relevant, or excessive in relation to the purposes for which they were processed," then the search provider will have to remove the links. The form for making such requests went up today but the company says it has not yet begun processing them.

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U.S. Military Aims for Brain Implants to Treat Wounded Soldiers

This post was corrected on 1 June 2014.

A new U.S. military program focused on brain implants could help diagnose and treat soldiers suffering from psychiatric disorders. The program funded by the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects  Agency (DARPA) will develop a new generation of devices inspired by deep brain stimulation—a technology that uses implanted electrodes to electrically stimulate parts of the brain. But the new brain implants would start out by monitoring the brain activity of patients instead of stimulating them. The aim is to provide new insights into the workings of psychiatric disorders such as depression. The implants could then use targeted stimulation of certain brain regions to restore normal brain function over time.

"If you have been injured in the line of duty and you can't remember your family, we want to be able to restore those kinds of functions," said Justin Sanchez, DARPA program manager, during a conference held in Washington, D.C. in early May, AFP reported. "We think that we can develop neuroprosthetic devices that can directly interface with the hippocampus, and can restore the first type of memories we are looking at, the declarative memories."

Illustration: Massachusetts General Hospital and Draper Labs

DARPA's Systems-Based Neurotechnology for Emerging Therapies (SUBNETS) program is part of President Obama's Brain Initiative, a $100 million program unveiled in April 2013 aimed at funding new technologies for tackling neurological and psychiatric diseases.

The University of California, San Francisco is spearheading one arm of SUBNETS with up to $26 million from DARPA. It will focus on understanding and treating anxiety and depression. Success with such initiatives could go a long way toward lessening the suffering of millions of people and helping reduce the economic cost to Americans of dealing with psychiatric problems. Anxiety disorders alone cost the United States about $42 billion each year.

The other arm of the program is a $30-million grant to a team led by Massachusetts General Hospital. That group will work on traumatic brain injury, post-traumatic stress disorder, and severe depression.

The electronic implant program relies on neural plasticity, which allows the brain's anatomy and physiology to change over time. Deep brain stimulation already takes advantage of the brain's plasticity, but DARPA program aims to combine diagnostic and therapeutic functions into the same implanted device.

One brain implant prototype developed by Draper Labs and Massachusetts General Hospital uses both commercial electrodes and custom technology. The hermetically-sealed device also has a rechargeable battery that can be recharged via inductive coupling. DARPA expects a variety of brain implants to be developed through this program over the next five years.

Space Hackers Take Control of ISEE-3 Spacecraft

After a few days of waiting for transmission approval from NASA and an earthquake that shook the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico on Wednesday, a private team of space enthusiasts has established two-way communication with the 35-year-old ISEE-3 spacecraft. The probe is now sending back telemetry, team member Keith Cowing says. Over the coming days, the team will analyze the data ISEE-3 is transmitting in order to assess the health of the spacecraft and see if they will be able to fire its thrusters, beginning a process that could bring the spacecraft back to its original orbit near the Earth.

The ISEE-3 reboot team, which raised nearly $160,000 on RocketHub to fund the effort, has been racing to cobble together what they need to communicate with ISEE-3, including transmitters as well as software-defined modulators and demodulators. Everything was in place by last Friday, the team reported, but they had to await clearance from NASA. That put some pressure on the team's already tight schedule: they expect they have until mid-June to command the spacecraft to fire its thrusters for the first time. 

I called NASA on Wednesday to ask about the source of the delay. NASA signed an agreement last week that handed over control of the spacecraft to the team, which is led by the California-based firm Skycorp. But that agreement still requires NASA to approve certain steps.

In this case, the main source of the hold-up was getting authorization from the U.S. National Telecommunications and Information Administration to send signals to the spacecraft from Arecibo using the team's 400W transmitter.

"Because NASA still owns the spacecraft, NASA actually has to apply for the license on behalf of Skycorp," David Chenette, the director of the heliophysics division within NASA's Science Mission Directorate, told me. One concern, he says, is damage to other spacecraft. "The power levels are high enough to damage receivers that operate on this frequency should they be going through the beam," Chenette said. That list of potentially vulnerable probes includes NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter and Earth Observing-1, JAXA's WINDS spacecraft, and ESA's Cluster and Swarm spacecraft.

Because of this issue, the team only has clearance to transmit to the spacecraft until May 31, Skycorp's CEO Dennis Wingo wrote to me over Skype from Puerto Rico, shortly before today's attempt at communication. "After that we have to say 'mother may I' again," he wrote, adding that going forward his team hopes to automate the communications process so that transmission will not occur if any spacecraft that might be affected are in the area.

In the meantime, the team will be working out how to interpret the data that ISEE-3 is now sending back to Earth. "We will use that data to debug the demodulator software, then we get bits out, then we process for telemetry," Wingo wrote. He hopes that by early next week they'll have some initial idea of how well the spacecraft's systems are faring.

Skype Will Translate Multilingual Conversations by Next Year

Picture this, an English-speaking man carries on a full conversation with a German-speaking women. Did I mention that the man doesn’t understand a word of German and the woman doesn’t understand a word of English? Yet, they still understand each other.

On stage at the Code Conference in Rancho Palos Verdes, Calif., Gurdeep Pall, corporate vice president of Skype and Lync at Microsoft, demonstrated Skype Translator, a new app that translates multilingual voice calls in real time. This means that users can speak in their native tongue to someone who speaks a different language while Microsoft translates. By the end of this year, Skype Translator will be available as a Windows 8 beta app.

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Quantum Cryptography with Ordinary Equipment

Researchers in Japan have come up with a way of doing quantum cryptography that could overcome two of the technology's big problems. The new protocol is designed to work with off-the-shelf equipment and use less bandwidth than existing methods. It’s just a mathematical proposal, but it could help make quantum key distribution more commercially viable. 

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