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What’s Behind North Korea’s Space Launch? A View From the Inside

Update, 7 February 2016: North Korea declares that at 9 a.m. local time it launched an “earth observation satellite” into orbit. The launch was followed by condemnation by Japan, South Korea, and the United States, who doubt the peaceful intentions of such a test. Jim Oberg’s own doubts stem from his on-the-ground observations of the North Korean space program in 2012.

North Korea has told the United Nations’ International Maritime Organization that it plans to launch a new space rocket this month, its first in more than three years. The stated aim of the launch is to deliver an Earth-observation satellite into orbit. But the plan, which comes hot on the heels of the country’s nuclear test last month, has drawn criticism and concern from a number of countries, who point out that this same technology can be used to produce a ballistic missile with a range of thousands of miles. There is very good reason to suspect that the peaceful objective is camouflage for a weapons program. To dispel any ambiguity about that point, let me offer some on-the-ground perspective.

Four years ago this April, I stood with a small group of journalists on the site of this coming launch, a rocket base called Sohae. The launch site is on a long concrete apron set amongst hills just inland from the rugged northwestern coast of the Korean peninsula. We had been invited to the site by the North Korean government to see a rocket and verify its peaceful purpose, which we were told was to launch a small observation satellite to monitor the country’s agriculture.

Everything we saw suggested just the opposite. The rocket was based on 1950s Soviet military missile designs. And the launch pad used road transport to move its rocket sections, deliver propellant, and perform other logistics. This is typical for a system that needs to be dispersed quickly to hide from enemy attacks (civilian spaceports usually use rail for transporting components and lengthy buried pipelines for fueling).

These then were features of a missile site. But I did see evidence to the contrary. Standing at one end of the apron, perhaps 50 meters from the rocket and its latticework tower, I turned and looked in the other direction. The far end of the apron was empty. But there were insets into the concrete as if for a future rail line that might lead there. And when I turned back to the rocket itself, I saw those lines lead right up to the rocket’s railway-style wheeled base. It became clear what belonged at the opposite, empty end of the apron: an unbuilt mobile service structure for assembly of even larger rockets. Such a structure—expensive to build and difficult to hide—is a feature of a space launch facility, not a military base.

We never saw the launch we’d been promised. Five days later, in total secrecy, the rocket took off and exploded. Had we been warned of the launch, we could have seen it high in the western sky from our hotel parking lot. Our hosts never told us what happened. In stunning Orwellian fashion, they seemed to forget what we’d originally been invited for, and expressed hope we’d enjoy our new activity plan: watching the unveiling of new statue of Kim Jong Il.

Once back at home, I remembered all I had seen there—especially the empty south end of the apron where the future rocket service towers were clearly intended to appear. And so you can imagine my interest when I recently saw a new set of satellite images of the launch pad. There, on the formerly empty end of the apron, was not just one tower structure, but two. And already on the pad, shrouded by weather drapes we’d also seen before, could have been a new rocket.

A rocket service tower does call to mind other civilian space efforts. Ostensibly, this new launch is a repeat of the April 2012 launch we didn’t see, and a subsequent launch in December 2012, which did succeed in putting something into orbit (North Korea’s first “something” of the sort, though it was never observed to send any radio signals).

So what is it this time? Is North Korea aiming to launch a satellite? Or will this be a test of its military missile technology?

As was the case in 2012, this new test could very well be both. It’s not clear how many stages the new rocket has, but the first and second stages of a ballistic missile launch vehicle—all that’s needed for such a launch—and a space launch vehicle are practically identical. North Korea could send up a dummy mass to test those stages. It could plan the launch so that it appears to be aiming for a north-south ‘sun synchronous’ orbit, and just drop the rocket stages along the way. The second stage nominally falls into the western Pacific near the Philippines. An additional falling object—a warhead or a mass standing in for one—would be unnoticed in the clutter. Recovery wouldn’t even be necessary. A brief burst of telemetry after a successful reentry, followed by ocean impact and sinking into very deep water, would be adequate to pull off the ruse. The masquerade could be completed by including a smaller third stage that would press on into orbit. Or, if the warhead or dummy atop the second stage is too heavy, the third stage and satellite can be entirely omitted and a “sad failure” can be announced afterwards.

Nothing we were shown in 2012 ruled out this last scenario. In fact, while we were shown a spacecraft that we were told was going to be launched, we never saw it installed atop the rocket. We saw a pointed cylindrical shroud on top of the second stage that could have held a large warhead or a third rocket stage along with a satellite or warhead; we never found out what was inside it.

I got so insistent on this issue that the exasperated control center director asked me if I wanted a chair installed on the third stage for me to ride on, to verify the presence of the satellite. I immediately accepted his offer with a grin, but offered a compromise: pictures. Then I gave him my hotel room number for delivery. He promised to send some, but they never arrived.

North Korea’s push for its own satellites is somewhat puzzling to me. As a small country, it can easily monitor its agriculture with aerial photos from aircraft. If space views are required, they can be purchased commercially from a number of companies.

But the country insists on “self reliance,” and it has pushed to create the impression among its own citizens that it already has a robust space program. The coming launch, supported by vastly upgraded launch facilities, could very well be just an insanely expensive ego-boost for the regime. That it might be camouflage for a weapons program cannot prudently be excluded. That it might be a wise investment to improve living conditions is probably the most preposterous suggestion. But the fact of the matter is that even if the goal of mission is exactly what North Korea says it is, the rocket test will still have a military benefit.

I’ll be watching with great interest—but this time, from a distance.  I will never personally set foot on that launch site concrete again—of that I’m sure. In 2012, Pyongyang made two mistakes that they won’t repeat: First, they let me in; then they let me out.


A Deep Learning AI Chip for Your Phone

Neural networks learn to recognize objects in images and perform other artificial intelligence tasks with a very low error rate. (Just last week, a neural network built by Google’s Deep Mind lab in London beat a master of the complex Go game—one of the grand challenges of AI.) But they’re typically too complex to run on a smartphone, where, you have to admit, they’d be pretty useful. Perhaps no more. At the IEEE International Solid State Circuits Conference in San Francisco on Tuesday, MIT engineers presented a chip designed to use run sophisticated image-processing neural network software on a smartphone’s power budget.

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Fastest Light Pulses Show Electrons Are Sluggish

Electrons move fast, especially within an atom. But they have their limits, and those limits might put a top speed on future optoelectronic circuits. In this week’s issue of Nature  a team of scientists from the Max Planck Institute (MPI) of Quantum Optics in Garching, Germany, the Texas A&M University in College Station, Texas, and the Lomonosov Moscow State University report that it takes electrons in krypton atoms slightly more than 100 attoseconds to respond to extremely short light pulses. It is the first direct measurement of the electron’s innate sluggishness.

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To Respond to a Disease Outbreak, Bring in the Portable Genome Sequencers

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Using a genome sequencer smaller than a stapler, geneticists have demonstrated the role they can play in combating outbreaks of infectious disease. An eight-month experiment in Guinea during the tail end of the Ebola outbreak, described today in a the journal Nature, showed the potential of a genome sequencing technology that can be packed inside a suitcase and deployed in rural outposts.

With the Zika virus outbreak gaining momentum in the Americas, the Ebola experiment may offer useful lessons. “Having genome data is becoming part of the fundamental response to an outbreak,” says lead researcher Nick Loman, a geneticist at the University of Birmingham. By studying the genetic material of the virus across many patients, researchers can look for telltale mutations that reveal the paths of transmission. And if those routes are discovered quickly enough, public health officials could make decisions to change the course of the epidemic. 

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MIT Team Tops Hyperloop Competition

A student team from MIT won first prize last weekend for the best design for the Hyperloop, a subsonic train meant to hurtle between cities in an evacuated pipe. The 27 students, hailing from a dozen countries, beat out more than 100 other teams.

The Hyperloop was proposed in 2013 by Elon Musk, famous for his role in building Tesla Motors and SpaceX. Since then, it has spawned hundreds of do-it-yourself projects and two companiesHyperloop Transportation Technologies (HTT), founded in 2013; and Hyperloop Technologies, in 2015. Neither company participated in the competition.

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Rocketeer Frank Malina’s Life as an Artist

Editor’s Note: In his 2014 articleFrank Malina: America’s Forgotten Rocketeer,” James L. Johnson explored the engineer’s pivotal role in establishing the early U.S. rocket program and founding the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. As the article notes, Malina’s life took an interesting turn in the 1950s, when he “cut loose from everything and became an artist.” Historian W. Patrick McCray picks up where that article left off, with this look into Malina’s later life as a professional artist.

Frank J. Malina had three careers. His first, the one he is best known for—but not nearly well enough—was as an aeronautical engineer. Although Werner von Braun received the press attention and Time magazine covers, it was the American-born Malina who researched and developed the U.S.’s first space-capable rockets. (M.G. Lord’s excellent book Astro Turf discusses the historical injustice of a former Nazi getting the attention while American Malina’s accomplishments were sidelined during the McCarthy era.)

Jules Verne’s classic book De la Terre à la Lune inspired Malina to think seriously about space exploration. He read the book in Czech when his family relocated from Texas back to Europe when he was a young teen. After returning to the United States, Malina attended Texas A&M as an undergraduate—he paid for his tuition, in part, by bugling reveille to the student body—before a graduate fellowship brought him to Caltech in 1934.

He stayed in Pasadena for 13 years, designing and building rockets and the motors that propelled them. The project started small—the original team is shown here—but driven by wartime concerns, expanded quickly into a multimillion-dollar effort employing scores of people.

While based at Caltech, Malina worked under the tutelage of Hungarian-born research engineer Theodore von Kármán, who became his close friend and business partner; the two of them helped start a soon-to-be-very-profitable company called Aerojet. The two engineers also started the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, with Malina serving briefly as the lab’s first director.

The apogee of Malina’s rocket career happened at White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico. The site was close to where Robert Goddard had once tested his rockets and, more ominously, only about 70 miles from where the U.S. Army had exploded the Trinity device three months earlier. Malina visited the Trinity site, in fact, soon after the test, and the experience sobered him about the realities of future wars.

In October 1945 at White Sands, a yellow and black sounding rocket called the WAC-Corporal roared from a launch pad. (“WAC” stood for “without any control” or, because it was the “little sister” of the larger Corporal rocket, “Women’s Army Corps.”)

Radar tracked it as it soared to about 230,000 feet and escaped the immediate confines of the Earth’s atmosphere.

Despite his technical accomplishments and considerable military interest, the deepening ideological tensions of the Nuclear Age distressed Malina. Ironically, the success of Aerojet, catalyzed by Cold War funding and military demands, would also make him quite wealthy—freeing him to pursue other, more peaceful paths. In a few short years after 1946, he left Caltech, moved to Paris, got divorced, and remarried. A strong believer in international cooperation, Malina also joined the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), eventually becoming head of its Division of Scientific Research.

Malina could not escape the Cold War, however, and its McCarthy-era suspicions. He had colleagues at Caltech with pink, if not red, pasts, and his own FBI file was of considerable heft. Government harassment coupled with financial independence prompted him to quit the UNESCO post in 1953 and start a new career as an artist.

In this, Malina resembles another Frank: Frank Oppenheimer, younger brother of J. Robert Oppenheimer. Frank O’s encounters with the national hysteria state were much more severe. After losing his post at the University of Minnesota, the younger Oppenheimer wandered the wilderness, literally, before reinventing himself as the founder of the Exploratorium, an innovative art-science institution, in 1968.

Malina had long been interested in art. The son of two professional musicians, he put himself through school by sometimes doing engineering drawings. Malina started his new career with traditional painting and quickly secured a one-man show at a Paris gallery. Around 1955, with his enthusiasm about painting as a medium waning, he turned his attention to making light-based and kinetic art works. (See the catalog compiled by Fabrice Lapelletrie of Malina’s artwork.)

Malina was especially keen to introduce material from science and technology, particularly space exploration and astronomy, into contemporary visual arts. Even his early forays into painting incorporated “shock waves and fluid flow and paintings of airplanes and rockets.” As he moved away from traditional art techniques, Malina spent considerable time experimenting with new ways to create novel visual effects. In the mid-1950s, for example, he worked with a French electronics student to create what he called his Lumidyne technique. He made his first pieces using it in 1956.

Lumidyne, which Malina described in scientific-like style in journal articles as well as U.S., French, and British patent applications, gave him a systematic approach to making art using movement and light. The Lumidyne system was based on several interrelated parts: Light bulbs and electric motors were fixed to a wooden backboard. There were moving parts, which Malina called “rotors,” made of Plexiglas that he painted and connected to a motor. Fixed pieces of Plexiglas—the “stators”—were also painted. These parts were sandwiched between the backboard and a diffuser screen that faced the viewer.

Here’s a video clip of Malina’s Vortex and 3 Molecules (1965):

When it was switched on, a shifting subtle effect was created by the painted parts moving slowly relative to the static pieces, with light shining through them. The title of a 1961 patent application describes the resulting visual effect with Malina’s characteristic terse style: “Lighted, Animated, and Everchanging Picture Arrangement.” As was the case with his other techniques, the titles and topics of his artworks using Lumidyne reflected his persistent engagement with scientific and space themes. The Arc, Orbiter, Sun Sparks, and Jodrell Bank are among the nearly 200 works Malina made using his Lumidyne system before he passed away in 1981.

In 1965, the flamboyant millionaire (and socialist member of Parliament) Robert Maxwell commissioned Malina to make a statement piece for the entrance lobby of his company, Pergamon Press, a fast-growing British publisher of scientific journals based in Oxford.

The result was a massive lumino-kinetic work Malina called Cosmos. Weighing several hundred pounds and measuring over 6.5 square meters, Cosmos commanded the attention of Pergamon’s visitors and staff.

Malina began crafting Cosmos with sketches in his Paris workshop in the spring of 1965. A video has even survived that captures the process. Aided by a few technical assistants—the whole team signed their names inside the piece—Malina completed Cosmos in early July.

Small electric motors slowly turned each of the painstakingly painted rotor parts, while 120 fluorescent tubes and light bulbs lit up the work. All of this was encased in a relatively thin wood and metal frame. When Malina had achieved the visual effects he wanted, the entire piece was disassembled and shipped to Oxford for a weeklong installation at the Pergamon building.

And it’s still there today.

In September 2015, I went to Oxford to see Malina’s Cosmos. It’s not an easy thing to do. Pergamon is no longer in business, Robert Maxwell is dead, and the building housing Cosmos is now part of Oxford Brookes University. The artwork resides in a small room, partitioned off from the original main lobby. It’s used—from what I could tell—as a storage place for the campus radio station.

Because the piece is in a locked room on a private campus, I needed help getting access. Roger Malina, Frank’s older son, put me in touch with Chris Jennings, an art professor at Brookes. Jennings knew the right people with the right keys, and after a heroic effort with little advance notice, he met me at the Brookes gate on a gray windy afternoon lightly whipped by rain.

Imposing even when turned off, Cosmos is hardly recognizable at first as an artwork. An electrician from campus came to switch Cosmos on for us. The lights switched on, and immediately the many small electrical motors inside began to turn the painted rotors. For such a giant mechanical piece, it was surprisingly quiet. All I heard was the slight hum of fluorescent lights and an occasional click as one of the gears proved momentarily obstinate.

Frank Malina made Cosmos at the height of the Cold War–era space race. Gagarin and Shepard had flown four years earlier, and a satellite-based infrastructure was beginning to take shape. Astronomers were looking forward to an era of space telescopes that could observe across wavelengths inaccessible from Earth and with unparalleled resolution. This new techno-scientific activity meant that people were, as Malina wrote in 1966, “more conscious of the universe, both intellectually and visually” than at any other time since the Copernican Revolution. Malina imagined Cosmos as a reflection of a universe that he knew as neither static nor quiescent.

The controlled motion of light and color reflected a view of an orderly Cosmos—one knowable to humans who were slowly starting to explore it. Malina abstracted his design from celestial shapes, starting with the band of color at the bottom, which he intended to represent colors seen by astronauts when orbiting the Earth. Nine painted circular shapes represent the planets—Neil deGrasse Tyson & Co. hadn’t yet killed Pluto—which hover below an abstracted sun presented in slowly changing shades of red, white, and orange.

Sitting between the sun and planets are three “nebulae,” executed in a manner similar to some of Malina’s earlier works: filaments of light moving back and forth. Finally, above the sun, are scattered star clusters that slowly oscillate and pulse—another theme from Malina’s prior pieces. The overall effect is elegant, continuous, yet stately motion and shifting color.

Malina wanted the piece to be an “expression of a ‘peaceful Cosmos,’ ” while noting, of course, that the universe is anything but. “Events of cataclysmic proportion are constantly occurring,” yet people were still willing to dare to “venture forth farther and farther” from the “planetary cradle,” he wrote. This profound shift in position and perspective was something that should challenge the artist. Either they would “find aesthetic significance” in explorations of space or “mock them in despair.”

We opened up Cosmos to inspect its interior. 1960s-era lights and switches share space with parts added during occasional repairs and upgrades. Malina had signed the various rotors and stators that he painted.

But their paint is beginning to flake and peel, presenting a challenge to the art conservator. A few of the rotors weren’t turning well.

The complexity of the artwork—an ensemble of gears, chains, lights, switches, fuses, and plastic disks, with wires running everywhere—surprised me. Compared with the quiet, contemplative mood the piece fosters, the inside of Cosmos is a very busy place.

Malina created Cosmos as a “silent almost static” panoramic view of the universe centered around our solar system. I stood in front of it for several minutes, watching the colors slowly form, dissolve, move, and shift. I took some last photos. And then, a flick of the switch and Cosmos was dark again.

About the Author

W. Patrick McCray (@LeapingRobot) is a historian of science and technology at the University of California, Santa Barbara. His books include Visioneers, Keep Watching the Skies!, and Giant Telescopes. This post originally appeared on the author’s blog, Leaping Robot.


Study: DNA Test Agreements Disregard Consumer Privacy

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Some personal genomics companies rely on so-called “clickwrap” contracts—agreements to which consumers could one day regret having clicked “Agree.”

Anyone today who spends time in the digital world also enters into contracts in the digital world. And while many consumers today just click through so-called “clickwrap” contracts without reading them, one new study suggests that they take greater caution when clicking “Agree” to the legal terms underpinning, say, a personal DNA test. 

The new study also leaves the door open for consumer advocates to begin pushing toward stronger consumer standards in personal genome contracts, starting with questioning the very logic of the clickwrap model in the personal genome industry. It’s one thing, after all, to breeze through a lengthy contract when the worst-case scenario is the possible dissemination of, say, your history of iTunes purchases or the contents of your Amazon shopping cart.

It’s quite another to blithely risk losing control of parts or the whole of your own genome sequence—arguably the one string of personal data that is both the core of a person’s identity, and a nugget of information that could never be changed if it were compromised.

Andelka Phillips, a doctoral (D.Phil.) candidate at the University of Oxford law school in the U.K., recently completed her thesis, which looked at the practices of some 228 personal genetics companies around the world. For detailed analysis and comparison of their personal genomics contracts, she zeroed in on the 71 companies that sold health-related genomics services and made the whole of their consumer contracts available for public perusal.

Phillips says she was struck by how much they resembled standard clickwrap contracts for conventional tech companies on the Internet.

“They’ve inherited this model which they didn’t really adapt,” Phillips says of the genomics company contracts her study considered. “Because no one has really been policing the terms, often companies include clauses that give them additional advantage that doesn’t really relate to the purpose of the contract…From what I’ve seen, a lot of people are still not reading these things in the way they should be.”

For instance, she discovered that less than half of the documents contained any contractual language about the privacy protections the companies have in place. Indeed, probably because of the standard clickwrap contract’s Web-based origins, she found that much of these contracts’ privacy assurances concerned browser cookies and Web metadata—with less emphasis on the more pressing matter of keeping private a consumer’s genome.

Phillips found that 48 percent of the contracts discussed disclosure of personal and genetic data to third parties, while just 28 percent precluded the company from selling a customer’s data.  Only 10 percent of the documents explicitly stated that the company would destroy a customer’s physical sample after sequencing or communicating test results.

Meanwhile, clickwrap contracts for genomics have also inherited a provision that Phillips says favors the company over the consumer. Of the contracts studied, 72 percent reserved the company’s right to change the contract after the consumer clicked Agree; 39 percent of the documents said the companies could do this at any time, and 23 percent said they could make these changes without notice. On the other side of the coin, only 6 percent of the agreements obligated the companies to notify consumers by e-mail of any contractual changes.

By contrast, Phillips says, companies could enact a few simple changes to their contracts that would go a long way towards restoring some balance back to the consumer.

“If we’re going to use these kinds of contracts, they need to be a lot shorter,” she says of the often lengthy clickwrap agreements. “And it could be more interactive. They could have things that allow people to opt out and opt in to services. And while that might not be perfect either, it would at least give a little bit of control back to the consumer.”

Traditional tech company clickwrap agreements have grown like weeds to the point that today, Amazon and Apple’s iTunes contracts are longer than Hamlet and Macbeth, respectively. The latter has even inspired an extended graphic novelization. And while courts have often validated clickwrap contracts, Phillips says the sanctity of a genomics consumer’s data raises the stakes.

“I think things can be improved,” she says.

This is a relatively new industry. And e-commerce more generally, in the scheme of things, is relatively new. … It might just be that we really need to police some of these terms and think about how to improve some of these contracts. My feeling is some of these documents overall shouldn’t be treated as valid contracts. Because I don’t think people are necessarily validly agreeing to the contract.

“The person has to be giving their free and informed consent,” she says. “There shouldn’t be any undue influence or coercion. And I think, at present, sometimes people don’t have enough information to be making informed decisions about this.”

Concrete slab melts ice and snow

Conductive Concrete for Ice-Free Roadways

If you’re tired of shoveling snow, conductive concrete could be your savior. Researchers at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln engineered concrete that melts ice

The energized concrete can be used on driveways, roadways, and bridges. Since magnetite-rich aggregates are blended into the specially-designed mix, it can also be used for military applications in electromagnetic shielding.

For DIY-enthusiasts, it may seem tempting to whip up a batch of homebrewed conductive-concrete mix. But, it’s not as simple as plunging a steel rod into concrete and juicing it up with a power source.

Firstly, a precise formula of conductive components—steel fibers, steel shavings, and carbon particles—is added to conventional concrete mix. Then, angle iron acting as an electrode is cast in the concrete and connected to a power supply. Precut holes in the angle iron allow concrete to flow through the mix, providing proper anchorage. To ensure safety, the spacing between electrodes is also fine-tuned. 

Here’s the reseacher’s time-lapse video of the concrete slab in action.

“It saves time. It saves money. It saves lives,” says Chris Tuan, professor of civil engineering at University of Nebraska-Lincoln. For bridge applications, this could be an alternative to de-icing liquid, which could potentially weaken bridges.

In 2002, Tuan installed 52 slabs of conductive concrete [pdf] on the 45-meter-long Roca Spur Bridge that spans the Salt Creek at Lincoln, Neb. A power line near the bridge supplied a three-phase, 600-ampere, 220-volt AC power source. Whenever embedded sensors detected that the slabs’ temperature dropped below 40 degrees Fahrenheit, the power source turned on until they reached 55 degrees Fahrenheit. A “current-monitoring unit” enabled system operators to safety restrict the amount of electrical current.

Conductive concrete, which costs roughly 2.5 times as much as traditional concrete, is not a new concept. In fact, National Research Council Canada has already been issued patents in Canada, the United States, and Europe. But Tuan’s research, funded by the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), is focusing on cost-effective, electrically conductive materials that also have long-term durability and mechanical strength. 

“A lot of researchers that were using carbon fibers, their products cannot be implemented because it’s cost inhibitive,” Tuan says.

Phase one of the research project wraps up in March. If the FAA green lights phase two, says Tuan, power consumption and construction costs will be evaluated by building a 45-by-15-meter test pad at the FAA’s technical center in Atlantic City, N.J. 


Wi-Charge Promises Phone Charging by Infrared Laser

In the world of wireless gadgets, charging is still a big problem Israeli startup Wi-Charge is looking to change that by allowing us constant wireless charging using infrared laser technology.

Broadly speaking you can divide wireless power technologies into two general categories: near field (a few centimeters or even physical contact) and far field (several meters or more). In the near field category there are quite a number of companies and several protocols including Qi, PMA/Rezence, and Open Dots all competing for close range wireless power delivery. All common commercial near field wireless power technologies today use either tightly coupled (inductive, physical contact between the transmitter and the receiver) or loosely coupled (resonant, with up to a few centimeters of distance). In both cases the transmitter and receiver need to be very close to each other.

Far field technologies on the other hand are still in their infancy, though some startups—such as uBeam and Energous—are promising big steps soon. For the most part all these approaches are limited in either distance or power, or both.

Wi-Charge believes its solution is different enough from its competitors to overcome their limits. Ortal Alpert, Wi-Charge's founder, had worked for years developing advanced optical storage solutions for his former startup. During this time he frequently travelled the globe on business, which forced him to constantly look for places to charge his mobile devices. Based on his experience as an optical engineer, he developed a new technology for wireless charging that uses infrared lasers and relies on two unique, and now patented, ideas.

To understand these ideas we first need to go back to the laser and how it works. A laser is usually described as a device that bounces light between a pair of mirrors on either end of a gain medium, which amplifies the light with each successive pass. Usually one of the mirrors inside this cavity is partially transparent allowing some of the light to exit as a laser beam.

Wi-Charge's ingenious idea was to take this cavity, which is typically a closed device, and turn it into an "open unit" where one of the mirrors is located for example in a light fixture on the ceiling and the other one on the receiving device. The semiconductor gain medium is located in the transmitter and provides the photons that are harvested by the photovoltaic cell at the receiver. 

Powerful lasers can be dangerous, however Wi-Charge uses a class 1 infra red laser (safe under all conditions of normal use) and more importantly the "external cavity" design means that the instant anything crosses the path of the laser—your hand, your eye—amplification will stop and the energy will drop.

The second unique idea has to do with being able to fix and maintain the connection between the transmitter and the receiver. Wi-Charge's design uses retro reflective mirrors instead of regular mirrors. These reflect light back to its source with minimum scattering. (You can sometimes find retro reflective mirrors on road signs and bicycles and a few were even left on the moon by the Apollo team.) Using retroreflectors makes aligning the mirrors unnecessary hence the beam is maintained even when the receiver is moving around—something demonstrated to us during a visit last year. During operation the transmitter continuously sends a very low power infrared signal across the room and when it hits the retro reflector on the receiver, the signal is returned and a connection is made and amplification begins. The connection will be maintained as long as it is in range and there is a line of sight.

Using a laser does have one distinct disadvantage–it requires a line of sight between the transmitter and the receiver. This means that you won't be able to charge your smartphone while it is in your pocket and instead need to put it face up on the table. According to Alpert, "we use our phones every 15 minutes on average, for Facebook, Twitter, Whatsapp, email and even for talking. It means that once we're seated for more than 15 minutes, the phone is usually out on the table— and ripe for wireless charging".

One of the big advantages of Wi-Charge's technology is its ability to deliver almost any amount of power, from few milliwatts for sensor powering to hundreds of watts used in industrial or even military applications. For the consumer market with devices such as smart phones and wearables, Wi-Charge is looking to start with a system capable of delivering 10 W.

Unlike other far field technologies, Wi-Charge has a pretty small footprint. A receiver can be as small as your phone's camera module and still charge from a distance of ten meters, Wi-Charge claims. For more power demanding applications and longer ranges both the transmitter and receiver will have to be larger, but not dramatically so. One potential application of the technology can be for powering a drone for border patrol or installation security. In this scenario a drone will receive power along its way from a transmitter mounted on a patrol car or on top of a building or tower from a distance of dozens or even hundreds of meters away and can stay in the air for countless hours or even days.

Laser power beaming isn't a new concept. Researchers from NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center and the University of Alabama powered a small-scale aircraft that flew solely by means of propulsive power from a ground-based 1-kw infrared laser back in 2003. Japan's Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) presented an even more ambitious wireless power project in early 2015. Researchers from JAXA were able to deliver 1.8 kW "with pinpoint accuracy" to a receiving antenna 55 meters away, using carefully directed microwaves.

Seattle-based LaserMotive, which in 2006 won NASA's Power beam challenge is working on over the air as well as over fiber optic cable transfer of power to flying drones. Wi-Charge says it's inherent safety and small footprint would allow it to ground-power private and commercial drones in urban environment.

In a typical use case scenario, one transmitter in the ceiling (within a light fixture for example) will be able to charge up to four devices inside a room. In a demo that at Wi-Charge's offices in Rehovot, Israel, we saw a working prototype that included a transmitter in the ceiling and a smartphone with a special case containing a mirror and photovoltaic cell. It was able to charge from a distance of about 3 meters. The modified phone charged slower than if it had been plugged in to a wall socket, but according to Wi-Charge, the final product will be able to charge one smartphone at the same rate as a wired charger; though two devices will take longer. We were also shown a modified music player and speaker that worked without any batteries in the same way.

Alpert promises that the first product based on Wi-Charge's technology will be available in late 2016 and would be Internet-of-Things or smart home related. A year later the company is planning to release a residential mobile phone charging solution that will include a transmitter and phone case at the retail price of just under US $200. 


Smart Wearable Sensor Takes Sweat-Monitoring To Next Level

Sweat might not be pleasant but it contains dozens of chemical compounds whose concentrations change in real time, compounds that could reveal your body’s response to disease, drugs, diet, injury, and stress, among other things. To tap into that treasure-trove of information, researchers have built a wearable sensor that measures levels of specific molecules in sweat and then wirelessly relays the data to a smartphone via a Bluetooth module.

The smart device, fashioned as a wristband or headband, combines a panel of plastic chemical sensors with silicon integrated circuits made on a flexible circuit board. It continuously measures levels of four different components of sweat: two electrolytes, potassium and sodium ions, and two metabolites, glucose and lactate. Ali Javey, electrical engineering and computer sciences professor at the University of California, Berkeley and his colleagues reported the sensor in Nature.

Other research groups have demonstrated wearable sweat sensors before. But those measure one analyte at a time or don’t have the signal processing circuitry and calibration mechanism to accurately monitor analyte levels.

Javey and his colleagues built an array of chemical sensors, each 3-mm wide, on a flexible plastic substrate. The sensors are similar to ones reported before. They are based on enzymes or special chemical cocktails that react with the metabolite or ion to be measured and generate an electrical signal. But the researchers built on previous sensors by treating electrodes with specific added chemicals that reduce potential drift and make the new sensors more stable and reliable.

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