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That Toy Is Now a Drone, Says the FAA

According to my best reading of a notice the FAA announced on Monday, things like the US $154 Husban X4 quadcopter are no longer toys—they are true drone aircraft in the FAA's eyes and cannot be flown without a certificate of authorization or special airworthiness certificate.


Up to now, the FAA has been distinguishing model aircraft from small drones (or small unmanned aerial systems, to use the FAA’s preferred terminology) according to whether they are flown for recreation or for commercial purposes. If you want to fly a 20-kilogram, turbine-powered radio-controlled model airplane, go right ahead, so long as you only do it as a hobby. Fly a 2-kilogram electric foamy for compensation, and you’re breaking the rules against commercial drone use, though. That was the basic argument the FAA had made against Raphael Pirker, who was issued with a $10,000 fine for flying a model airplane for hire in 2011.

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SCOTUS Rules That Cellphone Searches Require Warrants

In a unanimous ruling yesterday the Supreme Court ruled that a police officer must obtain a warrant to search a cell phone. This will likely apply to computer and tablet searches as well, and acknowledges that a phone these days is far more like a file cabinet in a home, which historically cannot searched without a warrant, than a wallet, which can.

The court had looked at two cases, Riley v. California, in which officers searched a cell phone during a traffic stop and found information on the phone that connected the phone's owner to gang activity, and United States v. Wurie, in which information on the phone led the police to an apartment that was searched and found to contain drugs and a weapon.

The Justice Department, defending warrantless searches of cell phones, had argued that evidence on a phone could be destroyed remotely, were officers to wait to obtain a warrant to conduct the search. Preventing such destruction, however, can be as simple as switching a phone into airplane mode or slipping it into a Faraday bag, and these precautions are well understood by the law enforcement community.

Digital privacy advocates are relieved. Hanni Fakhoury, staff attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, an organization that filed briefs in the two cell phone search cases considered by the Supreme Court, stated yesterday that “these decisions are huge for digital privacy.”

“The court,” Fakhoury said, “recognized that the astounding amount of sensitive data stored on modern cell phones requires heightened privacy protection and cannot be searched at a police officer’s whim.”

Goose Bump Detector Senses Your Skin Crawling

A swell of music that evokes a long-forgotten memory, the rising tension of a horror film, or a sudden drop in temperature can all lead to tiny goose bumps on human skin—a physical response sometimes related to emotional states. New skin sensors capable of tracking such hair-raising moments in life could someday help detect a person's reaction to a new movie or online advertisement.

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Google Fit Wants to Rule All Your Wearable Health, Fitness Devices

Google is no longer satisfied just to know what you searched for online the last time you had a cold or suffered from heartburn. The Internet giant plans for its Google Fit service to track everything about your health by gathering data from fitness trackers, health apps, and wearable medical devices.

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Supreme Court Shoots Aereo Down

In a 6-3 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court sided with traditional broadcasters and ruled that Aereo, a New York City-based startup that provides TV streaming service based on “personal antennas,” has infringed the copyrights of producers and their licensed distributors.

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Google Bets $50 Million on Inspiring Girls to Become Coders

Fewer than one percent of high school girls express interest in becoming computer science majors in college—a dismal number that also points to why the percentage of women among computer science graduates has dropped in recent decades. Google aims to boost that number via a mentorship network aimed at getting girls interested in coding. The company plans to invest $50 million into its new "Made with Code" initiative over the next three years.

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Beyond Tianhe-2

The TOP500 semi-annual ranking of the world’s most powerful supercomputers, announced yesterday, revealed that China’s Tianhe-2 has kept its first-place position. The three-time winner, capable of performing 33.86 petaflops (a maximum of 33.86 quadrillion computations per second) remains nearly twice as fast as its nearest competitor, the Titan supercomputer at Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

The TOP500 ranking is based on contenders’ performance running the LINPACK Benchmarks, which measure how fast a computer can solve large systems of linear equations. While this is a convenient way to rank computer performance, it doesn’t reflect all the tasks supercomputers might be faced with. In particular, some have to analyze and process huge datasets, meaning that it’s more valuable for them to be able to quickly determine the connections between data points than to perform numerical calculations. Their ability to identify such connections is reflected in the newer Graph500 ranking system. But the fact remains that computers that hit these benchmarks are lightning-fast—and able to take on more and more complicated modeling and analysis projects.

The combined speed of all 500 systems—or how fast they’d be if they could all work together—has reached 274 petaflops, up from the 250-petaflop total of the previous TOP500 list in November. This increase (according to the organization’s infographic [pdf]) represents a slowdown in the rate of growth compared with the trajectory based on recent lists, but the curators of the TOP500 list still say it’s likely that one such behemoth will break the exaflop barrier by 2020.

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Why U.S. Companies Will Win Wearables

Wearables seem to be everywhere. Whether it’s the wearables of the near future, like smart glasses, the even nearer future—smartwatches—or the ones most widely available today—activity monitors—it’s clear that the next great wave of consumer electronics will be worn on the human body. Ubiquitous gadgets studding clothing, worn on the wrist, covering the eyes, tattooed on the skin, or placed in the ear is where we're heading—and we're moving there fast.

While other regions of the world may be leading innovation in telecommunications, energy, automobiles, and biomedicine, U.S. companies, big and small, are the main innovators of wearable technology.

That’s because the innovation ecosystem in the U.S. supports entrepreneurs with big ideas. That’s been true for now-massive companies such as Google and Apple, and it’s true for a slew of emerging companies that are developing wearable technologies. One reason is schools such as MIT, Berkeley, Stanford, and Carnegie Mellon, which serve as incubators for spin-off companies that benefit from the schools' resources during the development phase. Budding engineers can create new products with little financial risk.

These academic spinoffs in the U.S., unlike their counterparts in other countries, can often retain the intellectual property rights to technology developed in university labs. The ability to retain IP can make entrepreneurs more willing to make the leap from the lab to commercialization and may also increase the value of a company to potential investors.

Once a U.S. spinoff begins the commercialization process, it typically looks not to government organizations for funding but to VCs, angel investors, and crowdfunding. It also can look to the public stock market; initial public offerings for emerging companies are on the upswing, thanks to the Jumpstart Our Business Startups (JOBS) Act. The goal of the JOBS Act, which was signed into law on 5 April 2012, was to streamline access to capital for companies of all sizes.

“After the dot com bust, the U.S. government put in place a number of new rules and regulations that were very important, but had the unintended consequence of pricing smaller companies out of the IPO process, which is key to capital formation for emerging technology companies. The passage of the JOBS Act in April 2012 reduced the regulatory burden on smaller IPO candidates, and the IPO market has responded with two straight strong years," says Livingston Securities Chairman and CEO Scott Livingston.

He pointed out that the number of IPOs in 2012, the year that President Obama signed the JOBS Act into law, was the highest number since 2006. “And by September 2013,” said Livingston, “the number of IPOs had already surpassed all of 2012.”

While we have yet to see a wearables company achieve an IPO just yet, there is a good chance that we will see one within the next few years.

Meanwhile, crowdfunding seems to have worked particularly well in wearables, where it has brought individual investors and entrepreneurs together, sometimes at breakneck speed. Just look at Pebble. As the most successful Kickstarter project to date, Pebble raised more than $10.2 million for its smartwatches—although its target was only $100K. And consider Oculus VR. Back in 2012, Oculus set a Kickstarter goal of $250K for its Oculus Rift developer kit, a virtual reality headset. The company raised more than $2 million and recently sold itself to Facebook for $2 billion.

European start-ups, for the most part, don't benefit from the diversity of funding sources and the speed of access to money that U.S. companies enjoy. In Europe, innovators instead often grapple for government funding. Jumping through bureaucratic hoops takes time. It can also dampen the entrepreneurial spirit for emerging consumer technologies such as wearables. To be fair, Europe has far surpassed U.S. achievements in areas like sustainable energy, automotive design, and biomedical engineering—fields that often require more infrastructure and can afford longer design-to-delivery windows.

While government funding is also an important part of the Asian innovation engine, wearables start-ups are not the companies that are receiving the funding. So it will be the giants of the consumer-electronics industry in Asia—companies such as Sony, Samsung and LG—that will influence the development of wearable technology there. But China could prove to be an exception. With its booming entrepreneurialism in the consumer electronics industry (as well as the wealth generated by its rising creative class), it’s likely that at least some future wearables will not just be manufactured in China, but designed there, as well.

This is why the prospects for U.S. wearables makers have been looking pretty rosy, especially in the fitness/activity wristband specialty. Jawbone, a San Francisco-based, VC-funded company that makes the UP wristband, recently purchased Body Media, a Pittsburgh-based start-up that spun out of Carnegie Mellon. In March 2014, Intel acquired BASIS Science, a privately held company located in San Francisco, for its Basis bands. And, completing the power-triad of wristband developers, another San Francisco-based company, FitBit, stands successfully alone, selling both fitness/activity wristbands—Flex—and a cute little wireless activity tracker, Zip, which fits in a pocket or a bra.

And U.S. innovation goes beyond wristbands to other types of body-worn devices. Lumo BodyTech, a Stanford spinoff, offers two posture-saving applications: Lumo Back and Lumo Lift. And how did the company first get started? Again, Kickstarter, back in 2012. The company now has venture capital investment.

As executive director of a global trade association focused on micro-electromechanical systems (MEMS) and sensors, I care deeply about wearables because they would not exist without technologies like accelerometers, gyros, and magnetometers. And like many other industry types, I am eagerly anticipating “flexible electronics”—MEMS-based technologies with the potential to transform not just wearables but all kinds of electronic products.


Photo: MC10
MC10's biostamp can measure physiological parameters.

I particularly have my eye on MC10, a Cambridge, Mass., start-up with origins at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. MC10’s technology platform features a “bendable, stretchable, body-compatible electronic system” called the Biostamp—a soft, sensing sticker that can be placed anywhere on the body to measure for a variety of physiological parameters. MC10 is targeting wearable applications in the sports and fitness, consumer health, and regulated medical industries. The company launched its first commercial product, the Reebok Checklight head impact indicator last year, and will be launching the first of its Biostamp applications in 2015.

It is unequivocally true that technology innovation takes place all over the world, but when it comes to wearables and to some of the technology components and platforms that make wearables what they are, U.S.-based companies are ahead and will continue to lead the way.

Karen Lightman is executive director of MEMS Industry Group. She works with companies developing component-level technologies that are used to make wearables and with companies that create wearable products for consumers.

There Would Be No Silicon Valley Without New Jersey

In his recent “Reflections” column in IEEE Spectrum, Robert W. Lucky relates a little known (in fact, unknown to us) episode from the 1960s, wherein Bell Labs executives brought in Silicon Valley doyen Fred Terman to see if the success of Silicon Valley could be replicated in New Jersey.

That effort went nowhere, and Lucky concludes that New Jersey suffered from too much geographical isolation, a lack of social focus, and, most damning (at least according to Terman), no Stanford, with its “culture of engineering innovation.”

We believe that Lucky skipped over a few key facts in reaching his conclusions. First, despite the media’s fixation on Silicon Valley, a large and thriving technology corridor stretches from Boston to Philadelphia with its fulcrum in New Jersey. This is known as the Northeast Tech Corridor (NETC), which encompasses about 30,000 square kilometers, interconnected by a rigorous transportation infrastructure. Silicon Valley, on the other hand, covers just 500 km2, centered around Stanford.

Also worth noting is that the historical roots of innovation in the Northeast and especially New Jersey run deep. They took hold in the colonial period, were carried forward by Samuel Morse and Alfred Vail in the early 19th century, and reached a grand scale with Thomas Alva Edison and his industrial research lab in Menlo Park. Edison’s influence in turn attracted other inventors to the New Jersey region, and Bell Labs and a number of other laboratories inherited the tradition of his “invention factory.”

Silicon Valley has no such deep history. The name itself dates only from 1971 and didn’t become widely used until the 1980s. Back in the 1960s, any prominence the region enjoyed came mostly from Hewlett-Packard (known for audio oscillators and volt-meters), not from semiconductors. In New Jersey, on the other hand, Bell Labs had already invented the transistor (among many other developments too numerous to mention) and RCA had pioneered electronic television. Even as Silicon Valley was getting started, the NETC in general, and New Jersey in particular, continued to lead the country, if not the world, in high-tech innovation.

If we accept the argument that Silicon Valley did eventually, by the 1980s, eclipse New Jersey as the center of high tech, how then do we account for New Jersey’s early and continued success? And how do we explain its ultimate failure to keep up with the West Coast?

It is hard to evaluate the geography argument. Easy access to New York City (and therefore the sources of capital) through efficient public transportation would seem to be a plus, but Lucky suggests that it was a two-edged sword, so we will leave it at that.

But what about Terman’s reported main point about Stanford? The engineering institutions in New Jersey were certainly strong enough in the 1960s to promote growth —and their faculties were respected for their entrepreneurship. Stevens Institute of Technology, in Hoboken, was founded in 1870 with the first science-based engineering curriculum in the United States. In the 1960s it served as the main testing facility for NASA’s Apollo Program. Newark College of Engineering (today the New Jersey Institute of technology) opened in 1885 as the public technical school for the state. By the early 1960s it was granting doctoral degrees for the full range of engineering disciplines. Rutgers, the main state university, also had a strong engineering school. Although Princeton University is perhaps better known for science than engineering, it is one of the oldest and wealthiest universities in the United States, easily rivalling Stanford in academic caliber. And we won’t even mention the many institutions in nearby New York and Philadelphia (where the computer age was heralded by the development of ENIAC at the University of Pennsylvania).

It may be true that fewer technology start-ups emerged in New Jersey than in Silicon Valley—New Jersey’s engineers tended to cluster in the large laboratories such as Bell Labs, RCA, ITT Labs, and Philco. However, a number of these engineers, after learning their trade in the corporate labs, eventually left to start their own companies, though not necessarily in New Jersey. For example, Stevens graduate Eugene McDermott cut his teeth at the Western Electric research laboratory (predecessor to Bell Labs) and later cofounded Texas Instruments.

We will close with perhaps the most famous exit: William Shockley, who left Bell Labs in 1955, seven years after conceiving the junction transistor, and then formed Shockley Semiconductor in Mountain View, Calif., the region’s first silicon electronics laboratory. Thus, the “silicon” of Silicon Valley actually came from New Jersey.

A. Michael Noll, a New Jersey native, is a professor emeritus at the Annenberg School of the University of Southern California. Starting in the 1960s, he did basic research at Bell Labs, in Murray Hill, N.J., on 3-D computer graphics and animation, speech signal processing, and computer-generated art, among other topics. Michael N. Geselowitz, senior director of the IEEE History Center, leads the IEEE’s efforts to preserve and disseminate the proud heritage of IEEE technologies.

Goal Detection Technology for the Other Football

Last Sunday, during the World Cup game between France and Holland Honduras, FIFA's goal line detection technology passed its first field test. It was early in the second period when the French striker Karim Benzema nailed a shot right into the post that sent the ball blasting back across the goal line and bobbling into the hands of the Honduran goal tender. The crowd gasped and then went silent. It wasn't immediately apparent whether the ball had crossed the line.

Plays like this are decided by a lone referee on the field, and in the past, whether he made the right call depended entirely on whether he had a good line of sight through a throng of frenzied athletes (this 2010 World Cup goal goes to show that they don't always get it right). Now, however, the refs are getting backup from a system of high speed cameras that follow the ball in 3-D and send an alert when it crosses the goal line. Seconds after Benzema made his attack, the ref received a vibrating signal on his smartwatch, a point went up on the board, and the crowd broke into a jubilant chant. 

FIFA's goal line technology has improved the accuracy of point scoring to such a degree that one has to wonder whether other sports besides soccer might benefit from similar ball tracking systems. Now, it seems, American football may provide the next test case. Engineers at North Carolina University and Carnegie Mellon have teamed up with Disney Research to design a sensor-based system for determining the location and position of a football on the field and are beginning to test its accuracy. They describe the technology in IEEE's Antennas and Propagation Magazine.

American football presents certain challenges that do not exist with soccer. Sometimes, the most  important calls a ref can make happen on plays where the ball is buried beneath a scrum of sweaty, 150-kilogram men. In such cases, a visual detection system, such as the one now being used at the World Cup, would be useless. 

Instead, the NCU researchers are opting to send radio signals from transmitters hidden within the layers of the football and track it with receivers positioned around the field. According to the paper, engineers have tried similar approaches in the past, but ran into trouble because they were using a high frequency wave, of a kind that is easily absorbed by the human body. The researchers claims that results from these previous attempts failed because they did not produce a clear enough signal. 

This time around, engineers are using extremely low frequency radio waves (producing a wavelength that is hundreds of meters long) that are able to pass through the human body unmolested. The design they came up with requires that a transmitter and battery, weighing less than 30 grams, be embedded into the football. Eight receivers, placed on the perimeter of the field then calculate the location and orientation of the ball in 3-D.

Unfortunately, using low frequency waves solves one problem while creating another. This time, the interference comes from the ground which absorbs the signal and then re-emits it in a pattern called an eddy-current. In order to reduce the noise from this secondary signal, the engineers rigged the field with a set of optical instruments. While the receivers are keeping tabs on the signal transmitted from inside the football, the optical instruments collect information about the position of the receivers. This data can then be used to scrub out the signals coming from the ground. 

According to the researchers, their technique must be accurate to within half the length of a football—about 14 centimeters—in order to be considered reliable. Right now they report having it down to 77 centimeters.

For those of you wondering how the performance of a football might change after it's been stuffed with sensors, David Ricketts, one of the authors of the study, says that footballs are actually rather asymmetrical objects to begin with. "The American football is already unbalanced," he explained by email. "The laces cause a weight mis-distribution, so they counterweight it to compensate. The added weight of the transmitter would be handled in the same way."

If you'd like to see how the tracking system would work in a real game, the group has posted a video of their trials here.

Editor's note: The game referenced in the first sentence was between France and Honduras, not Holland as originally reported.


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