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Alameda County Sheriff's Deputy Dave Durbin prepares to fly a drone during a search and rescue demonstration

How Is a Drone Like a Dog? Ask a Cop

Four years ago, Alameda County, California’s purchase of two drones for use by law enforcement was controversial. Now, the Alameda County Sheriff’s Department has six drones, and their use is routine. So said Tom Madigan, a commander at the Alameda Sheriff’s Office, to drone industry representatives and other law enforcement officials gathered at Drone World Expo in San Jose, Calif., last week.

The Alameda County drone program has been fully operational for only about two years, Madigan said. In that time, he indicated, the Alameda Sheriff’s Office has flown drones 700 times as part of 175 real-world missions, including search and rescue, fire scene surveillance, homicide scene analysis, and providing eyes in the sky during high-risk tactical operations.

Madigan showed stunning drone videos captured during a number of recent operations (photography of these videos, unfortunately, was prohibited). As a Bay Area resident, I had some knowledge of the crisis situations described because they had been reported on the local news. However, I had had no idea of the roles drones had played in the police response.

Drones, Madigan reported, helped scan the inaccessible Big Sur coastline during a recent search for a missing 17-year-old boy (who was later found drowned). A drone that was monitoring efforts to put out a fire engulfing a 100-plus-unit apartment building spotted a secondary fire sparked by embers some distance away, helping firefighters get to that fire quickly. Drones were also used to survey the scene of the Ghost Ship fire; they gathered footage used to help create a 3D model. One of these tiny aircraft helped hunt for a vehicle that disappeared in a river; from the images Madigan presented, I believe that hunt referred to an 18-year-old woman reported missing in January’s heavy rains along Niles Canyon Road.

And, in the most stunning video in Madigan’s collection, a drone was used during a narcotics raid on a home in east Oakland. The drone hovered over the house before the police arrived. The video showed a police car pulling up, and the people in the house beginning to flee. It catches them tossing guns and packages of narcotics over fences and onto the rooftop, simplifying the job of police attempting to collect all the contraband, and providing a clear evidence trail for prosecutors. The drone then followed the fleeing suspects, one slowed briefly by a neighbor’s dog. Meanwhile, the police ignored the fugitives for the moment, while officers continued to search the house, knowing the drone would allow them to find the criminals later. The drone video showed the suspects slowing and starting to walk normally, believing they had eluded pursuit, but all the while the drone tracked them. Eventually, the eye in the sky guided two patrol cars to the suspects’ location. The officers easily surrounded the fugitives.

Other law enforcement officers speaking at the expo talked about hunting for lost hikers, surveilling accident scenes, and, with the addition of spectral cameras, spotting marijuana growing.

But after Madigan’s video, the conference attendees didn’t need much more convincing that law enforcement agencies should be using drones. Charles Werner, Acting Deputy State Coordinator of Disaster Services at Virginia’s Department of Emergency Management, pointed to recent contributions of drones to public safety outside of the Bay Area.

“In Charlottesville, a drone caught a picture of the car that killed the young lady,” he said. “In a recent protest march that went into areas that hadn’t been permitted for or predicted, a drone allowed police to be at every intersection and manage that march.”

William Seymour from the Tulare County Sheriff’s Department pointed out that drone use can also eliminate the need for risky, high-speed chases. “A guy is at high speed because we are chasing him. If we stop chasing him, but instead have a UAV 500 feet up in the air, we can see where he goes; that is what is important.”

“We are negligent if we aren’t using drones,” says Werner. “Not just for law enforcement, but, say, for looking for sharks along a coastline.  With the expense of drones so low, for $2000 you can have a drone operation,” Werner added.

Seymour says drones should be thought of in the same way as police dogs. Tulare County, he says, treats drones like a canine unit; they travel in specially marked cars as officers go about normal duties, then the team is called in as necessary. And, like canine crews, sometimes the officers involved take a little extra time for public relations, Werner said, because public acceptance will be key. “If I have to spend five minutes after deployment talking to kids or giving a free demo,” he said, “I always will, because anything we can do to preserve our ability to use this tool we are going to do.”

Werner had some advice for the law enforcement attendees just beginning to add drones to their operations: “Do fire rescue, search and rescue, finding Alzheimer’s patients first,” he said. Publicity around these operations will help bring public opinion along.

Said Seymour: “The ultimate thing we are trying to do is save people’s lives, not see who is around your swimming pool.”

Job search data shows U.S. tech employees looking for the Silicon Valley of Canada target Ottawa and Toronto

Where’s the next Silicon Valley? How about Ottawa or Toronto?

Yes, there’s a big Trump effect on the number of job seekers looking to become U.S. expats. Let’s get that out of the way to start with. The number of searches for jobs in Canada by U.S. residents took a big jump immediately after the U.S. election, and again after the January presidential inauguration. In fact, Canada’s immigration site crashed on election night.

Online job search firm Indeed looked at this phenomenon from a tech perspective, and found that software engineers and other tech workers are typically more interested in Canadian jobs than the general workforce. What’s more, says Indeed, their interest zooms in on two metropolitan areas: Ottawa and Toronto.

Overall, people living in the United States but checking out jobs in Canada gravitated to Toronto—not surprising, given that Toronto is Canada’s largest city. But for tech-job seekers, Ottawa edges out Toronto. Indeed calculated this by looking at the share of U.S. clicks for tech jobs in an area compared with the share of U.S. clicks for all jobs. By this metric, the Kitchener-Waterloo area came in third, followed by Vancouver and Montreal.

In its analysis, Indeed’s Hiring Lab, the company’s research arm, pointed out that Ottawa owes its appeal as a tech hub to the 1990s establishment of Nortel Networks’ research and development headquarters and, more recently, the birth of Shopify in that city. Toronto and Kitchener, meanwhile, are potential Silicon Valleys thanks to universities with top computer science programs. Kitchener’s University of Waterloo, in particular, has become well-known for spawning startups like Blackberry, as well as being a feeder school for Silicon Valley tech talent.

Illustration of a group of people holding a lightbulb, with the IBM logo in the center of the lightbulb

Where Does IBM Research Get Ideas? Open Mikes and Interns

“We’re still doing a lot of basic research,” it’s not just development. That’s what Jeff Welser, lab director of IBM Research-Almaden told me on a recent visit.

Given that IBM’s Watson technology was initially a system designed to play the TV game show Jeopardy, but is now a general-purpose machine learning system thought to be the fastest-growing part of IBM’s business, it’s not surprising that the company is hoping another wild seed will bear profitable fruit. But where do these seeds come from?

Welser told me that research projects often originate from open mike sessions, held once a year. These are serious events and, at the same time, entertainment along the lines of Shark Tank meets American Idol.

“One or two dozen people stand on stage and pitch in the first round,” Welser explains. With feedback from the audience, usually in a free-flowing Q&A, the researchers usually winnow themselves down to three or four, based on the community’s interest. Then we do another round in the auditorium with those researchers fleshing out what they want to do, including how many people they will need from where in the organization. Then the judges—myself and key technical leaders from the lab—winnow that down to one or two projects.”

Welser says that, ideally, these selections are what the company calls “Grand Challenges,” that is, they are trying to answer a challenging scientific or technology question as well as to build a usable technology or proof of concept. 

“One year,” he says, “we also used online voting. People could ‘like’ something and could also indicate ‘I would work on it.’ This process focused on finding new, smaller projects that could combine different threads of work going on in the lab, rather than defining new grand challenges.

IBM’s neuromorphic chipfor example, came out of an open mike session in 2006.

IBM also sets its research agenda in a more formal process, involving all of its labs around the world. Welser explained: “We annually run our global technology outlook. We ask people to submit a page or two outlining an important trend or technology disruption. We’ll get things describing, say, the ‘aging demographic,’ or ‘blockchain.’ Typically we’ll have 200 or so submissions. Then we try to group the submissions that are around the same topic areas, without doing any winnowing away of ideas we don’t like. We’ll send those back to the people who submitted them, and ask them to work together and come back with the kernel of the idea that they were all trying to get at.”

Welser adds that those ideas are presented to people at IBM’s business units, professors at universities, and others to try to figure out which ideas have legs. “By the end of the year, we want to be down to six or seven topics. Then we spend a full day with [IBM CEO] Ginni Rometty to determine [what it will take to pursue a given idea], including what it will take in research funding, what it will mean for the business units,” and how best to move forward.

IBM’s involvement in the open-source Hyperledger project, which involves using blockchain for internal business transactions, came out of this process, Welser says.

Finally, a lot of research ideas come from summer interns; the company has an extensive summer intern program.

Recently, one intern was interested in looking at what he could tell about the work environment by using Bluetooth beacons. That led to the RouteMe2 project, a collaboration with the University of California at Santa Cruz that developed assistive navigation technology for use by special needs passengers taking mass transit. The project, funded by a $1 million grant from the National Science Foundation, had offshoots focusing on monitoring patients, staff, and resources in senior care centers, as well as providing location context information for people navigating telepresence robots.  

Another intern, interested in food spoilage, used AI to track subtle changes in the shape and behavior of small single cell organisms when they are exposed to the harmful bacteria associated with milk spoilage. This has evolved into a joint research program with Cornell University.

Correction made 9 Oct 2017

Small person with two large hands above them, one holding a money icon and one holding a house.

Silicon Valley Jobs Are a Good Deal for Engineers, Even with the High Cost of Living

Every time I report on a study tracking engineering salaries across the United States, Silicon Valley inevitably comes out at the top. And, just as inevitably, commenters will point out that Silicon Valley’s high cost of living means that those salaries, in terms of local purchasing power, are nowhere near the top.

That, however, is not true, at least according to a new study by job search site Adjusted for the cost of living, tech salaries in the Bay Area (split into the San Francisco-Oakland region and the San Jose-Santa Clara region), while not at the absolute top of the scale, are in the top six out of 25 metro areas considered.

At the very top were two southern cities—Charlotte and Atlanta, followed by Austin. The San Francisco area came in fourth, followed by Seattle and San Jose. Dallas, Raleigh, Detroit, and Phoenix rounded out the top 10.  Chicago came in at number 12, Boston at 13, Los Angeles at 19, Washington D.C. at 20, San Diego at 22, New York at 23, and the Miami area at 25. The complete list is here.

As for the numbers, the average salary, as calculated by Indeed, was $101,147 in Charlotte—that adjusted to $108,178 when considering the region’s low cost of living. San Francisco tech jobs paid an average of $125,233—adjusted down to $102,734; San Jose jobs paid an average of $126,937, adjusted to $102,286. And in Raleigh, N.C., a typical salary of $96,516 adjusted up to $100,748.

Of course, purchasing power is not the only consideration. “In the Bay Area, Austin, and Seattle, you’ll get a richer selection of tech jobs to choose from, with salaries that will stretch nicely,” the report says.

Drilling down into specific job categories, Indeed’s study found a few anomalies. Software architects, the report indicated, will find their salary dollars go furthest in Sacramento. Back-end developers looking for the most bang for the buck should head to Seattle, data scientists to Dallas, and software engineers to Huntsville, Ala. Android developers, full-stack developers, and application developers should stay in the Bay Area to maximize their purchasing power, while Java folks should head to St. Louis, Indeed’s data indicated.

Generally, Indeed found, the high salaries offered to engineers in tech hotbeds more than make up for the higher costs of living in those areas. “That higher tech-job paycheck in Metro A will probably still be higher than a paycheck for a tech job in Metro B, even after adjusting for Metro A’s higher living costs,” the report stated. “In this way, tech jobs are different from jobs in the general labor market, where living costs more than offset local differences in salaries.”

The Indeed study looked at salary data from jobs in 158 tech-related occupations in metro areas with populations of at least 250,000, posted on the site between August 2016 and July 2017, along with local cost of living data from the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis that reflect local differences in the price of housing, services, and other physical goods.

An artist's rendition of a flying car hovering over a city

HAX and Airbus Want to Help You Build Your Flying Car Company

HAX, the hardware startup investor and accelerator, along with Airbus, is looking for start-ups to join a four-month accelerator program aimed to advance developments in urban air mobility, a.k.a. flying cars.

“Transportation in megacities needs fresh ideas to improve the way we live,” said Mathias Thomsen, urban air mobility general manager at Airbus, in a press statement. “We believe that adding the vertical dimension to urban mobility will improve the current congested megacity transport systems.”

The accelerator is looking for startups developing technologies in:

•    Urban air transport vehicle technology
•    Aerial sense and avoid technology
•    Airport runway and landing detection systems
•    Emergency safety technology for airborne vehicles
•    Infrastructure for airborne transport vehicles
•    Autonomous airborne vehicle technology
•    Aerial maneuver decision making and support systems
•    Air traffic management systems
•    Aerial collision detection and avoidance systems
•    Battery packaging and management systems for airborne vehicles

The selected startups will receive at least $100,000 in seed money, and spend four months in Shenzhen, China, turning their ideas into prototype with help from HAX and Airbus engineers. Applications can be submitted here. As many as 10 companies will be selected.

Updated 29 September 2017

Aditazz's design tools, based on those used in the semiconductor industry, helped create this university laboratory plan.

How Chip Design Can Teach Us to Build Better Hospitals

Deepak Aatresh, an electrical and computer engineer from India, joined Intel in 1989 as a chip designer (after reading an article in IEEE Spectrum on Intel’s project to build the first million-transistor chip). He spent nearly 20 years in the semiconductor industry, including seven at Intel. After Intel, he moved to communications hardware companies, where he continued to be involved in silicon chip design.

Then, in 2008, bit by the startup bug but without a particular idea in mind, he joined Artiman Ventures as an entrepreneur in residence. He thought he’d try to find a way to somehow reduce energy waste.

He ended up with a plan to disrupt the construction industry, using the kinds of design tools and workflows commonly used for semiconductors, and co-founded Aditazz to make that happen. (Aditazz is a tweak of a Sanskrit word meaning “from the beginning.”)

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A simulation of Zizmos' earthquake early warning system shows the progression of a temblor in the San Francisco Bay Area

Zizmos Continues Its Quest to Create an IoT Earthquake-Warning Network

Update 20 September 2017:

A few smartphone users in the Mexico City area were running the Zizmos app, described below, when this week’s magnitude-7.1 earthquake struck, Zizmos founder Battalgazi Yildirim reports, but not enough to issue a warning, although Zizmos did register the shaking.

Yildirim says he’d like to be able to get 50 fixed sensors installed in Mexico City—enough to reliably give warnings of aftershocks. The design, however, is still at the prototype stage, so each costs about $500 to build. He only has 10 on hand to donate, and would need funding to produce 40 more and local volunteers to install them.

Meanwhile, since the Mexico City earthquake, he says, another 5,000 smartphone users around the world have started running the app.

I first met Battalgazi Yildirim two years ago. He had posted a request in my local online community: His startup, Zizmos, wanted volunteers willing to mount a sensor package inside their homes, preferably on a bearing wall, to test whether a network of cheap packages of electronics, based on the Android phone design and his algorithms, could give early warnings of earthquakes. He wasn’t looking to do long-term prediction, just 15 or 30 seconds—enough to allow people to grab their kids and move to the safest spot in their house.

Yildirim funded that first trial—which eventually involved 100 sensors—with an NSF research grant of $150,000. Like many first design attempts, it didn’t work out so well. It turned out, Yildirim told me last week, that the Android platform had a fatal flaw—it couldn’t pull in data from an external sensor and simultaneously recharge. The alpha testers might have been willing to deal with keeping the gadgets charged, but this approach wasn’t going to appeal to the masses. And Yildirim’s idea is going to need mass adoption to work; it relies on large numbers of low-cost sensors that report possible earthquake vibrations to the cloud, then eliminates false alarms by comparing the data with neighboring sensors.

The good news, however, Yildirim said, was that the internal sensors on phones were getting better and better—maybe, he thought, he and cofounder Greg Stillman could just design an app instead of dedicated hardware. He entered the Verizon Powerful Answers competition and his proposal won a grand prize--$1 million. The award also came with a lot of help, formal and informal, he says, from Verizon’s business team.

With enough money to carry Zizmos for a while, Yildirim hired contractors to work on apps for Android and iPhone and also went back to his original idea of producing a wall-mounted Internet of Things gadget. “The system works better,” he says, “if we gather data from a fixed device for which we have full control of the hardware and software.”

The free app is out and has had nearly 100,000 downloads so far. It works as an earthquake sensor only when it is plugged into power, is connected to WiFi, and is stationary, say, sitting on a bedside table.

“It’s mostly looking at frequency,” Yildirim says. “When an earthquake originates some distance away, the high frequencies quickly die off; instead you are just getting low frequency vibrations. If a truck passes by or you bump the table the phone is sitting on, you get a broader range of frequencies.”

If the app triggers on a possible earthquake, it sends its data to the cloud. The cloud software knows the locations of nearby sensors. If enough are in the same neighborhood, it analyzes data from all of them. “If it is an earthquake wave, multiple sensors will trigger in sequence,” Yildirim said.

The system is currently using the data for research only. It isn’t sending out actual warnings to users. “We are detecting earthquakes,” Yildirim said, particularly on a small network in Northern California. But the users worldwide are currently distributed too sparsely to be of much use.

In the meantime, the app has some utility for those who have downloaded it: It gives earthquake reports based on data from government agencies around the world and allows users to customize those alerts for specific geographic areas, both local, and where friends and family live.

Next out of the gate, Yildirim says, will be that IoT package. He’s got 25 prototypes installed and tested, and Zizmos hardware engineering lead Mark Johnston is working on the industrial design for the final product, which Yildirim says will be small and sleek enough that it wouldn’t look out of place sitting next to a Nest thermostat on the wall. Zizmos plans on launching a Kickstarter campaign in a month or two in hopes of generating enough preorders to guarantee that particular geographies, like California or Oklahoma, will have critical mass—before shipping. He estimates that, for California, that will mean at least 6,000 sensors installed around the state.

Meanwhile, more prize money funding is trickling in—Zizmos scored additional prize money last month (but has to keep quiet until a formal announcement is made). Yildirim is hopeful that some additional grant applications will bring in funding, and says his idea has gotten some traction from reality TV producers. The company was scheduled to be featured on Planet of the Apps but the episode was preempted and Yildirim has heard no rescheduling news. He was also a finalist on America’s Greatest Maker, with $1 million at stake, but the show has been cancelled.

“Competitions like this product,” he says, “and they don’t require giving up equity. But you can’t run a company forever on prize money.”

The long-term plan is turning Zizmos into a venture-funded company that turns a profit—not from purchasers of the hardware, but from structural engineers and insurance companies interested in how certain types of buildings respond to earthquakes in different areas. They would find value in the data, using it to provide more granular risk assessments. 

Beetl's backyard robot identifies and cleans up dog poop

Starting a Robotics Company? Sell a Service, Not a Robot

If you want to start a robot company, plan to kick off by selling a service performed by robots, not the robots themselves.

That was the message of robot startup founders and investors speaking at HAX demo day this week. HAX is a five-year-old hardware accelerator based in Shenzhen, China, and San Francisco.

“I’m a big fan of going out and doing a service with a robot, competing with other businesses that provide that service, rather than trying to sell a $100,000 robot,” said Nathan Harding, co-founder of Ekso Bionics and now co-founder and CEO of Wink Robotics, a still-mostly-stealthy company intending to bring robotics technology into the beauty salon industry.

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Ikea sells tools that allow you to integrate wireless charging capability with existing furniture

You'll Need Ikea's $5 Saw If You Buy That $1000 iPhone X

Today, Apple announced its new iPhones—the iPhone 8, 8 plus, and the US $1000 iPhone X. And all feature wireless charging using the Qi standard. The company expects to start selling its own wireless charging mat next year. In the meantime, it pointed customers to third party charging mats, like this one from Belkin, which sells for $40. (You can find mats for as little as $12 or so).

But a mat? Boring. Instead, I took a look at the Ikea catalog, recalling that a couple of years ago, Ikea bet on the Qi wireless charging standard when it designed a line of products with built-in charging capabilities. These include a $60 nightstand, a $70 desk lamp, and an $80 table lamp. The company also makes a DIY kit, including a $5 saw that attaches to a drill and makes holes in any piece of wood or particle board furniture so that it will precisely fit the company’s $30 charger.

Where there are winners, of course, there are losers. A few years ago, Starbucks did a modest roll out of wireless charging using the Powermat standard. Starbucks’ Powermat charging tables won’t be charging the new iPhones. And Energous, maker of Watt-Up wireless charging, saw its stock plunge today after Apple’s announcement.

Apple added functionality to the Apple Watch's heart rate monitoring app

The Apple Watch’s Heart Monitoring App Gets Smarter

Apple announced today that the company is updating the heart rate monitoring software in existing Apple watches so that they gather and display more information. This short statement, delivered amid two hours of hardware and software announcements, packs a huge amount of potential.

Jeff Williams, Apple chief operating officer, described the new features, explaining that enhancements to the heart rate app include: correlating heart rate and accelerometer data to calculate a wearer’s standard resting heart rate; monitoring recovery time, that is, how long it takes after an activity for the watch wearer’s heart rate to return to its resting state; and alerting the user when the app detects an elevated heart rate at times when other sensors are not picking up physical activity—a potential sign of trouble.

The app will also monitor heart rhythms, Williiams said. In a pilot study with Stanford Medicine set to begin later this year, the heart rate app will notify users of heart rhythm problems such as atrial fibrillation, or AFib, a common heart rhythm problem that can be asymptomatic until it leads to complications.

These enhancements represent just the tip of the iceberg with respect to what can be done with continuous heart rate monitoring. John Rogers, a pioneer in wearable electronics, and his team at Northwestern University will be launching a large study involving expectant mothers in January. Rogers and his team will use continuous heart rate monitoring via an MC10 BioStamp to gather heart rate and heart rate variability data. With appropriate data analytics, Rogers says, the researchers will be able to get clues pointing to psychological stress of the type that is known to have adverse effects on the gestational period. When stress levels are high, the subjects will receive alerts advising them to take preventive action, he says.


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