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    A sample dish, otherwise known as a bacterial cage match

    Humans could never have figured out how to get rid of potentially harmful bacteria without harnessing the bacteria themselves; when bacteria are under fire, they can create a special biological agent designed to eliminate their attackers. Now researchers from Vanderbilt University have figured out a way to pit certain types of bacteria against one another. The chemicals that result could be used to develop new antibiotics and treatments, according to a study published recently in ACS Chemical Biology.

    Like in any other organism, a bacteria’s DNA contains the blueprints for the organism’s development and reproduction. But bacterial DNA also contains the code for chemicals called secondary metabolites, chemicals not directly related to the organism’s growth but still necessary for its preservation and longevity. Some bacteria use these secondary metabolites to defend themselves against attackers, and only produce them when they're attacked. These are incredibly effective—many of the antibiotics and even some anti-cancer drugs widely used today are derived from these secondary metabolites. But in the past, discovering these chemical agents has been haphazard, only occurring when researchers stumbled upon bacteria already producing the chemicals.

    Now the Vanderbilt team has created a way to put bacteria in a cage match, forcing them to fight for their lives so that the researchers can more easily extract the secondary metabolites. In the experiment, they pitted Nocardiopsis, a bacteria found in soil whose DNA indicates the ability to produce secondary metabolites, against four different bacterial challengers individually. When they used a special technique to analyze the resulting cultures, they found many more chemicals than would have been possible from the two bacteria alone, indicating that they had produced secondary metabolites. In the process they also discovered a new class of compounds that shows promising cancer-fighting properties when tested in a petri dish.

    Using different combinations of bacteria, this technique could help researchers discover new antibiotics, which are very much in demand as more pathogens become drug-resistant. “In the past, we’ve experimented with a number of ways to get bacteria to produce their secondary metabolites, including poisoning them with antibiotics and exposing them to rare earths, but the fight club approach is the most effective method we’ve found, by far,” said study author John McLean in a press release.

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    Google's Self-Driving Car

    Google's Self-Driving Car


    With large tech companies like Google and Uber circling driverless cars, the conversation has mostly been one of “how soon can we do this?” and not “should we?” Of course, autonomous cars would be cool, but what are the advantages besides the obvious luxury of not needing an error-prone, human hand behind the wheel?

    Researchers from the Lawrence Berkeley National Lab in California say another advantage exists — an environmental one. If a fleet of autonomous electric taxis were to replace everyone’s gas-powered, personal cars, we could see more than a 90 percent decrease in greenhouse gas emissions and almost 100 percent decrease in oil consumption from cars, all while saving money in the long run. Right now that may seem like a long shot, but a study earlier this year said that 44 percent of Americans would consider buying a driverless car in the next 10 years, even if it would cost $5,000 more.

    Now this may seem obvious: if you started to only build electric cars, emissions and oil consumption will fall. But what surprised Berkeley researchers was how most efficient such a system would actually be, even with the relatively high cost of electric vehicles today.

    “You don’t often find that, where the cheapest is also the greenest,” said Jeff Greenblatt, co-author of the study.

    A fleet about 15 percent of the size of all private cars could service the same population, if scheduled correctly, estimated Greenblatt. But the real savings would be found in the operating cost. Even when estimating that an electric, driverless car would cost $150,000 up front, researchers say that a car that could drive 24/7, not require a salary and use no gasoline would pay for itself before five years. The paper says that price will drop drastically, citing an IHS study that says autonomy will only add around $5,000 to a car’s current sticker price by 2030.

    When asked about the limiting range of electric cars (right now the popular Nissan Leaf gets 84 miles per charge), Greenblatt told Popular Science that a fleet would be able to compensate for that range, versus a single-owner car—when the battery is low, a car would simply drive back to the main station, to be replaced in the field by a charged car.

    Researchers relied heavily on the idea they called “right-sizing,” meaning the car dispatched would be fit to the trip’s needs. For instance, a different car would be sent for one-person trip, versus a group of four people heading out for a long-distance road trip. Greenblatt said that if based purely off current technology, that might be a situation where an autonomous hybrid car would be deployed.

    The biggest issue right now: these cars don’t commercially exist. However, it seems both Google and Uber are looking to change that, and according to Berkeley press, researchers from this study already have talks scheduled at Google.

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    Smart mouth guard

    University of Florida

    If you’ve ever woken up with a weird headache and pain in your jaw during a particularly stressful time, it might be because you were grinding your teeth, a condition called bruxism. Don’t worry, though, you’re not alone—one in five Americans does it. Now a team of researchers from the University of Florida has created an easier way to diagnose bruxism using a smart mouthguard.

    Stress is a problem for more than half of working adults, according to the American Psychological Association. Among the many physiological issues that stress can cause, bruxism may seem relatively minor. But teeth grinding can have much larger effects, such as damaged teeth, headaches, insomnia, and a sore jaw. And despite its prevalence, bruxism is not easy to diagnose. The most common way to do so is to have the patient monitored overnight in a sleep clinic, which is “intrusive,” as the researchers say, and impractical.

    The researchers thought that a smart mouthguard would be less expensive and make diagnosis easier for dentists. Equipped with sensors, the mouthguard detects how much force is being applied on it by the teeth as well as which teeth are doing the grinding. The information can then be sent to a dentist via a mobile device.

    The mouthguard can also help treat bruxism in addition to diagnosing it. Usually, bruxism is treated with therapy in order to help the patient reduce stress and change behaviors. But the smart mouth guard can do more: “The advantage is that the guard extends the treatment beyond the time spent in the clinic,” said Fong Wong, one of the researchers behind the project. “This promises greater effectiveness and lower cost,” because it cuts down on the number of clinical sessions a patient needs, she says.

    In the future, similar smart mouthguards could be useful for athletes involved in contact sports like football. Accelerometers could detect the strength of forces affecting the head, which could give them advanced warning if a concussion is likely. Other types of sensors could help determine if the athlete is dehydrated or is approaching a dangerously high body temperature.

    The mouthguard recently came in second place in a competition held for applications for microtechnologies in Anchorage, Alaska. The researchers haven’t yet given any indication of when the mouthguards could go on the market, or how much they would cost if they do.

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    If you get bored building the entirety of Westeros or the limited story options in Minecraft, your prayers have been answered. Minecraft, the game defined by its thriving 70,000,000+ community of builders, is adding a separate Story Mode game, where players will be able to navigate a traditional storyline developed by Telltale Games.

    Story Mode will oddly be a standalone game by Telltale, but Owen Hill, Mojang’s chief word officer, says that it “follows the logic of Minecraft, but still manages to feel original. It's actually pretty funny too.” Hill also added that the pig, seen in the trailer above, is adorable.

    The new game follows other recent big experiments from Minecraft, including a demo for parent company Microsoft’s HoloLens augmented reality headset, which allows players to interact with virtual Minecraft blocks on their real life tabletops. This is another aspect of Minecraft's evolution from basic building platform to multi-faceted media machine, as it also follows last year's Minecraft movie announcement.

    Telltale Games broke into the mainstream with their intensely story-driven version of The Walking Dead, proving that video games based on shows (or comic books) didn’t have to be terrible. (We’re looking at you, Superman for the Nintendo 64.) More recently they’ve taken on other popular franchises like Game of Thrones, scoring the original actors as the voice cast.

    Minecraft: Story Mode’s voice cast sports its own brand of surprises, with nerd icons Patton Oswalt and Brian Posehn, as well as Paul Reubens (best known as his Pee-Wee Herman character). Oswalt will take center stage in Story Mode, playing the main protagonist, Jesse. According to the trailer, decisions that players make throughout the game affect the plot later on, although Telltale Games has gotten some heat from fans before about how much user input actually matters in the grand scheme of the game.

    A Telltale Games blog post says Story Mode’s adventure lies with four central characters who form the Order of the Stone, a group that defeated an Ender Dragon (a beast seen in the original Minecraft). At a convention (possibly much like the MineCon that happened this weekend), they find out something is dreadfully wrong. It’s vague, but it’s what we have so far. Hill promises more on the story this year.

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    Deepdream Bot/ Twitter

    A picture of a boy and his dog warped by Psychic VR Lab.

    Transport yourself to a magical land of slug people, dog monsters, and other psychedelic scenes as you scroll though the Deepdream bot Twitter feed. Be forewarned, a significant portion of your day may be lost.

    Ever since Google opened up its “DeepDream” source code, we've been mesmerized by the uncanny, computerized dreamscapes that Google’s artificial neural networks (ANNs) cook up, nightmarish chimeras of wobbly towers, bird-cars, and random limbs.

    Last week, the Popular Science office as well as the rest of the internet couldn’t get enough of the DeepDream image generator. Now the Deepdream bot on Twitter makes it easy to spend countless hours looking at images submitted by people using Psychic VR Lab, another web implementation of the code. As users upload their images to be transformed, a before and after is posted on the generator’s website, and the bot shares them on Twitter with the hashtag #deepdream.

    You would look equally miserable if you had a slug for a bun.

    Just a couple of NeverEnding Story Falkors.

    Thomas Kinkade's experimental phase.

    Sun of a Thousand Eyes.

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    Screenshot from Suidobashi's robot duel response video

    Screenshot from Suidobashi's robot duel response video to Megabot


    Last week, American giant robot makers Megabot challenged Japanese giant robot makers Suidobashi Heavy Industry to a giant robot battle. The video, subtitled in Japanese and filled with waving American flags, coincidentally happened to come out right before a striking Women’s World Cup championship match where the U.S. handily beat the Japanese national team. Yesterday, Suidobashi Heavy Industries posted their response:

    In the video, Suidobashi CEO Kogoro Kurata takes the idea of an international robot battle and runs full steam ahead with it, appearing draped in the Japanese flag, and saying that while Megabot's robot is "interesting," he thinks they could have "ma[d]e it cooler.""Just building something huge and sticking guns on's super American," he adds.

    Giant robot duels are on! I like to think that this is about a spontaneous desire to see giant robots fighting, but it’s entirely possible it’s a coordinated media campaign for a new sport of human-piloted robot battles. That is awesome in-and-of itself.

    Missing from the proposal, and hopefully yet to come, are details about the robot duel. We know right now that it will be between Megabot’s Megabot and Suidobashi Heavy Industry’s Kuratas. The battle is likely set for 2016. We don’t know where it will take place, nor do we know the stakes or the terms of the fight. Proposed giant robot fights are cool, but actual giant robot fights are even cooler.

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    Drone Shadow In Tunnel

    Drone Shadow In Tunnel

    Screenshot by author, from BBC

    Removing pilots from flying machines opens up the earth to brand-new kinds of aerial exploration. One instance, captured beautifully by BBC cameraman John Bontoft, is aerial photography taken inside the tunnels that will house the underground portions of London’s new Crossrail project.

    Set to open in 2018, Crossrail is 60 mile long rail network that will carry commuters and tourists into and around London. Of those 60 miles, 13 are underground tunnels, built into an already extensive network of trains that make up the London Underground. The pilot filmed the tunnels using a DJI Phantom 2 quadcopter with an attached GoPro camera. Watch a short video of the underground flight below:

    Flying underground feels very science fictional. As I watched the extended drone video of the Crossrail project, I was continuously reminded of Descent, the cult series of video games from the mid-to-late 1990s where the player pilots a ship through mining shafts to defeat renegade industrial robots. There are no rogue machines on display in these English tunnels, but it matches that old game’s sense of flight and claustrophobia well. And if future industrial drones do decide to go rogue, it's nice to know some of us might have the equipment and skills to fend them off.

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    What happens when a diagnosis isn't quite right?

    In 2003, Carly Heyman fell ill with some bizarre symptoms. She was depressed, gained 50 pounds, would sleep all day but would wake up with a start from horrible nightmares and suicidal thoughts. Her parents took her to doctor after doctor, who would only treat the symptoms but couldn’t identify the cause of her illness. After several years of this, a doctor finally diagnosed her with the rare genetic disorder Fragile X syndrome—all it took was a simple hormone patch to alleviate her symptoms.

    Inspired by Carly’s story and others like it, her brother Jared Heyman founded CrowdMed, a crowdsourcing platform in which people with mysterious medical conditions can tap into the power of the Internet to help them find a likely diagnosis. And while this provides people who are ill and frustrated with opinions other than those of their specialists, crowdsourced diagnoses are far from foolproof, or even professional.

    The CrowdMed page of unsolved medical cases


    Here’s how it works: A patient like Carly pays $50 to create an anonymous patient account in which she fills out a medical questionnaire about her symptoms and medical history. Then her information is posted on the web site, and “medical detectives” can proffer a diagnosis. After a number of days, the patient receives a report with the best suggestions.

    The “medical detectives” are physicians or people with no medical background who are interested in helping. These participants are ranked based on the number of diagnoses they get right (rather, the diagnosis that is most commonly suggested), as well as rankings from their peers on the site. People who get the diagnosis “right” share a cash reward.

    On the one hand, a platform like CrowdMed makes sense—there are thousands of rare diseases, and it’s extremely difficult for one doctor (or even a team of doctors) to parse out which symptoms are caused by which obscure diseases in order to treat them. On the other hand, asking for medical advice from a gaggle of uncredentialed Internet busybodies seems risky. And while founder Heyman tells Smithsonian, “Our patients understand that your suggestions do no constitute medical advice and only their doctor can provide a definitive diagnosis and treatment plan,” it’s easy to see how a patient might just forget that and show up to his doctor claiming to have found the definite answer to his medical maladies instead of merely a suggestion.

    In the two years it's been operational, the site claims to have helped solve hundreds of medical cases from all over the world. If these patients really did finally get the diagnosis they had needed, that’s a testament to the power of online crowdsourcing to let the best answers reach the top of the pile. But if you’re a medical mystery who is considering submitting your information to CrowdMed, remember to take your results with a big grain of salt, even when you bring them to your doctor.

    H/T Smithsonian

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    New Double Decker Bus

    New Double Decker Bus

    The new buses will be green in spirit, if not in color.

    In terms of iconic city sights, London's double-decker bus is right up there with Paris' Eiffel Tower. And with the Eiffel Tower adding wind turbines earlier this year, it's no surprise that London is also going green, but not with envy.

    In October, London will start running on a single route, making Londoners breathe a little easier. Like all electric vehicles, the bus will have no emissions. The announcement was made at the first ever Clean Bus Summit held in London last week. At the summit, 24 cities from around the world promised to put 40,000 green buses on the roads within the next five years. London plans to convert all it's single-decker buses (around 300) to electric models, and make sure that all the 3,300 double decker buses are at least hybrid vehicles by 2020.

    The new electric buses will be manufactured by Chinese company BYD, which has already built (single-decker) electric buses for 150 other cities around the world. This will be the first double-decker bus expressly designed to be powered by electricity. But it isn't the first to run completely on electricity. As The Guardian pointed out, earlier this year York beat London to the punch, retrofitting an existing double-decker sightseeing bus to run on electricity.

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    NASA Illustration / Dennis Calaba

    When it comes to exploring Mars, human-made robots have, literally and figuratively, only scratched the surface. To date, rovers on Mars have driven less than 40 miles on the Red Planet. The surface of Mars is almost 56 million square miles, and while satellites orbiting the planet like the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter have helped, there is still a lot of ground left to cover up close. One faster way to do that is a plane, and NASA has a concept for a Martian flyer that might work.

    Meet the awkwardly named Prandtl-m, short for “Preliminary Research Aerodynamic Design to Land on Mars.” (The name is a tribute to German aerodynamicist Ludwig Prandtl). Getting it to Mars is years away, so there’s plenty of time to come up with a better name for a Mars-bound version. Humans are really good at figuring out how to fly on earth, so this preliminary research plane will tackle a major challenge for any extra-terrestrial airplane: how to fly in thinner air with less gravity on a different world.

    NASA’s considered Martian planes before, and it looks like Prandtl-m has at least some passing similarity to the earlier, proposed “Aerial Regional-scale Environmental Survey of Mars” (ARES) plane, which clearly used up the good acronym. Both ARES and the Prandtl-m are mostly flying wing, with a large thin body to maximize lift generation. To replicate the thin Martian air for the Prandtl-m, NASA will lift their plane by balloon to 100,000 feet, and then release it.

    The tiny, unmanned drone will weigh 2.6 pound on earth, or just about one pound in Martian gravity, assuming it ever gets there. The initial launch will see how well Prandtl-m can fly. On subsequent launches, Prandtl-m may carry small payloads, like mapping cameras or sensors that record radiation. To truly replicate the experience of falling into the Martian atmosphere, a third launch would release the drone from 450,000 feet above Earth itself, allowing the future martian to glide its way into the atmosphere.

    Some day, drones like the Prandtl-m may explore Mars itself, adding aerial robots to the planet’s slow-growing fleet of rovers and keeping the Red Planet a robot planet for a while longer — at least until humans follow suit.


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    Researcher Michael Paul and his team propose a theoretical mission to Venus, in a case that would test new power sources for space.

    In the depths of space, when even starlight can’t be relied on, spacecraft need some form of long-lasting, chemical energy to endure potential decades without recharging.

    To solve that problem, NASA has announced they’re funding Pennsylvania State University’s Michael Paul in his project to use Stored Chemical Energy Power Systems (SCEPS), the same technology used in military torpedoes, to power space trips.

    SCEPS works by combustion, just like when you burn natural gas, says Michael Paul, except in this case the fuel is lithium. (Combustion requires oxygen and another element.) In their proposed core mission, a theoretical trip to Venus, Paul’s team has proposed absorbing the planet’s CO2-rich atmosphere as an oxidizer to mix with the lithium. In other words, they’re using Venus’ inhospitable climate to power their lander, and Paul says their SCEPS system could last up to thirty days.

    The technology is not new, according to the US Navy, which says that it experimented with the process as early as the 1920s, and put SCEPS to work the Mk 50 torpedo in 1972.

    With SCEPS there isn’t a problem of not making enough energy, but in scaling the energy down to manageable levels, according to the project description. Torpedoes like the Mk 50 could use thousands of kilowatts at a time, but NASA says that expeditions like the Phoenix Mars Lander only require hundreds of watts.

    Other landers and spacecraft use different forms of energy like plutonium, but Paul says that plutonium can be difficult to work with in the United States, so there's a great interest in developing alternative power structures for space. Right now, the Phoenix Mars Lander and the New Horizons expedition are both powered by plutonium.

    Paul, who is also involved in the Titan Submarine in Phase 2 funding, says that his specialty is taking undersea technology like SCEPS and transitioning it to space applications.

    This is Phase II of Paul’s funding through the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts Program. In Phase I, the group explored SCEPS theoretical use for a mission to Venus, and now are receiving continued support through NASA to develop it further. Both phases are funded, but the more serious cash flows in Phase II, which are the ideas NASA sees as more viable possibilities for deployment. According to the NIAC website, $50,000-$75,000 can be granted in in Phase I, and can progress to $300,000-$400,000 in Phase II.

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    Maybe it was the Guns N’ Roses pumping from the speakers. Or maybe it was the spell of Dubai itself, a newly minted megalopolis whose explosion from the Arabian sands screamed that the past was dead and the future had arrived. Whatever it was, when Dirk Ahlborn launched into his speech at the Middle East Rail conference in March, he basically gave the roomful of executives the finger. “There hasn’t been any real innovation in the rail industry for—I don’t know how long,” he said. “Either disrupt yourself or you are going to be disrupted.”

    The audience sitting attentively in the convention hall included men in traditional dishdashas and women in black abayas. Other attendees wore suits and ties or even heels and short skirts. Together they formed the industry’s elite, people who built trains and ran railways around the world, while Ahlborn was the CEO of a startup, Hyperloop Transportation Technologies (HTT), that hadn’t carried a single passenger or laid an inch of track.

    But restraint doesn’t come naturally to Ahlborn, who wore, beneath his black suit, a white shirt open several buttons from the collar. Tall, with thinning brown hair and ruddy cheeks, Ahlborn began to pace the stage, TED-talk style, as he explained his vision for the future of transportation. “What is the hyperloop?” he asked. “It is a capsule, full of people, in a tube, elevated on pylons, going really fast. It’s that simple.”

    Hyperloop capsules would use either a magnetic field or a continuous blast of compressed air to float above the bottom of the tube. Pumps would remove most of the tube’s air, creating an extremely low-pressure environment. Minimal air means minimal friction, so the capsules would travel at up to 760 miles per hour, powered entirely by solar panels. “How would your life be if you could travel 600 kilometers in half an hour, with a ticket price of $30?” Ahlborn asked. “If we achieve that, we really change the way we live.”

    Dirk Ahlborn

    Dmitri Alexander

    The hyperloop concept isn’t just a fantasy, says ­Hyperloop Transportation Technologies’ founder Dirk Ahlborn, shown here near the Dubai Metro. “It’s not like we want to invent an antigravity device.”

    Ah, the hyperloop—the same scheme that Elon Musk, the CEO of SpaceX and Tesla Motors, famously proposed in a white paper back in August 2013. The pronouncement incinerated the Internet, with some awe and lots of are-you-kidding? The technical challenges, while daunting, were poten­tially solvable, engineers opined. But economists estimated that Musk’s projected cost of $6 billion to connect San Francisco and Los Angeles was lowballed by a factor of 10 or more, not least because the cost for acquiring land for the route was grossly underestimated. The hype faded—but the outlandish idea was still alive.

    By the end of the year, Ahlborn had launched HTT. In June 2014, Hyperloop Technologies (HT) entered the field, founded by Silicon Valley venture capitalist Shervin Pishevar and former SpaceX rocket engineer Brogan Bam­Brogan. And this past January, Musk himself was back, tweeting his intention to build a hyperloop test track, possibly in Texas. The two startups announced their own test-track plans shortly thereafter, with both hoping to break ground by 2016. The race for near-supersonic land travel was on.

    Hyperloop proponents face uncountable hurdles—technological, political, and financial. But the massive challenges seem to inspire rather than intimidate them. The hyperloop, they believe, will be an entirely new form of transportation, one that is quicker, cheaper, and more fuel efficient than anything that has come before. “If you think about the things that have been most exciting in history, that have captured headlines, it’s humans taking flight, ­Lindbergh crossing the Atlantic, going into orbit and to the moon,” said XPRIZE Foundation chairman and CEO Peter Diamandis, who sits on HT’s board of directors. “We revel in moving people faster and farther than ever before, and hyperloop is in that same vein but in a different dimension.”

    In Dubai, Ahlborn finished his presentation, and the audience applauded enthusiastically. He stepped down from the stage, and a man in a traditional white robe approached. I saw that he was Saqqaf AlAttas, a manager with Etihad Rail DB, which oversees operations for the United Arab Emirates national railway. He shook Ahlborn’s hand. “Everything starts with a dream,” AlAttas said. “And from what I saw, the hyperloop is not just a dream. It is already here.”


    Ahlborn cut a Tony Stark-like figure as he strode through the convention hall after he spoke. The place looked like a giant IKEA showroom devoted to the sole purpose of selling trains. A maze of avocado-colored pathways funneled attendees between brightly lit displays featuring track ties and rail wheels. A German native who had also lived in Italy before settling in Southern California,­ Ahlborn chatted fluently with vendors in multiple languages. His manner was aloof, his comments sometimes barbed. “Is there anything new at this show?” he asked a person peddling software. “Has there been anything new in the past 10 years?”

    In reality, Ahlborn is not a deep-pocketed tech magnate—at least not any longer. Sure, the 38-year-old had been an entrepreneur since he was 18. And he had made millions as, among other things, the CEO of a pellet stove company. Subsequently, though, he lost his fortune when real estate investments tanked in the financial crisis. While he may have looked like Stark in Dubai, back home he was renting his place on Airbnb.

    Ahlborn runs HTT on a shoestring as well. The company had been launched on another one of his ventures, JumpStartFund, an online crowdsourcing platform that enables people to propose companies and then build communities of volunteers to bring those ventures to life. Ahlborn posted the hyperloop idea shortly after Musk announced it, and was overwhelmed by the response. More than 300 volunteers have signed contracts to officially join the startup, working at least 10 hours a week in exchange for stock options should the company make it as far as an IPO. They include engineers, business executives, and human resource and marketing professionals, and they form HTT’s entire staff. They also maintain day jobs at companies like Northrop Grumman, Airbus, and Cisco, and attend universities like UCLA, Stanford, and Harvard. With any profit years away, they are united less by materialism than by near-religious faith in the hyperloop’s potential. The team members envision themselves as builders of the first railroad, as pilots of the first plane. “We don’t necessarily require that you have the right credentials,” Ahlborn says, “but we require that you have the passion.”

    The hyperloop could be an entirely new form of transportation--one that is quicker, cheaper, and more fuel efficient than anything that has come before.

    Ahlborn scouted the trade-show floor for new converts. “We are a company of the people,” he explained to one prospect. “We’re crowd-powered.” The message resonated. A software engineer agreed to do a passenger-­flow simulation for free. A building-materials vendor suggested alternatives to concrete. Paul Priestman, who recently designed the cars for the London Underground’s New Tube project, said his company could help with visual concepts. And Stephen Bradbury-Knight, a vice president of mobility and rail for the security-­services provider TÜV Rheinland, offered to think about safety standards.

    The next day, Ahlborn was joined by an HTT team member, a former Italian pop star-turned-tech entrepreneur, Gabriele ­“Bibop” Gresta. The three of us hopped onto the new Dubai metro and rode through a canyon of geometrically contorted skyscrapers. The ice-pick tip of the Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building, spiked above the skyline. We disembarked at the Palm Jumeirah, a tree-shaped archipelago of artificial islands, and walked into the perfumed lobby of an expensive hotel. There we met a jocular Italian named Giuseppe Ugge, whose job, he told me, was to introduce the United Arab Emirates royal family to foreign business executives with ideas to sell.

    Alhborn was ready. Dubai would be the perfect location for a hyperloop, he said. Land is expensive in California—as it is near every major city in the United States and Europe—and navigating the gauntlet of regulatory and political hurdles will take years, if not decades. Dubai, in contrast, has abundant empty land, and a massive project can be built there with the say-so of a single person: Sheikh Mohammed, the emir of Dubai. Also, Ahlborn reminded Ugge, Dubai will host the World Expo in 2020. Since the first world’s fair in 1851, the expo has introduced millions of people to such technological wonders as the telephone, typewriter, escalator, and talking films. Dubai, Ahlborn proposed, could be where the hyperloop makes its world debut.

    Send me your plan, Ugge said, “and if it is good, we can introduce you.”


    At the end of an industrial block in Los Angeles, past the PlayPen strip club and a homeless man who snoozed facedown amid a collection of marijuana canisters, I entered the headquarters of BamBrogan and Pishevar’s Hyperloop Technologies. I blinked at the incongruent scene inside—6,500 square feet of open warehouse illuminated by skylights and framed by ­exposed brick walls. Employees tapped at computers and scribbled on whiteboards.

    Hyperloop Track

    Courtesy Hyperloop Transportation Technologies

    Hyperloop Transportation Technologies plans to break ground in 2016 on a 5-mile track that will serve Quay Valley, a real-estate development in California. It will start carrying passengers as soon as 2018.

    Whereas HTT has no office, no salaried employees, and essentially no cash resources, HT has a full-time staff of more than 30 people and $10 million in seed funding, which it raised in just a few months. The company aims to hit $80 million by the end of this year. (Pishevar, who is well on his way to becoming a billionaire thanks to investments in companies like Uber and Airbnb, pledged to put up half the money if needed.) The company has also recruited a well-­connected board of directors. In addition to Diamandis, it includes political operative Jim Messina, who master­minded President Obama’s 2012 campaign, and entrepreneur David Sacks, the founding COO of PayPal.

    It was April, not long after I’d returned from Dubai. BamBrogan strode up, a lanky 43-year-old whose thick mustache and twink­ling eyes made him look like the ringmaster of some steampunk circus. When I asked about the skeleton key dangling from a lanyard around his neck, he cryptically pronounced, “This is the key to anything but not everything.” Mischievous air aside, BamBrogan is a serious engineer: At SpaceX, he had led the early design of the Dragon spacecraft and the upper-stage engine of the Falcon 1 rocket.

    The hyperloop, Bam­Brogan told me, was actually the latest iteration of an idea that has tempted engineers for more than a century: Put a train in a tube and remove most or all of the air. Rocketry pioneer Robert Goddard proposed the basic plan for what is known as a vacuum-tube transportation system in 1904. In 1969, the U.S. Secretary of Transportation wrote in Popular Science that the government was studying several “tube-­vehicle system” concepts. Both HT and HTT are now pursuing the same notion.

    The companies envision depressurizing the hyper­loop tube to about 100 pascals—not a total vacuum, but 1/1000 of the natural atmospheric pressure at Earth’s surface. With so little air to push out of the way, the capsule requires very little energy to attain near-­supersonic speed. Solar panels atop the tubes, charging the equivalent of about five Tesla Model S batteries per capsule, should provide sufficient power to run the entire system.

    Engineer Sandeep Sovani, working independently from HT and HTT, recently ran hyperloop airflow simulations for the software company Ansys. The overall concept is valid and has great promise, Sovani says. “I think tube transportation technologies are to this century what railways were to the 19th century.”

    The calming vibe was carefully engineered. First-time passengers, after all, would be anxious about riding a bullet through the barrel of the world’s longest gun.

    Implementing the relatively simple idea, however, will be tough. To move the capsules through the tubes, HT is investigating the use of linear induction motors, which would use the repulsive magnetic force between the hyperloop capsule and the tube floor to generate propulsion. Subway systems and roller coasters already use such motors, so BamBrogan initially thought he could buy the primary components off the shelf. But because those systems top out at around 70 miles per hour, not 700, existing technology probably won’t work. “We would rather invent as few things as we need to,” BamBrogan said, “but it looks like we may go in the direction of customizing a system.”

    At full speed, hyperloop capsules won’t use wheels, so HTT may generate a magnetic field in order to levitate them. This is a proven technology: Witness maglev projects like Shanghai’s Transrapid; its trains can hit 268 miles per hour. The problem is cost. Maglev trains are more expensive to build than conventional ones—according to one source, Transrapid cost $63.2 million per mile of track—and if HTT has a radical idea to slash that expense, Ahlborn hasn’t revealed it yet.

    Both companies are also investigating a different strategy: air bearings. Jets of air blasting down from beneath the capsules would enable them to skim through the tube like a puck streaking across an air-hockey table. Computer designers currently use air bearings to float the spinning platters inside hard drives, and manufacturers use them to levitate heavy objects in factories so they are easier to manipulate. Air bearings make theoretical sense in vehicles too—they’re low friction and don’t wear out the way wheels would. The U.S. Air Force successfully tested air bearings on rocket sleds back in the 1960s. HT could learn from those experiments, BamBrogan said, but the sleds traveled on a monorail track and so were a fundamentally different type of vehicle. The hyperloop’s bearings, like its motors, will need to be invented almost from scratch.

    Since a hyperloop tube would not be totally depressurized, the air that remains poses yet another engineering challenge. If the capsule fits snugly inside the tube, it would have to push an increasingly high-pressure mass of air ahead of it, a phenomenon known as pistoning. (Imagine a plunger pushing liquid through a syringe.) One solution, Musk suggested, would be to make the tube’s diameter roughly twice the width of the capsule so some of the air could pass around it. He also proposed mounting a giant compressor on the front of the vehicle. The compressor would suck in air and pack it down to perhaps 1/20 of the volume, then both blast it out through the air bearings and pump it into the tunnel behind the capsule.

    Vacuum Train

    Robert Goddard proposed the vacuum train as a freshman at Worcester Polytechnic Institute in 1904. As he wrote later, “The possibilities of this method of travel are startling...a running time from Boston to New York of ten minutes is perfectly possible.”

    HT is using Musk’s 2-to-1 tube-to-capsule ratio as the starting point for its design. The company is also studying how to incorporate an air compressor. Josh Giegel, an HT engineer, showed me a tiny piece of twisted metal that he had recently 3-D printed in the possible shape of a hyperloop compressor blade. He would soon be testing it in a wind tunnel behind the office.

    But when aerospace engineers at NASA’s Glenn Research­ Center did an independent analysis of the hyperloop concept, they concluded that to prevent pistoning, the tube would likely need to be four times the width of the capsule, even with a compressor. The finding didn’t invalidate the hyperloop concept, Justin Gray, a member of the NASA team, explained when I phoned him at Glenn. But if a tube hundreds of miles long needed to be twice as wide as projected, the cost of construction would balloon.

    Throughout my visit, BamBrogan ping-ponged between an entrepreneur’s brashness and an engineer’s caution. “I don’t think anybody thinks that hyperloop is a bad idea,” he said. “But a few people do think hyper­loop won’t exist or can’t exist.” That’s why the company is gunning to build a test loop as soon as possible. A successful demonstration, BamBrogan said, would be “our Kitty Hawk moment, when the thing flies.”


    Silicon Beach, located across town from HT’s headquarters, hosts Google, Yahoo, Snapchat, and hundreds of other tech startups. Long before those companies, though, the area was home to a different kind of entrepreneur: the aviator Howard Hughes. The cavernous wood-paneled hangar where he once built planes now holds a full-scale hyperloop simulator. Eight feet wide and ringed by glowing white lights, it looks like a giant Cheerio crossed with a portal to the afterlife. I stepped into the capsule and sat down next to Marta Nowak, an architect involved in the design. “OK,” she said, “are you ready to take a ride?”

    The lights in the hangar dimmed. Atmospheric music began to play, with piano arpeggios dancing gracefully on top. “We are still in the station; the doors just closed,” Nowak said. Then, she informed me, the capsule began accelerating. Hyperloop critics have complained that the ride would be nausea-­inducing—“New Super-Fast Transport System Powered by Passengers’ Screams,” The Onion quipped. But according to Nowak, passengers would actually feel and hear very little due to the gradual acceleration—it would take several minutes to reach full speed—and broad turns. The experience would be like flying in a plane at 30,000 feet, only quieter. The lighting in the simulator was low and purplish. “We can look back and see our fellow passengers,” Nowak said, and I glanced over my shoulder at a dozen rows of seats extending behind me.

    Hyperloop tubes are solid, eliminating any view, so instead of windows, the builders installed flat-panel displays on the capsule walls. They started out showing starry skies, and then the cabin brightened and the scenery changed to farmland, a lake, and a forest streaking by. When we reached our destination, I felt like I had time-traveled in a high-end spa. Nowak said the calming vibe was carefully engineered. First-time passengers, after all, would be anxious about riding a bullet through the barrel of the world’s longest gun. “If people try the hyperloop once and like it, they are going to take it again,” Nowak said. “But if they don’t….”

    Looking To Get From San Francisco To Los Angeles? Here's How Long It'll Take

    Sources: Department of Transportation; Oak Ridge Transportation Energy Data Book; Google Maps; Mikhail Chester, Arizona State University; Elon Musk, Hyperloop White Paper; Megan Ryerson, University of Pennsylvania; California High Speed Rail Authority

    Hyperloop might be fast, but riders will still need to reach a station, board a capsule, and travel to their final destinations. Those extra elements will slow down the 30-minute dream. But will hyperloop beat other options anyway? To find out, we engineered an imaginary race. Six people leave an apartment in San Francisco’s Mission District and meet in Highland Park, Los Angeles, to settle a dispute over the best tacos on the West Coast. Each will take a different mode of transit: a train, a plane, a car, the hyperloop, the (also hypothetical) California High-Speed Rail—and a fixed-gear bicycle, the single-speed mainstay of hipster transport.—Katie Peek

    The mock-up of the capsule—a Styrofoam-­and-­plywood vessel augmented by a video projector—had been built by post-graduate students in the department of Architecture and Urban Design at UCLA. Under the direction of architects Craig Hodgetts and David Ross, the students had also created computer models of the station and capsules. The UCLA team collaborated with HTT as part of a program called Suprastudio, which pairs students with industry partners to give them real-world expertise.

    I exited the simulator feeling sublime. But to skeptics, such as transportation blogger Alon Levy, my experience might be emblematic: The hyperloop was a mirage—unfeasible and expensive. What’s more, they said, Musk may have had ulterior motives in proposing the concept in the first place. He makes no secret of his disdain for California’s plan to build a $68 billion conventional high-speed rail line. Levy and others suspect that Musk’s objective may have been to erode support by touting the much-sexier hyperloop—look, folks, only $6 billion for a supersonic levitating train!

    Whatever Musk’s motivation, the idea is now bigger than him. That’s why a UCLA student told me that she and her friends spent 14 hours a day toiling on prototypes, why BamBrogan and Pishevar are investing so much money, and why HTT’s volunteers comprise something that is more than a company and closer to a movement. They are all infected with the Walt Disney strain of futurism in which you try to engineer a bigger, brighter tomorrow, not merely another smartphone app. In the capsule I asked Nowak if she would be excited to ride for real. “Absolutely,” she said. “We could walk right now to the station, and in 30 minutes have dinner in San Francisco. That’s crazy!”

    After the ride I wandered through a door in the rear of the workspace and into an adjacent hangar. It was even more vast­—315,000 square feet of silence and shadows. A cathedral of audacious engineering, this was where Hughes had built the Spruce Goose, whose 320-foot wingspan has never been surpassed.

    The plane was flown only once, for a mile, before it was mothballed. An expensive, widely mocked boondoggle, it serves as a cautionary tale for the hyperloop’s creators. But the Spruce Goose, wider than a football field and built almost entirely from wood, is also an inspiration. You might not succeed at building something crazy, something so monumental and complex that most people say it can’t be done. But it is hard to resist the impulse to try.

    How To Solve The Pistoning Problem

    Air remaining inside the hyperloop tube will pile up in front of the capsule and slow it down. NASA engineers analyzed a potential two-part solution.

    Two-Part Solution

    Source: Chin et al, American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, SciTech, January 2015

    1. Let It Blow By

    Musk proposed making the tube nearly twice as big as the capsule. This would allow enough room for some, but not all, of the air to flow around the capsule as it speeds through at Mach 0.99.

    2. Pump It Through

    A compressor can suck air in and pump it out below and behind the capsule. But the air must first be slowed by a diffuser to Mach 0.6. Higher speed requires a bigger diffuser—and a larger capsule.

    Bottom Line:

    The tube might need to be four times the width of the hyperloop capsule, and the speed should be capped at 620 mph, or roughly Mach 0.80. That would raise the construction costs and add five minutes to an LA to San Francisco trip.

    This article was originally published in the July 2015 issue of Popular Science, under the title "Hyped Up.”

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    If you read science news, you've probably heard a lot about the plight of the honey bee. These pollinators are responsible for producing a huge portion of the fruits and vegetables that we eat, including apples, berries, almonds, and broccoli. The species is mysteriously on the decline in the U.S. and Europe, which could spell trouble in our food future.

    But honey bees aren't the only bees out there. Earth is home to some 20,000 named species of bees, and there may be another 20,000 waiting to be discovered and named. We don't know much about these species, what they're like, or how they're faring in the "global pollinator crisis." In a new book, biologists Sam Droege and Laurence Packer shine a spotlight on some of that incredible bee diversity--for example, did you know that some bees have a tongue longer than their bodies, or that others drink sweat?--while also highlighting our shortage of knowledge about these important species. And they do it all through amazingly vivid images, as you can see in the gallery above.

    The book's hundreds of photographs were all snapped with off-the-shelf camera parts and a bit of ingenuity. When zooming in on a small insect, usually the increased magnification means that only a tiny part of the bee will be in focus. To overcome that, Droege programmed a microprocessor to move the camera, taking the same shot from multiple, slightly different distances that give slightly different foci. Then a computer program stitches the photos together, creating images with incredible depth of field.

    In addition to the book’s eye-capturing photos and interesting bee trivia, the captions are peppered with anecdotes--including several bee stings and a visit to the White House lawn--that make it a surprisingly fun read.

    Bees: An Up-Close Look At Pollinators Around The World goes on sale July 7.

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    Large Magellanic Cloud, As Seen By Hubble

    Hubble Heritage Team (STScI / AURA), Y. Chu (UIUC) et al., NASA

    The view could get even better if the High-Definition Space Telescope gets selected for funding.

    It’s never too early to start planning ahead. Hubble is nearing the end of its lifespan, and the James Webb Space Telescope is just gearing up to take its place in 2018. But what comes after that?

    Concept Drawing Of The HDST


    “As we near Hubble’s 25th year in orbit, we’re asking the question, What do we need to have in orbit 25 years from now?” said Matt Mountain, president of the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy (AURA). “What are the questions we want to ask about the universe and our place in it?”

    It takes a long time to design, build, and launch a giant space telescope, which is why AURA is starting now. The organization, which promotes astronomical observatories, started planning the James Webb telescope almost twenty years ago, and worked on Hubble for decades before that.

    Yesterday the organization officially unveiled its concept for a badass new space telescope that would be a lot like Hubble, but with higher definition. In fact, they’re calling it the High-Definition Space Telescope (HDST).

    “We will be confronted with the observation that we’re no longer unique—that evolution has occurred elsewhere.”

    If HDST gets selected for funding, the researchers on the team are saying it could be the next generation’s Hubble—it would profoundly alter the way we see and understand the universe. Chief among the HDST’s selling points is the promise that it would find dozens of Earth twins in other solar systems, and search for hints of life in their atmospheres.

    Matt Mountain’s vision: “For the first time in history, a generation becomes self-aware of their place in the universe… As they look out into that vast cosmos, they discover a profound truth: We are no longer alone in the emptiness of space. Just as Copernicus and Darwin irreversibly changed us, we will be confronted with the observation that we’re no longer unique—that evolution has occurred elsewhere… We can be that generation.”

    Introducing The HDST

    Sarah Fecht/Popular Science

    A panel of scientists presented the concept for the telescope at a meeting at New York City's American Museum of Natural History. From left to right: Neil deGrasse Tyson, Michael Shara, Jason Tumlinson, Marc Postman, David Schiminovich, Julianne Dalcanton, and Sara Seager.

    A Clearer Picture Of The Universe

    The HDST’s 12-meter mirror would put the universe into clearer focus. “It takes more than 20 Hubbles to equal the mirror that we could get with HDST,” says Julianne Delcanton, an astronomer at the University of Washington. The result is greater sensitivity, she says, sort of like how, after having your pupils dilated at the doctor’s office, you have to wear sunglasses because your eyes are collecting too much light. HDST is shaping up to be 100 times more sensitive to light than Hubble, and 5 times sharper. It can detect objects as faint as an exo-Earth that emits just one photon per second.

    Part of HDST’s increased resolution comes from suppressing starlight. Using technologies that are still under development, the telescope would be able to block the bright light from stars in order to search for fainter light coming from planets. And since it would be orbiting out in space, the HDST wouldn’t have to contend with the blurring effects of Earth’s atmosphere.

    HDST could detect the very first stars and galaxies that formed after the Big Bang.

    Seeing in UV, infrared, and visible light, HDST would be able to study farther, fainter, and smaller objects than ever before, including planets and faint stars. Here in our own solar system, it could spot objects as small as Manhattan in orbit around Jupiter, and give us a view of Pluto rivaled only by NASA’s New Horizons mission, which will fly by the former planet next week after a 9-year journey.

    “It could resolve every single galaxy in the universe,” says Delcanton, and reveal our cosmic origins, from the Big Bang to the formation of planets and water, and the evolution of life. “The basic chapters in this story are probably known, but the details and the poetry are not.”

    Comparing The Mirrors Of Hubble, JWST, And The HDST

    AURA Report

    Finding Exo-Earths ... And Maybe Life

    The Kepler Space Telescope has detected thousands of exoplanets, and scientists now think that each and every one of the billions of planets in the Milky Way probably has at least one planet circling it. That means there are lots of potential Earth duplicates out there, and now it’s just a matter of finding them. With Kepler now limping after some mechanical failures, MIT planetary scientist Sara Seager says HDST is our best bet at detecting lots of Earth-sized exoplanets.

    While NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite might turn up a few Earth sized exoplanets, HDST aims to find dozens. To do that, it would study hundreds of stars by looking for the light that reflects off of them from their stars.

    After detecting an exo-Earth, the telescope would characterize its atmosphere, looking for signs of life such as water vapor and oxygen. This would be groundbreaking work, says Seager. “No telescope has ever attained a spectrum of an object as faint as a typical exo-Earth.”

    Whether or not the telescope finds evidence of life elsewhere, the results will surely alter the way we think about our place in the universe.

    The Outlook

    Amazing telescopes don’t come cheap. AURA estimates that the HDST would cost about as much as the James Webb telescope, which is nearing a $9 billion pricetag. Ouch. What with NASA’s ever-threatening budget cuts, and the push to send humans to Mars in the 2030s, it’s hard to imagine that another great telescope would even be in the cards. But HDST could have international cooperation to help shoulder the burden, says astrophysicist Michael Shara, who helped to write the AURA report.

    Now that AURA has presented the HDST concept publicly, its new 170-page report will go out to Congress and industry, to see whether the idea is possible financially as well as technologically. The scientists want to vet the idea ahead of a 2020 meeting where astronomers will decide what research questions should be prioritized going forward. This gives the scientists lots of time to do their homework and work out the kinks before the concept really goes up for debate.

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    It could go down in history as the slowest marathon ever completed. After eleven years, NASA's Opportunity rover completed a marathon on Mars on April 15, traveling 26.2 miles from where it began its journey in 2004. And now, you can watch a timelapse of the rover's progress condensed into about 8 minutes, below. For comparison, the fastest humans can run a marathon in just over two hours.

    But even after reaching that milestone, Opportunity isn't done. NASA is directing the solar-powered rover into a sunny stretch of a valley appropriately named Marathon Valley. It will spend the Martian winter there, studying the geology of the area.

    Though the Curiosity rover, which landed in 2012 has gotten our attention lately, Opportunity is nothing short of remarkable. Instead of just completing the three month sprint that it was scheduled for, it's been running for over 11 years, and shows no sign of stopping.

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    Google’s artificial neural network has run rampant throughout the internet in the last few weeks, turning demure Twitter photos into surrealistic nightmares and taking the already-hellish Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas to a level only Hunter S. Thompson himself could have imagined.

    But let us not forget: Google’s AI also serves practical means. Google engineers are using their layered artificial neural network, also called a deep network, to create unseen views from two or more images of a scene. They call it "Deep Stereo." For example, if you have a photo from the left and right of a scene, the deep network will tell you what it looks like from anywhere the middle. Or if there are five photos of a room, the deep network can render unique views of what the room would look like from other angles, based on what it thinks should be there.

    The network does this by figuring out the depth and color of each pixel of the images, and creates a 3D space using each input photo as a reference plane. Then, it works to fill in the gaps based on color and depth input from the original photos. At its current settings, the deep network can work on 96 planes of depth gathered from images.

    Researchers initially trained the neural network to do this (much like they trained it to produce its own images) by running 100,000 sets of photos through the network and having it create unique views. The new images rendered had to be small, because according to the study, it takes 12 minutes to produce a tiny 512x512 pixel image, making the RAM required to process an entire image “prohibitively expensive.” The images used were “street scenes capture by a moving vehicle” which we can only assume is a Google Street View car, whose images as mentioned later on.

    Researchers note that the two biggest drawbacks are the speed in which these images are processed, and that the network can only process 5 input images at a time—limiting resolution and accuracy.

    Obvious application for this technique would be making Google’s Street View a more fluid experience, rather than having to jump from photo to photo taken by the car. However, if 512x512 pixel images are the current reasonable limit, and Google has pretty much imaged most of the driven world, we’re not expecting this feature to come any time soon.

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    Lunar Transformer Concept

    Lunar Transformer Concept


    Announced yesterday, NASA is moving ahead with funding to study several ambitious space research projects, including one that would transform an inhospitable lunar crater into a habitat for robots — and eventually, human explorers. Located on the moon’s South Pole, Shackleton Crater isn’t just prime real estate for terraforming experiments, it’s Optimus Prime real estate. NASA wants to fill the crater with solar-powered transformers, and then use the fleet of robots to turn the crater into a miniature hospitable environment.

    Shackleton Crater is uniquely qualified as a location for terraforming in the small scale. Named after the famous explorer of Earth’s own south pole, the crater covers about 130 square miles, or roughly twice the size of Washington, DC. It is surrounded on all sides by peaks that rise over 14,000 feet above the surface of the crater. Inside this moon-bowl, scientists have already found water, which is essential for any future human habitation.

    Before the humans come the robots. To function, robots need electrical power and warmth, and with the right equipment, the sun can provide both, with a little help. In darkness, the crater is about 100 degrees Kelvin, or -280 fahrenheit, but a series of solar reflectors could capture light from the peaks on the crater rim and then reflect it down into the crater, warming and fueling solar-powered rovers at the same time.

    These reflectors would be carried around the crater rim by other rovers, unfolding and transforming into useful shapes when needed. A single reflector 130 feet in diameter could send light over six miles into the crater, powering a rover (or a fleet of several Curiousity-sized rovers) with up to one megawatt of energy and preventing them from freezing. Thanks to their height, there is always at least one point on the peaks on the crater rim that receives sunlight, so work could be done continuously in the crater.

    Should this plan all work out, several transforming robots with reflectors would work on the edge of the crater, beaming sun in, while robots inside the crater built something close to an “oasis” on the moon. Or at least, an oasis for lunar robots.

    The project was awarded in NASA's Phase II funding, which provides up to $500,000 for two-year-long studies, so the next task is designing a workable reflector that fits into a cube slightly larger than three feet each side, weighing less than 220 pounds, and that unfolds to cover 10,700 square feet. If it all works out, the robots shall inherit the moon.


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    The Toyota Mirai goes more than 300 miles per tank

    Toyota Mirai


    The Toyota Mirai takes a big, 312-mile step toward easing consumers’ range anxiety when it comes to electric vehicles. The Mirai, a four-door sedan powered by hydrogen fuel cells, is the only zero-emissions vehicle to have a more than 300-mile range. It also turns in an estimated 67 MPGe combined, according to the EPA.

    California will again be the test bed for this technology, as it is with so many cleaner fuels. Early adopters who lease a Mirai this fall will get several incentives to make owning a Mirai easier, including free hydrogen fuel for three years, an app to help you locate hydrogen stations, and 24/7 customer support via phone. Because drivers might want to venture beyond the metro areas where hydrogen fuel is easily found, Toyota will foot the bill for a week’s worth of rentals every year for three years.

    For the sake of comparison, the Honda FCV Concept that was shown at the North American International Auto Show in January is also expected to top 300 miles in range when it becomes available next year, and Honda is guessing that it will achieve 70 MPGe, similar to the Mirai. The outgoing 2014 Honda FCX Clarity went 231 miles on a tank, and the 2016 Hyundai Tuscon will get you 265 miles away from home with one fill-up. Edging over that 300-mile mark brings hydrogen within shouting distance of the range many gasoline-powered cars have.

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    lenchensmama/ Flickr CC By ND 2.0

    Dogs are pretty good at sniffing out cancer, but now researchers have developed an “optical dog’s nose” that uses lasers to detect a range of diseases by analyzing the molecules in ones breath.

    When someone gets cancer or an infection, metabolic processes produce certain molecules in the body. These molecules can be picked up by sensors to tell whether the disease is present. “Electronic noses” have been around since the 1980s, and past technologies have used sensors that mimic our nasal receptors to detect infections in diabetic’s feet, or gold nanoparticle sensors that can detect different forms of cancer by picking up volatile organic compounds in a person’s breath.

    However, in a recent study published in Optics Express, researchers at the University of Adelaide in Australia described a new instrument they created that uses lasers to measure the contents of gas. Their instrument — a "laserlyzer," if you will — takes a "molecular fingerprint" of a cloud of gas and analyzes it for a range of different diseases, including cancer, diabetes, and infections. Since each molecule absorbs light at a different frequency, the laser system shoots light at a million different frequencies to spot their presence as well as their concentrations. This laser breathalyzer could be used to give an extensive health screening quickly and non-invasively. A commercial product may be available within the next three to five years.

    "Rather than sniffing out a variety of smells as a dog would, the laser system uses light to "sense" the range of molecules that are present in the sample," said co-author of the study James Anstie in a press release.

    The researchers say this technology could also have environmental applications, such as measuring molecules in the atmosphere or in streams.

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    In 20 years time we will look back on the gimmick drone video as a strange artifact of the 2010s. Sometimes a marketing concept, sometimes just a joke, the gimmick drone videos all share in common a simple unmanned flying machine and the idea that that is enough for a technological revolution. The Whopper Dropper from 2014, recently rediscovered by The Independent, is one such artifact: A multi-copter with a claw that drops burgers to the homeless.

    Watch the Whopper Dropper drop Whoppers below:

    Was the Whopper Dropper a secret marketing ploy for Burger King? Is it a parable for the detached, mechanical distance with which the bay area’s technologically inclined newcomers view human interaction? To better understand the Whopper Dropper, I spoke with Kristopher Kneen, one of the people behind Dronelyfe, which produced and released the Whopper Dropper video.

    Kneen says that the video wasn’t sponsored by Burger King, just that “Whopper Dropper” rhymes. Dronelyfe originally intended to drop happy meals, but the catchy name stuck and that meant using Burger King’s branded specialty. (Burger King, in response to a request for comment, emailed that "This was not a BURGER KING® brand initiative.") The drone used was a custom-built craft, with a transmitter and a claw added to it. The Whopper Dropper was flown at distances up to a mile away.

    As Kneen tells it, Whopper Dropper was more than anything a proof-of-concept, and delivering food to the homeless was the first cool idea to help people in the area that came to him and his collaborators. The latest concept Kneen says that DroneLyfe is working on is flying a drone above a park with a large crowd and then dropping $1,000 in cash. They’re looking for a sponsor for that project.

    It turns out, there is a technological answer to homelessness, though I’m pretty sure it’s not air-delivered burgers. The technology needed is both simple and ancient: as Salt Lake City discovered, it’s just houses.

    This post has since been updated to include the response from Burger King.

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