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It’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s… a bit of both. Meet PigeonBot, a biohybrid, flying robot that combines the propeller, fuselage, and tail of a man-made aircraft with the wing structure and actual feathers of a pigeon.
Designed by engineers at Stanford University, PigeonBot made its debut in a paper published on Thursday in Science Robotics. The bot can’t flap, but the mechanical skeleton has a few of the same joints as a bird’s wings. Bird wings are more complex, sharing a lot of anatomical features with human arms. For example, bird wings have features that resemble a human wrist and finger-like digit. PigeonBot has a wrist and finger, too, decked out with 40 feathers—20 per wing—gathered from domestic pigeons called squab, reports Rob Verger for Popular Science.
"Most aerospace engineers would say this is not going to work well, but it turned out to be incredibly robust," lead author David Lentink tells NPR’s Merrit Kennedy.
By programming the robot to bend at one joint, the researchers could see precisely how that movement contributes to a bird’s aeronautical maneuvers. While in the past, researchers wondered if each feather might be controlled by its own muscle, PigeonBot showed that adjusting the wrist or finger caused its feathers to fall into place.
Image by Courtesy of Lentink Lab / Stanford University. PigeonBot's wings are white because the feathers were gathered from food-grade pigeons called squab. (original image)
Image by Courtesy of Lentink Lab / Stanford University. Pigeonbot's wings are made of 40 pigeon feathers connected to a mechanical wingspan with birdlike joints. (original image)
“The problem is, of course, I don’t really know how to train a bird to just move its finger—and I actually am very good in bird training,” Lentink tells Maria Temming at Science News. “You can make manipulations in a robot wing that you could never do or want to do in a bird.”
The flying machine needed birdlike maintenance at times. If its feathers are ruffled, they need to be preened, or smoothed into place by hand, Lentink tells Popular Science. And the feathers work best together if they’re all sourced from the same bird.
The researchers flew the robot in a wind tunnel to see how the wings held together in different conditions. In turbulent winds, properly aligned feathers will hold themselves together with what Lentink calls “directional Velcro,” microscopic hooks that prevent the wing feathers from getting blown apart.
Lentink and his team worked with Smithsonian vertebrate zoologist Teresa Feo, who created nanometer-level 3-D reconstructions of the hooks and captured electron microscopy images to map their locations on different feathers for a separate paper published today in Science. By using PigeonBot, the researchers showed that the hooks were necessary for stable flight. When the feathers were rotated so the hooks couldn’t line up, they couldn’t hold together in strong gusts, and the bot became unstable. Like Velcro, the mechanism in feathers makes a noticeable sound, and it’s absent on silent fliers like barn owls."Most aerospace engineers would say this is not going to work well, but it turned out to be incredibly robust," says engineer David Lentink. (Courtesy of Lentink Lab / Stanford University)
"The work is very impressive," Alireza Ramezani, an Northeastern University engineer who led a team that built a bat-inspired robot in 2017, tells NPR.
Tyson Hendrick, a biomechanist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who was not involved in the study, tells Science News that Lentink’s PigeonBot the best set of robotic wings for testing birds’ wing feathers for flight, but “there’s plenty of room for improvement.” Hendrick notes the robot’s limited joints, and suggests that the effect of a shoulder joint to raise and lower the wings would be an interesting path for future research.
Ramezani sees the biology-inspired bot’s success as a path toward new drone designs and experimental aircraft, per NPR. Soft, feather-inspired designs would be safer to fly around people than the hard propellers of rotary drones. And Lentink suggests that the Velcro-like mechanism might be useful in high-tech clothing or specialized bandages. But feathered aircraft are probably not on the horizon.
After 101 days of traveling by plane, train, automobile, Korean warship, zipline and even robot, the Olympic torch will finally reach the site of the Winter Games in PyeongChang, South Korea. This Friday, a lucky honoree will use it to light the Olympic cauldron in a grand, symbolic start to the games.
While the blaze looks like any other, its origins are special: It was lit not with matches or a Zippo lighter, but with a parabolic mirror, echoing rituals from Ancient Greece.
To brush up on algebra, a parabola is a particular type of arc that is defined by the exact curvature of its sides. Mathematically, these symmetrical curves all take some form of the equation, Y = X^2. Revolve a parabola around its axis, and you have the shape of a parabolic mirror.
Unlike most curves, which scatter incoming light in many directions, the reflected beams bounce from a parabola and all concentrate to one point, the focus. These reflective surfaces are used in a number of devices to concentrate not only reflected light, but also sound or radio waves. Satellite dishes, some types of microphones, reflecting telescopes and even car headlights benefit from the reflective properties of parabolic dishes.
In the case of the Olympics, when the sun shines on a parabolic dish, known to the ancient Greeks as a Skaphia or crucible, the rays all bounce off its sides and collect at one blazing hot point. Put a piece of paper—or a gas torch—in that focal point, and you get fire.
A lone parabolic dish does a decent job heating things up, achieving temperatures of at least hundreds of degrees. "That's really very easy to reach," says Jeffrey Gordon, professor of physics at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Israel. Some may even be able to reach temperatures in the thousands of degrees, says Jonathan Hare, a British physicist and science communicator. Hare has witnessed parabolic mirrors vaporize carbon, something that only happens at temps over 2,000 degrees Celsius (around 3,600 degrees Fahrenheit).
If conditions are absolutely ideal, light can be concentrated to match the same temperature as its source, Gordon explains. In the case of the sun, that means that the upper temperature limit when concentrating its rays is around 10,000 degrees Fahrenheit. "No matter what you do, no matter how brilliant you are, you can never bring any object on Earth to a higher temperature [by concentrating sunlight]," says Gordon.
But, of course, conditions are never ideal. First, some of that heat is lost to the atmosphere. Then, some is absorbed into your reflective surface, and still another fraction is scattered away due to imperfections in the mirror. "The parabola is a good concentrator but not a perfect concentrator," Gordon adds.
Gordon's research is focused on pushing the limits of sun concentration to the max. Using multiple concentrating mirrors, his lab has achieved temperatures of nearly 3,000 degrees Celsius (roughly 5,400 degrees Fahrenheit), applying the heat for a range of feats, including a sun-powered surgical laser and a reactor for creating nanomaterials. But now, at some truly blistering temps, he has a different problem. "We start to destroy everything," he says.
In the case of Olympic torch lighting, the issues are somewhat more mundane. For one, there's the potential for clouds. In the days leading up to the modern torch lighting ceremony at the ancient temple of Hera in Olympia, the organizers light a flame in a parabolic dish, just in case clouds obscure the sun on the day of the ceremony. The preparedness proved useful at this year’s event, which took place on the drizzly morning of October 24, 2017.
People have practiced the concentration of the sun's rays for thousands of years. The most famous example of solar concentration comes from 212 B.C. during the siege of Syracuse, Greece. The Greek mathematician and inventor Archimedes used the parabolic mirror, so the story goes, to deter a fleet of approaching ships, crafting a solar death ray using panels of what was likely polished bronze. Though there's reason to doubt the veracity of these somewhat fantastical claims—including a failed MythBusters’ attempt to replicate the feat—the ancient Greeks did have a handle on the magic of these special curves.
The pomp and circumstance of the Olympic torch relay came about much later. Carl Diem, the chief organizer of the 1936 Summer Games, first proposed the Olympic relay in 1934, to link "antiquity and modernity,” writes Johann Chapoutot in his book Greeks, Romans, Germans: How the Nazis Usurped Europe's Classical Past. The flame was supposed to symbolize the blaze that burned on Zeus’ altar during the original Olympic events in 776 B.C. The International Olympic Committee met the idea with enthusiasm—and, incidentally, so did the Germans who would host the 1936 games in Berlin. As a flashy display of strength and the power of old empires, the torch relay readily lent itself for use as Nazi propaganda.
The torch lighting by parabolic mirror came by suggestion of IOC member Jean Ketseas, who proposed they use a ritual flame lighting method as described in Plutarch's Life of Numa. According to Ketseas’ translation: “A new fire was lit not by means of another flame but by the 'touch of the pure and immaculate flame of the sun.'" The passage continues later to describe the process: "The Skaphia were placed facing the sun in such a way that the incandescent rays, converging from all sides towards the center, rarified the air."
The first torches used in the games were modeled after ancient designs, writes Chapoutot. Built by the Krupp Company, Germany's largest armament producer, each one only burned for 10 minutes. The torches used today have come a long way.
In recent years, organizers have opted for high-tech features to keep the flame lit, no matter the weather. This year's torch, dreamed up by Korean designer Young Se Kim, has four separate walls to ensure the flame can withstand winds up to 78 mph. It also has a tri-layered umbrella-like cover to prevent rain from extinguishing the blaze. It can even withstand temperatures down to -22 degrees Fahrenheit thanks to its internal circulation system. If the flame goes out en route, support is always nearby with backup fire lit by parabolic mirror to swiftly relight it. Though the flame has averted major disasters this year, its robot transporter almost tipped over. Organizers rushed to right the bot, preserving the flame.
So during tonight’s opening ceremony, as the Olympic cauldron is lit, take a moment to appreciate the fire that roared to life under a glowing bath of concentrated rays of sunlight. As Greek archaeologist Alexander Philadelphus described during the planning of the first torch relay, the warm glow wasn't lit by modern mechanics, but rather came directly from Apollo, “the god of light himself.”
Dinosaur fans could soon have a new destination on their list: Japan.
At a recent expo, Japanese entrepreneurs announced plans to build an animatronic dinosaur park called "Dino-A-Park," according to The Telegraph. The project would create a dinosaur park full of life-size, human-operated robotic dinosaurs based on actual fossils and made out of a carbon fiber.
Kazuya Kanemaru, CEO of On-ART, a company that creates enormous art balloons, proposed the idea and said he hopes to finance it in 2017 and complete the park or multiple parks within the next four to five years.
At the recent expo, a demonstration dinosaur takes a bite out of its keeper.
Dino-A-Park, the proposed park featuring what the company calls the Dino-A-Live experience, will not be the first attempt to recreate the world of the beloved Jurassic Park franchise.
The Franklin Institute in Philadelphia is set to unveil its Jurassic World: The Exhibition later this week, which includes seven animatronic dinosaurs and will run Nov 25 to April 17, 2017. Philadelphia is the first stop on a North American tour.
Dinosaur aficionados also can get close to where real-life dinosaurs once roamed by visiting the Moab Giants park in Utah. The location was once home to dinosaurs, and now the expansive desert park is populated by life-size dinosaur replicas, as well as educational exhibits including a dinosaur tracks exhibit.
Other articles from Travel + Leisure:
- The Best of the Azores Islands
- The Five Best Places to See the Stunning Architecture of Porto
- Tourists Are Posing for Selfies With Raccoons in Central Park
Would you get on a plane that didn’t have a human pilot in the cockpit? Half of air travelers surveyed in 2017 said they would not, even if the ticket was cheaper. Modern pilots do such a good job that almost any air accident is big news, such as the Southwest engine disintegration on April 17.
But stories of pilot drunkenness, rants, fights and distraction, however rare, are reminders that pilots are only human. Not every plane can be flown by a disaster-averting pilot, like Southwest Capt. Tammie Jo Shults or Capt. Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger. But software could change that, equipping every plane with an extremely experienced guidance system that is always learning more.
In fact, on many flights, autopilot systems already control the plane for basically all of the flight. And software handles the most harrowing landings – when there is no visibility and the pilot can’t see anything to even know where he or she is. But human pilots are still on hand as backups.
A new generation of software pilots, developed for self-flying vehicles, or drones, will soon have logged more flying hours than all humans have – ever. By combining their enormous amounts of flight data and experience, drone-control software applications are poised to quickly become the world’s most experienced pilots.
When drones were first introduced, they were flown remotely by human operators. However, this merely substitutes a pilot on the ground for one aloft. And it requires significant communications bandwidth between the drone and control center, to carry real-time video from the drone and to transmit the operator’s commands.
Many newer drones no longer need pilots; some drones for hobbyists and photographers can now fly themselves along human-defined routes, leaving the human free to sightsee – or control the camera to get the best view.
University researchers, businesses and military agencies are now testing larger and more capable drones that will operate autonomously. Swarms of drones can fly without needing tens or hundreds of humans to control them. And they can perform coordinated maneuvers that human controllers could never handle.
Whether flying in swarms or alone, the software that controls these drones is rapidly gaining flight experience.
Experience is the main qualification for pilots. Even a person who wants to fly a small plane for personal and noncommercial use needs 40 hours of flying instruction before getting a private pilot’s license. Commercial airline pilots must have at least 1,000 hours before even serving as a co-pilot.
On-the-ground training and in-flight experience prepare pilots for unusual and emergency scenarios, ideally to help save lives in situations like the “Miracle on the Hudson.” But many pilots are less experienced than “Sully” Sullenberger, who saved his planeload of people with quick and creative thinking. With software, though, every plane can have on board a pilot with as much experience – if not more. A popular software pilot system, in use in many aircraft at once, could gain more flight time each day than a single human might accumulate in a year.
As someone who studies technology policy as well as the use of artificial intelligence for drones, cars, robots and other uses, I don’t lightly suggest handing over the controls for those additional tasks. But giving software pilots more control would maximize computers’ advantages over humans in training, testing and reliability.
Unlike people, computers will follow sets of instructions in software the same way every time. That lets developers create instructions, test reactions and refine aircraft responses. Testing could make it far less likely, for example, that a computer would mistake the planet Venus for an oncoming jet and throw the plane into a steep dive to avoid it.
The most significant advantage is scale: Rather than teaching thousands of individual pilots new skills, updating thousands of aircraft would require only downloading updated software.US Airways Flight 1549 passengers evacuate in the water after an emergency landing. (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews)
These systems would also need to be thoroughly tested – in both real-life situations and in simulations – to handle a wide range of aviation situations and to withstand cyberattacks. But once they’re working well, software pilots are not susceptible to distraction, disorientation, fatigue or other human impairments that can create problems or cause errors even in common situations.
Already, aircraft regulators are concerned that human pilots are forgetting how to fly on their own and may have trouble taking over from an autopilot in an emergency.
In the “Miracle on the Hudson” event, for example, a key factor in what happened was how long it took for the human pilots to figure out what had happened – that the plane had flown through a flock of birds, which had damaged both engines – and how to respond. Rather than the approximately one minute it took the humans, a computer could have assessed the situation in seconds, potentially saving enough time that the plane could have landed on a runway instead of a river.At the NTSB hearing, investigators learned how the decision time made it impossible for Flight 1549 to return to the airport, forcing the water landing. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)
Aircraft damage can pose another particularly difficult challenge for human pilots: It can change what effects the controls have on its flight. In cases where damage renders a plane uncontrollable, the result is often tragedy. A sufficiently advanced automated system could make minute changes to the aircraft’s steering and use its sensors to quickly evaluate the effects of those movements – essentially learning how to fly all over again with a damaged plane.
The biggest barrier to fully automated flight is psychological, not technical. Many people may not want to trust their lives to computer systems. But they might come around when reassured that the software pilot has tens, hundreds or thousands more hours of flight experience than any human pilot.
Other autonomous technologies, too, are progressing despite public concerns. Regulators and lawmakers are allowing self-driving cars on the roads in many states. But more than half of Americans don’t want to ride in one, largely because they don’t trust the technology. And only 17 percent of travelers around the world are willing to board a plane without a pilot. However, as more people experience self-driving cars on the road and have drones deliver them packages, it is likely that software pilots will gain in acceptance.(Pew Research Center)
The airline industry will certainly be pushing people to trust the new systems: Automating pilots could save tens of billions of dollars a year. And the current pilot shortage means software pilots may be the key to having any airline service to smaller destinations.
Both Boeing and Airbus have made significant investments in automated flight technology, which would remove or reduce the need for human pilots. Boeing has actually bought a drone manufacturer and is looking to add software pilot capabilities to the next generation of its passenger aircraft. (Other tests have tried to retrofit existing aircraft with robotic pilots.)
One way to help regular passengers become comfortable with software pilots – while also helping to both train and test the systems – could be to introduce them as co-pilots working alongside human pilots. Planes would be operated by software from gate to gate, with the pilots instructed to touch the controls only if the system fails. Eventually pilots could be removed from the aircraft altogether, just like they eventually were from the driverless trains that we routinely ride in airports around the world.
IBM's Watson computer has many talents. It discussed music with Bob Dylan, beat Ken Jennings at Jeopardy! and even ran a food truck. Now, the artificial intelligence project has picked up another skill: bartending.
Working with foodies and chefs from Bon Apétit magazine and the Institute of Culinary Education, IBM programmers put the software through culinary school. The project, known as "Chef Watson," generates original recipes based on ingredients a user selects, Christopher Trout writes for Engadget.
"The system doesn't look at ingredients the same way chefs do," software engineer and chef Florian Pinel, who helped IBM develop Chef Watson, says in a video showcasing the cloud-based cook. "When a chef looks at an ingredient, he thinks of the history of the ingredient and recipes where it's been used. And the system does a little bit of the same, of course, but also it looks at the chemical composition of that ingredient."
That's how Chef Watson comes up with seemingly crazy ideas for dishes, like a burrito stuffed with chocolate, soybeans and apricot puree, or a Caribbean-inspired ricotta frittata, to name a few. By parsing out the complex relationships between flavor compounds—and a little inspiration from a library of roughly 9,000 recipes—Chef Watson can create new dishes with just the push of a button.
"The system is going to figure out what other ingredients you might use when making this dish—based on what's been used in the past—and before you know it, you have one trillion, one quadrillion possible combinations," Pinel tells Rochelle Bilow for Bon Apétit.
And of course, what would a fancy meal whipped up by a computer be without some fancy drinks? In addition to menus, Chef Watson also designs boozy beverages. But be warned: the algorithm takes an inventive approach to alcohol, such as drinks like the "Corn in the Coop" which mixes chicken stock with bourbon, apple juice and ginger, topped off with lemongrass, orange peel and a slice of grilled chicken. There's also the relatively tamer "Ivorian Bourbon Punch", a bourbon-based cocktail that combines banana juice, triple sec, vanilla extract, ground turmeric, lemon juice, lime juice, honey.
Depending on how adventurous of a palate you have, Chef Watson's creations might intrigue you or disgust you. Though Pinel admits that the computerized cook is in its infancy, he believes that the computer's eclectic suggestions could inspire home chefs and Michelin-starred restaurants alike.
If you'd like to give Chef Watson a spin in your own kitchen, be sure to check out IBM and Bon Apétit's website.
Last week in Pomono, California, 23 robots competed for $3.5 million in prizes. One robot emerged as the victor, and the herald of a future where humans and robots work together (hopefully not against each other). But many failed, spectacularly.
The DARPA Robotics Challenge (DRC) was inspired after the Fukushima nuclear disaster made clear the need to develop more robust, dexterous robotic rescuers. The challenge itself involved navigating through a simulated disaster environment and preforming tasks such as turning a valve, driving a vehicle and clambering over debris. For IEEE Spectrum, Erico Guizzo and Evan Ackerman write:
Lots of robots fell over, and a bunch of robots fell over multiple times. As much as nobody wanted to see a robot fall, everybody wanted to see a robot fall, and the possibility of falls (and reality of falls) kept everyone watching on the edge of our seats.
A compilation of all the falls from IEEE Spectrum provides the opportunity to simultaneously grimace and giggle for those who didn’t make last week’s event in person.
"These robots are big and made of lots of metal and you might assume people seeing them would be filled with fear and anxiety," says the event’s organizer, Gill Pratt, in a statement. "But we heard groans of sympathy when those robots fell. And what did people do every time a robot scored a point? They cheered! It's an extraordinary thing, and I think this is one of the biggest lessons from DRC — the potential for robots not only to perform technical tasks for us, but to help connect people to one another."
The robots here don’t make many decisions for themselves. Instead, they scan and measure spaces before passing that information to their operator teams, a quarter of mile away. In the end, human judgement is still needed. But the idea is that the robots can go where humans cannot. Still, the tottering progress and moments spent pondering the next move all add up until, as Mona Lalwani notes for Engadget, "it seems they need humans more than humans need them."
The winning robot was from the South Korean Team KAIST, named DRC Hubo. It completed the course and beat the challengers in 44 minutes and 28 seconds. DRC Hubo’s sucess comes in part from its ability to stand on two legs like a human, but also kneel on wheels built into its knees to move about with greater stability. Guizzo and Ackerman note how the others fared in IEEE Spectrum:
Other teams also performed well in the competition, but setbacks made their robots lose time. These included Tartan Rescue’s CHIMP, a robot with legs and tank-like tracks that was the only robot to get back up after a fall; the University of Bonn’s Momaro, an elegantly simple wheeled machine with a spinning head and two arms; NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s RoboSimian, a four-legged robot that seemed to perform yoga moves; IHMC’s ATLAS, a large hydraulic-electric humanoid made by Boston Dynamics (and used by other DRC teams).
Here’s the winning bot in action during the door opening task, no stumbles in sight:
Self-driving cars are still in testing phases, years away from hitting the market. But if you really want a car with an autopilot feature (and you happen to drive a relatively new Audi, live in California and have $10,000 lying around) then you might be able to give your car an upgrade as early as next year.
A sensor pod on the roof keeps track of everything happening on the road, and a small computer in the trunk controls the brakes, acceleration, and steering wheel. “We we believe it offers a more unique and complete experience to the modern cruise control and is merely what cruise control should be,” [Daniel Kan, Head of Operations at Cruise] says.
The first iteration of Cruise, the RP-1 is expected to ship early next year, but it is only available for drivers that own 2012 or later Audi A4s and S4s. Currently, the RP-1 only works on highways in California, though the company says they plan to expand the service area.
"When you drive onto a highway and merge into a lane, you’ll be able to hit a ‘Cruise’ button on your dashboard," says TechCrunch. "The system will take control of the car’s steering, braking, and acceleration to keep you in your lane." You will have to be in the driver’s seat, paying attention when using the RP-1, just like cruise control systems now (no texting and driving, people!)
Cruise does seem to be ahead of the game, but other companies including GM, Google, Tesla, Nissan and even Audi are also racing to make driving easier for consumers. Some are trying to make cars completely autonomous while others are working to create systems like Cruise’s, which still work with a driver.
More than just technology is keeping systems like Cruise off the road. Though laws are catching up to the developing technologies, with automated cars now legal (in some cases) in California, Michigan, Florida and Nevada, it'll likely be a while before you see robotic cars rolling down the highway in other parts of the country.
At least some Midwesterners are deeply resenting recent spats of warmer-than-usual winter temperatures. On Tuesday morning, a 66-foot-tall tower of ice sitting on a shore of Lake Superior came tumbling down to the horror of the artist, Roger Hanson, the New York Times reported.
The collapse was likely caused by stretches of warmer weather and a sudden cool down that have recently hit Wisconsin, coupled with the possibility that the ground may have been too weak to properly support the art work’s weight. Had the ice’s huge height been formally verified, the sculpture could have beat out the current Guinness World Record holder for the tallest ice sculpture, which measured in at just about 53 feet.
Hanson, who is known for his ice work in his home state of Minnesota, had been actively working on the sculpture since November. The town of Superior even came up with $30,000 to fund the endeavor. He’s been spending the winter living in a camper set up beside the ice, equipped with six computers delivering weather, wind and seismic data. That’s also where he keeps the controls to the robotic hoses used to spray water on parts of the sculpture in need of extra support.
All of that is over, for now, as Hanson figures out what to do next and how to better strengthen future sculptures. He may be momentarily defeated, but he says he’ll certainly try for the world record again. The people and visitors of Superior, who had planned several winter events around the attraction, share the artist’s disappointment.
“It was just cool as hell,” resident Mike Stariha told the Times.
Watch the colossal collapse for yourself below—it took mere seconds: