Tech Update (February 2018)

Andy Cormack gives us the heads up on what’s on the horizon in hardware and technology, giving you the lowdown on the next big thing.  This month, Andy takes a look at possibly the biggest leap in terms of delivering technology on several platforms – the launch of the Falcon Heavy rocket.  Also, he takes a look at advances in facial recognition and how the Chinese are applying these to practical and in some instances, somewhat questionable applications.

SpaceX Successfully Launch Falcon Heavy Rocket

“The world’s most powerful rocket”, words that not so subtly adorn SpaceX’s web page – for the Falcon Heavy, though they certainly aren’t untrue. SpaceX has been working towards this rockets launch for quite some time now, including smaller, separate development and tests specifically of the reusable self-landing boosters, which are an achievement in themselves.

The rocket has some mind-bending stats. Clocking in at a weight of nearly 64 metric tons, while also lifting more than double the payload of the next closest comparable operational vehicle, the Delta IV Heavy rocket and only costing a third of the price. Building on the technology of the Falcon 9, which had its maiden flight back in 2010, the Falcon Heavy has three engine cores, each comprising of 27 Merlin engines that generate the staggering two and a quarter million kilograms of thrust at liftoff, which is over 18 times the power of a Boeing 747. 

The hopes of this rocket’s flight was to reinvigorate both the interest and enthusiasm to send people to the Moon and Mars, and optimistically I’d like to say it has done a damn good job of just that. After numerous delays dating back to 2013, the rocket successfully launched from Cape Canaveral at 3:45pm EST on the 6th February, with delays even on that day for over two hours due to wind conditions at the site.

Those self-landing reusable boosters mentioned earlier both safely and securely landed in their designated zones, with the only issue in the takeoff being that of the main central booster, which failed to fire two of its three engines upon descent, causing it to hit the seaborne platform  at much higher velocity than intended.

Elon Musk’s cautious optimism for the rocket had been quoted last year before the rocket launched. “There’s a real good chance the vehicle won’t make it to orbit … I hope it makes it far enough away from the pad that it does not cause pad damage. I would consider even that a win, to be honest.”

You can watch the interview he did at the ISS R&D Conference in Washington, DC in July 2016 on YouTube.

Humorously, the payload for this maiden test flight was Musk’s own personal Tesla Roadster with a dummy in the driver seat, lovingly dubbed “Starman”, decked out in the SpaceX flight suit, first revealed in August of 2017 on Musk’s Instagram page.

After the famous space race spanning almost two decades between 1957 and 1975, the public and governmental enthusiasm for space travel and exploration has been steadily waning over the years. With this successful launch being such an incredibly monumental moment for SpaceX and Elon Musk, could it be possible to reinvigorate the interest in such projects? I’d like to think so.

Following their successful launch of the Falcon Heavy rocket, SpaceX has been granted approval from the FCC to provide broadband services via a network of satellites that could provide people all over the world with broadband internet with little to no need for ground-based infrastructure. The approval is initially for two test satellites to be sent into orbit. Once thorough testing has been completed it could lead to a possible network spanning thousands of satellites encompassing the planet.

There are millions of people all across the world that still lack access to reliable broadband internet, initiatives like this could be a path to a future where high speed internet is accessible regardless of your location. SpaceX are not the only ones to receive these permissions, Telesat, working on behalf of the Indian Space Research Organization, has already launched their own test satellite with plans to increase their numbers to 120 by 2021.

SpaceX is likely unconcerned with this competition, as it has similar plans to launch more, but in significantly larger numbers; over 4,000 satellites are planned to be in operation by 2024, launched into orbit as the payloads for Falcon 9 rockets, which have been proven over numerous launches to be a reliable launch system.

SpaceX’s two test satellites were launched on the 17th February 2018, alongside them, however, is an SEOSAR/PAZ satellite (Satélite Español de Observación Synthetic Aperture Radar / with PAZ).  Paz translates to “peace” in Spanish.  This is a dual-use mission civil/defense satellite managed by Hisdesat, a Spanish private communications company which has provided its services to the Spanish Ministry of Defense since 2001. These satellites are intended for national security and defence purposes.

Multiple other payloads will also be included on the rocket, but further details were not given as to the content and nature of these.

Medical Implant Developed By NASA Could Help Prevent Muscle Loss In Space

Since we’re on the topic of space, NASA has been developing a medical implant intended for use by astronauts to help combat the effects of muscle atrophy associated with the low-gravity environment they live in for months at a time. Even with a strict regimen of at least an hour of exercise per day, there can be months of recovery time afterwards in physiotherapy.

With the intention being that astronauts will be going on longer stints in that environment, potentially travelling to Mars in the next few years, NASA has been hard at work on a solution to the problem with one possible solution being a medication called Formoterol, a drug typically used to combat the effects of ailments such as asthma and Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD).

After running a battery of tests, in December NASA sent two groups of 20 mice with these new medical implants, that are designed to administer the drug over a period of time, to the International Space Station for an experiment. The first group of the two came back in January, while the second group is due back this month. The findings and comparisons over time will then be the real test to see if the drug and its delivery system worked as intended.

If the experiment is a success in staving off the effects of muscle atrophy, the delivery system’s potential use, both on Earth as well as in space, could be incredible, completely negating any issues with spikes in dosage over time by maintaining a constant smooth stream of a drug at the correct amounts. The implant has yet to be approved by the Federal Drug Administration (FDA) however, so it’s likely to be quite some time before human testing can proceed.

China’s Police Force Using Facial Recognition Glasses

At Zhengzhou East railway station in the Henan province, using a device that appears to be not all that different to Google Glass, on the outside at least, Police Officers in China have begun testing special glasses with facial recognition tech built into them.

The glasses have apparently already aided in the apprehension of seven persons of interest connected to crimes, ranging from hit-and-runs to human trafficking, and has been responsible for the detection and arrest of 26 more who were using fake IDs. While the applications of facial recognition technology has long been debated regarding its privacy implications, it’s sometimes hard to argue with the results.

LLVision Technology Co., a company based in Beijing that produces wearable video cameras among other products, handled the development of the glasses, and are quoted as saying that they can “identify a person in 100 milliseconds, and recognize 100,000 different faces”. Citing that accuracy will likely drop due to the ‘environmental noise’ of the real world.

While LLVision sells all kinds of wearable equipment, its facial recognition tech is not being sold to consumers, and anyone wishing to purchase them has to be vetted prior to any sale.

Still, there are concerns that the Chinese authorities may misuse the technology, considering their history regarding privacy concerns and human rights violations, compelling William Nee, a spokesperson for Amnesty International,  telling The Wall Street Journal, “The potential to give individual police officers facial-recognition technology in sunglasses could eventually make China’s surveillance state all the more ubiquitous.”

With China’s plans already in place to proceed for creating the largest camera surveillance network in the world, and with roughly 170 million CCTV cameras already in operation around the country, and 400 million more due to be put in place within the next three years, many of which are due to include AI systems like facial recognition, it looks like the future for this kind of surveillance in China is already a foregone conclusion.

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Tech Update – December 2017

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