In March’s update, Andy looks at NASA funding for small research and development outfits, the resurrection of an unadulterated design classic, and another car company announces its intention to develop an autonomous vehicle.NASA Invests $96 Million Into Small Tech Research Companies
A press release posted by NASA on their website on the 7th March details Phase 2 of its Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program, having selected 128 proposals from small American tech companies to aid in the advancement of tech research. The idea of this program being to both contribute to NASA’s future space missions as well as benefiting the country’s economy as a whole.
The kinds of projects NASA has chosen to invest in with these businesses range from neuromorphic computing, to new wheel designs and camera systems to name but a few.
One strong example of the kinds of research NASA is striving to push forward is that of Mentium Technologies, a company based in California. Their current efforts into deep learning hardware accelerators are shooting for improvements in the region of 100 to 1,000 fold increases over traditional microprocessors – a lofty goal to be sure, and one shared by Intel also, with their claims of their own prototype neuromorphic processor, dubbed Loihi, reportedly achieving similar benchmarks.
Speaking on the topic of their second phase, NASA spokesperson and Acting Associate Administrator for NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate (STMD), Jim Reuter spoke about the program. “We look forward to working with these promising small businesses to further advance NASA’s missions, NASA is proud of our investment in the success of small businesses and its long-term impact on our economy.“
Going into more detail on some of the main areas of investment that NASA chose, they bullet point some key areas and their core benefits:
♦ Low-power, ultra-fast, deep-learning neuromorphic computer chips designed for unmanned aircraft systems, such as delivery drones. Neuromorphic computer chips can analyze, in real-time, big data streams coming from cameras, sensors and avionics, helping to achieve better navigation and collision avoidance.
♦ Solid-state oxygen concentrator and compressor designed to minimise hardware mass, volume and power footprint, while still performing at the required capabilities. This technology concentrates the oxygen within future crewed space environments, providing the required concentration of oxygen to crew members, while minimising weight.
♦ Sensors and cameras for detecting and tracking near-Earth asteroids. These asteroids are mostly dark, small and cold, and are best detected in the very long-wave infrared wavelengths greater than 12 microns, where they glow brightest.
♦ A new wheel concept for enhanced surface mobility to emulate the behaviour of a variable pressure tire without the need or risk of an inflation system. This wheel can benefit future NASA planetary exploration missions to the Moon and Mars by enhancing the mobility and control of surface exploration rovers and future vehicles.
The press release continues on to state that those businesses who were eligible to submit Phase 2 proposals are those who obtained phase 1 contracts. “Phase 1 work and results provide a sound basis for the continued development, demonstration and delivery of the proposed innovation in Phase 2 and follow-on efforts. Phase 3 is the commercialization of innovative technologies, products, and services resulting from either a Phase 1 or Phase 2 contract.”
The Phase 2 contracts will last a total of two years, in which time the companies need to advance their respective proposed technologies to a stage nearing readiness for commercialisation via products and services, by which time Phase 3 will be implemented to progress these technologies to market.
Nokia Brings Back The Phone From The Matrix
Remember those sleek mobile phones with the spring loaded keypad cover they used in The Matrix back in 1999? They were Nokia phones, and they were sponsored advertising, but damn if they weren’t the epitome of cool back then, in no small part thanks to the film itself giving them some street cred. Well, they’re back, and in a slightly updated form with 4G support.
The Nokia 8110, dubbed the ‘Banana Phone’ by many at the time because of its uniquely curved design, has been re-released as the 8110 4G, but curiously the phone is running KaiOS instead of what most would have assumed to be Android. That being said, this phone is certainly being marketed more at nostalgia and raw utility as a phone first, and it’s certainly price appropriate, coming in at a rather reasonable £80.
The phone was announced along with a new Android smartphone range at this year’s Mobile World Congress (MWC). It looks like the second coming for Nokia – a mobile phone giant back at the dawn of the technology, bringing us classics like the the 3310, the aforementioned 8110, the n800 and n900, the E70, and most certainly let’s not forget the N-Gage as well as so many other devices, too many to list off here without writing up a whole history of the company’s releases. So many innovations, whether they were hits or flops was wholly inconsequential; they were the company really trying to push the boundaries of what consumers had come to expect from their phones.
Of course, nothing lasts forever and Nokia’s eventual decline certainly came, faltering numerous times in the mid-noughties, combined with being left behind by other innovators such as Apple and Google, leading to declines across the board in sales. By late 2010, the company decided that enough was enough, firing its then current CEO Olli-Pekka Kallasvuo, and appointing Microsoft’s Stephen Elop in his place, the first non-Finnish director in the company’s history.
By 2011 Nokia then shifted focus to Windows Phone as their primary operating system on new hardware releases, relegating their in-house efforts like Symbian to the backburner despite the success of their newly developed MeeGo-based device the N9, due to apparent pressure from Microsoft to push Windows Phone instead.
Between 2011 and 2013 there were a couple of high points for new Windows Phone devices, but overall a sharp decline in sales, meaning that Nokia suffered huge losses in 2012 and 2013, ultimately leading to the sale of the mobile and devices division of Nokia to Microsoft in September 2013.
Since then, Nokia fell in to relative obscurity, dropping sharply from 5th to 98th place in the Interbrand global brand value rankings between 2009 and 2014. They then switched their focus to networking equipment for a time and have since been working towards a re-invigoration of the company in the public eye after their long decline.
It appears that time has now arrived, under new ownership from HMD Global. Nokia has announced a lineup of new Android-based smartphones, ranging widely in price and capability. The Nokia 8 Sirocco, the Nokia 7 Plus, the Nokia 6, and the Nokia 1, an ‘entry-level’ device with a barebones approach.
While the flagship Sirocco certainly punches its weight in terms of specs, and the others in the new range hold their own at their respective price points, the real key to these phones’ success may lie in their simplicity. The phones will come equipped with what has been dubbed ‘Android One’, or in the case of the cut down Nokia 1 entry-level phone, ‘Android Go’. These, Google states, are the “purest form of Android”, meaning that the operating system installed on these devices is not muddied by any extra heft that custom builds from most other Android smartphone companies shove into their products.
Many consumers, indeed the purists among Android enthusiasts have a certain disdain for vendor-specific Android variants and their accompanying pre-installed software, such as Samsung’s Touchwiz interface and bundled Samsung-related apps and ecosystem that’s tacked on to the base Android experience.
While these features and customisations added by these companies may not all be bad per se, what they do add is significant delay and development time between major revisions of Android to their customers, due to the fact that those companies will have to invest more time in updating their bespoke fancy bits for the new version of Android that Google releases before they can pass those updates on to their customers. Worse still, is that in many cases these updates don’t happen for over a year.
So with this plain, no frills version of Android running on the new Nokia lineup, the company could end up seeing quite the uptake from customers fatigued by slow or non-existent updates for their smartphones. A hopeful future for a company that’s certainly had its up and downs, this could well be the second coming of Nokia indeed.
Toyota Partners Up And Dives Into The Automated Vehicle Game
Toyota has announced that is creating a joint venture with automobile makers and partnered suppliers Aisin Seiki Co. and Denso Corporation to research and develop self-driving technologies under the moniker of Toyota Research Institute – Advanced Development (TRI-AD).
Announced on the 2nd March via JCN Newswire, Toyota stated in a press release that they would be garnering over 300 billion Japanese Yen (JPY), which is somewhere in the region of £2 billion in Sterling, and the venture would be led by Toyota Research Institute’s current CTO, Dr. James Kuffner, targeting roughly 1,000 staff hires including external recruitment.
Following the announcement, Kuffner commented, “Building production-quality software is a critical success factor for Toyota’s automated driving program. This company’s mission is to accelerate software development in a more effective and disruptive way, by augmenting the Toyota Group’s capability through the hiring of world-class software engineers. We will recruit globally, and I am thrilled to lead this effort.”