All posts by John Boyd

Facebook’s Australian Struggles Cast Shadow on Net Policy Around the World

Post Syndicated from John Boyd original

Facebook users in Australia last week found they couldn’t access news and government web pages. That was by design. The social network removed these links in response to a proposed Australian government bill to require social media networks pay news organizations for use of their content. The ban on news access is actually part of a larger struggle between Facebook and media players like Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation over the future of news content on social media.  

That battle ended (for now) when an agreement was brokered after hurried bargaining resulted in the Australian government making concessions. Now, if digital platforms like Facebook and Google negotiate commercial deals with news organizations that can be shown to contribute “to the sustainability of the Australian news industry,” they could avoid being subject to the new law. In addition, the companies will receive at least one month’s notice before “a last resort” arbitration is proposed if such negotiations fail.

Plenty of questions, however, remain: Will Facebook consent to other countries enacting similar policy on them? What might other countries’ deals with other players (including Google and Microsoft) look like? And will any of this matter to Facebook and Internet users beyond Australia’s borders?

The answer to that final question, at least, is very likely Yes.    

The battle began brewing back in April 2020 when the Australian government asked its Competition & Consumer Commission to draw up a news media bargaining code that would “address bargaining power imbalance between Australian news media businesses and digital platforms, specifically Google and Facebook.”

As the Media Code neared enactment, Google threatened in January to pull its search engine from Australia. In the same month, Mel Silva, managing director of Google Australia and New Zealand, stated before the Australian Senate Economics Legislation Committee that, “The principle of unrestricted linking between websites is fundamental to Search. Coupled with the unmanageable financial and operational risk if this version of the Code were to become law, it would give us no real choice but to stop making Google Search available in Australia.” 

Australian prime minister Scott Morrison’s reply was immediate. “We don’t respond to threats,” he told the press the same day. 

Microsoft, long-time competitor with Google and Facebook, was quick to exploit its rivals’ difficulties. After endorsing the government’s Media Code, Brad Smith, Microsoft president, wrote on his blog in February, Microsoft “committed that its Bing search service would remain in Australia and that it is prepared to share revenues with news organizations under the rules that Google and Facebook are rejecting.” He added that the company would support “a similar proposal in the United States, Canada, The European Union, and other countries.”

Such developments apparently gave Google second thoughts, and it began negotiating directly with several Australian media companies, including  News Corp., which announced on February 17 “it has agreed to an historic multi-year partnership with Google to provide trusted journalism from its news sites around the world in return for significant payments by Google.”

The Facebook Fight

In a formal announcement, William Easton, managing director of Facebook Australia & New Zealand said on Tuesday that after discussions, “We are satisfied that the Australian government has agreed to a number of changes and guarantees that address our core concerns about allowing commercial deals that recognize the value our platform provided to publishers relative to the value we receive from them.”

Campbell Brown, Facebook’s vice president of global news partnerships, added in a separate announcement that, “We’re restoring news on Facebook in Australia in the coming days. From now on, the government has clarified we will retain the ability to decide if news appears on Facebook so that we won’t automatically be subject to a forced negotiation.”

The amendments may help diminish the criticism that deals like Google’s News Corp. agreement will only stuff the pockets of media owners such as Rupert Murdoch, who, critics like Kara Swisher claim, has unduly influenced the Australian government’s legislation.

Certainly, News Corp., which owns The Wall Street Journal, The New York Post, and The Australian, as well as the U.K.’s The Times and The Sun has suffered from the online dominance of Google and Facebook in Australia and around the world. Before the ascendancy of both these online giants, newspapers were a thriving business, making money by selling copies and advertisements. In Australia today, according to the country’s competition watchdog, for every A$100 in media advertising revenues, Google accounts for $53, Facebook for $28, and the remaining $19 is shared by the content providers like News Corp. 

Meanwhile, Facebook will now have to deal with the fallout resulting from its news blackout. U.K. member of parliament Julian Knight described the ban as a “crass move,” and “the worst type of corporate culture.” While the U.K. News Media Association said the move “demonstrates why robust regulation is urgently needed.”

Canada also condemned the Facebook move. Heritage Minister Steven Guilbeault, who is drawing up the country’s own media code, said he has talked with French, German and Finnish counterparts about collaborating to ensure published content would be properly compensated. He added that he expected “ten, fifteen countries [would soon be] adopting similar rules.”

Fukushima’s Legacy: Japan’s Hard Turn Toward Renewables

Post Syndicated from John Boyd original

When the tsunami generated by the Great East Japan Earthquake struck the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant on 11 March 2011, it not only knocked out the plant but eventually led to the shutdown of all the country’s 54 nuclear reactors as a safety precaution. Ten years on, just nine reactors have come back on line. And while nuclear energy in Japan today is anything but dead (the central government now hopes nuclear could provide 20 percent of the nation’s power by 2030), the prospect of a ­zero-carbon future in Japan still leaves the lion’s share to renewables.

The magnitude 9.0 earthquake also killed nearly 20,000 people, with 2,500 still missing. As of last December, some 42,000 of the total 470,000 evacuees remained evacuated, even as the disaster’s 10th anniversary loomed. The government has directed its decontamination efforts to reducing an individual’s radiation dose to 1 millisievert a year, a generally accepted international standard. Nevertheless, some 337 square kilometers within seven Fukushima municipalities continue to be designated “difficult-to-return zones,” while a critical Greenpeace radiation survey report published in 2019 warned that forests in the region, which have never been decontaminated, “will continue to be long-term sources of recontamination.”

To help both revitalize the stricken area and advance the country’s decarbonization efforts, the government in 2014 established the Fukushima Renewable Energy Institute, AIST (FREA) in Koriyama, Fukushima prefecture, says Masaru Nakaiwa, FREA’s ­director-general. (“AIST” stands for the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology.) FREA’s mandate is to work with industry and academia to improve photovoltaic and wind-turbine performance, optimize ground-source heat pumps and geothermal resources, and develop technologies for hydrogen-energy carriers and hydrogen-energy systems.

“Fukushima prefectural government has set a target of producing all of ­Fukushima’s energy demands from renewable sources by 2040,” says Nakaiwa. To do this, the government is working with FREA, industry, and universities to help commercialize research in renewable technologies and increase the use of solar, biomass, and wind generation in the prefecture. Hydrogen is also viewed as an important new energy resource. The prefecture is now home to the Fukushima Hydrogen Energy Research Field, the world’s largest green-hydrogen production facility, capable of supplying 1,200 cubic meters of hydrogen an hour. This new focus is in keeping with past and recent central government announcements on hydrogen and the goal to make Japan carbon neutral by 2050.

Achieving the 2050 target won’t be easy. Whereas nuclear accounted for 30 percent of the country’s energy use before the accident, today it provides just 6 percent. Making up the shortfall, Japan now relies more on coal (25 percent), natural gas (23 percent), and oil (39 percent), with renewables and hydro accounting for the rest, as of April 2018.

To encourage industry to work toward carbon neutrality, the government will provide capital investment, tax relief, and deregulation in areas such as wind power; carbon capture, utilization, and storage; and the mass production of storage batteries.

At the end of 2018, some 55 gigawatts of solar power equipment had been installed around Japan, putting the country on track to surpass the government’s target of 64 GW by 2030. Regarding wind power, however, Japan had only 3.6 GW of equipment installed in 2018, hence Japan’s Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry noted it as technology to invest in.

More notable is the country’s embrace of hydrogen as a versatile energy-storage medium. Hydrogen can be produced from various kinds of natural resources, in particular the water used for electrolysis, which removes carbon dioxide, says Satoshi Hirano, FREA’s deputy director-general. And hydrogen can be compressed, stored, transported, and converted into electricity or heat when needed, without emitting CO2.

Hydrogen’s major downside is the high cost of production. Hence FREA and other national research institutes are developing efficient, low-cost hydrogen-production technologies powered by renewable energies, says Manabu Ihara, director of the Tokyo Tech Academy of Energy and Informatics at the Tokyo Institute of Technology.

FREA has already demonstrated a green-hydrogen supply chain and a hydrogen cofiring generator system, as well as the successful synthesis of ammonia (NH3) from green hydrogen, and its use to fuel a modified micro gas-turbine generator. (Hydrogen could also be used in ammonia-powered cargo ships.) Currently FREA is working with IHI Corp. and Tohoku University to develop larger generator systems using liquid ammonia spray injection, says Hirano.

Other countries are also developing green-hydrogen projects. China has a major project underway in Inner Mongolia slated to produce 454,000 metric tons annually; the European Union estimates spending €430 billion (about US $520 billion) over the next 10 years on hydrogen technologies, while South Korea is aiming to become a leader in developing clean hydrogen.

Meanwhile, Japan is creating international supply chains for shipping green hydrogen and “blue” hydrogen (using carbon capture and storage) to the country, and has established pilot projects in Brunei and Australia to test the feasibility of the scheme. These overseas and domestic sources of clean hydrogen fueling large-scale modified gas turbines will eventually take on the role of supplying base load power to the electric grid that can replace nuclear power, says Ihara, of the Tokyo Institute of Technology. “And we should see this partly realized before 2030.”

This article appears in the March 2021 print issue as “Japan’s Renewables Renaissance.”

Japan Prepares to Welcome Home Asteroid Explorer Hayabusa2

Post Syndicated from John Boyd original

Okaerinasai is Japanese for “Welcome back.” It’s a word everyone at the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency JAXA will be shouting together around 2 am Tokyo time on December 6, when a capsule ejected from the Hayabusa2 space probe is due to land in Woomera, South Australia, after a 5.2 billion kilometer round-trip.

The reentry capsule is expected to contain precious particles scooped from the rock-strewn surface and subsurface of Ryugu, a diamond-shape asteroid less than a kilometer in diameter. This difficult trick was pulled off as Ryugu traveled on its 16-month orbit around the sun between Earth and Mars. What’s more, Hayabusa2 was able to land twice on the spinning asteroid and complete a series of missions. Perhaps the most difficult and spectacular of these was using an impactor to form a crater on the asteroid for gathering particles from below its surface—one of a number of firsts in space exploration Hayabusa2 has achieved.

Providing all goes as planned, the capsule will separate from the spacecraft on December 5, some 220,000 km from Earth. After which Hayabusa2 will enter an escape trajectory to depart Earth and commence on an extension of its mission. So long as the craft is still operational and has 50 percent of its xenon fuel remaining to drive its ion thruster engines, JAXA has set it the goal of visiting and observing an asteroid of a type never explored before. If successful, Hayabusa2 will reach its target in 2031.

In a press briefing a week before the landing, the project’s mission manager Makoto Yoshikawa explained how a JAXA team, working with the Australian Space Agency, will locate and retrieve the capsule. Ground stations and an airplane flying above the clouds will triangulate the capsule fireball’s progress through the Earth’s atmosphere by measuring its light trail. Then, at an altitude of 10 km above the Earth, the capsule will deploy a parachute and land somewhere (depending on weather conditions) within a 100 km2 area of the Woomera desert

Yoshikawa described how JAXA track and trace the capsule. Four marine radar units have been set up around the predicted landing area. Their fan-beam horizontal rotating antenna will track an umbrella made of radar-reflective-cloth attached to the top of the descending parachute. At the same time, a radio beacon in the capsule will begin signaling its location. 

“A helicopter and a team on the ground will track the beacon’s signal that will continue transmitting after landing,” Yoshikawa added. “We’re also bringing drones to help us find it as quickly as possible.”

The capsule will be taken by helicopter to a quick-look facility established in the Woomera Prohibited Area. There, the instrument module and sealed containers holding the Ryugu samples will be removed, including any gas released by the particles, and stored and sealed in special containers and airlifted to Japan. The aim is to complete all this in less than 100 hours after the landing to minimize any risk of contamination.

Once at JAXA, the samples will be removed in a vacuum environment inside a cleanroom. Over the next two years, each particle will be analyzed, described, and curated, with some of the particles being sent to international organizations, including NASA, for further study.

In a separate press briefing in Australia on December 1, Masaki Fujimoto, a Deputy Director at JAXA, explained why the samples taken from Ryugu are so important. Earth, being relatively close to the sun, was created dry without much water present. Something must have brought the H2O here. Ryugu is a primordial asteroid born outside the inner solar system and is the kind of body that could have brought water and organic materials to our planet that enabled the creation of life.

Analysis of the collected samples, says Fujimoto, “could help answer the fundamental question of how our planet became habitable.”  

He said that the asteroid samples gathered will likely amount to around one gram. “One gram may sound small to some of you,” said Fujimoto, “but for us, it is huge and enough to address the science questions we have in mind.”

Update (Dec. 6): JAXA confirmed the reentry capsule entered the Earth’s atmosphere at 2.28 a.m. Japan standard time on December 6. A helicopter searched for and located it in the Woomera desert at 4.47, then flew it to the quick look facility in the Woomera Prohibited Area, arriving just after 8 a.m. The JAXA recovery team is expected to extract any gas from the captured Ryugu samples. On its approach and orbit, beginning on December 5, Hayabusa2 performed several trajectory maneuvers to successfully depart Earth’s orbit and has now set out on its extended mission to observe an asteroid it hopes to visit in 2031.

Can Two-dimensional Semiconductors Created Using Liquid Metals Forestall Moore’s Law’s Demise?

Post Syndicated from John Boyd original

As the semiconductor industry witnesses the winding down of the expectation that the number of transistors that can be shoehorned into silicon microchips will double every couple of years, researchers are coming up with new ways to keep the effect of Moore’s Law rolling along. One such method with exciting prospects employs liquid metals to produce two-dimensional semiconducting materials with atomic-scale thickness. This enables the creation of a transistor channel between source and drain that is almost an order of magnitude thinner than those employed in silicon transistors. In addition, they possess intriguing properties such as a variety of band gaps and carrier concentrations, as well as unique transducing properties.

“The two-dimensional confinement of free charge-carriers—namely electrons and holes—in these materials provides a pathway to move along with reduced charge scattering,” says Kourosh Kalantar-Zadeh, a professor of engineering at the University of New South Wales, Australia. “This means extremely small resistance. In theory, they can also switch very fast and switch off to absolute zero resistance during non-operational states due to their very thin nature.”

But several barriers make it difficult to use these new materials as ultra-thin semiconductors for integrated circuits. Besides imperfections and defects arising in their production that can inhibit electron flow, a major issue to date has been the grain barriers that exist across their planes when they’re produced using conventional deposition methods.

To overcome this problem, Kalantar-Zadeh’s research group has developed a new deposition method to produce one of the most promising ultra-thin semiconductor materials, molybdenum disulfide (MoS2), without grain barriers.

“We use the unique capability of gallium metal, which, unlike mercury for instance, is much less hazardous and has the amazing quality of turning to liquid at just 29.8 0C,” says Yifang Wang, a member of Kalantar-Zadeh’s group and first author of a paper published on the research in Advanced Functional Materials this October. “Indeed, it turns to liquid when held in the palm of your hand.”

And because gallium is a melted metal, she says its surface is atomically smooth, yet like conventional metals, its surface provides a large number of free electrons to facilitate chemical reactions, which is important for the new method of deposition.

Kalantar-Zadeh explains the method as follows. The sources of molybdenum and sulfur are brought near to the surface of the liquid gallium. This causes a chemical reaction that forms molybdenum sulfur bonds that in turn create MoS2. The newly formed material is grown on the atomically smooth surface of the gallium like a skin, so it is naturally formed and grain free. This process takes place in an aqueous solution and requires annealing to remove hydration. Distance-dependent surface forces such as electrostatic or dipolar forces are then used to remove the semiconductor skin from the gallium liquid and to transfer it to a substrate ready for turning into transistor elements. Such forces do not exist on the surface of liquid metals, and so the synthesized MoS2 does not adhere to their surfaces.

“Unlike conventional chips that require a silicon substrate, the molybdenum disulfide skin can be deposited onto almost anything non-metallic: glass, a polymer,” says Kalantar-Zadeh. “You can roll it out or print it out anywhere you like. If you want something flexible, if you want to bend it, for instance, you can deposit it on a suitable polymer substrate to produce flexible electronics.”

And because the material is thinner than silicon, a number of layers can be added as desired, while standard chip packaging can also be used.

Having demonstrated the deposition method’s feasibility, the researchers are now working to streamline it so that it can be transferred from the lab to commercial fabs—something Kalantar-Zadeh estimates can be accomplished in the next several years. 

The researchers are also planning to extend the method to create other two-dimensional semiconducting, dielectric, and conducting materials such as gallium arsenide, gallium sulfide, and indium tin oxide. 

Japan on Track to Introduce Flying Taxi Services in 2023

Post Syndicated from John Boyd original

Last year, Spectrum reported on Japan’s public-private initiative to create a new industry around electric vertical takeoff and landing vehicles (eVTOLs) and flying cars. Last Friday, start-up company SkyDrive Inc. demonstrated the progress made since then when it held a press conference to spotlight its prototype vehicle and show reporters a video taken three days earlier of the craft undergoing a piloted test flight in front of staff and investors.

The sleek, single-seat eVTOL, dubbed SD-03 (SkyDrive third generation), resembles a hydroplane on skis and weighs in at 400 kilograms. The body is made of carbon fiber, aluminum, and other materials that have been chosen for their weight, balance, and durability. The craft measures 4 meters in length and width, and is about 2 meters tall. During operation, the nose of the craft is lit with white LED lights; red lights run around the bottom to enable the vehicle to be seen in the sky and to distinguish the direction the craft is flying. 

The SD-03 uses four pairs of electrically driven coaxial rotors, with one pair mounted at each quadrant. These enable a flight time of 5 to 10 minutes at speeds up to 50 kilometers per hour. “The propellers on each pair counter-rotate,” explains Nobuo Kishi, Sky Drive’s chief technology officer. “This cancels out propeller torque.” It also makes for a compact design, “so all the craft needs to land is the space of two parked cars,” he adds.

But when it came to providing more details of the drive system, Kishi declined, saying it’s a trade secret that’s a source of competitive advantage. The same goes for the craft’s energy storage system: Other than disclosing the fact that the flying taxi currently uses a lithium polymer battery, he’s also keeping details about the powertrain confidential.

Underlying this need for secrecy is the technology’s restricted capabilities. “Total energy that can be stored in a battery is a major limiting factor here,” says Steve Wright, Senior Research Fellow in Avionics and Aircraft Systems at the University of West England. “Which is why virtually every one of these projects is aiming at the air-taxi market within megacities.”

The SkyDrive video shows the SD-03 take off vertically then engage in maneuvers as it hovers up to two meters off the ground around a netted enclosure. The craft is shown moving about at walking speed for roughly 4 minutes before landing on a designated spot. For monitoring purposes and back-up, engineers used an additional computer-assisted control system to ensure the craft’s stability and safety.

Speaking at the press conference, Tomohiro Fukuzawa, SkyDrive’s CEO, estimated there are currently as many as 100 flying car projects underway around the world, “but only a few have succeeded with someone on board,” he said.

He went on to note that Japan lags behind other countries in the aviation industry but excels in manufacturing cars. Given the similarities between cars —especially electric cars—and VTOLs, he believes Japan can compete with companies in the United States, Europe, and China that are also developing eVTOLs.

SkyDrive’s advances have encouraged new venture capital investors to come on board and nearly triple investment to a total of 5.9 billion yen ($56 million). Original investors include large corporations that saw an opportunity to get in on the ground floor of a promising new industry backed by government. One investor, NEC, is aiming to create more options for its air-traffic management systems, while Japan’s largest oil company, Eneos, is interested in developing electric charging stations for all kinds of electric vehicles.

In May, SkyDrive unveiled a drone for commercial use that is based on the same drive and power systems as the SD-03. Named the Cargo Drone, it’s able to transport payloads of up to 30 kg and can be preprogrammed to fly autonomously or be piloted manually. It will be operated as a service by SkyDrive, starting at a minimum monthly rental charge of 380,000 yen ($3,600) that rises according to the purpose and frequency of use. 

Kishi says the drone is designed to work within a 3 km range in locations that are difficult or time-consuming to get to by road. For instance, Obayashi Corp., one of Japan’s big five construction companies and an investor in SkyDrive, has been testing the Cargo Drone to autonomously deliver materials like sandbags and timber to a remote, hard-to-reach location.

Fukuzawa established SkyDrive in 2018 after leaving Toyota Motor and working with Cartivator, a group of volunteer engineers interested in developing flying cars. SkyDrive now has a staff of fifty.

Also in 2018, the Japanese government formed the Public-Private Conference for Air Mobility made up of private companies, universities, and government ministries. The stated aim was to make flying vehicles a reality by 2023. Tomohiko Kojima of Japan’s Civil Aviation Bureau told Spectrum that since the Conference’s formation, the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism has held a number of meetings with members to discuss matters like airspace for eVTOL use, flight rules, and permitted altitudes. “And last month, the Ministry established a working-level group to discuss certification standards for eVTOLs, a standard for pilots, and operational safety standards,” Kojima added.

Fukuzawa is also targeting 2023 to begin taxi services (single passenger and pilot) in the Osaka Bay area, flying between locations like Kansai and Kobe airports and tourist attractions such as Universal Studios Japan. These flights will take less than ten minutes—a practical nod to the limitations of the battery energy storage system.

“What SkyDrive is proposing is entirely do-able,” says Wright. “Almost all rotor-only eVTOL projects are limited to sub-30-minute endurance, which, with safety reserves, equate to about 10 to 20 minutes flying.”

Small Japanese Town to Test First Autonomous Amphibious Bus

Post Syndicated from John Boyd original

No longer a rare sight, amphibious buses can now be found making a splash around the globe by providing tourists with a different view of local attractions. Even Naganohara, a small town in Gunma Prefecture, Japan, population 5,600, operates an amphibious tourist bus daily in and alongside the Yanba Dam nine months of the year.

And that’s the problem—the experience is less of a thrill year by year. So the town, an hour’s train journey northwest of Tokyo, hit on the idea of making the amphibious bus self-driving.

A consortium that includes the Japan Amphibious Vehicle AssociationSaitama Institute of Technology (SIT), ITbook Holdings, ABIT Corporation, and the town of Naganohara will begin in December what is billed as the first such trials in the world of an autonomous amphibious bus. Supported primarily by the Nippon Foundation, the consortium has secured some 250 million yen ($2.4 million) to fund the project through to March next year, after which, progress will be evaluated, with further funding expected to be made available.

The amphibious bus, the property of the town, comprises a converted truck design combined with a ship’s bottom and carries 40 passengers. It uses the truck’s diesel engine on land and a separate ship engine to travel in the dam at 3.6 knots an hour. 

SIT is developing the self-driving technologies for both land and water that are based on the open-source Autoware platform for autonomous cars, and on controllers for modified Joy Cars. 

“Joy Cars are joystick-controlled cars for disable people that have been retrofitted with actuators and a joystick controller system,” says Daishi Watabe, director, Center for Self-Driving Technologies at SIT, who is heading the Yanba Smart Mobility Project. “They are the development of an industry-SIT collaboration.”

Tatsuma Okubo, a general manager at ITbook Holdings, is the project’s manager and describes the autonomous technology set-up as follows. A PC with the Autoware software installed takes in data from the various sensors including Lidar, cameras, and the Global Navigation Satellite System. The software uses a controller area network (CAN bus) to communicate the data to a vehicle motion controller that in turn controls two Joystick-controlled Joy System sub-control units: one for steering and one for accelerating and braking.

“Basically, our autonomous bus system substitutes voltage data from the joystick interface with voltage data from the Autoware electronic unit,” says Watabe. “We are developing two sets of remodeled Joy Car actuators for retrofitting in the Naganohara amphibious bus—one set for use on land, the other for water, which are remodeled land actuators.”

He says the autonomous control system will manage four major areas of control: vehicle water-in/water-out location-recognition; sensor-stabilization to counter ship rolling; self-localization techniques to manage changes in surrounding 3D views, given the water height in the dam can dramatically change; and a sonar-based obstacle-avoidance scheme. In addition, AI is also used to assist in obstacle detection, self-localization, and path planning.

When the dam was created, buildings and trees were left as they are.  

“Given the height of the lake can change as much as 30 meters, we have to recognize underwater obstacles and driftwood to avoid any collisions,” says Watabe. “But because water permeability is low, cameras are not suitable. And Lidar doesn’t function well underwater. So we need to use sonar sensors for obstacle detection and path planning.”

What’s more, 3D views change according to the water level, while Lidar has no surrounding objects to reflect from when the bus is in the middle of the lake. “This means a simple scan-matching algorithm is not sufficient for self-localization,” explains Watabe. “So we’ll also use global navigation satellite data enhanced through real-time kinematic positioning and a gyro-based localization scheme.”

The biggest difficulty the project faces, according to Okubo, is the short construction period available, as they only have the off-season—December to March—this year and next to install and field test autonomous functionality.

Another challenge: Because winds and water flows can affect vehicle guidance, subtle handling of the vehicle is required when entering and exiting the water to ensure the underwater guardrails do not cause damage. Consequently, the group is developing a precise control system to govern the rudder and propulsion system.

“We’ll install and fine-tune the autonomous functionality during two off-season periods in 2020-21 and 2021-22,” says Watabe.  “Then the plan is to conduct field tests with the public in February and March 2022.”

Besides tourism, Okubo says the technology has a huge potential to “revolutionize logistics” to Japan’s remote islands, which are facing a survival crisis due to declining populations. As an example, he says only a single driver (or no driver once full automation is introduced) would be necessary during goods transshipments to such islands. This should reduce costs and enable more frequent operations.  

U.S. and Japan Seeking to Break China’s Grip on Rare Earths Production

Post Syndicated from John Boyd original

You may not have realized it, but praseodymium, terbium, and gadolinium are as important to your work as the soldering iron, multimeter, and oscilloscope. Respectively, these rare earth elements (REEs) help make possible lasers and certain magnets, fluorescent lamps and sonar systems, computer memories and X-ray tubes. 

There are seventeen REEs, and most of them play a special role in 21st Century living—several pounds of these compounds, for instance, are used in batteries for electric and hybrid vehicles. But the industry producing them is overshadowed by the fact it has become a monopoly of China, which is not shy about threatening to restrict REE exports when aggrieved. 

Ironically, most REEs are not particularly rare. Rather, they are seldom found in concentrated amounts large enough to make them readily profitable to extract and refine. That wasn’t always the case. The Mountain Pass mine in California’s Mojave Desert was the world’s largest supplier of certain REEs from the 1950s to 1990s, supplying the needs of color TV makers and electronics manufacturers that supplied the U.S. defense industry during the Cold War. With the end of that war and the issuing of stringent government environmental regulations, the mine went out of business in 2002.

Meanwhile, China—a rich source of REEs—began to seriously develop technology for extracting, separating, smelting, and processing REEs in the mid-1970s. Less regulated and supported by the government, the country became a major REE exporter in the 1980s, going on to account for an astonishing 97 percent market share of all rare earth mineral production in 2010. Though China’s share has since decreased to around 70–80 percent, it has become the world’s largest consumer of REEs, in keeping with its spectacular growth in high tech manufacturing. 

In a paper reviewing China’s REE policies from 1975­­­–2018 published in Mineral Economics this January, the authors note that the Chinese government, in efforts to manage resources, reduce pollution and encourage the country’s industrial growth, asserted control over the REE industry in the 1990s. Export restrictions and production quotas were introduced and REE prices soared. 

When the rest of the industrialized world woke up to their dependency, China reversed its strategy on REE prices, “keeping them low and making it difficult [for other countries] to compete,” says Kristin Vekasi of the University of Maine, interviewed last summer by the National Bureau of Asian Research, a think tank advising the U.S. government. Not only that, but ten years ago China used administrative regulations to evade breaking World Trade Organization rules when it halted exports of REEs to Japan, after a dispute erupted over islands in the South China Sea both countries claim. And last summer during the trade tariff dispute between China and the U.S., China’s official government newspaper People’s Daily raised the possibility of using REE exports as a way to pressure the U.S., while Chinese President Xi Jinping at the time notably called REES “an important strategic resource.”

The Japanese were quick to respond to the threat of blocked exports. The state and private sector collaborated to encourage recycling and diversification of REE supplies. “By late 2017, Japan was importing around 30% of its rare earth from Asian countries other than China,” notes Vekasi. 

What’s more, in 2013 Japanese researchers discovered rich supplies of REEs in deep sea mud within Japan’s exclusive economic zone in the Pacific Ocean, 6,000 meters below the surface. Yasuhiro Kato, at the School of Engineering, University of Tokyo, who led the search, told IEEE Spectrum they estimate well over one million tons of certain REEs are distributed in the ocean floor sediment in the most promising area searched. 

Kato adds that a government program is now underway to explore and retrieve the REEs. “For certain industrially important REEs such as yttrium and europium, more than three to ten times Japan’s annual demand can be supplied from this [single] area,” says Kato. “Even if a smaller amount of REE-rich mud can be developed, the project will significantly contribute to reducing Japan’s imports of REEs.”

As for the U.S. according to a 2016 report from the Department of Commerce, the country was “once self-reliant…for REEs, but has become nearly fully reliant on REE imports…primarily from China.” The report goes on to say that the Chinese near-monopoly and unilateral action over prices “has raised concerns with numerous U.S. Government institutions including Congress and the U.S. Department. of Defense.”

Subsequently, last November, the U.S. and Australia agreed to work together on securing REE resources and to support private industries in achieving that goal, and this January the U.S. signed a similar agreement with Canada.

So encouraged, a Chicago-NY financial group formed MP Materials to acquire the Mountain Pass mine in 2017 and has restarted operations using new equipment. Today, the company is producing 15 percent of the global supply of REEs—currently sent to China for processing—and plans to reopen its own processing facilities in 2022.

In research funded by the Department of Energy, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL), Pennsylvania University, and Idaho National Laboratory are jointly developing a new protean-based environment-friendly process to extract and purify REEs from low-grade sources, which otherwise require toxic chemicals to process. The bio-sourced compound known as Lanmodulin (LanM) “has an unprecedented appetite and selectivity for REEs,” Gauthier Deblonde, a staff scientist at LLNL, tells IEEE Spectrum. “And our collaboration has yielded a completely new and green process for REE extraction and purification.”

To date, the researchers have tested the process using electronic waste containing a broad range of impurities and now believe it will work with all 17 REEs. “Many alternative secondary sources containing REEs have remained untapped because there is no efficient method to extract them,” says Deblonde. “Our green LanM-based approach will open up various opportunities to produce or recycle REEs.”

Toshiba’s Light Sensor Paves the Way for Cheap Lidar

Post Syndicated from John Boyd original

The introduction of fully autonomous cars has slowed to a crawl. Nevertheless, the introduction of technologies such as rearview cameras and automatic self-parking systems are helping the auto industry make incremental progress towards Level 4 autonomy while boosting driver-assist features along the way.

To that end, Toshiba has developed a compact, highly efficient silicon photo-multiplier (SiPM) that enables non-coaxial Lidar to employ off-the-shelf camera lenses to lower costs and help bring about solid-state, high-resolution Lidar.

Automotive Lidar (light detecting and ranging) typically uses spinning lasers to scan a vehicle’s environment 360 degrees by bouncing laser pulses off surrounding objects and measuring the return time for the reflected light to calculate their distances and shapes. The resulting point-cloud map can be used in combination with still images, radar data and GPS to create a virtual 3D map of the area the vehicle is traveling through.

However, high-end Lidar systems can be expensive, costing $80,000 or more, though cheaper versions are also available. The current leader in the field is Velodyne, whose lasers mechanically rotate in a tower mounted atop of a vehicle’s roof.

Solid-state Lidar systems have been announced in the past several years but have yet to challenge the mechanical variety. Now, Toshiba hopes to advance their cause with its SiPM: a solid-state light sensor employing single-photon avalanche diode (SPAD) technology. The Toshiba SiPM contains multiple SPADs, each controlled by an active quenching circuit (AQC). When an SPAD detects a photon, the SPAD cathode voltage is reduced but the AQC resets and reboots the SPAD voltage to the initial value. 

“Typical SiPM recovery time is 10 to 20 nanoseconds,” says Tuan Thanh Ta, Toshiba’s project leader for the technology. “We’ve made it 2 to 4 times faster by using this forced or active quenching method.”

The increased efficiency means Toshiba has been able to use far fewer light sensing cells—down from 48 to just 2—to produce a device measuring 25 μm x 90 μm, much smaller, the company says, than standard devices measuring 100 μm x 100 μm. The small size of these sensors has allowed Toshiba to create a dense two-dimensional array for high sensitivity, a requisite for long-range scanning. 

But such high-resolution data would require impractically large multichannel readout circuitry that comprises separate analog-to-digital converters (ADC) for long distances scanning, and time-to-digital converters (TDC) for short distances. Toshiba has overcome this problem by realizing both ADC and TDC functions in a single circuit. The result is an 80 percent reduction in size (down to 50 μm by 60 μm) over conventional dual data converter chips. 

“Our field trials using the SiPM with a prototype Lidar demonstrated the system’s effectiveness up to a distance of 200 meters while maintaining high resolution—which is necessary for Level 4 autonomous driving,” says Ta, who hails from Vietnam. “This is roughly quadruple the capability of solid-state Lidar currently on the market.”

“Factors like detection range are important, especially in high-speed environments like highways,” says Michael Milford, an interdisciplinary researcher and Deputy Director, Queensland University of Technology (QUT) Center for Robotics in Australia. “So I can see that these [Toshiba trial results] are important properties when it comes to commercial relevance.” 

And as Toshiba’s SiPM employs a two-dimensional array—unlike the one-dimensional photon receivers used in coaxial Lidar systems—Ta points out its 2D aspect ratio corresponds to that of light sensors used in commercial cameras. Consequently, off-the-shelf standard, telephoto and wide-angle lenses can be used for specific applications, helping to further reduce costs. 

By comparison, coaxial Lidar use the same optical path for sending and receiving the light source, and so require a costly customized lens to transmit and then collect the received light and send it to the 1D photon receivers, Ta explains.

But as Milford points out, “If Level 4+ on-road autonomous driving becomes a reality, it’s unlikely we’ll have a wide range of solutions and sensor configurations. So this flexibility [of Toshiba’s sensor] is perhaps more relevant for other domains like drones, and off-road autonomous vehicles, where there is more variability, and use of existing hardware is more important.”

Meanwhile, Toshiba is working to improve the performance quality of its SiPM. “We aim to introduce practical applications in fiscal 2022,” says Akihide Sai, a Senior Research Scientist at Toshiba overseeing the SiPM project. Though he declines to answer whether Toshiba is working with automakers or will produce its own solid-state Lidar system, he says Toshiba will make the SiPM device available to other companies. 

He adds, “We also see it being used in applications such as automated navigation of drones and in robots used for infrastructure monitoring, as well as in applications used in factory automation.”

But QUT’s Milford makes this telling point. “Many of the advances in autonomous vehicle technology and sensing, especially with regards to cost, bulk, and power usage, will become most relevant only when the overall challenge of Level 4+ driving is solved. They aren’t themselves the critical missing pieces for enabling this to happen.”

Japan’s Fugaku Supercomputer Completes First-Ever Sweep of High-Performance Benchmarks

Post Syndicated from John Boyd original

The public-private partnership Fujitsu, and national research institute RIKEN put Japan on top of the world supercomputer rankings nine long years ago with the K computer. They’ve done it again, and in spades, with their jointly developed Fugaku supercomputer.

Fugaku, another name for Mount Fuji, sits at the summit of the TOP500 list announced on 22 June. It earned the top spot with an extraordinary performance of 415 Linpack petaflops. This is nearly triple that of the runner-up and previous No. 1, Oak Ridge National Lab’s Summit supercomputer in Tennessee, built by IBM. Fugaku achieved this using 396 racks employing 152,064 A64FX Arm nodes. The Arm components comprise  approximately 95 percent of the computer’s almost 159,000 nodes. 

In addition to demonstrating world-beating speed, Fugaku beat the competition in: the High Performance Conjugate Gradients (HPCG) benchmark used to test real-world application performance; the Graph500, a rating for data-intensive loads; and HPL-AI, a benchmark for rating artificial intelligence workloads. A Fugaku prototype also took top spot for the most energy-efficient system on the Green500 list last November, achieving an outstanding 16.9 GFlops/Watt power-efficiency during a 2.0 Pflops per second Linpack performance run. 

Driving Fugaku’s success is Fujitsu’s 48-core Arm v8.2-A A64FX CPU, which the company is billing as the world’s first CPU to adopt Scalable Vector Extension—an instruction-set extension of Arm v8-A architecture for supercomputers. The 512-bit, 2.2 GHz CPU employs  1,024 Gbytes/s 3D-stacked memory and can handle half-precision arithmetic and multiply-add operations that reduce memory loads in AI and deep learning applications where lower precision is admissible. The CPUs are directly linked by a 6.8 Gbytes/s network Tofu D interconnect that uses a 6-dimensional mesh torus connection.

During three years of planning the computer starting in 2011, a number of designs and architectures were considered. “Our guiding strategy was to build a science-driven, low-powered machine that was easy to use and could run science and engineering applications efficiently,” says Toshiyuki Shimizu, Principal Engineer of Fujitsu’s Platform Development Unit. 

Independent observers say they succeeded in every element of the goal. “Fugaku is very impressive with over 7 million cores,” says Jack Dongarra, director of the Innovative Computing Lab, University of Tennessee, Knoxville. “The machine was designed for doing computational science problems from the ground up. It’s a first.”

As for the choice of Arm architecture, Shimizu notes the large number of application developers supporting Arm. “Fugaku also supports Red Hat Enterprise Linux 8.x, a de facto standard operating system widely used by commercial servers,” he points out. 

Another plus for Fugaku is that it follows the K computer by maintaining an all-CPU design. Shimizu says this makes memory access and CPU interconnectivity more efficient. Most other supercomputers rely on graphic processing units (GPUs) to accelerate performance. 

Dongarra points out an additional benefit here. “A CPU-only system simplifies the programming. Just one program is needed, not two: one for the CPU and one for the GPU.”

Designing and building a computer that, from the ground up, was intended to be Japan’s national flagship didn’t come cheap, of course. The government’s estimated budget for the project’s R&D, acquisitions, and application development is 110 billion yen (roughly US $1 billion). 

Fujitsu dispatched the first units of Fugaku to the RIKEN Center for Computational Science (R-CCS) in Kobe last December and shipments were completed last month. 

Speaking at the ISC 2020 conference in June, Satoshi Matsuoka, Director of R-CCS, said that although Fugaku was scheduled to start up next year, Japan’s government decided it should be deployed now to help combat Covid-19. He cited that it was being used to study how the virus behaves, what existing drugs might be repurposed to counter it, and how a vaccine could be made.

Other government-targeted application areas given high priority include: disaster-prevention simulations of earthquakes and tsunami; development of fundamental technologies for energy creation, conversion, and storage; creation of new materials to support next-generation industries; and development of new design and production processes for the manufacturing industry. 

Fugaku will also be used to realize the creation of a smarter society—dubbed Society 5.0—“that balances economic advancement with the resolution of social problems by a system that highly integrates cyberspace and physical space.” 

But the supercomputer industry is nothing if not a game of technology leapfrog, with one country or enterprise providing machines with the highest performance only to be outpaced a short time later. Just how long will Fugaku stay No. 1? 

Shimizu doesn’t claim to know, but he says there is room for further improvement of Fugaku’s performance. “The TOP500 result was only 81 percent of peak performance, whereas the efficiency of silicon is higher. We believe we can improve the performance in all the categories.”

But even that might not be enough to keep it on top for long. As Dongarra says, “The U.S. will have exascale machines in 2021.”  

Novel Error Correction Code Opens a New Approach to Universal Quantum Computing

Post Syndicated from John Boyd original

Government agencies and universities around the world—not to mention tech giants like IBM and Google—are vying to be the first to answer a trillion-dollar quantum question: How can quantum computers reach their vast potential when they are still unable to consistently produce results that are reliable and free of errors? 

Every aspect of these exotic machines—including their fragility and engineering complexity; their preposterously sterile, low-temperature operating environment; complicated mathematics; and their notoriously shy quantum bits (qubits) that flip if an operator so much as winks at them—are all potential sources of errors. It says much for the ingenuity of scientists and engineers that they have found ways to detect and correct these errors and have quantum computers working to the extent that they do: at least long enough to produce limited results before errors accumulate and quantum decoherence of the qubits kicks in.

When it comes to correcting errors arising during quantum operations, an error-correction method known as the surface code has drawn a lot of research attention. That’s because of its robustness and the fact that it’s well suited to being set out on a two-dimensional plane (which makes it amenable to being laid down on a chip). The surface code uses the phenomenon known as entanglement (quantum connectivity) to enable single qubits to share information with other qubits on a lattice layout. The benefit: When qubits are measured, they reveal errors in neighboring qubits.

For a quantum computer to tackle complicated tasks, error-correction codes need to be able to perform quantum gate operations; these are small logic operations carried out on qubit information that, when combined, can run algorithms. Classical computing analogs would be AND gates, XOR gates, and the like. 

Physicists describe two types of quantum gate operations (distinguished by their different mathematical approaches) that are necessary to achieve universal computing. One of these, the Clifford gate set, must work in combination with  magic-state distillation—a purification protocol that uses multiple noisy quantum states to perform non-Clifford gate operations.

“Without magic-state distillation or its equivalent, quantum computers are like electronic calculators without the division button; they have limited functionality,” says Benjamin Brown, an EQUS  researcher at the University of Sydney’s School of Physics. “However, the combination of Clifford and non-Clifford gates can be prohibitive because it eats up so much of a quantum computer’s resources, that there’s little left to deal with the problem at hand.”

To overcome this problem, Brown has developed a new type of non-Clifford-gate error-correcting method that removes the need for overhead-heavy distillation. A paper he published on this development appeared in Science Advances on 22 May. 

“Given it is understood to be impossible to use two-dimensional code like the surface code to do the work of a non-Clifford gate, I have used a three-dimensional code and applied it to the physical two-dimensional surface code scheme using time as the third dimension,” explains Brown. “This has opened up possibilities we didn’t have before.”

The non-Clifford gate uses three overlapping copies of the surface code that locally interact over a period of time. This is carried out by taking thin slices of the 3D surface code and collapsing them down into a 2D space. The process is repeated over and over on the fly with the help of just-in-time gauge fixing, a procedure for stacking together the two-dimensional slices onto a chip, as well as dealing with any occurring errors. Over a period of time, the three surface codes replicate the three-dimensional code that can perform the non-Clifford gate function(s).

“I’ve shown this to work theoretically, mathematically,” says Brown. “The next step is to simulate the code and see how well it works in practice.”

Michael Beverland, a senior researcher at Microsoft Quantum commented on the research: “Brown’s paper explores an exciting, exotic approach to perform fault-tolerant quantum computation. It points the way towards potentially achieving universal quantum computation in two spatial dimensions without the need for distillation—something many researchers thought was impossible.”

Brown notes that reducing errors in quantum computing is one of the biggest challenges facing scientists before machines capable of solving useful problems can be built. “My approach to suppressing errors could free up a lot of the hardware from error correction and will allow the computer to get on with doing useful stuff.”

Australia’s Contact-Tracing COVIDSafe App Off to a Fast Start

Post Syndicated from John Boyd original

The Australian government launched its home-grown COVIDSafe contact-tracing app for the new coronavirus on 26 April. And despite the government’s history of technology failures and misuse of personal data, smartphone users have been eager to download the opt-in software on Apple’s App Store and on Google Play. But if the government is to achieve its target of 10 million downloads, there’s still a ways to go.

Novel Annealing Processor Is the Best Ever at Solving Combinatorial Optimization Problems

Post Syndicated from John Boyd original

During the past two years, IEEE Spectrum has spotlighted several new approaches to solving combinatorial optimization problems, particularly Fujitsu’s Digital Annealer and more recently Toshiba’s Simulated Bifurcation Algorithm. Now, researchers at the Tokyo Institute of Technology, with help from colleagues at Hitachi, Hokkaido University, and the University of Tokyo, have engineered a new annealer architecture to deal with this kind of task that has proven too taxing for conventional computers to deal with.

Dubbed STATICA (Stochastic Cellular Automata Annealer Architecture), the processor is designed to take on challenges such as portfolio, logistic, and traffic flow optimization when they are expressed in the form of Ising models.

Originally used to describe the spins of interacting magnets, Ising models can also be used to solve optimization problems. That’s because the evolving magnetic interactions in a system progress towards the lowest-energy state, which conveniently mirrors how an optimization algorithm searches for the best—i.e. ground state—solution. In other words, the answer to a particular optimization question becomes the equivalent of searching for the lowest energy state of the Ising model.

Current annealers such as D-Wave’s quantum annealer computer and Fujitsu’s Digital Annealer calculate spin-evolutions serially, points out Professor Masato Motomura at Tokyo Tech’s Institute of Innovative Research and leader of the STATICA project. As one spin affects all the other spins in a given iteration, spin switchings are calculated one by one, making it a serial process. But in STATICA, he notes, that updating is performed in parallel using stochastic cellular automata (SCA). That is a means of simulating complex systems using the interactions of a large number of neighboring “cells” (spins in STATICA) with simple updating rules and some stochasticity (randomness).

In conventional annealing systems, if one spin flips, it affects all of the connected spins and therefore all the spins must be processed in the next iteration. But in STATICA, SCA introduces copies (replicas) of the original spins into the process. All original spin-spin interactions are redirected to their individual replica spins.

“In this method, all the replica spins are updated in parallel using these spin-spin interactions,” explains Motomura.” If one original spin flips, it affects its replica spin but not any of the other original spins because there is no interaction between them, unlike conventional annealing. And in the next iteration, the replica spins are interpreted as original spins and the parallel spin-update is repeated.

As well as enabling paralleling processing, STATICA also uses pre-computed results to reduce computation. “So if there is no spin-flip, there is nothing to compute,” says Motomura. “And if the influence of a flipped spin has already been computed, that result is reused.”

For proof of concept, the researchers had a 3-by-4-mm STATICA chip fabricated using a 65-nm CMOS process operating at a frequency of 320 megahertz and running on 649 milliwatts. Memory comprises a 1.3 megabit SRAM. This enabled an Ising model of 512 spins, equivalent to 262,000 connections, to be tested.

“Scaling by at least two orders of magnitude is possible,” notes Motomura. And the chip can be fabricated using the same process as standard processors and can easily be added to a PC as a co-processor, for instance, or added to its motherboard.

“At the ISSCC Conference in February, where we presented a paper on STATICA, we mounted the chip on a circuit board with a USB connection,” he says, “and demonstrated it connected to a laptop PC as proof of concept.”

To compare STATICA’s performance against existing annealing technologies (using results given in published papers), the researchers employed a Maxcut benchmark test of 2,000 connections. STATICA came out on top in processing speed, accuracy, and energy efficiency. Compared with its nearest competitor, Toshiba’s Simulated Bifurcation Algorithm, STATICA took 0.13 milliseconds to complete the test, versus 0.5 ms for SBA. In energy efficiency, STATICA ran on an estimated 2 watts of power, far below the to 40 watts for SBA. And in histogram comparisons of accuracy STATICA also came out ahead, according to Motomura.

For the next step, he says the team will scale up the processor and test it out using realistic problems. 

Other than that, there are no more technology hurdles to overcome. 

“STATICA  is ready,” states Motomura. “The only question is whether there is sufficient market demand for such an annealing processor. We hope to see interest, for instance, from ride-sharing companies like Uber, and product distributors such as Amazon. Local governments wanting to control problems such as traffic congestion might also be interested. These are just a few examples of how STATICA might be used besides more obvious applications like portfolio optimization and drug discovery.”

Graphene Solar Thermal Film Could Be a New Way to Harvest Renewable Energy

Post Syndicated from John Boyd original

Researchers at the Center for Translational Atomaterials (CTAM) at Swinburne University of Technology in Melbourne, Australia, have developed a new graphene-based film that can absorb sunlight with an efficiency of over 90 percent, while simultaneously eliminating most IR thermal emission loss—the first time such a feat has been reported.

The result is an efficient solar heating metamaterial that can heat up rapidly to 83 degrees C (181 degrees F) in an open environment with minimal heat loss. Proposed applications for the film include thermal energy harvesting and storage, thermoelectricity generation, and seawater desalination.

Unmanned Solar Aircraft Aims to Compete Commercially With Satellites and Drones

Post Syndicated from John Boyd original

At 35 meters, the wingspan of the new BAE Systems aircraft equals that of a Boeing 737, yet the plane weighs in at just 150 kilograms, including a 15 kg payload. The unmanned plane, dubbed the PHASA-35 (Persistent High-Altitude Solar Aircraft), made its maiden voyage on 10 February  at the Royal Australian Air Force Woomera Test Range in South Australia.

“It flew for just under an hour—enough time to successfully test its aerodynamics, autopilot system, and maneuverability,” says Phil Varty, business development leader of emerging products at BAE Systems. “We’d previously tested other sub-systems such as the flight control system in smaller models of the plane in the U.K. and Australia, so we’d taken much of the risk out of the craft before the test flight.”

The prototype aircraft uses gallium arsenide–based triple-junction solar cell panels manufactured by MicroLink Devices in Niles, Ill. MicroLink claims an energy conversion efficiency of 31 percent for these specialist panels.

“For test purposes, the solar panels—which are as thin as paper—covered just part of the wingspan to generate 4 kilowatts of power,” says Varty. “For the production version, we’ll use all that space to produce 12 kilowatts.”

The energy is used to drive two brushless, direct-drive electric motors modified for the aircraft, and to charge a lithium-ion battery system comprising over 400 batteries that delivers the energy needed to fly the plane at night. They are supplied by Amprius Technologies in Fremont, Calif.

Varty says that unlike the solar panels, which have been chosen for their high efficiency, the batteries—similar to the kind powering smartphones—are not massively efficient. Instead, they are a proven, reliable technology that can easily be replaced when a more efficient version becomes available.

“Although the test flight took place in Australia’s summer, the aircraft is designed for flying during the worst time of the year—the winter solstice,” says Varty. “That’s why it has the potential to stay up for a whole year in the stratosphere, around 65,000 feet [20,000 meters], where there’s little wind and no clouds or turbulence.”

He describes the unmanned control flight system as a relatively simple design similar to that used in drones and model airplanes. A controller on the ground, known as the pilot, guides the plane, though the aircraft can also run on autopilot using a preprogrammed route. Other technicians may also be involved to control specialist applications such as cameras, surveillance, or communications equipment.

The aircraft was originally developed by Prismatic Ltd., a designer and manufacturer of unmanned aerial vehicles in Southwest England that was acquired last year by BAE.

Further test flights are planned for this year and engineers from Prismatic and BAE are using the results of the trial to improve the various subsystems.

“There were no surprises found during the test flight so perhaps the biggest challenge now is educating the market that what we are offering is different,” says Varty. “Different from satellites or drones.”

Its special feature is it can sit in the stratosphere over a particular point by flying into the wind or doing maneuvers like a figure eight and using cameras or surveillance equipment mounted on gimbals to provide constant monitoring. By comparison, Varty says, even the best military drones can stay airborne for a maximum of only three days; satellites are limited by virtue of the fact that they have to maintain a speed of 7 kilometers per second or more in order to stay in orbit.

“Satellites provide merely a date-time snapshot of what is going on below,” Varty points out. “Whereas we can monitor a spot for as long as necessary to draw conclusions about what is likely to happen next: where forest fires are going to spread, for instance, or where disaster relief is most needed.”

After reviewing the BAE announcement, Saburo Matsunaga, head of the Laboratory for Space Systems at the Tokyo Institute of Technology, sees both pros and cons with the aircraft.

Compared to satellites, its “lower altitude means it should realize higher resolution monitoring, low power communications, dedicated local area services, and so on. But performance, he adds, “will be strongly dependent on the equipment constraints such as mass, volume, and power budget” because the aircraft’s lightweight design limits its payload.

As for possible drawbacks, Matsunaga suspects long-duration operations—which assumes no maintenance and no failures—may be more difficult to achieve and more expensive to deal with that BAE expects. “The flights must always be controlled, and the available time for [issue-free] flights will be short. Communications with the plane’s tracking control and operation systems may also be a concern over long flights. And there’s the possibility that external disturbances may affect sensor resolution.”

BAE plans to offer several different services to customers based on the aircraft’s ability to constantly monitor a particular point or to provide it with communications via onboard transceiver equipment. “A customer could use it to monitor how crops are growing or how minute by minute, hour by hour changes to weather affect areas of interest on the ground,” says Varty. “Now we’re working out the pricing for such services. Direct sales of the aircraft are also possible.”

Commercialization will soon follow completion of the flight trials, which could mean the launch of services as early as next year.

Toshiba’s Optimization Algorithm Sets Speed Record for Solving Combinatorial Problems

Post Syndicated from John Boyd original

Toshiba has come up with a new way of solving combinatorial optimization problems. A classic example of such problems is the traveling salesman dilemma, in which a salesman must find the shortest route between many cities.

Such problems are found aplenty in science, engineering, and business. For instance, how should a utility select the optimal route for electric transmission lines, considering construction costs, safety, time, and the impact on people and the environment? Even the brute force of supercomputers is impractical when new variables increase the complexity of a question exponentially. 

But it turns out that many of these problems can be mapped to ground-state searches made by Ising machines. These specialized computers use mathematical models to describe the up-and-down spins of magnetic materials interacting with each other. Those spins can be used to represent a combinatorial problem. The optimal solution, then, becomes the equivalent of finding the ground state of the model.

With New Tech, Panasonic Aims to Revive Interest in Delivering Broadband Over Power Lines

Post Syndicated from John Boyd original

Using radio frequencies to transmit data over existing power lines both inside and outside of homes has long promised to turn legacy cabling into a more attractive asset by delivering two essential services on a single wire. But broadband over power lines (BPL) has never achieved its potential, due in part to initial low speeds and unreliability, and concerns about radio interference and electromagnetic radiation.

One company that has continued to invest in and improve BPL since 2000 is Panasonic, a multinational electronics and appliance manufacturer with headquarters in Osaka, Japan. In March of this year, the IEEE Standards Association approved the IEEE 1901a standard for BPL that covers IoT applications, and which is based on Panasonic’s upgraded HD-PLC technology.

HD-PLC (high-definition power line communications) is backward compatible with IEEE’s 1901 standard for BPL ratified in 2010. The 1901a standard implements new functions based on Panasonic’s Wavelet orthogonal frequency-division multiplexing (OFDM) technology that is also incorporated in the 2010 standard. 

Is the World Ready for Floating Nuclear Power Stations?

Post Syndicated from John Boyd original

The world’s first floating nuclear power plant (FNPP) docked at Pevek, Chukotka, in Russia’s remote Far East on 14 September. It completed a journey of some 9,000 kilometers from where it was constructed in a St. Petersburg shipyard. First, it was towed to the city of Murmansk, where its nuclear fuel was loaded, and from there took the North Sea Route to the other side of Russia’s Arctic coast

The FNPP will replace an aging land-based nuclear plant and a brown coal-fired plant, reducing some 50,000 tons of CO2 emissions a year, according to Rosatom, the project’s creator and Russia’s state nuclear corporation. The reactor is slated to begin operations this December.

The co-generation plant, named the Akademik Lomonosov, consists of a non-motorized barge, two pressurized-water KLT-40S reactors similar to those powering Russian nuclear icebreakers, and two steam turbine plants.

The FNPP can generate up to 70 megawatts (MW) of electricity and 50 gigacalories of heat an hour. That is sufficient to power the electric grids of the resource-rich region—where some 50,000 people live and work—and also deliver steam heat to the supply lines of Pevek city. The plant will manage this second feat by using steam extracted from the turbines to heat its intermediate circuit water system, which circulates between the reactor units and the coastal facilities, from 70 to 130 degrees C.

Construction of the floating reactor began in 2007 and had to overcome a messy financial situation including the threat of bankruptcy in 2011. The venture is based on the small modular reactor (SMR) design: a type of nuclear fission reactor that is smaller than conventional reactors. Such reactors can be built from start to finish at a plant and then shipped—fully-assembled, tested, and ready to operate—to remote sites where normal construction would be difficult to manage.

Andrey Zolotkov, head of the Murmansk, Russia office of Bellona Foundation, an environmental organization based in Oslo, Norway, acknowledges the practicability of the SMR design. But he is one of many who questions its necessity in this particular case. 

“The same plant could be built on the ground there (in Chukotka) without resorting to creating a floating structure,” says Zolotkov. “After all, the [nuclear power plant] presently in use was built on land there and has been operating for decades.” 

The floating design has raised both environmental and safety concerns, given that the plant will operate in the pristine Arctic and must endure its harsh winters and choppy seas. Greenpeace has dubbed it a “floating Chernobyl,” and “a nuclear Titanic.”

Rosatom rejects such criticism, saying the plant meets safety standards put forth by Russia and the International Atomic Energy Agency. The company notes the same kind of reactors have been used in icebreakers and submarines for decades. And, Rosatom states on its website, the “FNPP will be moored and secured to a special pier,” and operate without the need for “motor or propeller functions.”

Coastal structures, dams, and breakwaters have also been built to protect the vessel against tsunamis and icebergs.

The plant employs a number of active and passive safety systems, including an electrically-driven automated system and a passive system that uses gravity to insert control rods into the reactor core to ensure the reactor remains at subcritical levels in emergencies. The reactors also use low enriched uranium in a concentration below 20 percent of Uranium-235. This makes the fuel unsuitable for producing nuclear weapons.

Given such safety measures, Rosatom says on its site that a peer-reviewed probabilistic safety assessment modeling of possible damage to the FNPP finds the chances of a serious accident happening at the FNPP “are less than one hundred thousandth of a percent.”

Zolotkov, who worked in various capacities—including radiation safety officer—for 35 years in Russia’s civilian nuclear fleet, also notes that there have been no serious incidents on such ships since 1975. “In the event of an accident in the FNPP, the consequences, I believe, would be localized within its structure, so the release of radioactive substances will be minimal,” he says. 

The plant’s nuclear fuel has to be replaced every three years. The unloaded fuel is held in onboard storage pools, and later in dry containers also kept on board. Every 10 to 12 years during its 40-year life cycle (possibly extendable to 50 years), the FNPP will be towed to a special facility for maintenance.

After decommissioning, the plant will be towed to a deconstruction and recycling facility. Rosatom says on its site, “No spent nuclear fuel or radioactive waste is planned to be left in the Arctic—spent fuel will be taken to the special storage facilities in mainland Russia.” 

Rosatom has not disclosed the cost of the venture, calling it a pilot project. It is currently working on a next-generation version that will use two RITM-200M reactors, each rated at 50 MW. Improvement targets include a more compact design, longer periods between refueling, flexible load-following capabilities, and multipurpose uses that include water desalination and district heating. 

Provided Rosatom receives sufficient orders, it says it aims to compete in price with plants based on fossil fuels and renewable energy.

The company, however, may face challenges other than marketing and operating its novel design. “These FNPPs will eventually carry spent nuclear fuel and are not yet recognized by international maritime law,” says Zolotkov. “So Rosatom may face problems obtaining permits and insurance when it comes to towing them along certain sea routes.”

A Novel Thermal Battery Promises Green Power Around the Clock

Post Syndicated from John Boyd original

Japanese scientists have developed a thermal battery that converts heat into electricity when buried in a geothermal zone

You can fry an egg on the ground in Las Vegas in August, but try that in Iceland or Alaska and you’ll just end up with the stuff on your face—unless you know how to tap into the Earth’s vast reservoirs of geothermal energy. 

Researchers at the Tokyo Institute of Technology have developed a new kind of battery that can reliably generate electric power from heat in environments with temperatures ranging from 60 degrees C to 100 degrees C—which is low enough to mimic geothermal heat.

In an earlier experiment, the researchers developed sensitized thermal cells (STCs) that employed dye-sensitized solar cells to convert light into electric power. In their latest advance, team leader Sachiko Matsushita, an associate professor at Tokyo Tech, explained that they replaced the dye with a semiconductor to enable the cells to operate using heat instead of light.

Open-Source Tool Lets Anyone Experiment With Cryptocurrency Blockchains

Post Syndicated from John Boyd original

SimBlock, a new blockchain simulator, lets users play around with the parameters of Bitcoin, Litecoin, and Dogecoin

Blockchain technology records information to a ledger shared between thousands of nodes. In the technology’s purest form, those nodes are not controlled by any central authority, and information cannot be changed once written to the ledger. Because of the security and autonomy this technology offers (in theory at least), blockchains now underpin many popular cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin

But as Kazuyuki Shudo, an associate professor at the Tokyo Institute of Technology, points out, “It has been nearly impossible to test improvements on real-world blockchain networks, because that would mean having to update the software of all the thousands of nodes on a network.”

In researching blockchains, Shudo and his colleagues searched for a simulator that would help them experiment with and improve the technology. But existing simulators were too hard to use and lacked the features the team wanted. Moreover, these simulators had apparently been created for specific research and were abandoned soon after that work was completed, because many of the tools the group found were no longer being updated.