Advanced Rail Energy Storage

Monday, April 13th, 2015

Pumped hydro is a simple and effective way to store energy — you just pump water back up over the dam — but building new dams isn’t easy. All the good spots have already been taken, and the regulatory hurdles keep growing. There are other ways to apply the same simple principles though:

Instead of trying to build new pumped hydro facilities, the founders of ARES — William Peitzke, Matt Brown and John Robinson — asked themselves, “How can we do pumped storage hydro-electric, but without any water?” The answer they found was basically the opposite of water: rocks. Or more specifically, rocks on trains.

“We realized the solution was right in front of us,” said Kelly. “The railroad industry had developed an incredibly efficient way to move mass.” One ARES engineer determined that the coefficient friction of steel wheels on railroad track is lower than the coefficient friction of ice skates on ice.

The ARES system uses excess energy from the grid to pull 140-ton railcars up hills (total train weight: 1,350 tons). When the grid needs that power back, they simply let gravity take the weighted cars back down. Regenerative braking — similar to what you find in a Toyota Prius, or in Japanese subways — captures the energy the trains produce along the way

Advanced Rail Energy Storage (ARES)

ARES built a test facility in California to prove the concept, and now they’re in the final stages of building a 50 megawatt facility in Nevada, which will come online in 2016. For comparison, this facility alone will add more energy storage than was built across the entire US in 2013 (44.2 megawatts), according to a recent recent report by US Energy Storage Monitor. The same report suggests that 220 megawatts will be deployed in 2015, twice the capacity of the previous two years combined.

How MOOC Video Production Affects Student Engagement

Sunday, April 12th, 2015

How does video production affect student engagement in MOOCs?

We measured engagement by how long students watched each video and also whether they attempted to answer post-video assessment problems.

We took all 862 videos from four edX courses offered in Fall 2012 and hand-classified each one based on its type (e.g., traditional lecture, problem-solving tutorial) and production style (e.g., PowerPoint slides, Khan-style tablet drawing, talking head). We automatically extracted other features such as length and speaking rate (words per minute). We then mined the edX server logs to obtain over 6.9 million video watching sessions from almost 128,000 students.

The lessons learned:

  1. Shorter videos are much more engaging. Engagement drops sharply after 6 minutes.
  2. Videos that intersperse an instructor’s talking head with PowerPoint slides are more engaging than showing only slides.
  3. Videos produced with a more personal feel could be more engaging than high-fidelity studio recordings.
  4. Khan-style tablet drawing tutorials are more engaging than PowerPoint slides or code screencasts.
  5. Even high-quality prerecorded classroom lectures are not as engaging when chopped up into short segments for a MOOC.
  6. Videos where instructors speak fairly fast and with high enthusiasm are more engaging.
  7. Students engage differently with lecture and tutorial videos.

How the Easter Bunny Got So Soft

Sunday, April 5th, 2015

The price of plush Easter bunnies hasn’t changed since 1970 — the nominal price, that is, meaning they’re much, much cheaper in real terms — yet they’re much softer and higher quality:

“It’s a better product than it was years ago, and it’s not that much more expensive,” said Steven Meyer, the third-generation owner of Mary Meyer Corp., a toy company based in Vermont. Meyer joined the company in 1986, helping his father weather the tough transition to manufacturing in Korea. (“I grew up literally with a stuffed toy factory in the backyard,” he recalled. “It was 30 feet behind our home.”)

For example, Meyer explained that Korean and Taiwanese toymakers introduced safety procedures, later copied in China, to assure that toddlers’ bedtime companions didn’t contain hidden hazards. “Every one of our toys is put through a metal detector before it goes into a box, and that’s because a little shard of a sewing needle can break off and go into the toy,” said Meyer. “We never thought of that when we produced in the United States.”

More immediately apparent is how the toys feel. A stuffed animal that would have delighted a late baby boomer like me now seems rigid and rough. Today’s toys are stuffed with soft, fibrous polyester rather than the foam rubber, sawdust or ground nut shells of the past. That makes them squishier, as do plush outer fabrics that no longer have stiff backings; the yarns are knitted to one another rather than attached to a rigid fabric like a carpet. As a result, said Meyer, “The whole stuffed toy feels softer and slouchier.”

[...]

The secret to both wickable T-shirts and softer Easter bunnies lies in polyester microfibers. These high-tech textiles have replaced the acrylic and polyester plushes that used to cover stuffed toys as surely as they’ve nudged aside cotton for exercise apparel. They represent a remarkable technical and cultural achievement.

In the immediate post-disco era polyester was the epitome of textile yuckiness — synonymous with the cheap, uncomfortable and out of style. “Pity poor polyester. People pick on it,” wrote Wall Street Journal reporter Ronald Alsop in a front-page 1982 article chronicling manufacturers’ attempts to rehabilitate the fiber’s image. What brought polyester back into fashion wasn’t marketing but years of innovation, with textile engineers on three continents making extraordinary gains in producing ever-finer fibers.

Textile fibers, including polyester filaments, are measured in decitex or deniers, almost equivalent units unique to the business. For reference: Silk measures about 1.1 to 1.3 decitex, while human hair runs between 30 and 50. A microfiber is defined as anything less than 1 decitex.

Although polyester microfibers date back to Toray Industries Inc.’s development of Ultrasuede in 1970, they have only become widespread in recent years, thanks in part to massive plant investments in China that have swamped the polyester market and driven down prices. Back around the time that I was buying stuffed toys for my nephew, polyester fibers of around 3 decitex still “were considered fine,” said Frank Horn, president of the Fiber Economics Bureau, the statistical collection and publication arm of the American Fiber Manufacturers Association. But over the past decade or so, true microfibers have “become ubiquitous.”

Now, Horn estimated, the average is about 0.5 decitex — a reduction of about 85 percent — and some popular microfibers are as fine as 0.3 decitex. The finer the fiber, the softer the final fabric. That’s what makes today’s stuffed animals so extraordinarily silky.

Building the H Bomb

Monday, March 30th, 2015

Kenneth W. Ford submitted Building the H Bomb: A Personal History to the Department of Energy for review, and they ordered 60 cuts, enough to destroy the book, in his opinion:

For instance, the federal agency wanted him to strike a reference to the size of the first hydrogen test device — its base was seven feet wide and 20 feet high. Dr. Ford responded that public photographs of the device, with men, jeeps and a forklift nearby, gave a scale of comparison that clearly revealed its overall dimensions.

[...]

In December, he told the department he would make a few minor revisions. For instance, in two cases he would change language describing the explosive yields of bomb tests from “in fact” to “reportedly.” After much back and forth, the conversation ended in January with no resolution, and the book’s publisher pressed on.

The government’s main concern seems to center on deep science that Dr. Ford articulates with clarity. Over and over, the book discusses thermal equilibrium, the discovery that the temperature of the hydrogen fuel and the radiation could match each other during the explosion. Originally, the perceived lack of such an effect had seemed to doom the proposed weapon.

The breakthrough has apparently been discussed openly for years. For instance, the National Academy of Sciences in 2009 published a biographical memoir of Dr. Teller, written by Freeman J. Dyson, a noted physicist with the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J. It details the thermal equilibrium advance in relation to the hydrogen bomb.

At his home, Dr. Ford said he considered himself a victim of overzealous classification and wondered what would have happened if he had never submitted his manuscript for review.

“I was dumbfounded,” he said of the agency’s reaction to it.

Dr. Ford said he never intended to make a point about openness and nuclear secrecy — or do anything other than to give his own account of a remarkable time in American history.

Disney’s $1 Billion Bet on a Magical Wristband

Monday, March 30th, 2015

Disney is applying Arthur C. Clarke’s dictum that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic to its Magic Kingdom with its new $1 billion bet on magical wristbands:

Go to Disney World. Then, reserve a meal at a restaurant called Be Our Guest, using the Disney World app to order your food in advance.

The restaurant lies beyond a gate of huge fiberglass boulders, painstakingly airbrushed to look like crumbling remnants of the past. Crossing a cartoon-like drawbridge, you see the parapets of a castle rising beyond a snow-dusted ridge, both rendered in miniature to appear far away. The Gothic-styled entrance is teensy. Such pint-sized intimacy is a psychological hack invented by Walt Disney himself to make visitors feel larger than their everyday selves. It works. You feel like you’re stepping across the pages of a storybook.

If you’re wearing your Disney MagicBand and you’ve made a reservation, a host will greet you at the drawbridge and already know your name — Welcome Mr. Tanner! She’ll be followed by another smiling person — Sit anywhere you like! Neither will mention that, by some mysterious power, your food will find you.

“It’s like magic!” a woman says to her family as they sit. “How do they find our table?” The dining hall, inspired by Beauty and the Beast, features Baroque details but feels like a large, orderly cafeteria. The couple’s young son flits around the table, like a moth. After a few minutes, he settles into his chair without actually sitting down, as kids often do. Soon, their food arrives exactly as promised, delivered by a smiling young man pushing an ornately carved serving cart that resembles a display case at an old museum.

It’s surprising how the woman’s sensible question immediately fades, unanswered, in the rising aroma of French onion soup and roast beef sandwiches. This is by design. The family entered a matrix of technology the moment it crossed the moat, one geared toward anticipating their whims without offering the slightest clue how.

How do they find our table? The answer is around their wrists.

Their MagicBands, tech-studded wristbands available to every visitor to the Magic Kingdom, feature a long-range radio that can transmit more than 40 feet in every direction. The hostess, on her modified iPhone, received a signal when the family was just a few paces away. Tanner family inbound! The kitchen also queued up: Two French onion soups, two roast beef sandwiches! When they sat down, a radio receiver in the table picked up the signals from their MagicBands and triangulated their location using another receiver in the ceiling. The server — as in waitperson, not computer array — knew what they ordered before they even approached the restaurant and knew where they were sitting.

And it all worked seamlessly, like magic.

Renewable Energy Looks Swell

Sunday, March 22nd, 2015

Australia’s largest naval base now gets part of both its electricity and its fresh water courtesy of the Roaring Forties, westerlies, which blow between latitudes 40° S and 50° S:

Carnegie Wave Energy, in Perth, has been working since 1999 on what it calls CETO technology. Ceto was the ancient Greek goddess of sea monsters, and Carnegie’s particular monsters are buoys that resemble giant macaroons. They float a metre or two below the ocean’s surface, bobbing up and down in the swell and generating electricity as they do so. The current version, CETO 5, has a capacity of 240kW per buoy. Three of the beasts are now tethered to the sea bed 3km from HMAS Stirling, on Garden Island. They also help to run a desalination plant on the base, for fresh water is a valuable commodity in Western Australia’s arid climate.

CETO 5 Wave Energy Diagram

The buoys themselves are 11 metres across, made of steel and filled with a mixture of seawater and foam to give them a density slightly below that of water, so that they float. Being submarine means that, unlike previous attempts to extract power from waves, they are not subject to storms and the constant battering that life at the interface between sea and air brings. As Michael Ottaviano, Carnegie’s boss, observes, savvy swimmers in Australia know to dive under—not through—an approaching wave, to avoid getting smashed. The same applies to buoys.

Reverse-osmosis desalination plants tend to guzzle diesel or electricity, but the CETO 5 delivers water at a high enough pressure for reverse osmosis to happen automatically.

The next-generation CETO 6 buoys will measure 20 metres across and will generate a megawatt each, internally rather than at an onshore power plant, which means no pipe is needed; a submarine power cable will do instead. This could become economical:

Mr Ottaviano reckons that if CETO 5 were deployed en masse, in “wave farms” with a capacity of 25MW, it could produce electricity at a cost of 30-40 US cents a kW-hour, which is competitive with diesel. At a similarly large scale, CETO 6’s electricity would, Mr Ottaviano says, cost about 20 cents a kW-hour. Ultimately, he thinks, economies of scale could bring that down to 12-15 cents a kW-hour for a 100MW wave farm.

Chemical trick speeds up 3D printing

Saturday, March 21st, 2015

UNC chemists have harnessed a chemical trick to speed up 3D printing:

A team led by Joseph DeSimone, a chemist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, has now refined the liquid-resin process to make it go continuously rather than in fits and starts. They made the bottom of the container that holds the resin bath from a material that is permeable to oxygen. Because oxygen inhibits the solidification of resin, it creates a ‘dead zone’ — a layer just tens of microns thick at the bottom of the container — where the resin stays liquid even when ultraviolet rays are shining on it. The solidification reaction happens instead just above the dead zone. Because liquid is always present below the slowly forming object, the researchers can pull it up in a continuous manner, rather than waiting for new liquid resin to flow in.

One Woman’s Drive to Revolutionize Medical Testing

Saturday, March 21st, 2015

Elizabeth Holmes, the 30-year-old CEO of Theranos, is a driven young woman:

Her home is a two-bedroom condo in Palo Alto, and she lives an austere life. Although she can quote Jane Austen by heart, she no longer devotes time to novels or friends, doesn’t date, doesn’t own a television, and hasn’t taken a vacation in ten years. Her refrigerator is all but empty, as she eats most of her meals at the office. She is a vegan, and several times a day she drinks a pulverized concoction of cucumber, parsley, kale, spinach, romaine lettuce, and celery.

Growing up, Holmes was in constant motion. Her father, Chris, worked for government agencies, including, for much of his career, the U.S. Agency for International Development and the State Department, often travelling abroad, overseeing relief and disease-eradication efforts in developing nations; today, he is the global water coördinator for U.S.A.I.D. Her mother, Noel, worked for nearly a decade as a foreign-policy and defense aide on Capitol Hill, until Elizabeth and her brother Christian, two years younger, were born. The family moved several times, which meant there was little opportunity to develop lasting friendships. Holmes describes herself as a happy loner, collecting insects and fishing with her father.

“I was probably, definitely, not normal,” she said. “I was reading ‘Moby-Dick’ from start to finish when I was about nine. I read a ton of books. I still have a notebook with a complete design for a time machine that I designed when I must have been, like, seven. The wonderful thing about the way I was raised is that no one ever told me that I couldn’t do those things.”

Chris Holmes’s great-grandfather Christian Holmes emigrated from Denmark, studied engineering, settled in Cincinnati, and became a physician. When Elizabeth was eight, she was given a tour of the local hospital where he worked and which was named in his honor. He had married the daughter of a patient, Charles Fleischmann, who pioneered packaged yeast and built a baking empire around it. (A nephew, Raoul Fleischmann, started this magazine in 1925, with Harold Ross.) Not all of Fleischmann’s children shared his entrepreneurial drive, and this was a common subject of conversation in the Holmes household. “I grew up with those stories about greatness,” she said, “and about people deciding not to spend their lives on something purposeful, and what happens to them when they make that choice—the impact on character and quality of life.”

In 1993, when Elizabeth was nine, her father took a job in Houston, as executive assistant to the C.E.O. of Tenneco, which was then a manufacturing and energy conglomerate. She knew that her father felt guilty for uprooting the family, so she wrote a letter to console him: “What I really want out of life is to discover something new, something that mankind didn’t know was possible to do.” She reassured him that Texas suited her, because “it’s big on science.”

For several years in the nineteen-eighties, Chris Holmes spent two weeks a month in China, helping American companies invest in large-scale development projects. Soon after the family moved to Houston, Elizabeth started studying Mandarin; by the summer following her sophomore year of high school, she was intent on taking summer classes in Mandarin at Stanford. She repeatedly called the admissions office for information, only to be told, each time, that the program did not enroll high-school students. One day, her father recalls, the head of the program became so annoyed that he grabbed the phone from the employee who was talking to Holmes. “You’ve been calling constantly,” he told her. “I just can’t take it anymore. I’m going to give you the test right now!” He asked questions in Mandarin; she answered fluently, and he accepted her on the spot. She completed three years of college Mandarin while still in high school.

In 2001, in her senior year, Holmes applied to Stanford, was accepted, and then was named a President’s Scholar, which came with a small stipend to select her own research project. Her parents sent her off with a copy of Marcus Aurelius’ “Meditations,” her father said, “to convey to her: Live a purposeful life.” Holmes elected to study chemical engineering. She was drawn to the work of Channing Robertson, the chemical engineer and, at the time, a dean at the engineering school. Robertson is seventy-one and fit, with thinning hair and a relaxed smile; I visited him in his home on campus. Holmes’s first class with him was a seminar on devices designed to control the release of drugs into the human body. One day, in her freshman year, Robertson said, she came to his office to ask if she could work in his lab with the Ph.D. students. He hesitated, but she persisted and he gave in. At the end of the spring term, she told him that she planned to spend the summer working at the Genome Institute, in Singapore. He warned her that prospective students had to speak Mandarin.

“I’m fluent in Mandarin,” she said.

“I’m thinking, What’s next? She’s already coming into the research group meetings at the end of her freshman year with my Ph.D. students. I find myself listening to her more than to them about the next experiments to be done and the progress that’s been made. I realized she’s different.”

That summer, at the Genome Institute, Holmes worked on testing for severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, an often fatal virus that had broken out in China. Testing was done in the traditional manner, by collecting blood samples with syringes and mucus with nasal swabs. These methods could detect who was infected, but a separate system was needed to dispense medication, and still another system to monitor results. Holmes questioned the approach. At Stanford, she had been exploring what has become known as lab-on-a-chip technology, which allows multiple measurements to be taken from tiny amounts of liquid on a single microchip. “With the type of engineering work and systems I had been focussing on at Stanford, it was quite clear that there were much better ways to do it,” she said.

Before returning to Stanford, Holmes conceived of a way to perform multiple tests at once, using the same drop of blood, and to wirelessly deliver the resulting information to a doctor. That summer, she filed a patent for the idea; it was ultimately approved, in November of 2007. Once back on campus, she went to see Robertson in his office and announced that she wanted to start a company. Robertson was impressed by the idea but urged her to at least consider finishing her degree first.

“Why?” she responded. “I know what I want to do.”

Holmes was consumed by the idea of developing a company. “I got to a point where I was enrolled in all these courses, and my parents were spending all this money, and I wasn’t going to any of them,” she said. “I was doing this full time.” Her parents allowed her to take the money they had set aside for tuition and use it to seed her company. In March, 2004, she dropped out of Stanford; one month later, she incorporated Theranos (the name is a combination of “therapy” and “diagnosis”). She persuaded Robertson to spend one day a week as a technical adviser to the company and to serve as her first board member. Eventually, he retired from his tenured position, and began working at Theranos full time.

Robertson introduced Holmes to several venture capitalists. She insisted that they abide by her terms, which included an understanding that she would retain control and pour the profits back into the company. By December of 2004, she had raised six million dollars from an assortment of investors. As she and the chemists and engineers dug deeper, she became convinced that they could accomplish five objectives: extract blood without syringes, make a diagnosis from a few drops of blood, automate the tests to minimize human error, do the test and get the results more quickly, and do this more economically.

A key to the company’s success was the hiring of Sunny Balwani, a software engineer, now forty-nine, whom Holmes had met in Beijing the summer after her senior year of high school. At the time, he was getting an M.B.A. from Berkeley. He had worked at Lotus and at Microsoft and been a successful entrepreneur, and in 2004 he began graduate studies in computer science at Stanford. He and Holmes spoke often, and they shared a belief that software, not just chemistry or biology, mattered. If Theranos was going to be able to analyze a few drops of blood, engineers would have to develop the software to do it. In 2009, Balwani joined as C.O.O. and president. “Our platform is about automation,” he says. “We have automated the process from start to finish.”

Theranos has managed to keep its technology a secret for much of its decade of existence in part because it occupies a regulatory gray area. Most other diagnostic labs, including Quest and Laboratory Corporation of America, perform blood tests on equipment that they buy from outside manufacturers, like Siemens and Roche Diagnostics. Before those devices can be sold, they must be approved by the F.D.A., a process that makes their tests’ performances more visible to the public. But, since Theranos manufactures its own testing equipment, the F.D.A. doesn’t need to approve it, as long as the company doesn’t sell it or move it out of its labs.

The Retro Electric Moped That’s Taking Over Europe

Friday, March 20th, 2015

The Motorman electric moped offers simplicity in a retro design:

The Motorman may fit the legal definition of a moped, but it has no pedals. The drivetrain is fully electric. No human power required. Tech-wise, though, this is no Tesla. The 2kw engine won’t allow you to do burnouts or evade the polizia. There’s no iPhone charger, blind spot detection sensor, or autonomous driving mode. Not even a lousy cup holder for your macchiato.

What you will get, though, is brilliant industrial design. While other moped and scooter companies are striving to make all their models look like Tron light cycles, Mr. Meijs has gone full retro. The Motorman — with its balloon tires, low-slung gas tank, oversized headlight, and spring-mounted leather seat — looks like a cross between a Schwinn cruiser and a 1915 Harley-Davidson.

Motorman Electric Moped in Red

The ride isn’t bad either. At just 99 pounds (less than half the weight of a typical moped), the Motorman is easy to balance and maneuver through congested streets. “If you can ride a bike,” says Meijs. “You can ride a Motorman.”

[...]

That “fuel tank” holds a lithium polymer battery, the ideal choice for light EVs because of its high power density rating. That translates to some respectable specs. Range: 43 miles. Top speed: 28 mph. Charging time: 6 hours. Not road trip numbers, but ideal for office drones who like the idea of lowering their carbon footprint without breaking a sweat. The Motorman is also maintenance-free and economical to operate: less than two cents per mile. That may help soften the blow of the sticker price: $5,158 for the base model (available in Jet Black or Ruby Red). This being Europe, tack on another 21 percent for the V.A.T. Options, like Bauhaus paint jobs, leather saddlebags and custom logos, will pad the bill further. Which only proves that not every Dutch treat is cheap.

My first instinct is to drop the “fuel tank” to the lowest point on the frame.

Someone Else’s Acid Trip

Wednesday, March 18th, 2015

Kevin Kelly — “senior maverick” at Wired — is living the dream:

I spend most of my day reading. I read magazines, and books, and then I try and write a little about what I learned. Of course, I also write emails. Then I take a hike or a bike, and I also try to take one photograph a day. So I mostly spend my time reading.

Kelly dropped out of college after studying geology for one year and instead “awarded [him]self a graduate degree in Asian studies”:

I spent almost a decade traveling in Asia with very little money, and that transformed my life and it gave me insights into how things are actually done. And I also caught a really bad case of optimism there because I saw with my own eyes nations bootstrapping themselves from poverty into prosperity.

His own kids went to college:

I think you don’t need college if you have a project that you want to throw yourself into, if you have the gumption and the discipline, if you have a really good alternative. And I’ve told my kids if you don’t have that, then you’ve got to go to college.

Kelly and his circle of digital revolutionaries were hippies, which many people today don’t realize:

They don’t, and that is actually one of the untold stories. Actually, it was told by the New York Times technology writer, John Markoff, who wrote a kind of overlooked book called What the Dormouse Said, which was telling the hippie origins of the personal computer and how basically from Doug Engelbart and Steve Jobs and Stewart Brand, they were all dropping acid; they were trying to augment human cognition, not trying to make a new industry. And a lot of the earliest entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley in the computer world were former hippies who were living on communes and learned some small business skills making candles or macramé, or whatever it was, and transferred that into this ethic of the entrepreneur, which is now kind of all fancy and hip. And that is definitely a thread of Silicon Valley that’s not widely appreciated.

Kelly was one of the “weird” hippies who didn’t drop acid — until his 50th birthday. “There’s nothing more boring than hearing someone’s acid trip,” he notes:

It was a positive experience. And I did a lot of research on trying to find out how you do this well, and it turns out that that was actually kind of hard to find, but you do it with a guide and in the right setting. So I did it outdoors. I had a very experienced person who was sitting by me, and taking care of me and leading me through. And I also had a source for the drug that was very pure. However, I have to say that I was given four tabs and I threw the last one into the ocean when I was done saying, you know, I don’t need to do that again.

His father sounds interesting, too:

My father actually worked for Time-Life. He was not in the editorial side. He was in something that was called operations research at the time, that we would now call, like, I.T. He was one of the people who brought computers to the magazine world. And then later on he was involved in this really kind of weird startup that you might have heard of, called HBO. And so he was involved with the guys who were taking cable TV and trying to put it on a satellite.

What has he spent “too much” on, but does not regret?

My library. I have a two-story library filled with lots of books. You know, I’ve read, maybe two-thirds of them. So there’s lots of books that I haven’t read. They take up a lot of space, but I just love it. I just would not give it up for anything.

Amen.

His favorite book is Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, by the way. I may have to check that out.

A Robot Sculpting Metal Pottery

Tuesday, March 17th, 2015

It’s like a robot sculpting metal pottery:

Released last year, DMG Mori’s Lasertec 65 3D, uses two interchangeable heads to print then perfect metal parts. The first head makes 3D shapes by shooting metal dust onto a print surface and liquifying it with a laser. The machine then switches midstream to a 5-axis mill bit to smooth and perfect the part.

The company says their metal 3D printing method is significantly faster than competing methods. And by working mid-process, the machine can mill sections that are not reachable once the part is finished.

In short, the machine combines the flexibility of 3D printing with the precision of a milling machine to allow “additive manufacturing in milling quality.”

How Missile Tracking Cameras Are Remaking The NBA

Tuesday, March 17th, 2015

You could call SportVU the new Moneyball, but that would sell it short:

The technology was originally developed to track missiles. Now, SportVU systems hang from the catwalks of 10 NBA arenas, tiny webcams that silently track each player as they shoot, pass, and run across the court, recording each and every move 25 times a second. SportVU can tell you not just Kevin Durant’s shooting average, but his shooting average after dribbling one vs. two times, or his shooting average with a defender three feet away vs. five feet away. SportVU can actually consider both factors at once, plus take into account who passed him the ball, how many minutes he’d been on the court, and how many miles he’d run that game already.

For instance, here are “heat maps” of Kevin Durant’s closely guarded attempts versus the shots he actually makes:

kevin-durant-closely-guarded-attempts

kevin-durant-closely-guarded-makes

Sinews of War

Monday, March 16th, 2015

Endless money forms the sinews of war, Cicero noted, but lately, things have got ridiculous:

A Tomahawk cruise missile costs about $1.5m, and even the Hellfire, an air-to-ground rocket that weighs a mere 50kg, is $115,000 a pop. In exchange for, say, an enemy tank, that is probably a fair price to pay. To knock out a pick-up truck crewed by a few lightly armed guerrillas, however, it seems a little expensive, and using its shoulder-fired cousin the Javelin ($147,000) to kill individual soldiers in foxholes, as is often the case in Afghanistan, is positively profligate. Clearly, something has to change. And changing it is.

An early sign of this change came in March, with the deployment in Afghanistan of the APKWS II (Advanced Precision Kill Weapons System) made by BAE Systems. The APKWS II is a smart version of the old-fashioned 70mm (2.75-inch) rocket, which has been used by America’s armed forces since 1948. It is also cheap, as guided missiles go, costing $28,000 a shot.

The APKWS II is loaded and fired in the same way as its unguided predecessors, from the same 19-round pods, making its use straightforward. The difference is that it can strike with an accuracy of one metre because it has been fitted with a laser-seeking head which follows a beam pointed at the target by the missile’s operators. This controls a set of fins that can steer the missile to its destination.

Standard practice with unguided 70mm missiles is to use as many as two pods’ worth (ie, 38 rockets, at $1,000 a round) to blanket a target. That means the APKWS II comes in at three-quarters of the cost per kill. It also means that many more targets can be attacked on a single mission.

Guided Smart Shells

Saturday, March 14th, 2015

Raytheon’s 155mm M982 Excalibur extended-range guided artillery shell is a modern marvel:

It can be hurtled out of a howitzer barrel under immense G loads, then once it reaches the top of its trajectory, it begins its guided glide path via pop-out canard control fins, which greatly enhances the shell’s range over a standard 155mm round. Because it is guided, it can also hit nearly any target at near vertical angles, allowing it to strike the enemy in the shadow of steep mountains or in urban environments that traditional ballistic artillery could not engage safely.

Raytheon 155mm M982 Excalibur Shell

Introduced onto the battlefield in Iraq in 2007, the rounds gave Howitzer units so much added flexibility due to the Excalibur’s increased range, non-ballistic trajectory and almost perfect accuracy that the Army immediately upped the round’s production from 18 units a month to 150. Since then, thousands more M982 shells have been built and nearly a thousand of them have been fired in combat.

Now they’re shrinking it down for the Navy’s five-inch Mk45 deck guns.

Cool Brick

Thursday, March 12th, 2015

The cool brick was inspired by the Muscatese evaporative cooling window, which combines a wood screen, or mashrabiya, and a ceramic vessel filled with water, to passively cool interiors in desert environments:

Comprised of 3D printed porous ceramic bricks set in mortar, each brick absorbs water like a sponge and is designed as a three dimensional lattice that allows air to pass through the wall. As air moves through the 3D printed brick, the water that is held in the micro-pores of the ceramic evaporates, bringing cool air into an interior environment, lowering the temperature using the principle of evaporative cooling.

Muscatese Evaporative Cooling Window

The bricks are modular and interlocking, and can be stacked together to make a screen. The 3D lattice creates a strong bond when set in mortar. The shape of the brick also creates a shaded surface on the wall to keep a large percentage of the wall’s surface cool and protected from the sun to improve the wall’s performance.

Cool Brick Wind Drawing