Tag Archives: commercial

Dead Careers Beat: airline pilots

I’m kinda surprised this hasn’t started sooner, really… although 9/11 has made it difficult for a number of influential people to think rationally about air travel (or, in some cases, anything at all). But the logic is economically obvious: if we can remotely pilot UAVs over warzones, why the hell are we still using pilots in regular aircraft?

There are technological hurdles to overcome (as well as some legislative ones, no doubt), but they’re far from insurmountable:

Today’s airliners use a cooperative system called the Traffic Alert and Collision Avoidance System (TCAS), whereby radio transmitters on each plane announce its position, height and heading. The system constructs a picture of what’s in a plane’s airspace and calculates collision risks. If a risk is detected, a loud, synthesised voice tells the crew to climb or dive to avoid the danger.

“UAVs will have to respond to these TCAS alerts,” says Dopping-Hepenstal. But when planes without TCAS venture close, things get tricky. Some of these “may be radio silent or have low electromagnetic signatures, making them difficult to detect”, he says. This is where the non-cooperative elements kick in. Astraea is developing a battery of sensors, including infrared heat sensors, millimetre-wave radars and optical cameras, to ensure UAVs know if a plane is nearby.

While infrared sensors and cameras should spot a plane in open air, they may lose it in cloud. That’s when millimetre-wave radar, which easily pierces fog, takes over.

Do bear in mind that the pilot of a large commercial aircraft leaves the autopilot to do its thing for around 99% of the journey in 99% of cases*; they’ve been glorified (and sharply-dressed) fail-safe fall-backs for decades now. I suppose the biggest question is whether air travel will remain economically viable for long enough to allow the reshaping of public opinion that would be needed to roll this out… though I fully expect RyanAir to start adding a Pilot Surcharge to all travel costs by the end of the week.

Don’t be scared, it’s a logical progression: if we can trust UAVs to kill people (so long as we’re not too picky about who exactly does the dying), it’s a short step to trusting them to not kill people.

[ * These percentages totally made up on the spot, but based on conversations with commercial pilots. Contrary figures welcomed – nay, encouraged. ]

Space is the place, redux

Seeing as how SpaceX managed to pull off the first commercial rocket launch to reach orbit over the weekend, I figure we’re allowed to get a bit excited about space again… it’s a welcome distraction from the World Cup, if nothing else. It might have been even more of a distraction to our antipodean friends, some of whom spotted weird lights in the sky that may (or may not) have been parts of the Falcon 9 falling back to Earth [via SlashDot].

But who can we trust to tell us the truth of it, hmmm? After all, the Chinese have a history of telling porkies about their space program, and hell knows the Cold War space race was all about giving the people the story you wanted them to believe… it might be fun to work as a spin doctor for a multinational space company.

Speaking of the Cold War, did you know that Venera, the Russian mission to Venus, was the first to send back photographic images from another planet? If any nation-state or corporation is taking a poll on where we should send space probes next, my vote goes for Titan – it’d be fun to find out if those atmospheric anomalies are actually the signal of methane-based microbial life that they appear to be

Colonialism redux

Via Tobias Buckell, The Guardian reports on Ethiopia, one of the world’s most food-short nations, and how it’s selling huge tracts of arable land to business interests from other countries:

The 1,000 hectares of land which contain the Awassa greenhouses are leased for 99 years to a Saudi billionaire businessman, Ethiopian-born Sheikh Mohammed al-Amoudi, one of the 50 richest men in the world. His Saudi Star company plans to spend up to $2bn acquiring and developing 500,000 hectares of land in Ethiopia in the next few years. So far, it has bought four farms and is already growing wheat, rice, vegetables and flowers for the Saudi market. It expects eventually to employ more than 10,000 people.

But Ethiopia is only one of 20 or more African countries where land is being bought or leased for intensive agriculture on an immense scale in what may be the greatest change of ownership since the colonial era.

An Observer investigation estimates that up to 50m hectares of land – an area more than double the size of the UK – has been acquired in the last few years or is in the process of being negotiated by governments and wealthy investors working with state subsidies.

Again, the line between nation and corporation is becoming very fuzzy indeed. The map is not the territory, so on and so forth. Maybe a Greek island or two might make a good commercial farm plot?

Let’s just hope that this move by Ethiopa doesn’t have the same knock-on effects as the Daewoo land-grab in Madagascar

Sub-orbital launch budget: 50k Euros

Via Jason Stoddard (and originally found at the Something Awful forums – have that, top-down media channels!), here are some Danish dudes doing something that, on paper, seems somewhere between naively hubristic and charmingly Quixotic: they’re trying to build a sub-orbital rocket vehicle for under €50,000. A vehicle that can carry a human passenger, that is. YA RLY.

This is a non-profit suborbital space endeavor, based entirely on sponsors and volunteers. Our mission is to launch a human being into space.

We are working fulltime to develop a series of suborbital space vehicles – designed to pave the way for manned space flight on a micro size spacecraft.

Two rocket vehicles are under development. A small unmanned sounding rocket, named Hybrid Atmospheric Test Vehicle or HATV and a larger booster rocket named Hybrid Exo Atmospheric Transporter or HEAT, designed to carry a micro spacecraft into a suborbital trajectory in space.

These guys aren’t just pipedreaming it up in the undergrad lounge, either; they just yesterday tested their HEAT-1x booster rocket. Got propulsion pr0n?

Maybe the top of the gravity well really is entrepreneurial turf from here onwards.

Project Icarus: an eye in the sky for just $150

The popped Project Icarus balloon on its way back to EarthIf the $8000 TubeSat kits we mentioned last month are still to pricey for your pocketbook, never fear – you can still muck about on the edge of space, provided you can scrape up a few hundred bucks. A group of MIT students under the aegis of the Icarus Project have managed to take digital photographs from 17.5 miles above the surface of the Earth using nothing but off-the-shelf components… for a mere $150. [via Hack A Day]

The GPS receiver was a Motorola i290 “Boost Mobile” prepaid phone with internet and GPS capability (set up with Accutracking to constantly report its GPS location).

We bought a AA-battery cell phone charger to sustain the phone’s power over the duration of the flight, and we used Energizer lithium batteries (rated to operate at temperatures are low as -40F) to power both this charger as well as our camera.

As a further safeguard against electronic/battery failure due to low temperature, we utilitzed Coleman disposable hand warmers (placed near our electronics) to help keep our equipment warm in the cold of the stratosphere.

We loaded a Canon A470 camera (bought used on Amazon) with CHDK open source software to enable a feature which allowed the camera to take pictures continuously (intervalometer). Using this feature, we set the camera to take a picture every 5 seconds at a 1/800 second shutter speed. With an 8GB card, the camera was able to chronicle the whole journey of the balloon from launch to retrieval. (~5 hours)

OK, so it’s not exactly the most complex payload ever sent aloft, but it’s a clear demonstration that ingenuity gets things done… as is the example of Armadillo Aerospace, who’ve just taken the Level 2 prize of $1million for the Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander Challenge with their Scorpius vehicle.

And given that NASA has been warned that it needs to constrain its goals unless it can increase its budget, that’s good to know; I’m more convinced than ever that the next big steps in space will not be achieved by government agencies, though they may retain a political space on the game-board by commissioning more prize challenges.