Yet since the reveal, I’ve seen precisely one of these cars out on the roads of North Carolina. And that’s compared to the several Tesla Model 3s and Chevy Bolts I see jetting around town.
My impressions would seem to be backed up by US sales data. Yet it’s important to note that the Leaf is very far from being a flop—it just might not be the right car for the American market, where longer distance travel is more commonplace. Indeed, we reported before that the Leaf 2.0 was selling like crazy in Europe, yet only modestly here in the US, and Electrek tells us that this trend continues—with Nissan reporting 18,000 deliveries and 37,000 orders between January and June.
That would, as Electrek notes, make it the best selling electric car in Europe. And puts it firmly in the category of “supply constrained” rather than “demand constrained”—meaning there are plenty of consumers wanting to purchase a model, if only they can get their hands on one.
I continue to believe that shorter range, lower priced electric cars make an awful lot of sense for many drivers. And European drivers would seem to agree. Even in America, I suspect that many of us would be surprised at just how practical 150 miles of range turns out to be. But given the dominance of the road trip as a cultural phenomenon, it might take a little more persuasion.
In the early hours of January 11, 2000, US Coast Guard helicopter pilot Mark Ward responded to a distress call from a ship taking on water, caught in a Nor’easter off the North Carolina coast. Battling 70-mph winds and 30-foot seas, Ward struggled to keep the chopper steady as he and his crew pulled all five fishermen to safety.
Ward recalls the mission as one of the most harrowing is the 22 years he spent as a search-and-rescue pilot. And now, he’s got a gig ensuring his successors won’t face the same dangers: He’s the chief test pilot in Sikorsky’s autonomous helicopter program. “Even a modest degree of autonomy, your workload goes way down and your stress and apprehension disappears,” he says. “The system sees things you can’t, and it processes information and reacts in a way you may not be able to.”
Even in a world where planes spend most of their time on autopilot and robo-cars are roaming cities all over the world, teaching a helicopter to fly itself is a gnarly problem. These workhorses must be able to hover over ships bobbing up and down on rough seas, and descend onto oil rigs in gusting winds. They have to dodge power lines and cell towers that may not show up on navigation charts, and balance single skids on sheer cliffs in order to rescue injured climbers.
“Helicopters have very high crew workloads and obstacle-rich environments,” says Chris Van Buiten, vice president of Sikorsky Innovations, the division of the Lockheed Martin-owned company that’s pursuing autonomous flight. A robo-chopper needs a lot more computation than a self-flying plane, he says, especially since the flights they take on don’t involve cruising between well-regulated airports. “You’re usually not called out to a sinking ship on a sunny day, but rather off the coast of Alaska at night in the rain,”
The aviation industry is already deep into the challenge. In May, Boeing-owned Aurora Flight Sciences’s unmanned cargo delivery system, installed in an old Bell UH-1H helicopter, completed the first autonomous mission, bringing gas, water, and medical supplies to Marines in California. Lockheed Martin has been developing its K-MAX unmanned helicopter since 2007, beginning with remote-controlled and semi-autonomous versions that made supply deliveries in Afghanistan between 2011 and 2014.
Sikorsky’s version is the Matrix Technology system, which it’s been testing since 2013 aboard the Sikorsky Autonomy Research Aircraft (SARA) testbed that Ward pilots, an adapted version of the company’s S-76 commercial helicopter. Its most basic functionality includes flying traffic patterns around airports and tracking moving objects on the water for approaches and landings.
More impressively, SARA has completed a 30-mile autonomous flight with takeoff, cruise, and landing—including landing-site evaluation and selection—all done by computer. That was enough to get it to the final phase of Darpa’s Aircrew Labor In-Cockpit Automation System (ALIAS) program, which seeks a system that will reduce crew requirements for existing aircraft. The company is also in the process of modifying two UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters with Matrix, to offer the Army “optionally-piloted” options for the aircraft. It will demonstrate these over the coming year.
Edging Toward Autonomy
The end-game for most of the companies pursuing helicopter autonomy is fully hands-off flight with human passengers, not just cargo. This will be key to the nascent air-taxi industry, and for military and commercial operators who may be facing pilot shortages. But it’s also the most demanding possibility, given the challenges of validating and certifying such systems to actually carry people on board.
“When we decided to go after this, the problem became reliability and safety,” says Igor Cherepinsky, Sikorsky’s director of autonomy programs. “We decided that if we’re going to do this, it needs to be just as safe as our other aircraft. That’s our guiding principle.”
That led to some counterintuitive strategies, like minimizing the role of artificial intelligence. “High-end artificial intelligence and deep learning are higher-order functions,” says Van Buiten. “Higher-order functions are difficult to certify. Until we know how to do so, we want to use more deterministic methods.”
That means using systems that don’t rely on interpretation or guesswork—which AI is essentially an advanced form of—but on defined and predictable behaviors. Cherepinsky adds that this is true across the board, from developing responses for when things go “off plan,” to applying computer vision data from the optical sensors. “Even our pattern recognition is done in a different algorithmic way. It’s very reliable and very flyable,” he says.
And where self-driving cars rely on high-definition maps of any environment they’ll explore, Sikorsky skipped the cartography and trained its aircraft to fly using only their real-time sensors.“There have been quite a few accidents where aircraft hit things that weren’t on their maps,” Cherepinsky says. “Companies are notorious for throwing up cell towers without notifying anyone, for example.”
Evaluating how all these elements and algorithms function in the air falls to Ward. On test flights, he evaluates the system’s decision-making to help fine-tune the flying, and streamlining the user experience (and stays ready to take control if needed). “We want a few taps on the tablet to replace ten minutes of playing around with the flight management system of a conventional helicopter,” he says.
On that rescue mission in 2000, once Ward got the helicopter in position to hover over the endangered boat, he had to keep working the stick, levers, and pedals to hold its position against the wind. With the Matrix’s level of automation, it’s a matter monitoring the system, making alterations such as position adjustments via slight nudges on a virtual joystick on the tablet. Sikorsky’s decision to develop the tech in-house speeds up the development process, allowing Ward to make recommendations about things like the placement or prominence of the tablet controls—and see the changes a few days, or even minutes, later.
The Human Touch
Full autonomy—the kind where no human pilot is required—will take longer to achieve, but these interim stages could pay huge dividends by simplifying a pilot’s work. “Just tracking alongside a vessel in a storm at sea is intensely challenging, but an autonomous system locks on, managing your airspeed, altitude and position even in the worst conditions,” Ward says, adding that many accidents result from pilots being overloaded during such scenarios and losing situational awareness. “When your stress level goes down, your situational awareness goes up, and you’re better able to focus on your crew and the mission.”
Indeed, full autonomy may not be appropriate for many of the missions helicopters fly. “There are lots of discussions about autonomy versus automation,” Cherepinsky notes. Humans can always use help, but it may not be wise to replace them altogether. “A machine cannot find its own mission. Creative humans do that—they plan them, decide what the machines do, choose who gets priority in rescues, and so on. Think of the Starship Enterprise. Five or six people on the bridge are making the decisions, but the machine actually takes the ship from point A to point B.”
And if you ever find yourself stranded at sea, you’ll probably be far happier to see the fully focused equivalent of Captain Kirk managing the situation when the helo arrives, with Scotty cheerfully beaming you up. Let the computer deal with the wind.
The Hyperloop race is much of a political battle as it is a technical one, with companies grabbing territory like players starting a game of Risk.Hyperloop Transportation Technologies, the crowdsourced enterprise that has lagged behind rivals in some respects, may have scored a crucial victory. The company has signed a deal to build a track in the Chinese province of Guizhou, home to the Guiyang Technological Development Zone.
The route itself will be located somewhere in Tongren, a prefecture in eastern Guizhou, and will cover an initial distance of 10 km (6.2 miles). There’s no indication of if the line will connect two significant landmarks or areas, at least not at this early stage. At that short distance, it’s not likely that the tube will be able to reach the speeds that Hyperloop promises, at least on paper.
As part of the deal, HTT will launch a Chinese entity — standard practice, since foreign companies are rarely allowed to operate without some local connection. The crowdsourced enterprise will be responsible for designing the technology, providing the engineering expertise and designing “essential equipment.” Which we assume is a euphemism for both the pods and maglev technology that HTT has licensed.
On Tongren’s side, the city and its people will be in charge of certifying the tube, building a series of regulations and actually building the thing. Financing for the project will be split 50/50, with half of the cash coming from the city, and the rest sourced from HTT, and/or investors.
The Guiyang Economic and Technological Development Zone was created 18 years ago to lure tech companies to the region. That initiative has clearly been successful, since the provincial capital has attracted big names like Foxconn, Microsoft, Huawei, Tencent, Qualcomm and Alibaba.
Tongren is a significant distance away from Guiyang, at around 400km (248 miles), and has what HTT CEO Dirk Ahlborn says is a “unique topography.”It’s thought that the location was chosen to help refine various construction methods and develop a system that works in multiple terrains. Not to mention that it gives HTT a foothold in China, a country with deep pockets for infrastructure spending.
China, meanwhile, will get the benefit of being able to test out a new transportation system in relative peace. And if successful, this small tube could form the backbone of a longer network that shrinks journey times across the middle kingdom.
Update: Hyperloop Transportation Technologies clarified that it intends to run the route as a commercial venture, rather than for testing.
The Airbus BelugaXL, built to transport large aircraft pieces, took off on Thursday for its maiden flight at France’s Toulouse-Blagnac Airport.
The Airbus BelugaXL, built to transport large aircraft pieces, took off on Thursday for its maiden flight at France’s Toulouse-Blagnac Airport.
It’s built for oversize cargo – but it also sports a smile: The Airbus BelugaXL took off on its maiden flight on Thursday, creating a unique sight as the jet with the bulbous upper half rolled down the runway.
The BelugaXL’s paint job “features beluga whale-inspired eyes and an enthusiastic grin,” the aircraft company says. That whale flew over southern France today, soaring over the coast and mountainside.
The jet is the first of a handful that Airbus will use to shuttle large aircraft components between its manufacturing facilities in Europe. Crucially, its expansive cargo area – the fuselage is nearly 30 feet in diameter – can carry two wings for the Airbus A350 jetliner.
Based on a A330 cargo plane, the BelugaXL features an oversized tail section, with a large horizontal stabilizer and fins.
To accept cargo, the plane’s “forehead” (in keeping with the whale metaphor) hinges open, revealing a cavernous opening above the cockpit — which sits below the cargo floor.
The jet is capable of taking off with a total weight of 227 tons. Carrying a full load of more than 50 tons, the lumbering plane’s maximum range is 4,000 kilometers (about 2,485 miles).
On its maiden flight of some four hours, the plane took off from France’s Toulouse-Blagnac Airport and returned to the same spot, performing a low pass and tilting its wings “hello” on its way back to the runway.
The BelugaXL is slated to enter regular service in 2019.
A lot of things can go wrong on the first day at any new job. But as first-day work fiascoes go, Walter Carr has everyone beat when it comes to one wild idea, a lot of perseverance, and some sore feet. The 20-year-old student’s
broke down the day before he was to start a new job with Bellhops Moving Co. That’s when Carr took matters into this own hands — and onto his own two feet — by deciding to make the 20-mile trek from his home, near Birmingham, Ala., to the next morning’s job site 20 miles away.
, Carr’s options began to unravel the day before, when he couldn’t find someone to drive him to his new job. Seemingly out of alternatives, Carr started mapping (and napping), to get ready for the long walk.
“I sat there and I thought, ‘How can I get to my job? What streets would I walk through? How long would it take me to get there?'” Carr told
The Washington Post
. When he determined it would take roughly seven hours to arrive on time, he took an early evening nap, so that he could start the voyage in the wee hours.
He made it to Pelham, Ala., sometime around 4 a.m.,
, but still had several hours of walking ahead. That’s when a police officer found Carr resting in a bank parking lot. After hearing the story about the job and his not wanting to be late on his first day, the officer treated him to breakfast and dropped him off a couple miles closer to work. A shift change meant the officer couldn’t finish the drive, but he promised someone would be along in a few hours to help.
Carr started walking again around 5:30 a.m., since he was worried he might not make it after all. Luckily, another officer soon pulled up who knew about Carr’s epic travels. He drove him the last several miles to the job, where Carr was the first of the Bellhops moving team to arrive at the home of Chris and Jenny Lamey. The couple had been busy preparing for the move when a knock on the door led to their introduction to Pelham police officers, and one very tired Walter Carr.
After learning about his dedication and determination to get to work, Bellhops CEO Luke Marklin called Carr to thank him and said he’d like to meet. It’s no surprise that Carr apparently walked the 20 minutes to the meeting.
That’s when Marklin surprised the industrious young man by handing him the keys to the CEO’s own
SUV. Carr was visibly stunned and all but speechless.
Carr plans to graduate from Lawson State Community College in December with an associate’s degree in health sciences. After that, he aspires to join the Marines and then enter a four-year college once he returns from the service.
The ordeal has not only left Carr with a new set of wheels and a great story, the whole experience could serve him well in his future college endeavors. So what’s his intended area of study? Physical therapy, of course.
Our oceans are home to a diverse array of aquatic organisms, a surprising number of which have yet to be discovered. To help in the search for these fascinating creatures, researchers have developed a robotic device capable of capturing even the most delicate deep-sea animals, which it does with a foldable, 12-sided hand.
Introducing the rotary actuated dodecahedron (RAD), a 12-faced device developed by researchers at the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University and several other institutions.
When the RAD hand is fully extended, it doesn’t look like much—especially to an unsuspecting sea creature swimming nearby. But when it folds in on itself, RAD forms a dodecahedron cage, trapping animals inside. Importantly, the joystick-controlled device performs the task without inflicting any injury to an organism. The origami-inspired RAD is meant to provide marine biologists with a non-invasive way of extracting samples for discovery and analysis. The details of this remarkable new machine were published today in Science Robotics.
It’s estimated that around a million species are still waiting to be discovered in our planet’s oceans, especially in the deep midwater sea areas. Many of these undiscovered aquatic animals are gelatinous, and, as a result, super fragile. Conventional capture techniques, like nets, often destroy these organisms. Also, these soft-bodied animals are notoriously difficult to grab with existing underwater equipment. This is where RAD can help.
“We approach these animals as if they are works of art,” said study co-author David Gruber, a biologist at City University of New York, in a statement. “Would we cut pieces out of the Mona Lisa to study it? No—we’d use the most innovative tools available. These deep-sea organisms, some being thousands of years old, deserve to be treated with a similar gentleness when we’re interacting with them.”
RAD consists of five 3-D printed polymer “petals” that are attached to a series of rotating joints. A single motor allows the entire structure to rotate about its joints and fold up into a hollow 12-sided cage, or dodecahedron. The researchers experimented with several different shapes, but the 12-sided version worked best.
The robotic device was first tested in the Mystic Aquarium in Mystic, Connecticut, where it successfully captured and released a moon jellyfish. After some slight adjustments, RAD was attached to an underwater vehicle and sent to the Monterey Canyon off the coast of California. Controlled remotely, RAD captured and released specimens like squid, octopus, and jellyfish (the researchers said the octopus was particularly curious about the device). RAD was tested at depths of 2,230 feet (700 meters), but the sampler is designed to work as deep as 6.8 miles (11 km) without imploding from the intense water pressure.
“The RAD sampler design is perfect for the difficult environment of the deep ocean because its controls are very simple, so there are fewer elements that can break. It’s also modular, so if something does break, we can simply replace that part and send the sampler back down into the water,” said first author Zhi Ern Teoh, a mechanical engineer at Cooper Perkins. “This folding design is also well-suited to be used in space, which is similar to the deep ocean in that it’s a low-gravity, inhospitable environment that makes operating any device challenging.”
The researchers are now working on a more durable and rugged version of RAD for use in more complex underwater tasks, such as marine geology and even construction projects. Looking ahead, RAD could be equipped with built-in cameras, touch sensors, and even DNA sequencing technologies. So in addition to catching sea creatures, RAD may eventually be capable of conducting its own research in the field.