The west wind blows afresh

zephyrIT TAKES chutzpah to tweet “rockets are tricky” shortly after one you have just launched has deliberately blown itself up. But Elon Musk, founder and boss of SpaceX, is not a man who lacks self-confidence, and he did just that on August 22nd after the terminal malfunction of one of his company’s Falcon 9 vehicles. That Arianespace, a French rival of SpaceX, announced on the same day that two satellites it had tried to launch to join the European Space Agency’s Galileo constellation (intended to rival America’s Global Positioning System), had entered a “non-nominal injection orbit”—in other words, gone wrong—shows just how difficult the commercialisation of space can be.

If spacecraft are so precarious, then perhaps investors should lower their sights. But not in terms of innovation; rather in altitude. Airbus, a European aerospace company, thinks that developing satellite-like capabilities without satellites is the answer. Hence the firm’s recent trial, at an undisclosed location (but one subject to Brazilian airspace regulations) of Zephyr 7, a high-altitude “pseudo-satellite”, or HAPS for short.

Zephyr (named after the Greek god of the west wind) is actually an unmanned, ultralight, solar-powered, propeller-driven aircraft. But it is designed, just as some satellites are, to hover indefinitely over the same part of the world. With a 23-metre wingspan and a weight of only 50kg, it is fragile and must remain above the ravages of the weather and the jet stream both by day and by night. It therefore flies at an altitude of around 21km (70,000 feet) during daylight hours, and then glides slowly down to around 15km when the sun is unavailable to keep it aloft.

Its solar cells, which are mounted on its wings, produce 1kW for every 1kg of panel. That power is fed into lithium-sulphur rechargeable batteries which can store 350 watt-hours per kilogram. (For comparison, the lithium-polymer batteries in iPhones store around 200 watt-hours per kilogram.) The result is a plane that can, potentially, stay aloft for months—though its longest test-run so far is a fortnight.

The Zephyr team achieved all this by following the principle of “adding lightness”—jettisoning anything that did not help make the aircraft fly higher and longer. That included the undercarriage. But Zephyr weighs so little and travels so slowly (about 12 knots, or 22kph, as it approaches the runway) that its landing is little more than a scrape.

Airbus plans to restrict the marketing of Zephyr’s commercial successors to places within 40° north or south of the equator. That will keep the plane away from latitudes where the winter day is too short for a full recharge, but this should not be too much of a handicap to the company’s marketing department, because almost 90% of the world’s population lives in these sunnier climes.

The main uses for satellites are observation and communication. Both are appealing markets for HAPS. Hovering drones could act as relays for telephone calls and internet traffic in places that do not have good enough infrastructure on the ground. And there is never a shortage of customers who would like to snoop on various parts of the Earth’s surface, whether for commercial or military reasons.

By satellite, such snooping is done from an altitude of about 800km. Zephyr flies at one-fortieth of that, so the optics its needs to take pictures are far less demanding. (Just as well, of course, for it is unlikely to be able to carry a huge payload.)

Airbus is not alone in the HAPS game. Google and Facebook are involved as well—and with similar customers in mind—though Google will also be its own customer, since keeping its Google Earth imagery up to date is a demanding task. Paul Brooks, spokesman for Airbus’s HAPS programme, says he does not see these firms as competitors, but rather as collaborators in proving the idea of endurance flight and promoting the changes in regulations needed to permit its safe use. Once this has happened, and the world’s aviation authorities have agreed common operating standards, HAPS should prove a cheap and reliable alternative to blasting things into orbit.

This article was published in The Economist on 30th August 2014.  See this link.


Howling for a growler

growlerSALES of craft beer, which tastes better than the mass-market slop, were up 17.2% last year, even as overall beer sales fell 1.9%. Small wonder the big, bland brewers want to stop you drinking it. The latest bar brawl concerns growlers; the jugs which those who wish to continue quaffing at home use to carry beer from the bar. Growlers commonly come in three sizes: one gallon (eight pints—probably flat by the time it’s finished); quarter-gallon (too little and likely gone on the walk home) and half-gallon (just right). The midsized variety is the best, but is banned in Florida, Mississippi and Idaho.

Craft-brewers in the Sunshine State petitioned to get half-gallon growlers legalised. The big brewers objected, saying this would undermine a system whereby the manufacture, distribution and retailing of beer have long been separated. After much lobbying, a Florida Senate bill was drafted; it allowed half-gallon growlers but only if craft-brewers used a distributor for all off-sales. In practice this would have meant that a bar would have to buy back its own beer from a middleman (at a mark-up, of course) before selling it to a thirsty consumer. The bill died in the House.

Josh Aubuchon of the Florida Brewers Guild says that beer giants took a stand against growlers because they feel threatened. Their market share is declining as more Americans choose to “drink less, drink better,” he says.

Booze rules vary a lot between states, and typically make as much sense as a man who’s had ten pints trying to explain quantum physics. For example, 36 states allow brewers to distribute their own wares, up to a point. But not Florida. If a local restaurant runs out of his beer, laments Ben Davis, the owner of Intuition Ale Works in Jacksonville, it is illegal for him to drop off a keg or two; the restaurant must wait days for a distributor.

Under a federal franchise law it is hard for brewers to switch distributors. New York state gives a partial exemption to firms that brew less than 300,000 barrels a year. But such small-business friendly laws are rare. The system is set up to protect big brewers, distributors and “fizzy, flavourless beers,” complains Mr Aubuchon.

Florida’s primary elections, which are on August 26th, are firing up both sides. Governor Rick Scott, a Republican, has said he favours legalising half-gallon growlers. So does Charlie Crist, his most likely Democratic opponent. But state lawmakers are divided, and the big brewers are not beaten yet. Expect spillage.

This article was published in The Economist on 23rd August 2014.  See this link.

Clocking people’s clocks

FBIWITH some pride, the FBI trumpeted the news last month that thanks to the agency’s facial-recognition system Neil Stammer, wanted for sexual assault and kidnapping, had been apprehended in Nepal after being on the run for 14 years. The truth was slightly more prosaic. A State Department official had used the FBI’s “Wanted” posters in a test for passport fraud. The system then matched Mr Stammer’s face with an American calling himself Kevin Hodges who regularly visited the US embassy in Kathmandu to renew his visa. Still, Mr Stammer’s arrest illuminates the growing importance of facial-recognition technology.

The two main techniques used to recognise faces electronically are principal-component analysis (PCA) and linear-discriminant analysis (LDA). Both compare a picture of someone’s phizog with a reference image taken in a controlled environment. Passport photos and mugshots, then, are about as ideal as it gets.

Basic PCA and LDA are good for skin colour, hair colour and the like. Advanced systems, such as that used with British biometric passports, may look at cheek bones, the bridge of the nose, jaw lines and eyes.

All of which is fine when someone is sitting or standing in front of a camera, but is less useful in the world beyond the studio. That requires a technique called Elastic Bunch Graph Matching (EBGM), which tries to create a three-dimensional (3D) model from two-dimensional images. This model can, thereafter, be used to match any subsequent image, or part thereof.

EBGM considers the head as a union of two ellipsoids: one whose main axis is vertical, and runs from forehead to chin; the other whose main axis is horizontal, and runs from tip of the nose to the back of the cranium. This basic scheme is overlaid with “fiducial” points which act as anchors for the modelling. These can be as few as half a dozen (the pupils of the eyes, the corners of the mouth, and so on), or as many, in one system, as 40,000.

EBGM allows the construction of a three-dimensional representation of a face from poorly lit images taken at odd angles, such as a closed-circuit television camera might provide. Once it recognises enough fiducial points it can work out what aspect of a face it is viewing. It then extrapolates the expected positions of other fiducial points. As more data come in from the camera, the model’s shape is updated. Given enough horsepower, says a British official, such a system can build a model from as few as 80 pixels located between a subject’s eyes—and only two images are needed for a 3D reconstruction.

Governments are not the only ones interested. Earlier this year, Facebook’s DeepFace system was asked whether thousands of pairs of photos were of the same person. It answered correctly 97.25% of the time, a shade behind humans at 97.53%. Although DeepFace is only a research project, and is aided by the fact that many Facebook photos are tagged with the names of people in the images, which lets the system learn those faces in different poses and lighting conditions, it is still an impressive feat.

As DeepFace shows, access to an accurate gallery of images is crucial. Passport photos, or those on national identity cards, can act as such galleries, as they can be rendered by EBGM into usable 3D models. Add in the increasing ubiquity of closed-circuit television, and the idea that anyone will be able hide for long in Nepal, or anywhere else, looks quaint.

This article was published in The Economist on 23rd August 2014.  See this link.

Obituary: Harry Chapman Pincher

Henry Chapman Pincher, journalist and spy-hunter, died on 5th August, aged 100

Chapman pincherHIS favourite weapon was lunch, and he deployed it almost every day. Seated opposite a well-informed companion in L’Ecu de France, halfway between Fleet Street and Whitehall, Chapman Pincher would go hunting for scoops. Notes were never taken, and drink only rarely. After all, a pen could spook a companion into silence and anyway, his memory was sufficient. Letting his guest do the drinking meant he would also do most of the talking. An occasional prompt was enough to lubricate the conversation. There was no need for the aggressive, impatient approach he disliked in modern reporters.

The stories he dug up for the Daily Express, where he worked for 33 years, were about state secrets, atomic weapons and spy scandals. They so annoyed the government that Harold Macmillan, prime minister from 1957 to 1963, wrote a letter asking if anything could be done “to suppress or even get rid of” the irritating hack. Mr Pincher was proud of that: he had the letter framed and hung it on his bathroom wall. E.P. Thompson, a historian, dismissed him as “a kind of official urinal in which, side by side, high officials…stand patiently leaking in the public interest”. That was taken as a compliment, too. It amused him to learn, years later, that L’Ecu de France had been bugged by both MI5 and the KGB.

He was lucky, he said, to have had a career that coincided with the chilliest bits of the cold war. It was the age of Soviet spy rings at Cambridge, of traitorous scientists trading in nuclear secrets, and of the Profumo affair, in which the secretary of state for war was revealed to have been sleeping with the mistress of a Soviet naval attaché. Secrets and paranoia were in the air, and the waning of Britain’s culture of deference meant that the papers were increasingly willing to print them.

The son of a publican, Mr Pincher worked behind his parents’ bar as a teenager, honing an ability to chat with people at all levels of society. That served him well: hunting and shooting trips with ministers and aristocrats provided rich pickings. He came to detest reflexive, unnecessary secrecy, an attitude he traced back to an incident in 1943, when he was serving in the army. One day he was handed a message stamped “secret”, informing him that “tinned sausages are now available.” He tried to crack the code—did “tinned sausages” refer to German troops, perhaps?—before discovering, with some disgust, that it simply meant exactly what it said.

His big break came when he obtained early technical details about the atomic bomb that had been dropped on the Japanese city of Hiroshima. Later, he covered the case of Klaus Fuchs, a Manhattan Project scientist who passed information to Moscow. In 1967 he reported, to general outrage, that Britain’s spy agencies were reading the cables and telegrams of its private citizens. An article in 1971 suggested that dozens of gardeners, chauffeurs and the like employed at the Soviet embassy were in fact spies; they were swiftly expelled. A biologist by training, he also covered science. In 1954 he broke the story (to much derision, not least in the Express’s own fuggy offices) that scientists had linked smoking with lung cancer.

The wolf of Fleet Street
But paranoia is an occupational hazard in espionage, and Mr Pincher was not immune. Later in life, he became obsessed with trying to prove that Sir Roger Hollis, a former head of MI5, had been a Soviet spy. One of his sources was Peter Wright, an ex-MI5 officer who made similar allegations in his book “Spycatcher”, which the government tried to have banned. (Another, reputedly, was James Jesus Angleton, a notoriously paranoid CIA counter-espionage expert.) An internal investigation turned up no evidence against Hollis; the Soviet archives, which were briefly opened after the end of the cold war, revealed that the Soviets were as baffled by the accusations as Hollis was.

Nor were the government’s frustrations entirely unjustified. Occasionally his stories did real damage: one, in 1953, nearly exposed a plan for Britain and America to share intelligence on the Soviet nuclear programme. But he saw himself as a patriot who would expose those who were betraying their country. Just occasionally—whether because of that patriotism, or in exchange for a juicy titbit later—he could be persuaded to co-operate. In 1957, at the government’s behest, he wrote a deliberately misleading article to deter protests by Japanese fishermen against Britain’s first test of a hydrogen bomb.

He loved journalism, possibly more than he loved his family (he regretted not spending more time with his children). But he never quite fitted in on Fleet Street, and not just because of his aversion to booze. Most reporters are pack animals, but he actively avoided their company, revelling in the nickname of “the Lone Wolf”. Colleagues on the Express complained that he was not above poaching their copy if he felt that a colleague was straying onto his patch. Other critics called him naive, saying that his sources often used him to advance their own bureaucratic agendas. He knew that perfectly well, of course. But, as he sat on his doubly-bugged banquette, listening to another contact spilling secrets, he simply didn’t care. As long as it was news—and especially if it was an exclusive—he would publish it regardless.

This article was published in The Economist on 13th August 2014.  See this link.

Pee power

pee power“URINE and faeces to you”, explains a dodgy sewer-manager in one of Reginald Hill’s crime novels, “is bread and butter to me.” And he is not the only one. The BioEnergy Team, led by Ioannis Ieropoulos of the Bristol Robotics Laboratory (BRL) in Britain, are hoping to profit from working with the stuff too. They have developed a new technique to turn urine into electrical power—or “urine-tricity” as they call it.

People around the world produce an estimated 6.4 trillion litres of urine every year. BRL, a collaboration between the University of Bristol and the University of the West of England, want to make the most of this abundant resource. At the core of urine-tricity are microbial fuel cells (MFCs), which contain live microbes. When urine flows through an MFC the microbes consume it as part of their normal metabolic process. This, in turn, frees electrons. Electrodes within the cell gather these electrons and when they are connected to an external circuit a current is generated.

The BRL team mounted a series of cigar-tube-sized MFCs into a single unit. Attaching this unit to the outlet pipe from a urinal allowed a stream of fresh urine to flow through the cells. Fresh, in this context, is urine not more than a week old from a healthy individual of average height and weight. Previous experiments had fed the MFCs food scraps, dead insects and grass cuttings. But urine achieved a power output three times higher than any other waste product.

Why does urine work so well? In the earlier tests the microbes were quickly satiated on a heavy diet, Dr Ieropoulos believes. This was because the material contained a high proportion of organic matter. The low level of organic carbon in urine, combined with favourable acidity and electrical conductivity, made all the difference. Where earlier tests produced minimal power, urine had the vim to recharge commercially available batteries, including those in mobile phones.

It is early days, but the work—which is being supported by a number of organisations, including the Gates Foundation—shows that urine could have the potential to make a significant contribution to renewable energy. It might also provide a commercial incentive to build more toilets—over 2.5 billion people around the world have no access to proper sanitation. Dr Ieropoulos and his team now plan to examine the potential of faeces as a possible power source. They have a higher organic-carbon level, but the scientists think that might be an acceptable price to pay for abundant availability and a self-regulating supply chain.

This article was published in The Economist on 2nd August 2014.  See this link.