Wing’s drone makes a delivery. (Wing Photo) Alphabet’s has stolen a march on Amazon’s plans for drone domination by winning air carrier certification from the Federal Aviation Administration. “Air Carrier Certification means that we can begin a commercial service delivering goods from local businesses to homes in the United States,” celebrating the milestone. Wing was from (formerly known as Google X), and has been taking part in an in Southwest Virginia. The company has also conducted a test program in Australia that involved more than 3,000 drone deliveries to doorsteps, backyards and driveways. In all, Wing’s drones have flown more than 70,000 test flights, and is starting up . Wing said the data submitted to the FAA for certification showed that “a delivery by wing carries a lower risk to pedestrians than the same trip made by car.” Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao hailed the certification. “This is an important step forward for the safe testing and integration of drones into our economy. Safety continues to be our No. 1 priority as this technology continues to develop and realize its full potential,” she said in a statement. Wing said its next step will be to further its participation in the Virginia pilot program. “For the next several months, we’ll be reaching out to businesses and community members in the Blacksburg and Christiansburg areas to demonstrate our technology, answer questions, and solicit feedback with the goal of launching a delivery trial later this year,” the company said. Amazon has been conducting its own drone delivery test flights in locations ranging from Israel and France to . The Seattle-based online retailing giant showed off more than two years ago. Amazon missed out on participating in the FAA’s first wave of drone pilot programs, however. We’ve reached out to Amazon for comment, and will update this item with anything we hear back.
The University of North Dakota is testing agricultural aerial imagery applications with drones. (UND Photo) Microsoft has awarded a $100,000 TechSpark grant to support , a brand-new startup that’s partnering with the University of North Dakota Aerospace Foundation to blaze a trail for drone applications in North Dakota’s “Silidrone Valley.” The seed money unlocks nearly $570,000 in additional funding for Airtonomy from local investors, Microsoft . “TechSpark saw the drone innovation in North Dakota’s Red River Valley that is driving exciting advances for the U.S. drone industry and wanted to be a part of it,” said Kate Behncken, general manager of Global Community Engagement at Microsoft. “This cutting-edge project has the potential to increase crop yields and boost the production of renewable energy through safe drone advancements created locally, leading to greater economic opportunities for North Dakotans.” North Dakota is one of the six states targeted by T, a Microsoft civic program created in 2017 to boost economic opportunities in rural areas and small communities. (The other states are Texas, Virginia, Washington, Wisconsin and Wyoming.) “Microsoft’s TechSpark support represents a significant opportunity for a startup like ours that wants to innovate and create jobs here in our community,” said Airtonomy CEO Josh Riedy. “It gives confidence to others to back our work, providing the jump-start for us to develop a platform that can drive the next evolution in how drones are used commercially.” Airtonomy is combining drone technology and artificial intelligence to help clients in agriculture, energy and public safety realize the benefits of aerial imagery provided by multi-drone systems. The venture take advantage of North Dakota’s leading role as a testbed for drone operations. The Red River Valley has been dubbed the Silicon Valley of unmanned aircraft systems, or UAS, thanks to the region’s open spaces, clear skies and the leading roles played by the University of North Dakota and the “UND Aerospace has a long history of providing leadership in aerospace innovation and economic diversification by supporting projects that advance the UAS sector and increase high-tech services in the Grand Forks region,” said UND Aerospace Foundation CEO Chuck Pineo. North Dakota’s Department of Transportation is for extended drone operations, including flying drones after dark and beyond an operator’s line of sight. A estimated the drone industry’s annual economic impact at more than a billion dollars, and said that figure could rise to as much as $46 billion by 2026.
Tesla shows off a configuration for a Robotaxi front seat without a steering wheel. (Tesla via YouTube) Tesla’s billionaire CEO, Elon Musk, laid out a vision for a huge fleet of self-driving electric vehicles that owners could share with friends or other riders, with Tesla getting a cut of the proceeds. The Robotaxi concept relies on the ability to make Tesla cars fully autonomous, to the point that the steering wheels can be removed. “By the middle of next year, we’ll have over a million Tesla cars on the road with full self-driving hardware, feature complete, at a reliability level that we would consider that no one needs to pay attention,” Musk told investors at Tesla’s headquarters in Palo Alto, Calif. Musk acknowledged that the timetable could be in flux, due to regulatory concerns as well as his tendency to get overly optimistic about timetables. He pointed to Tesla’s past achievements, including the creation of the all-electric Roadster, Model S, Model X and Model 3, as well as its production of solar roofs for power generation and battery packs for personal and grid-level energy storage. “Only criticism, and it’s a fair one, [is that] sometimes I’m not on time,” Musk said. “But I get it done, and the Tesla team gets it done.” Based on Tesla’s market performance, Musk might still have some convincing to do: During today’s trading, share prices declined nearly 4 percent, to $262.75 per share, and drifted in after-hours trading during . The downturn had more to do with , including a downgrade in Evercore’s market outlook and this week’s expected news of first-quarter losses. Nevertheless, the trend underscored the view that Musk’s Robotaxi plan wouldn’t be a slam-dunk. Tesla CEO Elon Musk discusses the Robotaxi concept. (Tesla via YouTube) The concept would let Tesla owners make their car available for others to drive when they’re not using it, through a smartphone-based app system that matches up cars with riders. Tesla and the owner would share revenue from the ride. Tesla estimates that the cost to run a Robotaxi would be less than 18 cents per mile, compared with 62 cents per mile for U.S. ownership cost and $2 to $3 per mile for traditional ridesharing models. The fact that no driver is required is key to the financial formula. During the Autonomy Day presentation, Tesla engineers spent most of their time laying out the case for expecting that their computer-vision system would satisfy the requirements for full autonomy within the next year or so. Tesla cars that were built since October 2016 would be eligible for over-the-air upgrades to full autonomy, but not cars sold before that time, Musk said. “Unless it’s designed in, it’s not worth it,” he said. Musk said he expected full autonomy to transform the automotive market within two or three years. “Once regulators are comfortable with us not having a steering wheel, we’ll just delete that. … The probability of the steering wheel being taken away in the future is 100%. Consumers will demand it,” he said. In an , Cornell University computer scientist Bart Selman said that’s debatable. Selman said Tesla may face an “extra level of difficulty” because it’s aiming to get to full autonomy by relying exclusively on computer vision without including a lidar laser-scanning system. There’s a broader issue as well: Statistically speaking, self-driving cars may well be safer than human-driven cars — but could conceivably fall prey to unusual accident scenarios that humans would easily avoid, such as . “The question then becomes whether society will choose the greater overall safety level over the risk of having certain types of ‘non-human’ accidents occur with some regularity,” Selman wrote. Other questions had to do with the business model for Robotaxi. Musk said Tesla would operate its own on-demand cars in areas where there weren’t enough to serve the market. He pointed out that Tesla’s leased cars will not be available for purchase when the lease expires, and that those cars would be reclaimed for Tesla’s Robotaxi fleet. One analyst asked about a scenario in which Tesla owners worked out their own car-sharing schemes. That led Musk to point out that a clause in Tesla’s contract forbids drivers to do ride-sharing outside Tesla’s own network. But couldn’t drivers work out a car rental arrangement? “Seems easy,” the analyst said. “OK …” Musk replied. Musk also acknowledged that Tesla, and not the car’s owner, would probably be held responsible for any accidents or injuries caused by Robotaxis. “The right thing to do is to make sure there are very few accidents,” he added. Will regulators go for the idea? That may well be the multimillion-dollar question for Tesla. “We won’t have regulatory approval everywhere, but I’m confident we’ll have regulatory approval somewhere,” Musk said. Even assuming that full autonomy wins regulatory clearance, Tesla would still face formidable competition from the likes of , , Alphabet’s venture and GM’s subsidiary. and are also joining the fray.
A wire-frame illustration shows Eviation’s design for the all-electric Alice airplane, with MagniX’s motors at the wingtips and on the tail. (Eviation via MagniX) says it has selected Redmond, Wash.-based to become a propulsion system provider for its Alice all-electric airplane, a nine-seater that’s due to go into commercial service as early as 2022. An Alice aircraft equipped with three 375-horsepower Magni250 motors will make its debut at the Paris Air Show in June, MagniX CEO Roei Ganzarski said. “They’re going to have a fully functioning aircraft, their first of type, at the Paris Air Show,” Ganzarski told GeekWire. “Our propulsion system is going to be on it.” After the show, the plane is due to be shipped to Arizona and begin flight testing by the end of the year. Eviation, which is headquartered in Israel, wants to have the plane certified by the Federal Aviation Administration by the end of 2021 and aims to start delivering the planes to customers in 2022. Customers will be able to choose between MagniX’s propulsion system and a different system offered by Siemens. The Siemens propulsion deal was . Word of MagniX’s deal with Eviation comes less than a month after the electric propulsion company announced that it would , following roughly the same development timeline. Each Harbour Air conversion will make use of a single 750-horsepower Magni500 electric motor, which should give the seaplanes a range of roughly 100 miles. In contrast, Eviation’s three-motor Alice airplane is designed to fly up to nine passengers as far as 650 miles on a full charge. “That means you can easily do Seattle-San Francisco or other significant-range flights,” Ganzarski said. “It’s a real long-range commuter aircraft.” The reason for the extended mileage goes beyond the motors. Eviation’s design takes advantage of lightweight composite materials for construction, which means it can carry three tons’ worth of batteries. “You make it basically a flying battery,” Ganzarski explained. Ganzarski said he feels as if MagniX, Eviation and Harbour Air are on the same wavelength when it comes to the promise of all-electric, zero-emissions aviation. “All three of us share the same common vision of connecting communities,” he said. MagniX is privately held by Singapore-based , and moved its headquarters from Australia to Redmond several months ago to take advantage of the Seattle area’s pool of aerospace talent. MagniX’s motors have been put through 1,500 hours of operation in test facilities, and Ganzarski said the motors starting to go into commercial production in Australia. Right now, there are about 40 MagniX employees in Australia, and 20 at the Redmond headquarters, he said. That number seems certain to grow. “We have about 12 months to decide where our mass production is going to be, with hundreds of motors,” he said. “Right now we’re talking in tens of motors for a year. I think this year we’re going to develop probably around 20 motors.” Eviation already has a good feel for the Magni250’s performance. “We have been successfully testing the MagniX system with our Alice aircraft propeller for quite some time now, with great results,” the company’s CEO, Omer Bar-Yohay, said in a news release. “We will begin manufacturing battery-powered fleets this year for our U.S. regional carrier customers, with a value proposition that reduces their operating costs by up to 70 percent.” Eviation CEO Omer Bar-Yohay and MagniX CEO Roei Ganzarski show off a MagniX test motor equipped with an Eviation Alice propeller. (MagniX Photo) Neither company would discuss the financial details of the deal, but Ganzarski said it was “a win-win for both companies.” “Once you can have an aircraft like the Alice that operates at such a low cost compared to traditional aircraft, and is clean, we both believe that will create a new type of market that doesn’t exist today,” he said. “It won’t be filled by the regional carriers, but rather by new types of companies that will set up services for movement of either people or goods — for example, delivery companies — and they’ll be able to do that by air, covering more distance at a much lower cost than trucks can.” Eviation probably won’t have that market all to itself, however: Kirkland, Wash.-based in partnership with Safran Helicopter Engines, with financial backing from Boeing’s HorizonX venture fund and JetBlue Technology Ventures. Meanwhile, Airbus is developing a in partnership with Siemens and Rolls-Royce. Like Eviation, those teams plan to get their planes to market in the early 2020s.
During her stint as NASA’s deputy administrator, Lori Garver visited Seattle’s Museum of Flight in 2011 for a NASA Future Forum. (Credit: Ted Huetter / Museum of Flight) Former NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver helped lead the charge for commercial space ventures, and now she’s leading a brand-new space campaign to address the climate change challenge. Garver is the CEO of , a philanthropic initiative that will leverage space connections and satellite data get policymakers, educators and the public fired up about climate action. She noted the connection between observing Earth from space and taking action on the environment goes back 50 years or so, to in 1968 and the in 1970. “Investment in space activities have driven scientific and technological advances that have transformed our understanding of Earth’s changing climate,” . “Earthrise Alliance was created to translate this knowledge into meaningful action and to inform critical decision making that supports and sustains humanity on planet Earth.” That action includes pulling together satellite data from companies including as well as Maxar’s subsidiary; working with partners including and ; and funding fellowships and awards to support education and public engagement on climate issues. Garver said she had been thinking seriously about such issues even during her tenure as NASA’s No. 2 official, between 2009 and 2013. (She was also NASA’s associate administrator for policy and plans from 1998 to 2001.) For decades, NASA has played a leading role in gathering data to support the scientific view that Earth’s climate is rapidly changing due to industrial carbon emissions. “I believe in climate change. I’ve seen the data. I’ve been to Antarctica with the head of NSF [the National Science Foundation] during my time at NASA. It just couldn’t be clearer,” Garver told GeekWire. “How could I not be doing everything I could to help address that?” After leaving NASA, Garver became the general manager of the , and in 2016 she helped found the for women in aerospace. But when some of her contacts from the space community approached her about the Earthrise Alliance concept, and asked whether she was interested in taking on the CEO role, Garver jumped at the chance. “That was an aha moment for me,” she said. ‘It was a good transition time for me … and I said yes.” Other members on the leadership team include chief operating officer Cassie Lee, who until recently was the head of space programs for Seattle-based Vulcan Inc. and the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation; chief technology officer Dan Hammer, former White House senior policy adviser; quantum physicist Edward Boyda, who will serve as Earthrise Alliance’s chief scientific officer; and Jason Kessler, former project director of Mission Control Earth and program executive at NASA. Earthrise Alliance unites the efforts of Mission Control Earth, which has been a supporter of the ; and , which is an aimed at making satellite imagery available for humanitarian and news reporting purposes. It’s a philanthropic project of the as well as an initiative of . Garver said she’s pleased to see how many organizations came together to forge the alliance. “It’s like there’s nothing but goodness,” she said. She’s also pleased to be involved in a space venture that’s all about Earth. “My interest in space, my policy positions, my drive has been around what we can do from space,” she said. “It’s never been about the rocket. … We really would not know as much about our changing planet, and how to help save ourselves, without having made the advances we made in commercial space.”
University of Washington biochemists David Baker and Neil King show off molecular models of proteins at UW’s Institute for Protein Design. (UW IPD Photo / Ian Haydon) The era of engineering proteins for medical applications just got a lot closer, thanks to a five-year, $45 million grant from at TED to the at the University of Washington School of Medicine. The institute, headed by UW biochemist , is among eight recipients of Audacious grants announced today at the annual TED conference in Vancouver, B.C. “We’re really thinking of this as a protein design revolution, parallel to the digital revolution at Bell Labs. … If you can design proteins exactly to order from first principles, you can solve a lot of problems that are facing humans today — primarily in medicine, but also in materials and energy,” Baker told GeekWire. Among the potential products are a , , smart proteins capable of or the out-of-control cells that cause , potential and self-assembling proteins for or . “They are things that we’ve been thinking about for a while, and are starting to work toward,” said Neil King, who leads the institute’s vaccine design efforts. “We’re really excited by the opportunity that’s opening up here because of this additional funding, to scale up and focus our efforts toward solving these ‘grand challenge’ problems.” That fits right in with the mission of The Audacious Project, which was launched by TED’s organizers last year with support from The Bridgespan Group. The project pulls together philanthropic funds from a variety of contributors — including the Skoll Foundation, Virgin Unite and the Dalio Foundation — and distributes the money to boost bold ideas. The five-year grant adds to funding that the institute receives from the likes of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the National Institutes of Health. Right now, the institute has about 100 people on its staff, “and we are going to be ramping that number up considerably,” Baker said. Baker’s reference to Bell Labs — which pioneered innovations ranging from transistors and lasers to radio astronomy and photovoltaic cells in the mid-20th century — isn’t merely a historical allusion. He sees Bell Labs as the model for what he wants to do with the Institute for Protein Design, and expects to collaborate with other research institutions in the Seattle area and around the world. “We want to build dream teams for all of these areas,” Baker said. “Coming back to the Bell Labs analogy, an important part of this is recruiting. We’re really excited about attracting people at all levels, ranging from visiting students to graduate students to postdoctoral fellows to people later in their careers to faculty.” One of the priorities will be to upgrade the institute’s Rosetta protein design software, which has spawned a citizen-science program called Rosetta at Home as well as a . “We’re incredibly indebted to the Rosetta at Home participants who have really contributed a huge amount to our efforts through the donation of spare cycles on their computers,” Baker said. “In fact, we will be even more dependent on them as we scale up and have more designs to test.” The extra funding should raise the game to another level for Foldit’s puzzle-solving players, who are already designing virtual proteins from scratch. Baker and King say they’ll be raising their game as well. “We’re looking at this as a catalytic event,” King said. “This influx of resources and talent … is going to take us up a level, but it’s not a perpetual funding source. Once we take that step or two up, we’ll have to continue to attract traditional funding, or maybe alternative forms of funding, to keep things going at that higher level.” So when will The Audacious Project’s $45 million bet pay off? How long will it be before the institute has a universal flu vaccine ready for testing? “I think single-digit years,” King said. “Not double-digit years.” This year’s eight Audacious projects were chosen from more than 1,500 applications. The financial commitments made to the eight projects over the next five years add up to more than half a billion dollars, said Chris Anderson, curator of TED Conferences. The other seven 2019 Audacious projects include: Center for Policing Equity, which plans to use data capture technology to bring measurable behavior changes to police departments that collectively serve 100 million people a year — approximately one in three Americans — by 2024. Educate Girls, which is partnering with 35,000 village-based volunteers to address collective mindsets and persuade parents and elders in remote, rural communities of India to register all out-of-school girls for school and support them so that they stay enrolled. The Salk Institute for Biological Studies, which aims to improve the ability of plants to capture and store carbon in their roots in a long-lived molecule calledsuberin — better known as cork. The END Fund, which proposes to bring deworming treatment to 100 million people and support partnerships to increase access to clean water, sanitation and hygiene education. The Nature Conservancy, which intends to protect 4 million square kilometers of the ocean over the next five years by buying up the of debt of 20 island and coastal nations — in exchange for governmental commitments to use the savings to protect at least 30% of their marine areas. Thorn, which seeks to eliminate child sexual abuse material from the internet by empowering those on the front lines with the technology and data they need to find children faster, and end the circulation of violent abuse content before it starts. Waterford UPSTART, which hopes to provide access to early education to 250,000 children across the country. Waterford UPSTART empowers parents through proactive family coaching and provides personalized learning for every child, preparing them for kindergarten.
Members of Nonlinear Matrerials’ leadership team line up in the lab. From left: Delwin Elder, director of maerials development; Bruce Robinson, senior adviser; Paul Nye, chairman and president; Lewis Johnson, chief scientific officer; and Gerard Zytnicki, CEO. (GeekWire Photo / Alan Boyle) It’s taken 20 years, but executives at Seattle-based are finally putting the pieces in place for what they say could be a revolution in electro-optical processing. “Everything in tech is about timing,” said Nonlinear Materials CEO , a Microsoft veteran who’s served as a consultant for a wide range of tech ventures. “And we think that from all perspectives, the timing is right for this technology to basically take off.” NLM’s technology aims to turbocharge chip processing speeds by taking advantage of optical computing, which manipulates photons of light rather than electrons. That, in turn, could open up new frontiers for a field in which progress seems to be slowing down. The classic formulation to describe that progress is Moore’s Law — the observation that processing speed tends to double over the course of two years or so. That doubling curve is now leveling out, due to the physical constraints of electronic chips. “Moore’s Law is not dying, it’s actually dead,” Zytnicki told GeekWire. He and other NLM executives say switching from electrons to photons would change the equation. “When you look at the history of the computer business, it has been driven by big jumps in speed of processors, which enable next generations of applications. Great companies have been created when those big jumps have occurred,” said NLM Chairman and President , who has 35 years of experience with technology startups. In the past, great companies such as Apple, Microsoft and Amazon have all capitalized on the upside of Moore’s Law. “Now that Moore’s Law has died, the only option is optics,” Nye argued. “People have been waiting for years for optics to make sense. It hasn’t made sense because the materials haven’t been there. But now they are.” Nye said he expects the computer-chip marketplace to shift rapidly to optics over the next five years. We’ve heard that before: Back in 2000, that they said could come into wide commercial use within five years. They expected the chip to speed up processing times by more than an order of magnitude, into the range of hundreds of gigahertz (compared with today’s best electronic performance of ). The researchers assumed that they’d be able to shrink down the optical circuitry to mesh with electronics and create smoothly working electro-optical hybrid devices. Unfortunately, it didn’t work out that way. “Performance improved rapidly over the first few years, and hit a wall around 2007,” said, NLM’s chief scientific officer and a research scientist at UW’s Department of Chemistry. “It took a number of years for people to figure out how to integrate even the second-generation materials onto small components on a chip.” Now NLM and its research partners at UW and other institutions are seeing the light at the end of the plasmonic tunnel. Over the past couple of years, UW researchers have reported a of in the development of electro-optic modulators that can transform electronic signals into optical signals with low signal loss. At the same time, the materials used in optical chips have been improving. This artistic rendering magnifies a electro-optic modulator. (Virginia Commonwealth University Illustration / Nathaniel Kinsey) Working in league with UW’s , researchers like Johnson and electro-optic technology pioneers and joined forces with tech veterans like Zytnicki and Nye to incorporate Nonlinear Materials last year. NLM operated in stealth mode until last month, when it relating to electro-optical materials. Johnson said advances in materials science have boosted the theoretical capabilities for optical computing well beyond what was predicted a couple of decades ago. “The material itself is capable of potentially 10 to 15 terahertz,” he said. “If anything, the biggest limiting factors with speed are the drive electronics, not the optical components.” Nye said NLM aims to sell the materials for optical processing to device manufacturers. “We want to be able to show people how to make devices, and in some cases joint-venture with them going into some of these markets,” he said. Johnson said the model would be similar to the way Microsoft built up a wider software ecosystem, or the way ARM created a hardware ecosystem. Toward that end, NLM has a pilot fabrication facility on the UW campus and is working on a product development kit, or PDK. The company is about halfway through a , “mostly with local investors, angels and those kinds of people,” Zytnicki said. Even though Nye is giving out the standard five-year prediction for commercializing the technology, neither he nor anyone else at NLM expects the rollout to come all at once. Zytnicki said optical computing is more likely to , perhaps starting with internet trunk networks, network hardware for data centers and electro-optical connections embedded in computer chips. Zytnicki said optical computing will eventually find its way into telecommunications, cloud computing and healthcare data processing, as well as military and aerospace applications. But he acknowledged that it’s likely to take significantly more than five years to get to that point. So what will be the “aha moment” for the optical revolution? “These are all aha moments, right?” Zytnicki said. “Our first aha moment was, ‘Hey, we signed with the UW.’ The second aha moment was, ‘Hey, we raised half the money we said we were going to raise.’ … The next aha moment is going to be, well, obviously, finishing the round, that’s a big one. Then it’ll be our first contract.” Meanwhile, Johnson said he and other researchers are preparing for the next set of technical aha moments — on a time frame that’s much shorter than 20 years. “It’s all happening at once,” he said.
A photographer takes a picture of the first Boeing 737 MAX 9 jet during its assembly at the company’s Renton plant in 2017. (GeekWire Photo / Alan Boyle) In addition to praising Tiger Woods and pillorying Democrats, President Donald Trump had some words of advice on Twitter for Boeing, which is dealing with federal investigations in the wake of two catastrophic 737 MAX crashes. “What do I know about branding, maybe nothing (but I did become President),” , “but if I were Boeing, I would FIX the Boeing 737 MAX, add some additional great features, & REBRAND the plane with a new name. No product has suffered like this one. But again, what the hell do I know?” What, indeed? In 1988, Trump acquired 17 Boeing 727s and landing rights at airports in New York, Boston and Washington, D.C., from Eastern Air Lines’ shuttle operation. He added some additional features to the plane and rebranded the operation as the Trump turned the no-frills service into a luxury experience, right down to the gold-colored bathroom fixtures — but . Trump Shuttle fizzled out in 1992, in a haze of loan defaults, bank negotiations and acquisitions. The operational descendant of Trump’s airline is the American Airlines Shuttle, which no longer uses 727s. Instead, the service uses a mix of Embraer 175 and 190 jets, Airbus A319-100s and Boeing 737-800s. Those 737s come from the previous generation of Boeing’s 51-year-old 737 brand, and don’t have the MCAS automatic flight control system that’s been linked to the 737 MAX’s troubles. Boeing didn’t respond to Trump’s suggestions on Twitter, but there were plenty of wags who joked that he’d probably go for rebranding the plane as the 737 MAX planes have been grounded worldwide due to concerns surrounding the two fatal crashes, which occurred in Indonesia last October and in Ethiopia last month. Boeing has developed a software update that it says will head off any further problems related to the MCAS system, but regulators haven’t yet approved the update. Thus, the timing for getting hundreds of 737 MAX airplanes back up in the air is … up in the air. Over the weekend, American Airlines said it would extend its cancellations of 737 MAX flights through Aug. 19. “By extending our cancellations through the summer, we can plan more reliably for the peak travel season and provide confidence to our customers and team members when it comes to their travel plans,” American Airlines’ executives explained . Meanwhile, Boeing, the U.S. Department of Transportation and the Justice Department (in league with the FBI) are all conducting investigations into the 737 MAX certification process. And 737 MAX fuselages as well as finished planes are stacking up at sites ranging from Seattle’s Boeing Field to Wenatchee in central Washington state. They are quickly running out of room to store 's at — Woodys Aeroimages (@AeroimagesChris) They are quickly running out of room to store 's at Boeing Field as well. They will need to start sending them to either MWH or VCV for storage eventually. — Woodys Aeroimages (@AeroimagesChris) Looks like Wenatchee has begun collecting (?) fuselages. There were 5 sitting here all week; the other two arrived over the weekend. — Maria Langer
Anopheles mosquitoes are carriers for the malaria parasite. (CDC Photo / James Gathany) It’s at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, a time to focus on the global campaign to eradicate malaria and other mosquito-borne diseases. And if delving into the nuts and bolts of developing an effective malaria vaccine doesn’t grab you, how about adding a “Star Trek” angle? That’s exactly what Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates is doing in . When I was younger, I loved science fiction. The author I read the most was Robert Heinlein (“The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress” was a favorite). — Bill Gates (@BillGates) As a teenager, I remember watching an episode of the original Star Trek where the bad guy is a shapeshifter who turns himself into a second Captain Kirk. — Bill Gates (@BillGates) There’s an epic scene at the end where Spock has to figure out which one is the impostor. — Bill Gates (@BillGates) Shapeshifters are not just the stuff of science fiction, though. We have them right here on earth. — Bill Gates (@BillGates) To kick off , I wrote about the world’s deadliest shapeshifter (and what scientists are learning about how to beat it). — Bill Gates (@BillGates) How did Gates go from science fiction to epidemiological fact? Even Mr. Spock would find the logical progression fascinating. The malaria virus is transmitted by a tiny parasite that mosquitoes carry from host to host as they go about their bloodsucking ways. It’d be nice to have a vaccine that can train your immune system to recognize the parasite and fight it off before the virus takes hold of its victim. Unfortunately, the parasite has developed its own defense against that strategy. Gates noted that the parasite is designed to shuffle up to 60 different proteins to present a new molecular “shape” to your immune system every few days. That throws off the mechanism that makes it possible for the immune system to recognize and attack an invader. This is why it’s so hard to come up with an effective vaccine. Gates compared the challenge to a scene from a “Star Trek” episode titled in which Spock has to decide which of two identical-looking Captain Kirks is actually a deranged shapeshifter. Spock could just stand by and wait for the right moment while the two Kirks duked it out, but Gates said it’s tougher to fight real-life shapeshifters: “You might think we could create a vaccine that simply recognizes all the different shapes of the parasite. Unfortunately, that’s not practical. The only vaccine we have ever done that with is for a type of pneumonia. It is very expensive to manufacture and covers only a dozen shapes or so, versus the 60 shapes in one malaria infection and the many hundreds across all malaria parasites worldwide. “The malaria community (including our foundation) has been working for years on a vaccine to protect you in stage 1, before the infection takes hold. This vaccine, called RTS,S, teaches your immune system to hunt for a bit of protein that is always on the surface of the parasite. Unfortunately, the protection provided by RTS,S is not strong enough for long enough to help us make real headway toward eradication. And there are other forms of protection (such as bednets and insecticides) that are more cost-effective for saving lives.” So is it futile to look for a vaccine that’s effective enough and inexpensive enough to shut down the shapeshifters? Gates said advances in biotech are keeping hope alive: “For example, scientists are working on new approaches that we hope will trigger the immune system to create long-lived, antibody-generating cells. Another promising idea is to create synthetic antibodies rather than trying to get your immune system to make natural ones. These have revolutionized the treatment of cancer and inflammatory disease, and they could do the same for infectious diseases like malaria.” Gates said investments in bednets and other non-vaccine strategies for prevention and treatment have already reduced malaria deaths by 42 percent since 2000. His foundation also backs research into . “When I see how far we have come and how much we have learned, I am as optimistic as ever that we can beat this clever shapeshifter,” Gates wrote. Check out the Gates Foundation’s website to get an , and keep an eye on Gates Notes for, including a of from past years.
The genetic and health profiles of Mark Kelly and Scott Kelly were compared during a “Twins Study” focusing on the effects of long-term spaceflight. (NASA Photo) Ten research teams today shared comprehensive scientific results from an unprecedented experiment to gauge the health differences that developed between an astronaut who spent nearly a year in space and his identical twin down on Earth. The study, , traces the results of DNA tests and analyses of biological samples from Scott Kelly, who took on the 340-day mission on the International Space Station in 2015-2016; and from his brother Mark Kelly, a former astronaut who underwent parallel tests on Earth. Many of the findings have been , but today’s open-access research paper and supporting materials provided broader context for the — and pointed to concerns that are likely to be addressed in future space experiments. Previous reports have noted that Scott Kelly experienced changes in his medical condition during his long stint in space, but that most of those changes were reversed after his return. For example, the makeup of Scott’s gut microbiome shifted, perhaps due to a change in diet, and then shifted back after his flight. Patterns of gene expression also changed, particularly in genetic regions associated with the immune system and DNA repair. More than 90 percent of those changes reversed themselves, but some of the changes persisted six months after Scott’s landing. (, only the patterns of which genes were switched on or off.) The detailed findings highlight some concerns about long-lasting effects of long-term spaceflight. Scott’s exposure to radiation in space, for example, led to minor mutations in his chromosomes. “Some of the chromosome rearrangements that we saw, particularly inversions, were persistent,” Susan Bailey, a radiation biologist at Colorado State University, acknowledged during a teleconference. Another genetic change had to do with the length of Scott’s telomeres — that is, the molecular end caps on his chromosomes. They’ve been compared to the protective ends on shoelaces, and they tend to get shorter as a person ages. Geneticists were intrigued to find that Scott’s telomeres actually lengthened during his spaceflight, but became shorter when he was back on Earth. “When we looked at individual telomere length and distributions, he did have many more short telomeres after flight than he did before,” Bailey said. “So in that sense, or from the perspective of aging and health risks, that could be where he might be at increased risk for … cardiovascular disease, for example, or some types of cancer.” The shape of Scott’s eyeballs changed in weightlessness, leading to the types of vision problems that have been found among male astronauts (but not so much among female astronauts). Scott also registered a slight loss in cognitive abilities when he returned to Earth, although it’s not clear whether that’s related to long-term spaceflight. The researchers suspected that it’s more likely the result of the added stress he experienced as he readjusted to earthly routines. The now-retired astronaut has acknowledged that it took at least six months for him to readjust fully. The researchers cautioned against reading too much into their study. “We’re only studying an n of one — in other words, there’s just one twin pair here — and we’re not corroborating the results in this study by looking at other astronauts,” said Andy Feinberg, director of the Center for Epigenetics at Johns Hopkins University and one of the lead investigators on the Twins Study. Nevertheless, the findings point to issues that will have to be resolved as NASA plans for trips beyond Earth orbit, to the moon, Mars and beyond. “We’re looking forward to these results serving as a guide and foundation for future studies and things we need to be aware of and look at in astronauts in upcoming longer-duration missions [going] deeper and deeper in space,” Bailey said. In a , the University of Darmstadt’s Markus Löbrich and the University of Sussex’s Penny Jeggo said studying the health impacts of long-term spaceflight, particularly exposure to space radiation, should be a high priority. The newly published study “represents more than one small step for mankind in this endeavor,” they wrote. Francine Garrett-Bakelman of the University of Virginia School of Medicine is the lead author of the study published in Science, More than 80 other researchers are co-authors.
The first 737 MAX 8 plane undergoes final assembly at Boeing’s Renton plant in 2015. (Boeing Photo) Boeing will reduce its monthly production rate for its single-aisle 737 jets from 52 to 42, starting in mid-April, CEO Dennis Muilenburg said today. In a statement, Muilenburg said he’s also asked the company’s board of directors to establish an internal committee to review Boeing’s policies and processes for airplane design and development. The moves come in the wake of this week’s preliminary findings from an investigation into the March 10 crash of an Ethiopian Airlines 737 MAX 8 plane that killed all 157 people on board. Less than five months earlier, a similar Lion Air 737 MAX crash in Indonesia killed 189 people. Those two incidents led to a worldwide suspension in 737 MAX flights. Both crashes were traced to the improper activation of an automated flight control system known as the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System, or MCAS. The system, which was added to the 737 MAX to safeguard against stalls, relied on data inputs from a single angle-of-attack sensor — and in both cases, there were indications that the sensor was providing spurious data. The MCAS problems have in turn raised questions about the process by which the 737 MAX, the latest incarnation of a 51-year-old narrowbody design, was . The U.S. Department of Transportation and the Justice Department are conducting separate investigations into that process, which has also been the subject of congressional hearings. Boeing manufactures its 737 MAX 8 and 9 planes — as well as an earlier model known as the 737NG — at its plant in Renton, Wash. Muilenburg said the temporary reduction in the production rate would not affect employment levels. At one time, Boeing had planned to by the end of this year. Here’s : “As we work closely with customers and global regulators to return the 737 MAX to service, we continue to be driven by our enduring values, with a focus on safety, integrity and quality in all we do. “We now know that the recent Lion Air Flight 610 and Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 accidents were caused by a chain of events, with a common chain link being erroneous activation of the aircraft’s MCAS function. We have the responsibility to eliminate this risk, and we know how to do it. As part of this effort, we’re making progress on the 737 MAX software update that will prevent accidents like these from ever happening again. Teams are working tirelessly, advancing and testing the software, conducting non-advocate reviews, and engaging regulators and customers worldwide as we proceed to final certification. I recently had the opportunity to experience the software update performing safely in action during a 737 MAX 7 demo flight. We’re also finalizing new pilot training courses and supplementary educational material for our global MAX customers. This progress is the result of our comprehensive, disciplined approach and taking the time necessary to get it right. “As we continue to work through these steps, we’re adjusting the 737 production system temporarily to accommodate the pause in MAX deliveries, allowing us to prioritize additional resources to focus on software certification and returning the MAX to flight. We have decided to temporarily move from a production rate of 52 airplanes per month to 42 airplanes per month starting in mid-April. “At a production rate of 42 airplanes per month, the 737 program and related production teams will maintain their current employment levels while we continue to invest in the broader health and quality of our production system and supply chain. “We are coordinating closely with our customers as we work through plans to mitigate the impact of this adjustment. We will also work directly with our suppliers on their production plans to minimize operational disruption and financial impact of the production rate change. “In light of our commitment to continuous improvement and our determination to always make a safe industry even safer, I’ve asked the Boeing Board of Directors to establish a committee to review our company-wide policies and processes for the design and development of the airplanes we build. The committee will confirm the effectiveness of our policies and processes for assuring the highest level of safety on the 737-MAX program, as well as our other airplane programs, and recommend improvements to our policies and procedures. “The committee members will be Adm. Edmund P. Giambastiani, Jr., (Ret.), former vice chairman, U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, who will serve as the committee’s chair; Robert A. Bradway, chairman and CEO of Amgen, Inc.; Lynn J. Good, chairman, president and CEO of the Duke Energy Corporation; and Edward M. Liddy, former chairman and CEO of the Allstate Corporation, all members of the company’s board. These individuals have been selected to serve on this committee because of their collective and extensive experiences that include leadership roles in corporate, regulated industries and government entities where safety and the safety of lives is paramount. “Safety is our responsibility, and we own it. When the MAX returns to the skies, we’ve promised our airline customers and their passengers and crews that it will be as safe as any airplane ever to fly. Our continued disciplined approach is the right decision for our employees, customers, supplier partners and other stakeholders as we work with global regulators and customers to return the 737 MAX fleet to service and deliver on our commitments to all of our stakeholders.”
Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg sits behind pilots during a 737 MAX airplane flight that demonstrated the performance of a flight control software update. (Boeing Photo) Boeing executives said today that they would take all necessary steps to ensure the safety of the company’s 737 MAX airplanes, after issued a saying that an Ethiopian Airlines jet was felled last month due to the same sensor problem that caused a fatal crash in Indonesia less than five months earlier. The Ethiopian crash and last October’s Lion Air crash in Indonesia killed a total of 346 people and led to the worldwide grounding of Boeing’s 737 MAX airplanes. Like investigators in Indonesia, the Ethiopian investigators said an automated flight control system known as the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System, or MCAS, forced the plane into a catastrophic dive. Boeing’s software-based MCAS system was added to the 737 MAX as a safeguard against stalling, but in both cases, investigators said a faulty sensor fed bad data into the system. The preliminary report on the Ethiopian crash, issued today, said the pilots tried Boeing’s recommended procedure for overriding the MCAS system but still failed to regain control of the plane. , Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg said it was apparent that the MCAS system added to what is already a high workload environment. “It’s our responsibility to eliminate this risk,” he said. “We own it, and we know how to do it.” We at Boeing are sorry for the lives lost in the recent 737 accidents and are relentlessly focused on safety to ensure tragedies like this never happen again. Watch the full video here: — Dennis A. Muilenburg (@BoeingCEO) Muilenburg said Boeing has nearly completed work on a software update that would “prevent an MCAS-related accident from ever happening again.” He expected the fix to be certified and implemented throughout the 737 MAX fleet in the weeks ahead. , Boeing Commercial Airplanes President and CEO Kevin McAllister said the company would “carefully review” the preliminary report from Ethiopian investigators, “and will take any and all additional steps necessary to enhance the safety of our aircraft.” Ethiopian Airlines and investigators at the National Transportation Safety Board and the Federal Aviation Administration reacted to the day’s developments on Twitter: |n Airlines Statement on the Preliminary Report of the Accident on ET 302 — Ethiopian Airlines (@flyethiopian) NTSB statement: The preliminary report issued Thursday April 4, 2019, by the Ethiopia Aircraft Accident Investigation Bureau presents the initial information developed during their investigation of the crash of flight 302. NTSB investigators and technical advisers reviewed… — NTSB_Newsroom (@NTSB_Newsroom) … the draft preliminary report and provided input. The NTSB, FAA and Boeing have had access to the Flight Data Recorder data since it was downloaded, and investigators and technical advisers continue to analyze the data in coordination with Ethiopian authorities. — NTSB_Newsroom (@NTSB_Newsroom) Correction: statement on the investigation by the authorities. — The FAA (@FAANews)
Ethiopian Airlines Group CEO, Tewolde GebreMariam, visits the accident scene in Ethiopia hours after the March 10 crash. (Ethiopian Airlines Photo via Twitter) Readings from the recorders recovered from last month’s crash of an Ethiopian Airlines Boeing 737 MAX jet reportedly suggest that the pilots tried using the recommended procedure for overriding a balky automated flight control system — but that the system was re-engaged and forced the plane into its fatal dive. The reports by and , based on interviews with unnamed sources who have been briefed on the post-crash investigation’s preliminary findings, raise deeper questions about the safety of the flight control system, known as the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System, or MCAS. Boeing added the MCAS system to the 737 MAX as a safeguard against stalling, but investigations into the Ethiopian crash on March 10 — and last October’s crash of a Lion Air 737 MAX in Indonesia — have focused on the possibility that spurious data from a single angle-of-attack sensor caused the system to force the planes into catastrophic nose dives. The Indonesia crash killed all 189 people on board, and the Ethiopian crash killed 157 people. In the wake of the crash in Ethiopia, all 737 MAX planes have been grounded worldwide. Boeing is working on a software update that it says should resolve the MCAS issue, but that fix is still thought to be weeks away. In the past, Boeing has stressed that pilots could remedy the scenario that led to the crashes by disconnecting the MCAS system and taking manual control of the jet’s stabilizer trim mechanism. But the latest reports quote sources as saying the Ethiopian Airlines pilots tried that procedure but didn’t fully execute it. Instead, the MCAS system was re-engaged, leading to the final, fatal plunge. The Journal’s sources speculated that pilots re-engaged the automated system because they couldn’t raise the nose using manual controls, while Reuters’ sources held out the possibility that the MCAS system could have re-engaged itself. a former Boeing flight control engineers, Peter Lemme, as saying that the pilots might have been stymied by excessive aerodynamic loads on the stabilizer trim control system. I *assume* the mistrim situation created excessive load opposing the manual jackscrew authority from the trim wheel. From what is reported, they must have tried to restore electric trim to get the stab to come up, but then MCAS swept in again. — Peter Lemme (@Satcom_Guru) This post includes a brilliant video showing the challenges with manual trim. The situation may be worse than portrayed, as stick shaker is going off, and the elevator feel shift will increase aft column “feel” forces as much as four times more than normal. — Peter Lemme (@Satcom_Guru) also laid out a scenario by which excessive loads could have foiled efforts to stabilize the jet. The Times noted chatter on an online aviation forum about an alternate procedure, outlined in a 1982 pilot training manual, that might have averted the manual lockup by repeatedly letting go of the control column and turning the cockpit’s stabilizer trim wheel manually. Boeing said it was premature to comment on the specifics of such reports. “We urge caution against speculating and drawing conclusions on the findings prior to the release of the flight data and the preliminary report,” the company said. The 737 MAX crashes are the subject of investigations in Ethiopia and Indonesia, with participation by Boeing, the Federal Aviation Administration, the National Transportation Safety Board and other entities. The FAA’s inspector general is conducting its own investigation into the process by which the 737 MAX was certified for flight, and the Justice Department has reportedly launched a grand jury investigation with participation by the FBI. Subpoenas have gone out to Lemme and other potential witnesses, .
A wide-angle view provides an unusual perspective of First Mode’s new lab space on Western Avenue in Seattle. Click on the image for a 360-degree view. (First Mode Photo) Planetary Resources was , but a troop of engineers who used to work for the asteroid mining company is seeking out new frontiers with a new company called . And this time, asteroids aren’t the final frontier. “First Mode is working with industries on and off the planet to do design and creative engineering work, but also to build hardware and build solutions that get deployed around the solar system as well as a lot of harsh and challenging environments here on planet Earth,” Rhae Adams, vice president of strategy and business development, told GeekWire. The company’s expertise is being applied to a wide range of technical challenges, including robotic space missions as well as clean tech, mobility, agriculture, oil and gas development, high-reliability consumer products — and yes, . “The goal for First Mode and its customers is to provide that method of looking at a problem that, at its starting point, appears to be an intractable issue … and then help the customer break that down into a set of problems that can be worked in parallel, and then brought together to form the functional whole that the marketplace needs,” said Chris Voorhees, president and chief engineer. Chris Voorhees, First Mode’s president and chief engineer. (First Mode Photo) Voorhees said First Mode has already solved what sometimes seems to be an intractable problem for startups: making money. “We’ve reached a point where the company has achieved profitability,” he said. The company has also expanded from its original core group of 11 Planetary Resources veterans to 14 employees, and Voorhees says there’s more growth ahead. That’s a big change from the final days of Planetary Resources, which made significant headway on its plan to develop asteroid-prospecting spacecraft but after a funding round fizzled. Voorhees and Adams were among those laid off. “We had a core group of engineering, scientific technical staff members that really felt like they had unfinished business coming out of Planetary, and wanted to stay together,” Voorhees recalled. The new venture started out under the name “Synchronous,” and built on the partners’ expertise and connections in the space industry. Last summer, the company said on LinkedIn that its team members were planned by NASA. Just last month, Synchronous moved into a 7,500-square-foot lab space on Western Avenue in Seattle’s Belltown neighborhood. It also . Why First Mode? Engineers know that structures have natural frequencies at which they resonate — and that the most basic frequency for that resonance is known as the “first mode.” “The founding members of First Mode realized from their previous experience working together that they too had found a natural frequency,” the company explained in its . “By working together, our talents and expertise result in technical solutions that are stronger than the contributions of team members working alone.” Voorhees said First Mode draws inspiration from NASA’s , where he began his career more than two decades ago, as well as from design and engineering companies such as and . Lockheed Martin’s and Boeing’s also serve as models, he said. Rhae Adams, First Mode’s vice president of strategy and business development. (First Mode Photo) Adams said First Mode is working with more than 10 different clients in business and government, while Voorhees said the company has taken on more than 40 different projects. Some work has even been done for folks on Capitol Hill, although Voorhees declined to go into specifics. “In general, there’s an intimate connection between the development of new space policy and technology. … We’ve had the opportunity to contribute over the past year to conversations regarding where those two things have had to intersect,” he said. Voorhees said that First Mode’s team members have “good, amicable personal connections” with their former colleagues at what used to be known as Planetary Resources and is now known as ConsenSys Space. But there are no formal business dealings. Nor are there any plans to raise money from investors, at least in the near term. “It was important to us from the get-go that we were employee-owned,” Adams said. Voorhees said he was grateful for the experience he and the other founders of First Mode gained at Planetary Resources’ headquarters in Redmond, Wash . “It would have been very difficult for us to have gone off and done this without that experience,” he said. So just how scary is it to start up a startup, especially when it’s self-funded? ” ‘Exhilarating’ is the right word, which is a simultaneous combination of excitement and terror,” Voorhees said. “That’s what I live under most every day.” Adams seconded that emotion. “I know we’ve not come across anyone else that had 11 founders who have been able to work together and build something,” he said. “It’s gone remarkably smoothly for the number of unique personalities and opinions we have. We’re always able to take that step back and approach things logically as best we can, like any technical problem. It works for founding a company too, not just for pieces of hardware.”
Geophysicists Walter Alvarez (at left) and Mark Richards (in the background) examine a piece of impact ejecta at the North Dakota fossil site. (University of Kansas Photo) After days of puzzling over secondhand reports, anyone with an internet connection can now read a that appears to document the day nearly 66 million years ago when an asteroid pushed the dinosaurs and many other species into extinction. Even scientists who criticized acknowledged that the discovery, as described in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, was astounding. “I am very much looking forward to the crowd-sourced opinions of everyone,” University of Edinburgh paleontologist Steve Brusatte . “There is a real thrill and a real mystery around this discovery, and it is EXCITING! Let’s see where the evidence leads.” The study documents fossil evidence for a catastrophic fish kill that did in many other organisms as well. Intermixed with the fossilized remains were tiny beads of glass that had turned to clay. Some of those beads were found embedded in the gills of the fish. The evidence led the research team, headed by paleontologist Robert DePalma, to conclude that the Cretaceous creatures were washed up onto a sandbar by a giant wave of water. Then they were pelted by hot droplets of molten rock, known as tektites, which were thrown up into the stratosphere by an asteroid impact thousands of miles away. In the paper, the research team lays out a scenario suggesting that the impact produced a magnitude 10 to 11 earthquake, which sparked a standing wave in the body of water where the fish had lived. Such a wave, known more scientifically as a seiche (pronounced like “saysh”), could have done as much damage as a tsunami within an hour after the asteroid hit. That scenario would leave enough time for the tektites to deliver the coup de grace. One of the study authors who came up with that scenario is , a geophysicist who left the University of California at Berkeley last July to become the University of Washington’s provost and executive vice president for academic affairs. Today, Richards said the seiche scenario isn’t the only possibility for explaining what happened in North Dakota during what’s known as the Cretaceous-Paleogene or Cretaceous-Tertiary extinction. “I think that the surge, unless it was some freak coincidence with something else, was likely seismically induced,” Richards told GeekWire. “Now, it could have been from a seiche. Also, for example, you could have had a local landslide that was triggered by seismic waves. We have to be pretty cautious.” A leading theme of the criticism on Friday had to do with the way DePalma’s findings were portrayed in a . Some felt that DePalma was portrayed as an incautious, publicity-grabbing Indiana Jones wannabe, dwelling on the dinosaur angle and talking up finds that didn’t end up being mentioned in the peer-reviewed paper. Researchers Jan Smit, Robert DePalma, Walter Alvarez and David Burnham collect a box core sample of the Cretaceous-Paleogene boundary layer at the Tanis site in North Dakota. (University of Kansas Photo) Richards, however, said he’s had “nothing but good relations with Robert.” DePalma is still working on his Ph.D. at University of Kansas, but has been doing field work for years and currently serves as a curator of paleontology at the Palm Beach Museum of Natural History in Florida. “I’ve found him to be very spirited, very generous,” Richards said. “Obviously, it’s somewhat unusual for somebody who hasn’t received their Ph.D. to be thrust into the limelight like this, but let’s keep the story about the science.” Richards suspects that the newly published findings “will make a lot of people more attracted” to the killer-asteroid hypothesis as an explanation for the dinosaurs’ doom. One of Richards’ co-authors, Berkeley geologist Walter Alvarez, laid out that explanation nearly 40 years ago in league with his Nobel-winning father, Luis Alvarez. But Richards — and Walter Alvarez, for that matter — don’t rule out the possibility that other factors, , could have played a part. Now that the paper is out, Richards suspects that other scientists will take a closer look at the more than 200 other sites around the world that show the signs of the Cretaceous-Paleogene boundary. “At least two of those of which I’m aware involve deposits have been interpreted as being tsunamis,” Richards said. “If you take Robert’s paper and findings at face value, this is a truly sensational finding from a paleontological standpoint,” he said. “My guess is that people are going to go all over the world looking for things that are similar. To which I would say, ‘Good luck.’ Obviously this is a pretty unique circumstance.” Bottom line? Richards says paleontologists, and the people who follow their work, “really need to keep a pretty strong sense of humility at this point.” “This is apparently a really significant discovery — and yet I’m guessing that five years from now, we’re going to be seeing things at this particular site, and perhaps at other sites, that are going to go far beyond what we understand right now,” he said. “I would say this is the beginning of a process, and certainly not the end.” In addition to DePalma, Richards and Alvarez, the authors of the PNAS paper, include Jan Smit, David Burnham, Klaudia Kuiper, Phillip Manning, Anton Oleinik, Peter Larson, Florentin Maurrasse, Johan Vellekoop and Loren Gurche.
Scientists say a meteor impact 66 million years ago generated a tsunami-like wave in an inland sea that killed and buried fish, mammals, insects and a dinosaur. (Illustration courtesy of Robert DePalma) First, there was a violent shock. Then, there was the roar of a 30-foot-high wave of water, throwing fish onto a sandbar in what is now North Dakota. Then there was a hail of molten rock, pelting dying fish and soon-to-be-dying land creatures. Then the fires began. That’s how the doom of the dinosaurs began, nearly 66 million years ago, according to a study to be published in the next week. For decades, scientists have surmised that the doom came about when a giant asteroid or comet struck Earth just off the coast of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula. The new study lays out a scenario for how that cosmic impact killed off species thousands of miles away, closing off what’s known as the Cretaceous Period. An ancient layer of rock, uncovered at a site dubbed “Tanis” in North Dakota’s Hell Creek Formation, revealed the fossilized remains of fish, snail-like sea creatures called ammonites and a marine reptile known as a mosasaur, plus land animals including mammals and a Triceratops, Mixed in with the fossils were bits of burned tree trunks, sediment and tiny glass beads known as tektites. The research team behind the find was led by Robert DePalma, curator of paleontology at the Palm Beach Museum of Natural History in Florida and a doctoral student at the University of Kansas. DePalma has been studying the Tanis site since 2013, and he says it sheds new light on the chain of events that created the famous geological and biological dividing line known as the Cretaceous-Paleogene boundary, the Cretaceous-Tertiary boundary or simply the K-Pg or K-T boundary. “This is the first mass death assemblage of large organisms anyone has found associated with the K-T boundary,” . “At no other K-T boundary section on Earth can you find such a collection consisting of a large number of species representing different ages of organisms and different stages of life, all of which died at the same time, on the same day.” Researchers Jan Smit, Mark Richards and Walter Alvarez stand together at the Tanis site. (Robert DePalma Photo via UC-Berkeley) DePalma and his colleagues reconstructed the sequence of events on that fatal day by looking closely at the section of rock. “It’s like a museum of the end of the Cretaceous in a layer a meter and a half thick,” said study co-author , provost and professor of earth and space sciences at the University of Washington. The detective work drew upon an analysis from Richards and Walter Alvarez, a professor at the University of California at Berkeley who . They sized up the evidence for the tsunami-like wave and the hail of glass beads, and laid out a scenario that started with the asteroid impact setting off a magnitude 10 or 11 earthquake. That seismic shock could have created a series of standing waves, also known as a seiche, in a body of water known as the that scientists say stretched through the middle of North America during the Cretaceous Period. Meanwhile, the asteroid impact would have thrown up a massive plume of molten rock that turned into sphere-shaped tektites, raining down from space across a wide swath of Earth’s surface. Richards and Alvarez concluded that the standing waves must have washed up fish at the Tanis site before the deadly hail was through. Millimeter-wide spherules of glass, known as tektites, were found at the Tanis site. (Robert DePalma Photo) “The seismic waves start arising within nine to 10 minutes of the impact, so they had a chance to get the water sloshing before all the spherules had fallen out of the sky,” Richards explained. “These spherules coming in cratered the surface, making funnels — you can see the deformed layers in what used to be soft mud — and then rubble covered the spherules.” The layer of sediment that covered the rubble was rich in iridium, confirming the connection to Alvarez’s giant-asteroid hypothesis. “When we proposed the impact hypothesis to explain the great extinction, it was based just on finding an anomalous concentration of iridium — the fingerprint of an asteroid or comet,” Alvarez said. “Since then, the evidence has gradually built up. But it never crossed my mind that we would find a deathbed like this.” The researchers say the carnage must have begun quickly — too quickly to be explained by a tsunami emanating from the site of the Chicxulub asteroid impact. “A tsunami would have taken at least 17 or more hours to reach the site from the crater, but seismic waves — and a subsequent surge — would have reached it in tens of minutes,” DePalma said. DePalma credited Richards with refining that part of the scenario. “When Mark came aboard, he discovered a remarkable artifact — that the incoming seismic waves from the impact site would have arrived at just about the same time as the atmospheric travel time of the ejecta,” DePalma said. “That was our big breakthrough.” Fossilized fish are piled atop each other, suggesting taht they were flung ashore and died stranded together on a sandbar after a tsunami-like wave withdrew. (Robert DePalma Photo via UC-Berkeley) Dutch geologist Jan Smit conducted tests on the tektites from the Tanis site — and confirmed that they dated back to the K-T extinction. Some of the tektites were embedded in amber, and some were embedded in fossilized fish gills. “That by itself is an amazing fact,” Smit said. “That means that the first direct victims of the impact are these accumulations of fishes.” The researchers surmise that the final act of the K-T mass extinction began when the hot hail of tektites sparked widespread wildfires, killing off many of the creatures that survived the initial shock. The precise location of the Tanis site is being kept secret to protect it from being tampered with. “We have gone 40 years before something like this turned up that may very well be unique,” Smit said. “So we have to be very careful with that place, how we dig it up and learn from it.” Update for 8:40 p.m. PT March 29: The study has been drawn skepticism even before its formal publication, as paleontologist Kenneth Lacovara points out on Twitter. As a result, we’ve revised this report’s headline to be more circumspect. Here are a few tweets to get you started on the Twitter threads: I've been busy all day giving a talk at a story-telling conference. In the mean while, and have made poignant comments, in this thread, on the new K/Pg paper. (Actually, on the already publicized, but yet to be released, K/Pg paper.) — Kenneth Lacovara (@kenlacovara) There is so much that’s suspicious about this story that my bullshit alarm is going off at full blast. is already on this, but wow… this is someone with a severe case of Bakkeritis trying to fast track fame. — Riley
A meteor impact 66 million years ago generated a tsunami-like wave in an inland sea that killed and buried fish, mammals, insects and a dinosaur, the first victims of Earth’s last mass extinction event. (Illustration courtesy of Robert DePalma) First, there was a violent shock. Then, there was the roar of a 30-foot-high wave of water, throwing fish onto the shores of an inland sea in what is now North Dakota. Then there was a hail of molten rock, pelting dying fish and soon-to-be-dying land creatures. Then the fires began. That’s how the doom of the dinosaurs began, 66 million years ago, based on a study to be published in the next week. For decades, scientists have surmised that the doom came about when a giant asteroid or comet struck Earth just off the coast of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula. The new study documents how that cosmic impact killed off species thousands of miles away, closing off what’s known as the Cretaceous Period. An ancient layer of rock, uncovered at a site dubbed “Tanis” in North Dakota’s Hell Creek Formation, revealed the fossilized skeletons of fish, snail-like sea creatures called ammonites and marine reptiles called mosasaurs, plus the remains of land animals including a Triceratops, a duck-billed hadrosaur and small mammals. There was even a fossilized pterosaur egg/ Mixed in with the fossils were bits of burned tree trunks, sediment and tiny glass beads known as tektites. The research team behind the find was led by Robert DePalma, curator of paleontology at the Palm Beach Museum of Natural History in Florida and a doctoral student at the University of Kansas. DePalma has been studying the Tanis site since 2013, and he says it sheds new light on the chain of events that created the famous geological and biological dividing line known as the Cretaceous-Paleogene boundary, the Cretaceous-Tertiary boundary or simply the K-Pg or K-T boundary. “This is the first mass death assemblage of large organisms anyone has found associated with the K-T boundary,” . “At no other K-T boundary section on Earth can you find such a collection consisting of a large number of species representing different ages of organisms and different stages of life, all of which died at the same time, on the same day.” Researchers Jan Smit, Mark Richards and Walter Alvarez stand together at the Tanis site. (Robert DePalma Photo via UC-Berkeley) DePalma and his colleagues reconstructed the sequence of events on that fatal day by looking closely at the section of rock. “It’s like a museum of the end of the Cretaceous in a layer a meter and a half thick,” said study co-author , provost and professor of earth and space sciences at the University of Washington. The detective work drew upon insights from Richards as well as from Walter Alvarez, a professor at the University of California at Berkeley who . They sized up the evidence for the tsunami-like wave and the hail of glass beads, and laid out a scenario that started with the asteroid impact setting off a magnitude 10 or 11 earthquake. That seismic shock could have created a series of standing waves, also known as a seiche, in a body of water known as the that stretched all the way from the Arctic Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico during the Cretaceous Period. Meanwhile, the asteroid impact would have thrown up a massive plume of molten rock that turned into sphere-shaped tektites raining down from space across a wide swath of Earth’s surface. Richards and Alvarez concluded that the standing waves must have washed up fish at the Tanis site before the deadly hail was through. Millimeter-wide spherules of glass, known as tektites, were found at the Tanis site. (Robert DePalma Photo) “The seismic waves start arising within nine to 10 minutes of the impact, so they had a chance to get the water sloshing before all the spherules had fallen out of the sky,” Richards explained. “These spherules coming in cratered the surface, making funnels — you can see the deformed layers in what used to be soft mud — and then rubble covered the spherules.” The layer of sediment that covered the rubble was rich in iridium, confirming the connection to Alvarez’s giant-asteroid hypothesis. “When we proposed the impact hypothesis to explain the great extinction, it was based just on finding an anomalous concentration of iridium — the fingerprint of an asteroid or comet,” Alvarez said. “Since then, the evidence has gradually built up. But it never crossed my mind that we would find a deathbed like this.” The researchers say the carnage must have begun quickly — too quickly to be explained by a tsunami emanating from the site of the Chicxulub asteroid impact. “A tsunami would have taken at least 17 or more hours to reach the site from the crater, but seismic waves — and a subsequent surge — would have reached it in tens of minutes,” DePalma said. DePalma credited Richards with refining that part of the scenario. “When Mark came aboard, he discovered a remarkable artifact — that the incoming seismic waves from the impact site would have arrived at just about the same time as the atmospheric travel time of the ejecta,” DePalma said. “That was our big breakthrough.” Fossilized fish are piled atop each other, suggesting taht they were flung ashore and died stranded together on a sandbar after a tsunami-like wave withdrew. (Robert DePalma Photo via UC-Berkeley) Dutch geologist Jan Smit conducted tests on the tektites from the Tanis site — and confirmed that they dated back to the K-T extinction. Some of the tektites were embedded in amber, and some were embedded in fossilized fish gills. “That by itself is an amazing fact,” Smit said. “That means that the first direct victims of the impact are these accumulations of fishes.” The researchers surmise that the final act of the K-T mass extinction began when the hot hail of tektites sparked widespread wildfires, killing off many of the creatures that survived the initial shock. The precise location of the Tanis site is being kept secret to protect it from being tampered with. “We have gone 40 years before something like this turned up that may very well be unique,” Smit said. “So we have to be very careful with that place, how we dig it up and learn from it. This is a great gift at the end of my career. Walter sees it as the same.” In addition to DePalma, Richards, Alvarez and Smit, the authors of the study in the , “Prelude to Extinction: A Seismically Induced Onshore Surge Deposit at the KPg Boundary, North Dakota,” include David Burnham, Klaudia Kuiper, Philip Manning, Anton Oleinik, Peter Larson, Florentin Maurrasse, Johan Vellekoop and Loren Gurche. This report draws upon , the and the . For an in-depth report on DePalma’s work, check out .
Boston Dynamics’ Handle robot picks up and stacks boxes. (Boston Dynamics via YouTube) Boston Dynamics’ latest robo-creature may be cuter than its creepy robot dogs, but its potential application could nevertheless make warehouse workers wary. The Handle robot, demonstrated in a YouTube video posted on Thursday, is a long-necked robot that looks a lot like a two-wheeled mechanical ostrich. The robot’s “head” features an arrangement of suction cups that can pick up boxes from a pallet, and then release them to make a neat stack. Here’s how Boston Dynamics describes Handle in its video description: “Handle is a mobile manipulation robot designed for logistics. Handle autonomously performs mixed SKU pallet building and depalletizing after initialization and localizing against the pallets. The on-board vision system on Handle tracks the marked pallets for navigation and finds individual boxes for grasping and placing. “When Handle places a boxes onto a pallet, it uses force control to nestle each box up against its neighbors. The boxes used in the video weigh about 5 kg (11 lbs), but the robot is designed to handle boxes up to 15 kg (33 lb). This version of Handle works with pallets that are 1.2 m deep and 1.7 m tall (48 inches deep and 68 inches tall).” Warehouses have served as demonstration venues for many of Boston Dynamics’ other creatures, including incarnations of the four-legged, (which look like the robo-Dobermans in a scary episode of the Netflix series “Black Mirror”) and its. More than 1.1 million Americans work in warehousing and storage jobs, according to the Labor Department’s Bureau of Labor Statistics, and it’s clear that robots like Atlas and Handle are designed to take on some of those jobs.
A technician places a full-size test fuel pin bundle in TerraPower’s pin duct interaction test apparatus. TerraPower, founded by Bill Gates, is working on traveling-wave reactor technology. (TerraPower Photo) If dollars were votes, newly reintroduced legislation aimed at boosting nuclear energy innovation and advanced reactors would be a winner, thanks to Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates’ strong endorsement today. The world’s is the founder of Bellevue, Wash.-based , a startup that’s working on next-generation nuclear fission reactors. Back in December, Gates listed nuclear energy research as , and he by promising lawmakers he’d invest $1 billion of his own money and line up another $1 billion in private capital if federal funds were approved for a TerraPower pilot project in the United States. TerraPower had planned a pilot in China, but trade tensions upset the plan. During the waning days of the previous congressional session, a bipartisan group in the Senate introduced a measure called the , which would promote next-generation nuclear power by boosting research and setting up long-term agreements for federal power purchases from newly licensed reactors. The bill would require the Department of Energy to demonstrate two advanced reactor concepts by 2025, followed by another two to five concepts by 2035. That would brighten the outlook for TerraPower as well as other next-gen nuclear power companies such as Oregon-based NuScale Power, which is at the Idaho National Laboratory by 2026. There wasn’t enough time to move the bill out of committee last year — but on Wednesday, the by 15 senators, including Republicans such as Alaska’s Lisa Murkowski and South Carolina’s Lindsay Graham as well as Democrats such as New Jersey’s Cory Booker and West Virginia’s Joe Manchin. That came as music to Gates’ ears, and today he let the world know on Twitter: Yesterday, a bipartisan group of leaders in the U.S. Senate introduced the Nuclear Energy Leadership Act, which establishes an ambitious plan to accelerate the development of advanced nuclear reactor technologies. I can’t overstate how important this is. — Bill Gates (@BillGates) To prevent the worst effects of climate change, we need to reach near-zero emissions on all the things that drive it—agriculture, electricity, manufacturing, transportation, and buildings—by investing in innovation across all sectors while deploying low cost renewables. — Bill Gates (@BillGates) Nuclear energy is one of these critical technologies. It’s ideal for dealing with climate change, because it is the only carbon-free, scalable energy source that’s available 24 hours a day. — Bill Gates (@BillGates) I’m thrilled that senators from both sides of the aisle have come together to support advanced nuclear. This is exactly the kind of leadership our country needs to both solve the climate challenge and reassert our leadership in this important industry. — Bill Gates (@BillGates) Some experts — such as Gregory Jaczko, former head of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission — and argue that funding should go instead toward developing renewable energy sources such as solar and wind, and boosting battery technologies. Even if Gates’ view is true, some analysts question whether the advanced nuclear projects that are currently in the works could hit the 2025 demonstration timetable specified in the legislation. The promise of further federal support would certainly motivate companies like TerraPower and NuScale to try, however. Jessica Lovering, director of energy at the California-based Breakthrough Institute, said the measure would provide a “shot in the arm for entrepreneurs working on advanced nuclear technologies.” “With luck, it will be become law,” . “But while the bill is a big step toward commercializing advanced reactors, it’s not enough. More legislation will likely be needed to stimulate the market demand necessary to deploy significant nuclear to replace fossil fuels.”
Facebook’s Yann LeCun, Mila’s Yoshua Bengio and Google’s Geoffrey Hinton share the 2018 Turing Award. (ACM Photos) The three recipients of the Association for Computing Machinery’s 2018 Turing Award, known as the “Nobel Prize of computing,” are sharing the $1 million award for their pioneering work with artificial neural networks — but that’s not all they share. Throughout their careers, the researchers’ career paths and spheres of influence in the field of artificial intelligence have crossed repeatedly. Yann LeCun, vice president and chief AI scientist at Facebook, conducted postdoctoral research under the supervision of Geoffrey Hinton, who is now a vice president and engineering fellow at Google. LeCun also worked at Bell Labs in the early 1990s with Yoshua Bengio, who is now a professor at the University of Montreal, scientific director of Quebec’s Mila AI institute, and an adviser for Microsoft’s AI initiative. All three also participate in the program sponsored by CIFAR, previously known as the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research. In , ACM credited the trio with rekindling the AI community’s interest in deep neural networks — thus laying the groundwork for today’s rapid advances in machine learning. “Artificial intelligence is now one of the fastest-growing areas in all of science, and one of the most-talked-about topics in society,” said ACM President , a professor emeritus of computer science at Oregon State University. “The growth of and interest in AI is due, in no small part, to the recent advances in deep learning for which Bengio, Hinton and LeCun laid the foundation.” And you don’t need to work in a lab to feel their impact. “Anyone who has a smartphone in their pocket can tangibly experience advances in natural language processing and computer vision that were not possible just 10 years ago,” Pancake said. The current approach to machine learning, championed by Hinton starting in the early 1980s, shies away from telling a computer explicitly how to solve a given task, such as object classification. Instead, the software uses an algorithm to analyze the patterns in a data set, and then apply that algorithm to classify new data. Through repeated rounds of learning, the algorithm becomes increasingly accurate. Hinton, LeCun and Bengio focused on developing neural networks to facilitate that learning. Such networks are composed of relatively simple software elements that are interconnected in ways inspired by the connections between neurons in the human brain.