How I unwittingly steered OceanGate’s sub to discovery in Puget Sound’s depths

How I unwittingly steered OceanGate’s sub to discovery in Puget Sound’s depths

5:08am, 3rd September, 2019
POSSESSION SOUND, Wash. — Steering a five-person submersible is like playing a video game, except for the fact that you’re piloting a nine-ton piece of hardware at watery depths that are inaccessible to . I got my chance to play this week during a survey dive in a pocket of Puget Sound known as Possession Sound, courtesy of , a manufacturer and operator of submersibles that’s headquartered in Everett, Wash. During our three-hour tour, GeekWire photographer Kevin Lisota and I were taken around the sound at depths ranging as low as 350 feet, in OceanGate’s Cyclops submersible. We even played a supporting role in finding a colony of anemones in an unexpected underwater setting. The trip was part of a summertime expedition to get a better sense of the ecosystem on the bottom of Puget Sound, in collaboration with researchers from the Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. If things had turned out differently, OceanGate would just now be wrapping up a series of submersible survey dives to the wreck of the Titanic in the North Atlantic. But , the company had to delay those trips until next year. That’s why OceanGate pivoted to the Puget Sound survey, and why Kevin and I found ourselves scrunched alongside marine biologist Tyler Coleman, pilot-in-training Mikayla Monroe and OceanGate CEO Stockton Rush on Tuesday. We began the morning with a safety briefing at the dock at Everett’s marina, led by Dan Scoville, OceanGate’s director of systems integration and marine operations. One of his bits of advice had to do with keeping calm if you hear thumps and bumps on Cyclops’ hull. “If you can hear it, you’re OK,” he said. If there’s a catastrophic collision and breach, you wouldn’t be around long enough to hear it. Then the Cyclops was towed out on its launch-and-recovery platform to Possession Sound by one of the boats in OceanGate’s fleet, the Kraken. A little more than an hour later, the Cyclops was in position, and we headed out to meet it on a faster boat, the Vito. Once we were dropped off on the floating platform, we handed up our backpacks, took our shoes off and climbed into Cyclops’ 5-foot-wide cabin. Mikayla sat on a mat toward the back, flanked by video screens that showed camera views and sonar readings. Stockton sat next to her, ready to give guidance. Tyler sat in the middle. Kevin and I had front-row seats, looking through Cyclops’ hemispherical acrylic viewing window. We let our stocking-clad feet rest on the window’s bottom, even though we were warned that we might feel the chill of the water on the other side. Once all the final checks were made, the crew members on the Vito, the Kraken, the platform and in the submersible took a five-minute timeout, known as a “stopski,” just to make completely sure all systems were go. (The idea — suggested by Scott Parazynski, a former NASA astronaut — was inspired by the built-in holds that are included in space launch countdowns.) Then it was time to dive. First the launch and recovery platform blew the compressed air out of its flotation tanks, in a process that had us dipping down backward into the water at a 20-degree angle. Green-tinted water sloshed wildly over our field of view. “Is this a freakout moment for some people?” I asked Stockton. “I haven’t run across that yet,” he replied. “You could be our first.” GeekWire’s Alan Boyle takes notes as he looks out the window of OceanGate’s Cyclops submersible. (GeekWire Photo / Kevin Lisota) Within minutes, we were sinking below the photic zone, where sunlight could penetrate to fuel the green plankton that tinted the waters. The view outside was total darkness, until Mikayla turned on the floodlights on each side of our window. Even then, plankton and the other particles floating in nutrient-rich Puget Sound cut the visibility to just a few feet around us. Mikayla relied on sonar readings to determine our depth, and on GPS readings to determine our heading. Our first destination was right beneath us: We headed for a wire cage containing a pile of salmon guts, which was dropped down on a line from a buoy to attract whatever creatures were foraging at the bottom. When we pulled up to the cage, we saw a smattering of rockfish (of the quillback and canary varieties), with 4-inch-long prawns and an occasional crab skittering through the scene, looking for a meal. The prime targets for OceanGate’s survey are shark species, and especially the rare, crowd-pleasing sixgill shark. We hoped to follow in the footsteps of Seattle rap musician Macklemore, who when he went looking for Puget Sound sixgills in a different Oceangate sub. We saw no sixgills, but we did catch sight of a slim, spiny dogflsh shark as it threaded its way around the bait box. “So we had our first official shark?” I asked Tyler. “Yup,” he said. Marine biologist Tyler Coleman identified this fish as a dogfish shark. (GeekWire Photo / Alan Boyle) Then we headed off to a wide stretch of muddy bottom, punctuated by holes that provided shelter for the prawns and other bottom-feeding critters. Stockton sidled over to me, holding the modified Sony PlayStation game controller that’s used to steer the sub. “Want to drive?” he said. It took me a while to get the hang of the controls: The front buttons serve as “dead man’s switches,” which have to be pressed in order to activate the controller’s dual joysticks. The left joystick controls the up and down thrusters, and the right joystick controls horizontal thrusters for forward and back, left and right. Simple, right? Nevertheless, I occasionally rose high enough to lose sight of the bottom, and sank low enough to plop the sub into the mud and send clouds of sediment rising up in front of our window. To get ourselves out of those obscuring clouds, I had to drive the sub out of the haze into clearer waters. At least there were no rocks to run into, which is why Stockton and Mikayla brought us to a field of mud before they handed me the controller. After a few minutes of meandering, Mikayla reported that there was something showing up on the sonar, about 15 meters dead ahead. Stockton took back the controller, and guided by Mikayla’s callouts, he brought us right up to what looked like a garden of cauliflowers, plunked in the middle of an underwater desert. It turned out that a tree stump had sunk 350 feet to the bottom, heaven knows how many years ago, and a colony of anemones had taken root there. Stockton was impressed, and he told Mikayla to take note of the coordinates. “The visibility is probably 10 feet today, but we can get 5 feet away, so that’s OK,” Stockton told me. “Imagine trying to find this if you were diving. … Nobody’s ever seen this log before, I’ll bet you even money.” Toward the end of the tour, we returned to the area where bait had been dropped to the bottom. Mikayla turned the lights off, waited for a school of rockfish to swim in front of our window, and then turned the lights back on so we could snap photos. When it was time to ascend, we rose through the dark murk and back into the sunlit green haze near the surface. Kevin and I were deputized to watch for the whitish outline of OceanGate’s launch-and-recovery platform, anchored a few meters below. It took a couple of tries to get properly “locked in” on the platform, due to a balky thruster. I was feeling grateful that Mikayla and Stockton were at the controls (and hoping I hadn’t damaged the thruster during my training session). At last we were locked in and lifted up. The sun seemed unusually bright as we climbed back up through the hatch and were motored back to shore. On the way back, Stockton talked about OceanGate’s plans to bring the submersible experience to a wider audience. “Diving’s no fun after you’ve been in a sub,” he said. Taking people down to the Titanic is still OceanGate’s prime objective: The submersible that’s designed for that role, which was initially called Cyclops II but is now known as Titan, proved it could safely get to Titanic-worthy depths this year . The postponement of the means there’s not a lot for Titan to do until next summer. It’s currently being prepped for an extra round of stress tests, plus equipment upgrades that should smooth the way for the 2020 season. OceanGate’s Titanic customers are paying to participate in the adventure as mission specialists, and most of them are keeping their reservations despite the delay. Stockton said that OceanGate’s subs — including Cyclops and Titan as well as the two-person Antipodes — are currently certified for research missions such as the Titanic expedition, but not for more casual tourist jaunts. Another perspective: Now OceanGate is seeking waivers from the Coast Guard that would allow the company to offer submersible tours for something like $1,000 or $2,000 per person. That’s more than operators in Hawaii charge for submarine tours, but those tours go only 100 feet beneath the surface and last only 45 minutes or so. OceanGate’s tourists would get an experience even more thrilling than ours — assuming that the regulatory go-ahead is given. “It’ll probably be six to 12 months before we get approval,” Stockton told me. Stockton and his team of 27 employees are also looking into whether their subs can be used for infrastructure inspection and environmental surveys. And they’re planning to build a bigger, better submersible called Cyclops III, which could handle depths of 6,000 meters (20,000 feet). To help fund those projects, OceanGate is in the midst of a that was reported to the Securities and Exchange Commission in April. So what’s tougher? Navigating the depths of Puget Sound, or negotiating the shoals of the startup world? , Stockton Rush is clearly adept at doing both. But personally, I’d rather be steering the sub. Correction for 4:36 p.m. PT Sept. 1: In a previous version of this report, we incorrectly identified a ratfish as a dogfish shark. We’ve amended the ID for the ratfish, and added a video screengrab of the dogfish. Woof! Also, we’ve corrected the anticipated cost of a submersible tour to be $1,000 to $2,000 per person, instead of per day.
Backed by Bill Gates, Echodyne plays role in a pioneering flight of a drone on its own

Backed by Bill Gates, Echodyne plays role in a pioneering flight of a drone on its own

1:27pm, 2nd August, 2019
A Skyfront Perimeter drone takes off from the Alyeska trans-Alaska pipeline right of way near Fox for a milestone flight beyond the operator’s visual line of sight. The drone flew 3.87 miles along the pipeline corridor. (University of Alaska Photo / Sean Tevebaugh) A public-private consortium led by the University of Alaska has conducted the first-ever federally authorized test flight of a drone beyond the operator’s line of sight without on-the-ground observers keeping watch – with Echodyne, the radar venture that’s backed by Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates and headquartered in Kirkland, Wash., playing a supporting role. Autonomous flight beyond visual line of sight will be key to the kinds of drone delivery operations envisioned by Amazon, Walmart and other retailers. During Wednesday’s flight, a multirotor drone as part of the University of Alaska’s Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration Pilot Program, from the Federal Aviation Administration last year. The big thing about this flight is that the drone made use of , paired up with Echodyne’s ground-based MESA airspace management radar system, without having a human on the route. Current FAA regulations limit drone flights to the operator’s visual line of sight. Pilot projects have been experimenting with technologies that can ensure safe operations beyond the visual line of sight, known as BVLOS. But until now, the FAA’s waivers still required a ground-based observer to look out for non-cooperative aircraft coming into the test area. This week’s flight of a drone totally on its own was authorized after it flew the same route with visual observers. “The test mission designed by the team at the University of Alaska at Fairbanks is an excellent demonstration of the potential for commercial UAS,” Eben Frankenberg, the founder and CEO of Echodyne, . “With Iris Automation and Echodyne sensor technologies, routine commercial missions like linear inspection and medical deliveries to remote communities are both practical and safe.” The radar system developed by Echodyne relies on metamaterials technology, which uses specially structured electronics to bend electromagnetic waves. Circuits based on metamaterials can allow for the construction of flat-panel radar devices that match the performance of larger, more expensive phased array antennas. Echodyne is one of several metamaterials-based startups that have been spun out from Bellevue, Wash.-based Intellectual Ventures with Gates’ financial backing. Its most recently reported funding round from Gates as well as Silicon Valley’s New Enterprise Associates, the Kresge Foundation, Lux Capital, Seattle’s Madrona Venture Group and Vulcan Capital. The company is playing a role in several tests of detect-and-avoid technologies for drones. In March, Echodyne announced that its as part of NASA’s UAS Traffic Management program, in Texas and Nevada. Meanwhile, the tests in Alaska will continue, focusing on pipeline inspection as well as other applications potentially including medical device delivery, search and rescue, road monitoring and surveys of fish and wildlife.
In pursuit of air mobility, Voom’s Seattle office blazes a trail for working remotely

In pursuit of air mobility, Voom’s Seattle office blazes a trail for working remotely

3:39am, 31st July, 2019
Voom, a subsidiary of Airbus, offers on-demand helicopter booking services in Brazil and Mexico. (Airbus Photo) Add the Airbus subsidiary to the — and to the list of pioneers in co-located and distributed workplaces. Both of those talking points are highlighted in a on working remotely, written last month by Robert Head, a senior software engineer at Voom. The posting was brought to light today by the . The California-based startup has been offering its app-based, on-demand helicopter taxi service in Mexico City and São Paulo, and last month it in league with . In his blog posting, Head, who works remotely from Ashland, Ore., talked about software development rather than flight plans. “When Voom decided to grow our own internal team of developers, we chose to locate the office not in San Francisco or Silicon Valley, but rather in Seattle, which has a similarly booming technology scene and an ecosystem of great talent,” he wrote. Today LinkedIn , and the company’s careers webpage has, including a spot for a vice president of engineering. But the point of Head’s posting wasn’t how Voom conducts its operations in Seattle. Instead, he focused on how the Seattle office serves as a springboard for a far more widely dispersed team. “For the first year, all new hires were local to the Seattle office and the rest of the team was ‘on the big screen,’ as we say,” Head wrote. “After a year, recruiting was getting tougher and we were at a crossroads. We knew we wanted access to a wider, more diverse range of experienced colleagues, but it’s tough to find that within one city.” Voom’s solution was to go to a blended pair programming model, facilitated by screen-sharing and videoconferencing. Co-workers can pop into a virtual shared space and pair up with colleagues. “A good pairing session gets into a rhythm, a give and take,” Head said. “In typical pairing terminology, one person is ‘driving’ (using the mouse and keyboard) and the other is ‘navigating’—holding mental context, noticing opportunities, making suggestions. It’s important to a healthy, egalitarian environment that these roles are switched frequently.” Thanks to pair programming, Voom no longer limits its job pool to local hires, Head said. Additional details about the workplace model are laid out in , and on . Does Voom’s Seattle presence suggest that its helicopter ride-hailing service will be swooping in anytime soon? We didn’t immediately get an answer to that question from Head or from Voom’s HQ in San Francisco when we contacted them, but we’ll update this item with anything substantive we hear back. In the meantime, it’s worth considering that a lot of companies tap the Seattle area’s software engineering talent even though they put their products and services through real-world tests elsewhere. , which is working on ride-hailing services that make use of self-driving cars, serves as a good example. Even though LinkedIn as working in the Seattle area, and has here, the company says it has no immediate plans to test-drive its cars in the Emerald City. For now, you’ll have to travel to San Francisco, Phoenix or Detroit to see Cruise’s cars in action. And unless we hear differently, you’ll have to go to Mexico City, São Paulo or maybe San Francisco to see the results of the paired programming work that Voom is doing in Seattle.
Apple-picking robots gear up for U.S. debut in Washington state

Apple-picking robots gear up for U.S. debut in Washington state

9:06am, 13th May, 2019
Abundant Robotics’ apple picking system was developed in collaboration with Washington state apple growers. (Abundant Robotics Photo) Next fall, as you browse the produce section at your local grocery store, pay close attention to the apples. You might be witnessing American history. For the first time, some of the apples sold in the U.S. will be picked by a robot rather than human hands. That’s thanks to agricultural automation startup , the maker of apple harvesting machines that will partake in Washington state’s next harvest. “This will be the first season that we’re actually ready to harvest commercially,” said Abundant CEO . “It’s incredibly exciting.” Abundant’s picker has more in common with a really smart Hoover vacuum than a human hand. The robot moves down rows of orchards and uses artificial intelligence with a dash of LIDAR to search for ripe apples. Once spotted, a robotic arm with a vacuum gently sucks the apples from the tree into a bin. The achievement is owed to advances not only in machine learning and robotics but also in agriculture. The architecture of apple trees has evolved over the decades, and it’s now common to grow them on trellises like you would tomatoes or cucumbers. Modern apple trees are also smaller, derived from dwarf varietals that yield more per acre and produce fruit more quickly after being planted. These horticultural leaps have allowed farmers to double their apple yields. They’ve also made the job of picking easier for humans and, now, for robots. Karen Lewis, a tree fruit specialist at Washington State University who has worked with Abundant and other robotics startups, said that apple trees have reached a “sweet spot” for robotic harvesting. Orchards are now sufficiently uniform and predictable for machines to reliably pick fruit, and canopies are narrow enough for sunlight, the human eye and vision systems to penetrate. Successful tech companies, she said, are the ones that listen to what farmers need. “We’re not going to let technology be the driver here. Horticulture needs to be the driver.” The U.S. debut comes following a rollout in New Zealand, where Abundant began a commercial harvest earlier this year. Steere said the decision to make the global debut in New Zealand rather than Washington was based purely on seasonal luck. He added that Abundant owed a lot to the Washington growers, who gave the startup crucial support and feedback in its early years. “The special thing about Washington is the scale, the sophistication and the openness to supporting innovation,” he said. Steere declined to say how many machines would be put to use this fall or which growers Abundant is working with. Menlo Park, Calif.-based Abundant has raised $12 million with backing from GV, formerly Google Ventures, among others. The startup formed out of the robotics division at SRI International, a research lab in California. Abundant’s main competition is Fresh Fruit Robotics, an Israeli startup that’s developing a picker that uses a claw-like appendage. Both companies have received funding from the Washington State Tree Fruit Association. Steere and his team have been developing the robots with help from growers in Washington state for the past six years. The process has involved both give and take: Abundant received feedback on how to improve the machines, and growers have adapted their practices to work with automation. “It’s not that people haven’t wanted to automate harvesting fruit, it’s that it’s never been possible,” Steere said. “Now we’re making it possible.” Modern apple orchards often feature smaller trees with narrow canopies. (WSU Photo) Wherever automation appears, so does the question of whose jobs might be displaced. But American farmers have for years an are increasingly dependent on foreign seasonal labor. Approvals for H-2A visas, which allow foreigners to do agriculture-related work in the U.S. temporarily, increased by a factor of five over the past 13 years, according to the USDA. The program now accounts for around 8 percent of the total agricultural workforce. In Washington state, those seasonal worker visas exploded from 3,014 to 24,862 in the past eight years. “We’re being squeezed,” said Lewis. “There’s substantial pressure from not being able to attract and retain a workforce.” That labor shortage has been accompanied by higher wages. In Washington state, the minimum wage is set to jump by $1.50 to $13.50 an hour next year, an increases that Lewis said could amount to a quarter of a million dollars for a grower that manages 250 acres. The typical American farm worker makes $11.84 per hour. (USDA data / GeekWire chart) Farmers have also been battered by trade wars, which have , and they face threats from . Robots could help carry some of the weight of Washington state’s enormous apple harvest, which supplies nearly in the U.S., according to the U.S. Apple Association. The U.S. ranks second globally in apple production, behind China. Agricultural robot shipments are from 60,000 units today to more than 727,000 in 2025, according to market research firm Tractica. Still, replacing people with new technology is “scary and expensive,” Lewis said. Lewis is hopeful that the robots are finally reaching a point where they can make growers more profitable. “We’ve had a bit of over promise, under deliver” from tech companies, she said. “That has led to fatigue among growers.” Abundant’s leadership boasts some agricultural street cred. Steere grew up in a family of farmers, spending time on his grandfather and uncle’s cotton and soybean farms. Abundant co-founder Michael Eriksen was raised on a dairy farm in Denmark. And Curt Salisbury, another co-founder, is a native of the Columbia Basin, one of Washington state’s main apple-growing regions. “When I was a kid, I was fascinated with combines, the big machines that would go through and harvest soybeans, or cotton pickers that would drive through and pick cotton,” Steere said. “We get to make these machines for an industry that’s never had that kind of automation before.”
Washington Hyperloop slims down its pod racer for Elon Musk’s next big contest

Washington Hyperloop slims down its pod racer for Elon Musk’s next big contest

12:51am, 13th May, 2019
Washington Hyperloop team members show off their Husky spirit at an on-campus unveiling of this year’s pod racer. Veteran team member Mitchell Frimodt peeks out from within the pod’s carbon composite shell, while the guts of the racer are on display on a table at left. (Margo Cavis Photo) Could this year be the year for ? For the fourth time, the students on University of Washington’s pod-racing team are taking aim at the top prize in tech titan Elon Musk’s competition, and this time they’ve got their racer down to fighting weight. This year’s purple pod racer, which looks like a cross between a bobsled and a miniaturized bullet train, was unveiled Friday night at UW’s Husky Union Building. “Our pod this year is about 60 percent of the weight of last year’s pod, with the same propulsion specs,” engineering senior Mitchell Frimodt, one of the veterans on the Hyperloop team, told GeekWire. “That’s our performance boost.” Propulsive oomph per pound is a key factor in what’s become an annual tradition that plays out at SpaceX’s headquarters in Hawthorne, Calif. This year, Washington Hyperloop and a dozen other collegiate teams are . Competitors will show off the racers they’ve built, and the best of the pack will face off in time trials conducted in a mile-long tube that’s been built just across the street from SpaceX’s rocket factory. The fastest team wins. And in the previous three competitions, the fastest team has been WARR Hyperloop from the Technical University of Munich in Germany. This year, Munich’s student engineers are racing under a different team name — — but they’re expected to be every bit as formidable. “We’re looking to give them a run for the money,” Frimodt said. Frimodt is speaking figuratively: There’s no prize money as such, but the Hyperloop contest gives those who do well an enviable spotlight in the engineering world. Frimodt said some of Washington Hyperloop’s alumni are now working at SpaceX, Tesla, Apple and other cutting-edge ventures — including Musk’s very own tunneling venture, . “One of our old business guys is actually with the Boring Company currently, down in L.A.,” he said. “I haven’t heard exactly what he’s up to down there, but that’s pretty cool. We’ve had one alum go on to .” Musk as a way to short-circuit traffic snarls within and between urban areas. The original concept called for pods to travel through low-pressure tubes at near-supersonic speeds, cutting the travel time between the San Francisco Bay Area and Los Angeles to about a half-hour. To cite another example, a Pacific Northwest Hyperloop could . Since then, the intercity Hyperloop concept has given rise to commercial ventures that don’t involve Musk, including and . For now, Musk is concentrating on the Boring Company’s somewhat less speedy tunnel travel concept, which is known as the Loop. Loop projects are in various stages of development in , , and the . Frimodt said most of the 40 or so members of the Washington Hyperloop team see their involvement as a way to exercise their general engineering skills, rather than creating a commercially viable Hyperloop pod. “For us, it’s more on pushing the edge of technology. … Our focus is very much on the competition,” he said. Only about half of the team’s members are veterans of past Hyperloop contests. Thanks to the team’s previous successes, including an , Washington Hyperloop’s organizers received “a ton of applicants” seeking to join the team last fall, Frimodt said. So what’s the secret sauce for this year? It’s not necessarily the propulsion technology: The team is going with a cold-gas thruster system that’s similar to the one that won them fourth place in last year’s competition. Basically, pressurized nitrogen blasts through a rocket-like nozzle to shoot the pod down the Hyperloop track. “It’s a rocket without the combustion,” Frimodt explained. One big change from last year has to do with weight reduction. This year’s team members were rigorous about enforcing weight budgets for each of the pod’s components, and were lots more liberal about using lightweight carbon composites rather than metal parts. Another change has to do with advance preparation, particularly when it comes to the software side of the project. Last year, “people were working on our code on the day of the competition,” said Fedor Paretsky, a UW junior in applied physics who works on the control and power subsystem team. This year, the Washington Hyperloop team is ahead of the game, development-wise. And one of the reasons for that has to do with one of the team’s sponsors, a California-based tech company named , which is providing the team with financial support as well as help with an open-source programming language for cloud-based applications known as . “Ballerina acts as our data relay,” Paretsky said. “It relays data every 25 milliseconds. … If we decide that something’s going wrong, or we need to do an emergency stop, Ballerina ensures that the pod is communicated with, efficiently.” Ballerina also serves to coordinate software development. “Anybody can literally just pull the image [for the pod’s software] off the cloud,” he said. In addition to WSO2, Ballerina and various UW departments, the team has recruited ranging from Boeing to Pagliacci Pizza (and it doesn’t take an engineer to guess what Pagliacci is contributing). Their logos are all emblazoned on what Washington Hyperloop hopes will be this year’s top pod. It could be a nail-biter: Last year’s competition at SpaceX saw the WARR team set a new world record for Hyperloop travel, with a . Can Washington Hyperloop improve on that mark? “We’re not 100 percent sure yet, until we get a final pod weight based off everything we put on there, and do our static-fire testing to characterize our propulsion system,” Frimodt said. “But it’s probably looking like somewhere from 260 miles an hour to 300 miles an hour.”
Washington Hyperloop slims down its racing pod for Elon Musk’s next big contest

Washington Hyperloop slims down its racing pod for Elon Musk’s next big contest

1:49pm, 11th May, 2019
Washington Hyperloop team members show off their Husky spirit at an on-campus unveiling of this year’s pod racer. Veteran team member Mitchell Frimodt peeks out from within the pod’s carbon composite shell, while the guts of the racer are on display on a table at left. (Margo Cavis Photo) Could this year be the year for ? For the fourth time, the students on University of Washington’s pod-racing team are taking aim at the top prize in tech titan Elon Musk’s competition, and this time they’ve got their racer down to fighting weight. This year’s purple pod racer, which looks like a cross between a bobsled and a miniaturized bullet train, was unveiled Friday night at UW’s Husky Union Building. “Our pod this year is about 60 percent of the weight of last year’s pod, with the same propulsion specs,” engineering senior Mitchell Frimodt, one of the veterans on the Hyperloop team, told GeekWire. “That’s our performance boost.” Propulsive oomph per pound is a key factor in what’s become an annual tradition that plays out at SpaceX’s headquarters in Hawthorne, Calif. This year, Washington Hyperloop and a dozen other collegiate teams are . Competitors will show off the racers they’ve built, and the best of the pack will face off in time trials conducted in a mile-long tube that’s been built just across the street from SpaceX’s rocket factory. The fastest team wins. And in the previous three competitions, the fastest team has been WARR Hyperloop from the Technical University of Munich in Germany. This year, Munich’s student engineers are racing under a different team name — — but they’re expected to be every bit as formidable. “We’re looking to give them a run for the money,” Frimodt said. Frimodt is speaking figuratively: There’s no prize money as such, but the Hyperloop contest gives those who do well an enviable spotlight in the engineering world. Frimodt said some of Washington Hyperloop’s alumni are now working at SpaceX, Tesla, Apple and other cutting-edge ventures — including Musk’s very own tunneling venture, . “One of our old business guys is actually with the Boring Company currently, down in L.A.,” he said. “I haven’t heard exactly what he’s up to down there, but that’s pretty cool. We’ve had one alum go on to .” Musk as a way to short-circuit traffic snarls within and between urban areas. The original concept called for pods to travel at near-supersonic speeds, cutting the travel time between the San Francisco Bay Area and Los Angeles to about a half-hour. To cite another example, a Pacific Northwest Hyperloop could . Since then, the intercity Hyperloop concept has given rise to commercial ventures that don’t involve Musk, including and . For now, Musk is concentrating on the Boring Company’s tunnel travel concept, which is known as the Loop. Loop projects are in various stages of development in , , and the . Frimodt said most of the 40 or so members of the Washington Hyperloop team see their involvement as a way to exercise their general engineering skills, rather than creating a commercially viable Hyperloop pod. “For us, it’s more on pushing the edge of technology. … Our focus is very much on the competition,” he said. Only about half of the team’s members are veterans of past competitions. Thanks to the team’s past successes, Washington Hyperloop’s organizers received “a ton of applicants” seeking to join the team last fall, Frimodt said. So what’s the secret sauce for this year? It’s not necessarily the propulsion technology: The team is going with a cold-gas thruster system that’s similar to the one that won them fourth place in last year’s competition. Basically, pressurized nitrogen blasts through a rocket-like nozzle to shoot the pod down the Hyperloop track. “It’s a rocket without the combustion,” Frimodt explained. One big change from last year has to do with weight reduction. This year’s team members were rigorous about enforcing weight budgets for each of the pod’s components, and were lots more liberal about using lightweight carbon composites rather than metal parts. Another change has to do with advance preparation, particularly when it comes to the software side of the project. Last year, “people were working on our code on the day of the competition,” said Fedor Paretsky, a UW junior in applied physics who works on the control and power subsystem team. This year, the Washington Hyperloop team is ahead of the game, development-wise. And one of the reasons for that has to do with one of the team’s sponsors, a California-based tech company named , which is providing the team with financial support as well as help with an open-source programming language for cloud-based applications known as . “Ballerina acts as our data relay,” Paretsky said. “It relays data every 25 milliseconds. … If we decide that something’s going wrong, or we need to do an emergency stop, Ballerina ensures that the pod is communicated with, efficiently.” Ballerina also serves to coordinate software development. “Anybody can literally just pull the image [for the pod’s software] off the cloud,” he said. In addition to WSO2, Ballerina and various UW departments, the team has recruited ranging from Boeing to Pagliacci Pizza (and it doesn’t take an engineer to guess what Pagliacci is contributing). Their logos are all emblazoned on what Washington Hyperloop hopes will be this year’s top pod. It could be a nail-biter: Last year’s competition at SpaceX saw the WARR team set a new world record for Hyperloop travel, with a . Can Washington Hyperloop improve on that mark? “We’re not 100 percent sure yet, until we get a final pod weight based off everything we put on there, and do our static-fire testing to characterize our propulsion system,” Frimodt said. “But it’s probably looking like somewhere from 260 miles an hour to 300 miles an hour.”
Tenax Aerospace invests millions in Overwatch Imaging to boost autonomous aerial surveys

Tenax Aerospace invests millions in Overwatch Imaging to boost autonomous aerial surveys

8:25am, 8th May, 2019
Overwatch Imaging’s real-time fire perimeter mapping increases safety. (Overwatch Image) , an Oregon venture that specializes in airborne imaging systems, says it has won a multimillion-dollar investment from , which focuses on aviation solutions that are specialized to suit the needs of its clients in government and the commercial sector. The Series A funding deal, announced today, builds on an existing partnership between Overwatch and Tenax, a privately held company that’s based in Mississippi. It marks the first outside investment taken in by Overwatch, which was founded in 2016. Overwatch CEO and co-founder Greg Davis said the size of the investment amounts to millions of dollars, but he declined to be more precise. The money will go toward expanding Overwatch’s production operations into a larger facility in Hood River, Ore., and accelerating development of the company’s AI software for autonomous imagery collection and analysis. In a news release, Tenax Aerospace’s president, Taran Bakker, called Overwatch “an emerging leader in artificial intelligence and autonomy in airborne imaging.” “Overwatch Imaging has developed an exciting new technology that will be very valuable to customers with special missions involving surveillance, mapping or threat detection,” Bakker said. Tenax Aerospace provides special mission aircraft and related services to customers including the Federal Aviation Administration and the departments of Defense, Justice; Agriculture and Homeland Security. The company focuses on applications that are critical to national security and the public interest, including aerial fire suppression, aerial intelligence gathering and airborne data acquisition. Tenax and Overwatch are already working together on a U.S. Forest Service project related to monitoring and fighting forest fires. That project involves the use of Overwatch’s imaging system on Tenax’s aircraft. Future projects could focus on applications such as border surveillance and maritime traffic monitoring. Davis said Tenax Aerospace emerged as the ideal partner for Overwatch Imaging’s expansion campaign during a six-month process to assess potential investors. As a result of that process, Tenax will be contributing more than money: Bakker will be joining Davis and co-founder Nick Anderson on Overwatch’s board. “We immediately shared a common vision for the future,” said Davis, who’s a veteran of . “I am excited to have Taran’s expertise and enthusiasm on our board as we grow.”
Boeing says problem with 737 MAX warning signal slipped through the cracks

Boeing says problem with 737 MAX warning signal slipped through the cracks

1:07pm, 6th May, 2019
Boeing’s first 737 MAX 9 jet makes its appearance at the company’s Renton plant in 2017. (Boeing Photo) Boeing says a warning alert system that figures in the investigation of two catastrophic 737 MAX crashes didn’t work the way it was supposed to because of a software flaw that engineers identified a year before the accidents. The revelation adds a new twist to the debate over the company’s safety practices. In this case, the debate focuses on a feature known as the “AOA Disagree” alert, which is supposed to light up in the cockpit if there’s a mismatch in data coming from two angle-of-attack sensors on the plane. Investigators suggest that bad sensor data played a key role in October’s Lion Air crash in Indonesia, which killed all 189 people aboard the plane; and March’s Ethiopian Airlines crash, which killed 157. Within days of the Ethiopian crash, all 737 MAX airplanes were grounded worldwide. Boeing engineers knew about a problem with the “AOA Disagree” alert well before that. The alert was originally intended to be a standard feature on the 737 MAX and the previous generation of 737 planes, known as the 737 NG (for “Next Generation”). But in a , Boeing said that in 2017, several months after deliveries began, engineers became aware that the 737 MAX display system software didn’t meet the original requirements. “The software delivered to Boeing linked the AOA Disagree alert to the AOA indicator, which is an optional feature on the MAX and the NG. Accordingly, the software activated the AOA Disagree alert only if an airline opted for the AOA indicator,” Boeing said. The company said it followed standard procedure for reviewing the issue, and determined that neither the software-based angle-of-attack indicator nor the alert was necessary for safe operation of the airplane. “Accordingly, the review concluded, the existing functionality was acceptable until the alert and the indicator could be delinked in the next planned display system software update,” Boeing said. “Senior company leadership was not involved in the review and first became aware of this issue in the aftermath of the Lion Air accident.” That’s when Boeing discussed the issue with the Federal Aviation Administration. About a week after the Indonesia crash, Boeing and the FAA issued bulletins noting that both the angle-of-attack indicator and the alert system were optional. Last December, Boeing conducted a follow-up internal safety review, which confirmed the view that the absence of a warning alert did not present a safety issue. The findings of that review were shared with the FAA, Boeing said. Three months after the review, the Ethiopian crash occurred. In the wake of that crash, Boeing has said the “AOA Disagree” issue will be fixed before the 737 MAX returns to flight. “Boeing is issuing a display system software update, to implement the AOA Disagree alert as a standard, standalone feature before the MAX returns to service,” the company said in its statement. “When the MAX returns to service, all MAX production aircraft will have an activated and operable AOA Disagree alert and an optional angle of attack indicator. All customers with previously delivered MAX airplanes will have the ability to activate the AOA Disagree alert.” The statement adds context to earlier reports that the angle-of-attack alert system was available only as part of an optional software package. It’s debatable whether either of the crashes could have been avoided if the alert was available as a standard feature on the planes involved. In the Ethiopian case, the investigation suggests that the pilots knew about the issue surrounding the angle-of-attack sensors and their effect on the 737 MAX’s automatic flight control system — but were nevertheless unable to pull the plane out of its final dive. In any case, the questions surrounding what Boeing engineers knew and when they knew it seem sure to figure in the multiple investigations sparked by the crashes. U.S. Rep. Rick Larsen, D-Wash., told KOMO News that the FAA’s actions before and after the crashes will also be examined during a May 15 hearing before the House Subcommittee on Aviation, which he chairs. ”We need to first find answers to ensure the safety of the airplane, to ensure the FAA is doing the right thing, that Boeing is doing the right thing, and that’ll be our focus,” Larsen told KOMO on Saturday, a day before Boeing issued its statement.
Microsoft teams up with UNESCO and kids to revive lost monuments with Minecraft

Microsoft teams up with UNESCO and kids to revive lost monuments with Minecraft

2:30pm, 3rd May, 2019
Islamic State forces blew up the Al-Nuri Mosque in Mosul, Iraq, as they withdrew from the city in 2017. (Photo Courtesy of History Blocks) Can a video game reclaim centuries’ worth of lost cultural heritage in the Middle East? Microsoft’s Minecraft Education Edition is being used to do just that, in league with UNESCO and schools around the world. History Blocks takes advantage of the educationally oriented Minecraft platform to build virtual versions of ancient monuments — starting with sites that were destroyed by the Islamic State group in Syria and Iraq, and by the Taliban in Afghanistan. The project was conceived and developed by Agencia Africa in Brazil, and put to its first test this February at Escola Bosque, a private school in São Paulo. “It is surprising to see the level of the students’ engagement in the History Blocks project,” Escola Bosque’s pedagogical director, Silvia Scuracchio, said today in a news release. “At the same time that they solve complex geometry, logic and abstract challenges, it’s possible to see how they get involved with the culture and history behind the monuments and their destruction. For many of them, it was their first contact with concepts such as cultural destruction and ideology oppression.” Students aged from 9 to 13 built up their models from historical images of the , the and the entrance to the in Syria, as well as the and the in Iraq, and Afghanistan’s . Since February, the History Blocks project has been picked up by schools in more than 30 countries using the Minecraft Education Edition. “Technology is a tool to transform education and bring to life methods that used to be unthinkable when it comes to teaching,” said Daniel Maia, manager for academic projects at Microsoft Brazil. “The project on UNESCO’s world heritage sites opens the door for students all over the world to study important monuments of our history.” Minecraft and History Blocks are great teaching tools, but if you’re looking for high-fidelity models of heritage hotspots ranging from to Paris’ Notre Dame Cathedral, they’re covered by other software and survey programs. The International Council on Monuments and Sites, a U.N. advisory panel also known as ICOMOS, is one of the leaders in the effort to document cultural sites. Over the past few years, ICOMOS’ (from the Arabic word for “phoenix”) has been conducting surveys of sites in Syria, starting with six representative buildings in Damascus. You can . A historical conservation initiative called is playing a key role in 3-D documentation, for Project Anqa as well as s around the world. CyArk’s detailed digital scans feed into Google Arts and Sciences’ . For a powerful demonstration of the technology, check ou in South Dakota. (But make sure your computer is powerful enough for the task.) Could virtual models provide enough information to rebuild lost monuments? Historians and architects certainly hope so: They’re banking on surveys of Notre Dame, including conducted several years ago under the leadership of the late art historian , to serve as a guide for the reconstruction ahead.
Tesla gets a boost after $2.3B debt and stock offering that Elon Musk is buying into

Tesla gets a boost after $2.3B debt and stock offering that Elon Musk is buying into

12:15pm, 2nd May, 2019
Tesla CEO Elon Musk checks out the Model Y during its unveiling in March. (Tesla via YouTube) Tesla is aiming to raise up to $2.3 billion in newly announced offerings of stock and convertible notes, just a week after CEO Elon Musk told analysts that the . Musk himself will purchase an additional $10 million of common stock, Tesla said today in a . That would add to his status as the electric-car company’s largest shareholder, with roughly 20 percent of Tesla’s shares. The share price was more than 3.5 percent above the previous day’s close during midday trading today. Wedbush Securities analyst Dan Ives said in a note to investors that the offerings were a “clear net positive for Tesla” because they cleared up long-lingering uncertainty over whether Tesla would have enough cash on hand to meet upcoming debt payments. One of the offerings announced today will make $650 million in common stock available, while the second offering calls for the issuance of up to $1.35 billion in convertible senior notes due in 2024. There’s also a 30-day option for underwriters to purchase up to an additional 15% of each offering. If all the options are exercised, the gross proceeds would come to about $2.3 billion before discounts and expenses, Tesla said. Goldman Sachs and Citigroup are acting as joint lead managers for the offering, with involvement as well from BofA Merrill Lynch, Deutsche Bank Securities, Morgan Stanley, Credit Suisse, Societe Generale and Wells Fargo Securities. The company said it would “use the net proceeds to further strengthen its balance sheet, as well as for general corporate purposes.” In last week’s financial report, Tesla for the first quarter of the year, after posting profits for the previous two quarters. Looking ahead, the company has ambitious plans to ramp up production of its Model 3 electric car and move ahead with projects ranging from its Semi truck, Model Y crossover SUV and all-electric pickup truck to electricity-generating solar roofs, a and car insurance. Some analysts worry about the effect of Tesla’s financial losses, the gradual fade-out of federal tax credits and rising competition in the electric-vehicle market. Such uncertainties, coupled with , have led to dramatic ups and downs in the share price over the past year. A year ago, for Tesla’s investors: “Do not buy if volatility is scary,” he said.