Tuesday, 11 July 2017

NEWS POST: Tech Companies Wage War On Disease-Carrying Mosquitoes

Researcher Ethan Jackson places the Project Premonition mosquito trap in the wild in this handout photo obtained by Reuters June 30, 2017. Microsoft/Handout via REUTERS
American technology companies are bringing automation and robotics to the age-old task of battling mosquitoes in a bid to halt the spread of Zika and other mosquito-borne maladies worldwide.

Firms including Microsoft Corp and California life sciences company Verily are forming partnerships with public health officials in several U.S. states to test new high-tech tools.

In Texas, Microsoft is testing a smart trap to isolate and capture Aedes aegypti mosquitoes, known Zika carriers, for study by entomologists to give them a jump on predicting outbreaks.

Verily, Alphabet's life sciences division based in Mountain View, California, is speeding the process for creating sterile male mosquitoes to mate with females in the wild, offering a form of birth control for the species.

While it may take years for these advances to become widely available, public health experts say new players brings fresh thinking to vector control, which still relies heavily on traditional defenses such as larvicides and insecticides. "It's exciting when technology companies come on board," said Anandasankar Ray, an associate professor of entomology at the University of California, Riverside. "Their approach to a biological challenge is to engineer a solution."

Smart Traps
The Zika epidemic that emerged in Brazil in 2015 and left thousands of babies suffering from birth defects has added urgency to the effort.

While cases there have slowed markedly, mosquitoes capable of carrying the virus - Aedes aegypti and Aedes albopictus - are spreading in the Americas, including large swaths of the southern United States.
Map of U.S. mosquito territory U.S. counties reporting mosquitoes capable of carrying Zika in the spring and fall of 2016. NOTE: Counties reporting Aedes aegypti or Aedes albopictus in years other than 2016 not depicted. Source: CDC/ By Travis Hartman | REUTERS GRAPHICS
The vast majority of the 5,365 Zika cases reported in the United States so far are from travelers who contracted the virus elsewhere. Still, two states – Texas and Florida – have recorded cases transmitted by local mosquitoes, making them prime testing grounds for new technology.

In Texas, 10 mosquito traps made by Microsoft are operating in Harris County, which includes the city of Houston.

Roughly the size of large birdhouses, the devices use robotics, infrared sensors, machine learning and cloud computing to help health officials keep tabs on potential disease carriers.

Texas recorded six cases of local mosquito transmission of Zika in November and December of last year. Experts believe the actual number is likely higher because most infected people do not develop symptoms.

Pregnant women are at high risk because they can pass the virus to their fetuses, resulting in a variety of birth defects. Those include microcephaly, a condition in which infants are born with undersized skulls and brains. The World Health Organization declared Zika a global health emergency in February 2016.

Researcher Ethan Jackson examines the Project Premonition mosquito trap in this handout photo obtained by Reuters June 30, 2017. Microsoft/Handout via REUTERS
Most conventional mosquito traps capture all comers - moths, flies, other mosquito varieties - leaving a pile of specimens for entomologists to sort through. The Microsoft machines differentiate insects by measuring a feature unique to each species: the shadows cast by their beating wings. When a trap detects an Aedes aegypti in one of its 64 chambers, the door slams shut.

The machine "makes a decision about whether to trap it," said Ethan Jackson, a Microsoft engineer who is developing the device.

The Houston tests, begun last summer, showed the traps could detect Aedes aegypti and other medically important mosquitoes with 85% accuracy, Jackson said.

The machines also record shadows made by other insects as well as environmental conditions such as temperature and humidity. The data can be used to build models to predict where and when mosquitoes are active.

Mustapha Debboun, director of Harris County’s mosquito and vector control division, said the traps save time and give researchers more insight into mosquito behavior. "For science and research, this is a dream come true," he said.

The traps are prototypes now. But Microsoft's Jackson said the company eventually hopes to sell them for a few hundred dollars each, roughly the price of conventional traps. The goal is to spur wide adoption, particularly in developing countries, to detect potential epidemics before they start.

"What we hope is (the traps) will allow us to bring more precision to public health," Jackson said.

Sorting Mosquitoes with Robots
Other companies, meanwhile, are developing technology to shrink mosquito populations by rendering male Aedes aegypti mosquitoes sterile. When these sterile males mate with females in the wild, their eggs don't hatch.

Microsoft Researcher Ethan Jackson works on the AI technology that the drives Project Premonition mosquito trap in this handout photo obtained by Reuters June 30, 2017. Microsoft/Handout via REUTERS
The strategy offers an alternative to chemical pesticides. But it requires the release of millions of laboratory-bred mosquitoes into the outdoors. Males don't bite, which has made this an easier sell to places now hosting tests.

Oxitec, an Oxford, England-based division of Germantown, Maryland-based Intrexon Corp, is creating male mosquitoes genetically modified to be sterile. It has already deployed them in Brazil, and is seeking regulatory approval for tests in Florida and Texas.

MosquitoMate Inc, a startup formed by researchers at the University of Kentucky, is using a naturally occurring bacterium called Wolbachia to render male mosquitoes sterile.
One of the biggest challenges is sorting the sexes.

At MosquitoMate's labs in Lexington, immature mosquitoes are forced through a sieve-like mechanism that separates the smaller males from the females. These mosquitoes are then hand sorted to weed out any stray females that slip through.

"That's basically done using eyeballs," said Stephen Dobson, MosquitoMate's chief executive.

Enter Verily. The company is automating mosquito sorting with robots to make it faster and more affordable. Company officials declined to be interviewed. But on its website, Verily says it's combining sensors, algorithms and "novel engineering" to speed the process.

Verily and MosquitoMate have teamed up to test their technology in Fresno, California, where Aedes aegypti arrived in 2013.
Researcher Ethan Jackson makes adjustments to the prototype mosquito trap in the labs at Microsoft, in this handout photo obtained by Reuters June 30, 2017. Microsoft/Handout via REUTERS
Officials worry that residents who contract Zika elsewhere could spread it in Fresno if they're bitten by local mosquitoes that could pass the virus to others.

“That is very much of a concern because it is the primary vector for diseases such as dengue, chikungunya and obviously Zika,” said Steve Mulligan, manager of the Consolidated Mosquito Abatement District in Fresno County.

The study, which still needs state and federal approval, is slated for later this summer.

Originally published on REUTERS

Thursday, 4 February 2016

German Fusion Reactor Fires Up Hydrogen Mimicking Sun Conditions

View of the Wendelstein 7-X fusion device taken on September 18, 2015 at the Max Planck Institute for Plasma Physics in Greifswald, northeastern Germany. © DPA / AFP
The inauguration of the world’s biggest stellarator, a type of nuclear fusion reactor, took place at Marx Planck Institute in Germany as the Wendelstein 7-X heated hydrogen gas to 80 million degrees for a quarter of a second.

The ceremony was attended by German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who pressed the button to launch the reactor in Greifswald. The oddly-shaped 5.5m radius helical machine was completed in April last year and is an alternative design to the more popular tokamak nuclear fusion device.
Source: science.org

Both tokamak and stellarator are designed to confine plasma hot enough to start fusion of nuclei long enough for the reaction to produce more energy than used to start the reaction. The difference is that a tokamak uses current driven through the plasma to prevent it from dissipating. A stellarator uses a system of magnetic coils shaped in a way that compensates for the lack of uniformity in a ring-shaped reactor.

While a tokamak is generally considered more promising for creation of a commercial fusion power plant, the stellarator design has its advantages, such as allowing plasma containment over long periods of time. The inauguration pulse was relatively brief, but when the Wendelstein 7-X is fully operational it will contain plasma for some 30 minutes.

The fusion reactor will help German scientists study the behavior of plasma. In December, researchers at Greifswald tried it with helium plasma and the reactor ran as expected, allowing the team to switch to hydrogen, which has different properties.

“This was really the beginning, and the machine works nicely. The confinement time was very large, we knew we were on the right path,” said Hans-Stephan Bosch, who directs the division responsible for the operation of the stellarator.
The experiments are to continue throughout March with the power of microwave pulses, which heat the hydrogen rising to 20 megawatts. In 2019, the scientists will switch to deuterium, a hydrogen isotope needed for fusion reaction to happen.

Ready when you are. (EPA/Stefan Sauer)
Germany Is Getting Closer To Nuclear Fusion —The Long-Held Dream Of Unlimited Clean Energy

German scientists today will set about the first steps towards what has become the Holy Grail of energy—nuclear fusion, which has the potential for unlimited amounts of clean power. There are a number of challenges to harnessing this power—researchers need to build a device that can heat atoms to temperatures of more than 100 million °C (180 million °F).

After almost nine years of construction work and more than a million assembly hours, researchers from the Max Planck Institute in Greifswald areset to do just that by heating a tiny amount of hydrogen until it becomes as hot, hopefully, as the center of the Sun.

Researchers are keen to tap into the incredible amount of energy released when atoms join together at extremely high temperatures in the super-hot gas known as plasma. Today’s test will not produce any energy, just the plasma—a different state of matter created at extremely high temperatures. German chancellor Angela Merkel, who has a doctorate in physics, will reportedly attend.

The Wendelstein 7-x is the largest stellarator fusion device in the world—dubbed the “darkhorse in fusion energy research” and costing €370 million (US$404 million) to build—rivalling the standard tokamak fusion reactor that was developed by Soviet researchers. Researchers were able to carry out the first successful experiment last year, producing helium plasma. Satisfied with the initial results, researchers are setting out to work to produce the first plasma from hydrogen.

Scientists are still many years away from producing a clean and safe form of nuclear power and there have been plenty of setbacks. In the last 60 years, scientists have failed to create a fusion reaction that makes more energy than it consumes.
The international coalition behind a rival, multibillion-dollar ITER fusion project, which aims to show that nuclear fusion is technically feasible, recently announced it would take six years longer than planned to build their device—and require a lot more funding.
Originally published (STORY 1) in RT and (STORY 2) in QUARTZ AFRICA

Tuesday, 2 February 2016

Google Testing Secretive Drone Project That Can Beam 5G Internet — Report

© Mark Blinch / Reuters

Google is reportedly testing a new internet connectivity program called Project Skybender. The project involves solar drones that use millimeter radio waves to allow the transmission of gigabits of data.

The search giant is said to be using drones to beam internet to ground users, with testing beginning last summer at New Mexico’s Spaceport America, according to Guardian sources (see story below). Under the program, solar drones stay afloat for long periods of time and use millimeter radio waves to transmit gigabits of data “up to 40 times more than today’s 4G LTE systems.”

The Guardian reported that Google foresees a future of thousands of high-altitude, “self-flying aircraft delivering internet access around the world.”

Millimeter waves represent the new front for wireless communication as the lower frequencies are almost used up, leading to spectrum shortages and challenges. Both Facebook and Google have been testing aerial devices to provide reliable wireless internet access in remote locations. Facebook itself has acquired Aquila, a solar-powered drone armed with Wi-Fi lasers, while Google had Project Loon, which employs huge floating balloons with transmitters.

Exploiting the higher frequencies would take the pressure off the lower frequencies, and expand wireless communications into the outer limits of radio technology, according to Electronic Design.

Millimeter waves occupy the frequency range of 30 gigahertz (microwave) to 300 gigahertz (infrared). Exploiting them would permit high digital data rates. Currently, the frequency waves are used in radio astronomy or remote sensing. In the lower frequencies, transmission rates are limited to 1 gigabyte, but in the millimeter-wave range, they could reach 10 gigabytes or more.

The drawback with millimeter waves is their limited range. The shorter the wavelength, the shorter the transmission range, and in this case it could limit the spread to 32 miles (10 meters). The loss can be overcome with “good receiver sensitivity, high transmit power, and high antenna gains” according to Electronic Design.

Another drawback is atmosphere, such as ran, fog and any moisture in the air, which can absorb millimeter waves and restrict their range. High-gain antennas are one solution.
Other organizations have already explored the millimeter wave technology. DARPA, the researcher of the US military, began a program called Mobile Hotspots in 2014, designed to provide one gigabit per second internet communications for troops operating in remote areas.
Titan Aerospace's Solara, a company and product acquired by Google. Google has been using these aircraft to test high-speed internet transmitted from the air. (Titan Aerospace)

Project Skybender: Google's Secretive 5G Internet Drone Tests Revealed

Trials at New Mexico’s Spaceport Authority are using new millimetre wave technology to deliver data from drones – potentially 40 times faster than 4G

Google is testing solar-powered drones at Spaceport America in New Mexico to explore ways to deliver high-speed internet from the air, the Guardian has learned.

In a secretive project codenamed SkyBender, the technology giant built several prototype transceivers at the isolated spaceport last summer, and is testing them with multiple drones, according to documents obtained under public records laws.

In order to house the drones and support aircraft, Google is temporarily using 15,000 square feet of hangar space in the glamorous Gateway to Space terminal designed by Norman Foster for the much-delayed Virgin Galactic spaceflights.

The tech company has also installed its own dedicated flight control centre in the nearby Spaceflight Operations Center, separate from the terminal.

Based out of the site near the town called Truth or Consequences, Project SkyBender is using drones to experiment with millimetre-wave radio transmissions, one of the technologies that could underpin next generation 5G wireless internet access. High frequency millimetre waves can theoretically transmit gigabits of data every second, up to 40 times more than today’s 4G LTE systems. Google ultimately envisages thousands of high altitude “self-flying aircraft” delivering internet access around the world.

“The huge advantage of millimetre wave is access to new spectrum because the existing cellphone spectrum is overcrowded. It’s packed and there’s nowhere else to go,” says Jacques Rudell, a professor of electrical engineering at the University of Washington in Seattle and specialist in this technology.

The flight control office at the New Mexico Spaceport Center where Google has been testing solar-powered drones. Photograph: New Mexico Spaceport Authority

Google's drones have exclusive use of the Spaceport’s runway and will even venture above a neighbouring missile range

However, millimetre wave transmissions have a much shorter range than mobile phone signals. A broadcast at 28GHz, the frequency Google is testing at Spaceport America, would fade out in around a tenth the distance of a 4G phone signal. To get millimetre wave working from a high-flying drone, Google needs to experiment with focused transmissions from a so-called phased array. “This is very difficult, very complex and burns a lot of power,” Rudell says.

The SkyBender system is being tested with an “optionally piloted” aircraft called Centaur as well as solar-powered drones made by Google Titan, a division formed when Google acquired New Mexico startup Titan Aerospace in 2014. Titan built high-altitude solar-powered drones with wingspans of up to 50 metres.

Emails between Spaceport America and Google project managers reveal that the aircraft have exclusive use of the Spaceport’s runway during the tests and will even venture above the neighbouring White Sands Missile Range.

Google spent several months last summer building two communication installations on concrete pads at Spaceport America. Project SkyBender is part of the little-known Google Access team, which also includes Project Loon, a plan to deliver wireless internet using unpowered balloons floating through the stratosphere.

One of the millimetre wave transceivers was located near Spaceport America’s Spaceport Operations Centre (SOC), and the other four miles away at the Vertical Launch Area (VLA), although Google’s plans did not involve any rockets. Google also established a repeater tower and numerous other sites around the Spaceport, presumably to test millimetre wave reception.

Both installations have cabinets full of computer servers and other electronics, while the pad at the SOC required a concrete base to support a dish antenna nearly eight feet across, according to a separate filing with the Federal Communications Commissions (FCC).

Work did not proceed smoothly, however. At one point in late August, a lorry showed up at 10.30pm, causing the Spaceport America team to complain to Google: “We have no loading dock and no means to remove a pallet … from the middle of the truck.” The lorry was turned away without making its delivery.

Later, components were installed upside down or supplied by Google without the necessary shelves, nuts and bolts. Near the end of the build in October, Mike Bashore, information systems manager at Spaceport America, even emailed to his Google contact, “We want to run out to Home Depot for grounding straps.” These are needed to protect sensitive electronics from static electricity. The nearest Home Depot hardware shop is over 100 miles from the Spaceport.

Google is not the first organization to work with drones and millimetre wave technology. In 2014, DARPA, the research arm of the US military, announced a program called Mobile Hotspots to make a fleet of drones that could provide one gigabit per second communications for troops operating in remote areas.

Google has permission from the FCC to continue its tests in New Mexico until July. Spaceport America will be glad of the US$300,000 SkyBender tests, as Virgin Galactic virtually mothballed its terminal following the 2014 crash of its prototype SpaceShipTwo vehicle in California. Christine Anderson, chief executive officer of Spaceport America, admits that the facility is now running out of money.

“We are transitioning to supporting all aspects of the spaceport from our operational budget, as the [state] bonds have been spent except for the amount reserved for the southern road,” she wrote in a blog post earlier this month. “We are asking the legislature for US$2.8m ... We appreciate that our request is a lot of money, but we also feel that it is a relatively small amount to protect the state’s US$218.5m investment already made in the new and exciting commercial space industry.”

Google is paying Virgin Galactic US$1,000 a day for the use of a hangar in the Gateway to Space building, but had to split its SkyBender tests into two separate flight campaigns to ease Virgin Galactic concerns. An unnamed Virgin Galactic executive emailed Anderson before the tests to note: “We will be arranging numerous activities around these occupancy periods, which would be impacted if there was any [timing changes].” Google also had to promise not to take any photographs inside the building.

Anderson expects Virgin Galactic to unveil its new SpaceShipTwo at the Spaceport in February, and to begin flights there in 2018.

Google declined to comment.
Originally published in RT (STORY 1) and (STORY 2) The Guardian