Bots on patrol: Mobile security robot to be mass produced

In a move that will rock the job security of night watchmen everywhere, the world’s first commercially available security robot is set for mass production in the US.

Designed by Denver-based Gamma 2 Robotics, the robot will now be manufactured entirely in the States, with a process that can be scaled up to full mass production as demand grows.

The robot, which is known as the Vigilant MCP (mobile camera platform), features a digital camera and an array of sensors to detect the presence of unauthorised intruders, and will activate the alarm and send out an alert should it find someone where they shouldn’t be.

It is being pushed as a solution to night security in particular, with proposed industries including retail, warehouses, data centres and convention centres.

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For professional security workers, the robot could pose a major threat to employment, as it offers key improvements for employers over flesh and blood workers.

“Robots never quit, and they don’t call in sick. They are cost-effective at an average of $4 an hour fixed cost,” explained Gamma 2 Robotics in a company video.

The cost savings can go further – unlike human workers, with the Vigilant MCP employers won’t have to shell out for background checks or drug screening, and won’t even need to leave the lights on as the robot will work happily in the dark.

It can also be equipped with additional sensors to provide other industry-specific benefits. For data centres, for example, the robot can create a heat map to indicate the effectiveness of cooling systems – a valuable service that could be used to make significant savings on energy bills.

The robot, which bears a striking resemblance to an ordering machine outside a drive-thru restaurant, can also be dressed up in the relevant company colours, enabling the automated worker to adhere to company clothing regulations.

Vigilant MCP has already been used for night security at a number of events, including the Denver Maker Faire, and with the interest of the security industry already captured, this number is only going to grow.

However, what will happen to the night security workers who inevitably lose work to the robot is unclear. The robot will never have problems with tiredness or lack of focus, making it near impossible to compete with as a regular human worker.

This is just one example of how developments in robotics are jeopardising human jobs, particularly in fields which are either low-skilled or attention-sapping. The numbers affected at present appear small, although no comprehensive data is available on this at present, but over time job loss to robots could become a major economic concern.


Images courtesy of Gamma 2 Robotics.


Palmer Luckey and the Perils of Social Media

At some point in the last few days, someone has had to have an interesting conversation with Mark Zuckerberg about Palmer Luckey. The 24 year old founder of Oculus has already built himself somewhat of a reputation; anyone who tries to argue with their customers on Reddit is unlikely to come off well,  but recent news coming from The Daily Beast and Motherboard has cast an uglier light on the tech entrepreneur.

According to the reports, Luckey is not only a pro-Trump supporter but also supports Gamergaters. Luckey admitted to donating $10,000 dollars to Nimble America, a group that essentially trolls on behalf of Donald Trump, but claims in a Facebook post it was because “I thought the organisation had fresh ideas on how to communicate with young voters through the use of several billboards.”

Having favourited several tweets from Trump, as well as several mocking SJWs, Luckey’s social media profile is starting to look questionable.

Image and featured image courtesy of eVRydayVR

Image and featured image courtesy of eVRydayVR

Although he doesn’t tweet in support of GamerGate himself, and there is only so much we can read into passively favouriting others’ commentary, the image generated by the opinions he chooses to support isn’t one that we particularly like to see on a man who is one of the leaders of the VR movement.

Luckey is at the forefront of technological innovation and you would hope that he would be reasonably progressive in other areas, particularly given the money invested in him and the mass of attention currently resting on his company.

Virtual reality is not a guaranteed consumer success at this point and given that a fairly significant chunk of consumers interested in the Oculus are also young and progressive, coming out as a far-right supporter of several bigoted movements is unlikely to win much approval for you or your company.

Unsurprisingly, following the news, several VR developers have dropped their support for Oculus.

Image courtesy of Web Summit

Image courtesy of Web Summit

Luckey is now distancing himself from Nimble America, describing himself as a Libertarian who plans to vote for Gary Johnson, the Libertarian Party candidate. There has been no comment on the GamerGate affiliation and both Facebook, and Oculus have simply pointed to Luckey’s personal statement when asked for comment.

Palmer Luckey and Oculus are most likely going to come out of this just fine.

However it sets a worrying precedent for a man who really needs to be seen in a positive light if people are going to follow him down the path of VR. And considering Mark Zuckerberg pretty much directly criticised Trump in his F8 keynote earlier this year, it would maybe serve Luckey well to remember who owns his company now, and present a stronger public front.

True sympathy of course lies with whoever had to deliver the – imagined – message below to Zuckerberg:

“Hey Mark, remember how you bashed Trump’s campaign and want to present a progressive front to the world? Remember how you spent $2bn on Oculus? Well, you might want to take a seat for this.”

Drone ship to recreate voyage of the Mayflower for 400th anniversary

A crowdfunding campaign is being launched to develop an autonomous ship to head up the 400th anniversary of the voyage of the Mayflower from Plymouth, UK, to Plymouth, USA.

The original Mayflower carried the Pilgrims from England to America in 1620, meaning its landmark anniversary will be celebrated in 2020. The new campaign is looking to raise £300,000 for the next design and development stage.

When completed, the Mayflower Autonomous Ship (MAS) will be able to be controlled either by a computer or a shore-based captain utilising a virtual bridge. It will be sailed out of Plymouth via remote control, and will then switch to autonomous control to finish its voyage across the sea.

The ship will be powered by solar energy and will make use of emerging battery and renewable energy capture technologies. In addition, it will have unmanned aerial vehicles and life rafts onboard that can act as a first responder to emergency calls from other mariners.

A rendering of the autonomous ship, which will recreate the landmark voyage in four years time. Image and featured image courtesy of Bowater Communications

A rendering of the autonomous ship, which will recreate the landmark voyage in four years time. Image and featured image courtesy of Bowater Communications

Autonomy is appearing across the vehicle industry, with driverless cars in steady development and planes making use of heavy computer assistance. And while drone cargo ships are already in development, the MAS could well serve as the pilot project for smaller vessels.

Following its celebratory launch, the ship will be capable of various usages, perhaps most notably travelling to inhospitable parts of the world to conduct scientific research and collect data. If proved successful, more such ships could follow; their potential to go into areas otherwise hostile to humans offering up an attractive prospect to the scientific community, as well as others.

“So far we have the plans, the passion, the potential and now all we need is to get it to production,” explains Patrick Dowsett, who spent 30 years in the British Royal Navy, including time as the commander of HMS Northumberland.

“It is ground-breaking in so many ways and will put Plymouth on the global map for marine science excellence. We are offering everyone a chance to get involved in this incredible Devon project. This first stage will nail down the planning, the testing, the project development and the modelling to enable us to start the build of the real thing in 2018.”

A replica of the original Mayflower, which is based in the US. Image courtesy of Joseph Sohm / Shutterstock.com

A replica of the original Mayflower, which is based in the US. Image courtesy of Joseph Sohm / Shutterstock.com

In order to fund the next stage of development, which will include robust wave tank scale-model testing, the team behind the project have opened up a crowdfunding campaign that offers up such rewards as having you or your family’s name marked on the ship.

Larger rewards include invitations to the launch and other VIP events.

The Mayflower Autonomous Ship is a collaborative project between Plymouth submarine builder MSubs, Plymouth University and charitable marine research foundation Promare. It is hoped that the project will see the MAS serve as the flagship of the Mayflower 400 celebrations upon its launch.

The NASA-operated International Space Station’s days are numbered, but that may not be the end of the station itself. We find out how privatising the ISS could be the start of the first city in low-Earth orbit

The clock is ticking on NASA’s time aboard the International Space Station (ISS). The agency has set its sights on targets deeper into space, and the station itself, at least on NASA’s side, is unlikely to last beyond a decade without a significant overhaul.

But that doesn’t mean it’s the end for the ISS. Back in August, Bill Hill, NASA deputy associate administrator for exploration systems development, suggested that the ISS’ future lay with the private sector.

“NASA is trying to develop economic development in low-Earth orbit,” he said during a NASA press conference. “Ultimately, our desire is to hand the space station over to either a commercial entity or some other commercial capability so that research can continue in low-Earth orbit.”

He’s not the only one with this view. “I certainly hope it’s privatised,” says James Muncy, founder of US-based space policy consultancy PoliSpace. “The issue is not just whether or not the International Space Station as the facility exists right now is privatised, the real easy issue is starting in 2024 or thereabouts when NASA has a need for a research capability in low-Earth orbit, do they choose to operate their own space station or do they choose to buy services from a commercial infrastructure provider?”

Running alongside this discussion is the steady growth of the commercial space industry, which according to Michael Suffredini, former NASA manager of the ISS and president of Axiom Space, now accounts for between 30% and 35% of activity on the space station.

The industry is still developing, but right now there is a mood many have compared to the California gold rush. And if privatisation of the space station is successful, this could lead to an explosion of economic activity in low-Earth orbit, and eventually, a city beyond the atmosphere.

Making money in low-Earth orbit

Regular access to low-Earth orbit (LEO), which is what the ISS provides, has proved to be immensely valuable to humanity, both in terms of our understanding and access to the wider universe, and our ability to improve life on Earth.

In addition to offering a space for satellites that do everything from provide communications infrastructure to monitor climate events, LEO is a vital proving ground for missions further into the solar system.

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“We can’t afford to figure [life support] out on the journey to Mars,” said Suffredini, during a talk at the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Space for Inspiration Summit. “You really can’t do a sustained deep-space mission without a low-Earth orbit platform.”

But LEO is beginning to show promise for a wide variety of other purposes, thanks to the efforts of the commercial space industry.

“There are already what I would call experimental things going on,” says Muncy. “You would never build a permanently manned space station in order to pursue these economic opportunities, but given that we have the marginal cost of using the space station, to generate new economic activity makes sense.”

Among these are space 3D printing company Made in Space, which has already begun a project to manufacture optical fibre on the ISS due to the increase in fibre quality that manufacturing in micro-gravity provides. Other materials could see similar benefits, making LEO a potential manufacturing hotbed in the future.

“This is where I think the biggest growth will happen,” added Suffredini. “It won’t happen overnight, but if we keep working at it, it will happen.”

Even satellites could be made there and then launched, cutting deployment times from months to less than a week and allowing them to be quickly added as needed, such as in the event of a volcanic eruption.

Then there’s the demand for private research, space tourism and even sovereign astronauts from non-space-faring nations, all of which make the potential to make money in LEO ever greater.

NASA moves on

For better or for worse, however, NASA’s days running the ISS are numbered.

“Fundamentally NASA has decided that commercialisation of low-Earth orbit is one of our agency objectives,” summarised Marybeth Edeen, ISS research integration office manager for NASA, also speaking at ESA‘s Space for Inspiration Summit.

A key reason for this is the agency’s plans for cis-lunar space and Mars, combined with its modest budget.

You can’t maintain the current programme infrastructure and the new programme simultaneously unless you dramatically increase NASA’s budget, and no one is predicting that that’s going to happen

“There continues to be beneficial things that NASA can do and things that NASA probably needs to do in low-Earth orbit to support human exploration beyond low-Earth orbit, but you can’t afford to spend $4bn a year operating the ISS, including the costs of delivery cargo and crew and things like that, and also mount the missions that you want to mount,” says Muncy.

“You can’t maintain the current programme infrastructure and the new programme simultaneously unless you dramatically increase NASA’s budget, and no one is predicting that that’s going to happen.”

Even if it was able to find the cash, the ISS is likely to hit NASA with a major repair bill before long.

“NASA believes that most of the hardware elements on the non-Russian part of the space station can function through at least probably 2028, plus or minus [a few years], and that’s with spare parts that have already been manufactured,” explains Muncy.

“Well, it may be that some of the core elements on the US side or some of the core elements on the Russian side really can’t function reliably or cost effectively a whole lot longer after 2024, 2027.”

The need for action

For the fledgling commercial space industry, there is an increasingly urgent need to ensure continuity.

“We have to make sure that with the end of ISS activities we will not stop because otherwise nobody will invest, and who invests has to be convinced that we have continuation,” said Fritz Merkle, a member of the management board of OHB System, one of the biggest private space companies in Europe, at the ESA event.

“To do commercial activities on the space station takes 6 to 7 years ‒ who will invest if someone switches off the lights?”

Some have proposed that the industry simply build a new space station, but this would likely come with casualties.

“I would expect some companies would survive, but most would fail if they had to start from the ground up on a new platform,” added Suffredini. “The important part in my mind is the transition.”

Suffredini, though, may have the answer. His company Axiom Space is developing a commercial module for the ISS, and with a deployment date set for 2020, it could represent the start of serious commercial activity on the space station.

“We’re proposing that we build a module to go to the International Space Station first,” he said. “It’ll be a very large module; it will host astronauts.”

Growing the low-Earth orbit economy

The transition to commercialisation is, according to Muncy, set to be led by the increase in the ISS’ population, which will come with the introduction of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program.

Summarised by NASA as “like getting a taxi ride to low-Earth orbit”, this will see SpaceX and Boeing carry astronauts to the ISS for both NASA and ‒ potentially ‒ private companies.

“When commercial crews start functioning in a year to two years for NASA, they will be able to expand the crew size of the international base station fairly dramatically,” explains Muncy.

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Images courtesy of ESA/NASA

Initially, he says, they will be able to up their constant population by just one to 7, with the maximum capacity of the ISS currently running at 12, but this alone would give a significant boost to the amount of time available to undertake commercial research.

“Right now with six people at the space station, NASA and its non-Russian partners share approximately 40 hours a week; basically one person working full-time in space,” he adds.

“With seven people we will immediately have another whole person because you don’t need the next person to actually work on infrastructure of the space station at all. They can effectively work full-time on research. If we can expand the crew size up to 9 or 12 then you’ll have several times more ability to carry out research and commercial experiments on the space station.”

As research opens up more commercial opportunities in LEO, it could kickstart a cycle of growth for the industry that will lead to more people going into space for more reasons.

“We hope that as we lower the costs, as Elon Musk continues to lower the cost of rockets, as Jeff Bezos enters the orbital launch market, you will see price competition in launch, that it will become cheaper to get people up there,” says Muncy.

This, he says, would drive the development of “not very pretty but cost-effective, workable habitats and space facilities built in low-Earth orbit that keep people alive to do research, manufacture things and try out commercial projects.”

“As it becomes less expensive for people to operate in low-Earth orbit, more commercial applications will make sense and you’ll have a virtuous cycle of lower costs, more users, more applications, more new things you can do that are of benefit,” he continues.

“That will drive having more people in space, which will lower the cost of having one person in space, and the cycle continues.”

A permanent home

According to Muncy, this rapid development of the commercial space industry could lead to people living in low-Earth orbit within this century.

“You could absolutely see these very small humble beginnings at ISS lead to – if we privatise it correctly, if we generate new commercial activities correctly, if we find a way for the government to let go of control and to turn more over to free citizens from the nations that helped build the ISS – then you could see cities in space come out of it within 50 years. That’s the reason to have it.

The question is how do we use that first six-person settlement to grow a 12-person settlement? And to grow a 20-person settlement?

“It’s the first human settlement in space. It may only have six people on it, but you have to start somewhere. The question is how do we use that first six-person settlement to grow a 12-person settlement? And to grow a 20-person settlement? And to grow multiple settlements of some number of people so that ultimately you have hundreds of people living in space, and then thousands of people living in space?”

At that point, Muncy says, you have a community where “the normal creativity and enterprise and the ambition and curiosity of humanity takes over,” driving the cost down to a level where at least some of the population can afford it.

“[As] more people visit space, the cost of going into space goes from right now with the Russians about $80 million per person down to $8 million per person. Well how many people at that point could afford either to buy a ticket, or to come up with some sort of economic activity in space that would justify going to space?” he asks.

“Is it billions? No. Is it millions? No. But it is thousands, maybe tens of thousands. And if it’s tens of thousands, then the cost of going into space will go down from millions to perhaps hundreds of thousands. And if it gets down to hundreds of thousands, well then after you’ve worked a long time in your life, or I’ve worked a long time in my life, who knows? We might sell our house and go into space.”

Life goes on

For many, low-Earth orbit could become the new frontier, where new lives can be made and new communities founded.

“It’s not as cheap as getting on a steam ship from Poland in the early 1900s to go to America but it’s still a frontier,” says Muncy.

“It’s still a new place with new rules, new resources and new opportunities, where people who for whatever reason would like to do something new in their lives. It’s going to be hard and risky and expensive, but over time it will become more civilised, and the opportunities will be there for people on Earth with the dream and the motivation and hopefully either some money or the ability to raise the money to go try their ideas.”

In time, perhaps even before 2050, we could see the first children being born in LEO, particularly if efforts are made to develop artificial gravity.

ftr_1609_feature_footer“If there are people living in space for long periods of time and we’ve found a way to deal with the gravitational effects of living in space, by coming up with countermeasures like spinning two modules so you create artificial gravity or whatever; if we can deal with those biological issues that we already know exist, then I see no reason why you couldn’t have conception and birth – certainly live births in space and quite probably conceptions in space.

“We’re not there yet because we don’t have enough people in space and we are too embarrassed to even talk about sex in space. But if people are going to live in space then people are going to reproduce in space.”