There are other cargo drone believers, even outside Silicon Valley. In Europe, there is an entire organization—the Platform Unmanned Cargo Aircraft (PUCA)—devoted to bringing people together around the idea. Their vision of the future would see large cargo planes carrying between 2 and 20 tons of cargo flying relatively slowly and cheaply from places underserved by the existing infrastructure. One controller on the ground could handle 10 to 30 cargo planes flying at less than 300 miles per hour to save fuel. They could travel at all times of night and day, creating a more flexible in-filling logistics service to the current cargo system. In this scenario, cargo drones are like flying buses, not the speedy vanguard of two-minute delivery.
Founded by Dutch business school professor, Hans Heerkens, PUCA hosted a conference earlier this year that saw presentations from Airbus Defense & Space, the Dutch Air Force, and—most intriguingly—the journalist and novelist, Jonathan Ledgard, who is heading up a project with the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology around cargo drones for Africa.
Ledgard, who wrote one of the best novels published this decade in Submergence, shared a draft of their vision with me—and it is fascinating in its mix of high and low technology, pessimism and optimism. He calls the robots in his plan “donkeys.”
“The qualities of a donkey are similar to what is required for a cargo drone: surefooted, dependable, intelligent, able to deal with dust and heat, cheap, uncomplaining,” Ledgard wrote. “The choice of the name ‘donkey’ for cargo drones is deliberate. A donkey is not a Pegasus, associated with speed. It does not bomb, does not monitor. It flies stuff between here and there, that is all.”
He imagines that specific cargo routes will develop in Africa at around Eiffel Tower height in what he calls “the lower sky.” Unlike Google, he does not imagine that they will fly all around; it will not be Uber for stuff one can buy at CVS. “The routes will be geofenced: donkeys will only be able to fly in an air corridor about 200 metres wide and 150 metres high,” Ledgard wrote. “Busier routes will resemble a high-speed ski gondola, without cables or supporting structures.”
At the stops on the route, “every small town will have its own clean energy donkey station” that will “mix 3D printing and other advanced technology with low tech, presaging a Tatooine future where neural circuitry and simple materials will be matter-of-factly combined.”
Ledgard believes “there isn’t going to be enough cash for Africa to build out its roads.” Yet, in previous generations, good roads were an enabling condition for industrialization and realizing jumps in the standard-of-living. How might African nations and citizens experience greater prosperity? The only way, Ledgard has concluded, is through the air.
A decade traveling the continent for The Economist, reporting on everything from jihadis to the spread of cheap Nokia cell phones has convinced him that a technological paradox will permeate poor countries in the 21st century..
“A community will have access to a flying robot even though it will not have access to clean water, or security, or be able to keep its girls in school.”
This may sound absurd, but that doesn’t mean it won’t be the future we live.”
Lab grown thymus
Lab-grown replacement organs have moved a step closer, thanks to a major breakthrough by researchers at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland. Scientists have for the first time grown a complex, fully-functional organ from scratch in a living animal by transplanting cells that were originally created in a laboratory. The researchers created a thymus – an organ next to the heart that produces immune cells known as T cells that are vital for guarding against disease. With further research, this discovery could lead to new treatments for elderly patients and others with a weakened immune system.
The team from the MRC Centre for Regenerative Medicine at the University of Edinburgh took cells called fibroblasts from a mouse embryo. They turned the fibroblasts into a completely different type of cell called thymus cells, using a technique called reprogramming. The new cells changed shape to look like thymus cells and were also capable of supporting development of T cells in the lab – a specialised function that only thymus cells can perform.
When the researchers mixed reprogrammed cells with other key thymus cell types and transplanted them into a live mouse, the cells formed a replacement organ. This new organ had the same structure, complexity and function as a healthy adult thymus. It is the first time that scientists have made an entire living organ from cells that were created outside of the body by reprogramming.
Doctors at Peking University in China have successfully replaced a section of vertebra with a 3D printed implant.
Titanium powder is often used in orthopedic implants, but this is the first time a 3D printer has been used to make a solid 3D object to the exact specifications of a patient. The patient in this case is a 12 year-old boy who was suffering from a malignant tumor on his upper spine. A section of the bone had to be removed to stop the cancer’s spread, but doctors opted to try this new method rather than use a traditional implant, which relies on screws and cement to stay in place.
Because the implant was designed to fit with the surrounding bones between the first and third vertebrae, it needed very little anchoring. Doctors created tiny holes in the implant, which will allow the bone to grow through the metal, eventually incorporating it into the spinal column. Once that happens, there is virtually zero chance of the implant shifting or coming loose.
To ensure safe, timely, and accurate delivery, drones would need to deal with a degree of uncertainty in responding to factors such as high winds, sensor measurement errors, or drops in fuel. But such “what-if” planning typically requires massive computation, which can be difficult to perform on the fly.
Now MIT researchers have come up with a two-pronged approach that significantly reduces the computation associated with lengthy delivery missions. The team first developed an algorithm that enables a drone to monitor aspects of its “health” in real time. With the algorithm, a drone can predict its fuel level and the condition of its propellers, cameras, and other sensors throughout a mission, and take proactive measures — for example, rerouting to a charging station — if needed.
The researchers also devised a method for a drone to efficiently compute its possible future locations offline, before it takes off. The method simplifies all potential routes a drone may take to reach a destination without colliding with obstacles.
In simulations involving multiple deliveries under various environmental conditions, the researchers found that their drones delivered as many packages as those that lacked health-monitoring algorithms — but with far fewer failures or breakdowns.”
"Plants don’t grow in zero gravity," explains Melchiorri. "NASA is researching different ways to produce oxygen for long-distance space journeys to let us live in space. This material could allow us to explore space much further than we can now."
There is one place where this cyberdream is already reality. Secure, authenticated identity is the birthright of every Estonian: before a newborn even arrives home, the hospital will have issued a digital birth certificate and his health insurance will have been started automatically. All residents of the small Baltic state aged 15 or over have electronic ID cards, which are used in health care, electronic banking and shopping, to sign contracts and encrypt e-mail, as tram tickets, and much more besides—even to vote.
Estonia’s approach makes life efficient: taxes take less than an hour to file, and refunds are paid within 48 hours. By law, the state may not ask for any piece of information more than once, people have the right to know what data are held on them and all government databases must be compatible, a system known as the X-road. In all, the Estonian state offers 600 e-services to its citizens and 2,400 to businesses.
Estonia’s system uses suitably hefty encryption. Only a minimum of private data are kept on the ID card itself. Lost cards can simply be cancelled. And in over a decade, no security breaches have been reported. Also issued are two PIN codes, one for authentication (proving who the holder is) and one for authorisation (signing documents or making payments). Asked to authenticate a user, the service concerned queries a central database to check that the card and relevant code match. It also asks for only the minimum information needed: to check a customer’s age, for example, it does not ask, “How old is this person?” but merely, “Is this person over 18?”
That has left a gap in the global market—one that Estonia hopes to fill. Starting later this year, it will issue ID cards to non-resident “satellite Estonians”, thereby creating a global, government-standard digital identity. Applicants will pay a small fee, probably around €30-50 ($41-68), and provide the same biometric data and documents as Estonian residents. If all is in order, a card will be issued, or its virtual equivalent on a smartphone (held on a special secure module in the SIM card).
Some good ideas never take off because too few people embrace them. And with just 1.3m residents, Estonia is a tiddler—even with the 10m satellite Estonians the government hopes to add over the next decade. What may provide the necessary scale is a European Union rule soon to come into force that will require member states to accept each others’ digital IDs. That means non-resident holders of Estonian IDs, wherever they are, will be able not only to send each other encrypted e-mail and to prove their identity to web-service providers who accept government-issued identities, but also to do business with governments anywhere in the EU.
Estonia is being “very clever”, says Stéphanie de Labriolle of the Secure Identity Alliance, an international working group. Marie Austenaa of the GSMA, a global association of mobile-phone firms, praises it too. Allan Foster of ForgeRock, a firm that is working on government ID schemes in Belgium, New Zealand and elsewhere, thinks that the new satellite Estonians will help change attitudes to secure digital identities in their own countries, too.
The scheme’s advantages for Estonia are multiple. It will help it shed the detested “ex-Soviet” tag and promote itself as a paragon of good government and innovation. It will attract investment: once you have an Estonian ID, setting up a company there takes only a few minutes. And it will create an electronic diaspora all over the world with a stake in the country’s survival—no small matter at a time when the threat from Russia is keenly felt. (Estonia is also planning to back up all its national data to secure “digital embassies” in friendly foreign countries.)”
"The device, worn around one’s wrist, works essentially like two extra fingers adjacent to the pinky and thumb. The robot, which the researchers have dubbed "supernumerary robotic fingers," or "SR fingers," consists of actuators linked together to exert forces as strong as those of human fingers during a grasping motion."