Uber’s Self-Driving Taxis Have Hit The Streets


IN BRIEF

Today, Uber’s self-driving autonomous cars began picking up passengers in Pittsburgh. In this first stage of testing, the cars still require a person to monitor progress and ensure that there are no issues.

As part of their bid to build an empire that consists of cars that drive themselves (yes, cars that drive sans driver), Uber just launched partially self-driving taxis. They started rolling along the streets of Pittsburgh today.

But don’t get too excited about taking one for a spin yourself, an engineer will be in the driver’s seat to get things started and make corrections if the car makes a mistake. And notably, the “partially autonomous” part is of importance, as  drivers are always supposed to keep their hands loosely on the steering wheel so they can takeover when needed. To clarify, the car is the one doing the driving, but humans are needed for oversight.

A touch-screen is located in the backseat in order to give passengers all of the trip details, and a “liquid-cooled” computer will also be on-board, recording trip and map data in the trunk.

Uber self-driving test. Credit: Uber
Uber self-driving test. 

Hoping to hire the taxi yourself? That may be difficult, as individuals will be randomly assigned a self-driving car when they request an UberX ride on their app. But! Passengers who take a ride in the experimental self-driving cars will get their trip for free.

Notably, Uber plans to install self-driving kits into existing vehicles rather than build fully autonomous cars from the ground up. To that end, last month Uber acquired Otto, a company that works on retrofitting heavy-duty freight haulers on the highway in order to turn them into self-driving trucks.

Otto’s LIDAR (light detection and ranging) sensor technology detects infrared emissions to help monitor speed, and is geared to be adapted for use in Uber’s autonomous vehicles.

The future, my friends, truly is now.

Meet LiDAR: The Amazing Laser Technology That’s Helping Archaeologists Discover Lost Cities


Space lasers developed in the 1970s are being put to a brand-new use.

Archaeologists have discovered several medieval cities, buried beneath the forest floor in Cambodia: the largest is said to rival the modern Cambodian capital, Phnom Penh, in size. It’s a monumental discovery, based on two major archaeological surveys of the area around Siem Reap, not far from the famous temple complex of Angkor Wat in the heartlands of the ancient Khmer culture.The Conversation

Once, an archaeologist would have spent their entire career hacking through the jungle, machete in hand, in order to map these ruins. But thanks to the clever use of airborne laser scanning technology, the entire project took just three years. Such is the incredible power of Lidar—short for “light detection and ranging”—an innovation which is causing great excitement throughout the archaeological world.

From 2012 to 2015, archaeologist Damian Evans and his team used Lidar technology, mounted on helicopters, to map some 2,230km² with an accuracy of +/- 150mm. With 16 data points measured every square metre, the researchers were not only able to pinpoint well-known monumental stone structures in exquisite detail, they also discovered the massive urban cultures which surrounded these temples, identifiable by the remains of earthworks such as mounds, canals, roads and quarries.

Lidar was first developed in the early 1970s to assist with space exploration; it was initially used on the Apollo 15 mission to map the surface of the moon. As its name suggests, the technology uses lasers to measure distance. When linked to a high precision GPS and mounted on an aerial platform, such as a plane or helicopter, it can produce a three-dimensional point cloud of the land surface below.

This technology is very exciting for archaeologists. Not only can it rapidly map huge areas of ancient landscapes, but the lasers are actually able to “see through” vegetation by multiple scans and by recording several reflections from a single pulse. By carefully choosing the correct time of year, when the leaf coverage is reduced, it is possible to record landscapes in tropical environments—a feat which ground-based archaeologists have always had great difficulty with, due to dense plant coverage and often poor GPS reception.

A DIFFERENT PICTURE

With these findings, a completely novel view of the Khmer culture is emerging, which brings into question what we know about a great many other ancient civilisations.

So far, the great tropical civilisations of the world have remained some of the most enigmatic. Although they have produced great stone monuments, archaeologists still have many unanswered questions about how they operated, where their populations lived and how large they were.

This applies not just to the Khmer of Cambodia, but to civilisations throughout southeast Asia; from Srivijaya in Sumatra, to Borobudur in Java. Similarly, in Africa, we know little about the great kingdoms of Kongo or Benin, which are still largely covered in forest.

Lidar may well help us find answers to some of these questions. Already, Lidar is beginning to enrich our understanding of Mayan civilisation, especially the extensive field systems, which were used to support large cities. In Honduras, a large number of ancient sites have been foundbelonging to a largely unknown culture. And in Amazonia, settlements and fields are now beginning to emerge from beneath the rain forest canopy, thanks to remote sensing.

These results are more than just pretty pictures of ancient sites. They have the potential to challenge our understanding of the collapse of ancient civilisations. For example, they show that many areas which were once thought to be rainforest, actually used to be cleared, and sustained significant populations. They also show that many of the great ceremonial centres which are now engulfed in foliage, were once surrounded by large cities, with populations of hundred of thousands—or even millions—of people.

In often-fragile ecosystems, reliant on a stable climate, it is now much easier to see how environmental change might have contributed to the collapse of these ancient civilisations. As a result, many ideas about the collapse of ancient societies, such as those promoted by Jared Diamond—who emphasises social, political and economic factors—may require some significant rethinking.

WHAT COST?

There are, of course, several problems with this technology. One is cost: the Cambodia survey was generously funded by the European Research Council, but access to both the equipment and the planes would be limited for most archaeologists. Some of the landscapes may be too remote to even reach by light aircraft or helicopter, or local authorities may ban such flights.

Placing Lidar technology onto drones may solve this issue in the future, but at present there have been only limited examples of their use in tropical zones. Given the scale of some of these sites, and the minimum height required (around 800m) a plane will remain the preferred method for now.

There is also the problem of ground-truthing. While these Lidar images are amazing, they do require careful interpretation and validation. Some may well show ancient features, but others may be quite modern in origin. So the archaeologist with their machete may not be entirely redundant—in fact, with this new technology at hand, they may be even more important than before.

Mark Horton does

Camera takes 3D photos in the dark


3D images of mannequinOn the left is an image created using current technology – the photo on the right was produced from the MIT team‘s new camera technology
A camera that can create 3D-images in almost pitch black conditions has been developed by researchers at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The team captured images of objects, using just single particles of light, known as a photons.

“Billions” of photons would be required to take a photo using the camera on a mobile phone.

The researchers say the technology could be used to help soldiers on combat operations.

Ahmed Kirmani, who wrote the paper containing the findings, said the research has been called “counter-intuitive” as normally the number of photons detected would tell you how bright an image was.

“With only one photon per pixel you would expect the image to be completely featureless,” he told the BBC.

Combat advantage

The camera technology already existed and is similar to the Lidar system used by Google for its Streetview service he explained.

Mannequin with laser
Lidar uses laser pulses and the team used the reflected photons to create their 3D image

“We borrowed the principles form this, the detectors can identify single photons but they still need hundreds of thousands to form images. But we took the system to its limit.”

Lidar uses a laser to fire pulses of light towards an object in a grid sequence. Each location on the grid corresponds to a pixel in the final image.

Normally the laser would fire a large number of times at each grid position and detect multiple reflected photons.

In contrast the system used by the MIT team moved on to the next position in the grid as soon as it had detected a single photon.

A conventional Lidar system would require about 100 times as many photons to make a similar image to the one the team captured which means the system could provide “substantial savings in energy and time”.

The team say the technology could be used in many different fields. It could help ophthalmologists when they want to create an image of a patient’s eye without having to shine a bright light in someone’s eye.

The research was part funded by the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency which commissions research for the Department of Defense. Mr Kirmani said the military could use the technology to allow soldiers to see in the dark, giving them an advantage in combat situations.

Slide from MIT presentation
Current 3D imaging techniques require more than single photons unlike the team’s new system

“Any technology that enhances a military’s ability to navigate, target or engage in near-total darkness would be highly prized. 3D imagery married with existing imagery and navigation technologies could significantly enhance the capabilities currently possessed,” said Reed Foster, a defence analyst at IHS.

Eventually, the researchers explain, the technology could be developed to make 3D cameras for mobile phones. The camera requires less light than the ones currently available and therefore uses less power.

Camera takes 3D photos in the dark


A camera that can create 3D-images in almost pitch black conditions has been developed by researchers at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

3D images of mannequin

The team captured images of objects, using just single particles of light, known as a photons.

“Billions” of photons would be required to take a photo using the camera on a mobile phone.

The researchers say the technology could be used to help soldiers on combat operations.

Ahmed Kirmani, who wrote the paper containing the findings, said the research has been called “counter-intuitive” as normally the number of photons detected would tell you how bright an image was.

“With only one photon per pixel you would expect the image to be completely featureless,” he told the BBC.

Combat advantage

The camera technology already existed and is similar to the Lidar system used by Google for its Streetview service he explained.

Mannequin with laser
Lidar uses laser pulses and the team used the reflected photons to create their 3D image

“We borrowed the principles form this, the detectors can identify single photons but they still need hundreds of thousands to form images. But we took the system to its limit.”

Lidar uses a laser to fire pulses of light towards an object in a grid sequence. Each location on the grid corresponds to a pixel in the final image.

Normally the laser would fire a large number of times at each grid position and detect multiple reflected photons.

In contrast the system used by the MIT team moved on to the next position in the grid as soon as it had detected a single photon.

A conventional Lidar system would require about 100 times as many photons to make a similar image to the one the team captured which means the system could provide “substantial savings in energy and time”.

The team say the technology could be used in many different fields. It could help ophthalmologists when they want to create an image of a patient’s eye without having to shine a bright light in someone’s eye.

The research was part funded by the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency which commissions research for the Department of Defense. Mr Kirmani said the military could use the technology to allow soldiers to see in the dark, giving them an advantage in combat situations.

Slide from MIT presentation
Current 3D imaging techniques require more than single photons unlike the team’s new system

“Any technology that enhances a military’s ability to navigate, target or engage in near-total darkness would be highly prized. 3D imagery married with existing imagery and navigation technologies could significantly enhance the capabilities currently possessed,” said Reed Foster, a defence analyst at IHS.

Eventually, the researchers explain, the technology could be developed to make 3D cameras for mobile phones. The camera requires less light than the ones currently available and therefore uses less power.

Dolphin-inspired bomb radar tested.


A dolphin
Dolphins send out signals in pairs to help target prey

British engineers have taken inspiration from dolphins for a new type of radar that could help detect roadside bombs more easily.

The device sends out two pulses instead of one, mimicking how dolphins pinpoint their prey.

The twin inverted pulse radar (TWIPR) can distinguish between the electronics at the heart of an explosive and other “clutter” such as pipes or nails.

Experts said the system “showed promise”.

The radar device has been developed by a team led by Prof Tim Leighton, of the University of Southampton, and scientists from University College, London.

Strong signal

Prof Leighton took his inspiration from the way dolphins are able to process their sonar signals to pinpoint prey in bubbly water.

Some dolphins blow bubble nets around schools of fish to force them to cluster together.

Their sonar would not work if they could not distinguish the fish from the bubbles.

He wanted to see if the same technique would work with radio waves, and so developed a system that also sent out pulses in pairs.

Traditional radar typically sends out just one pulse.

The device his team came up with was just 2cm in size and cost less than £1 to put together.

The second pulse has the reverse polarity of the first.

“Start Quote

Any technology that increases the probability of detecting IEDs [improvised explosive device] or buried earthquake victims while reducing false alarms will undoubtedly save lives”

Gary Kemp Cambridge Consultants

This means that if it hits an electronic device, it turns the pulse into a positive, which in turn gives off a very strong signal.

In tests the team applied the radar pulses to an antenna typical of the circuitry used in explosive devices, which was surrounded by “clutter” metals.

The antenna showed up 100,000 times more powerfully than the other metal “clutter”.

Animal super-senses

Such a device could also be extremely helpful in finding surveillance device as well as bombs, the team said.

It could even help locate people buried after an avalanche or earthquake by detecting their mobile phones.

“Such technology could also be extended to other radiations, such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and light detection and ranging (Lidar)… offering the possibility of early fire detection systems,” said Prof Leighton.

Gary Kemp, programme director at technology consultancy Cambridge Consultants, said that the system “shows promise”.

He said: “We continue to take inspiration from the many animal super-senses found in nature, whether from the sophisticated echolocation techniques used by bats and cetaceans or the remarkable chemical detection ability of dogs and bees.

“Any technology that increases the probability of detecting IEDs [improvised explosive device] or buried earthquake victims while reducing false alarms will undoubtedly save lives,” he added.

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