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Radio’s Sordid History Of Being Blamed For Everything

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In the surreal world of a pandemic lockdown, we are surrounded by news stories that defy satire. The idea that 5G cellular networks are to blame for the COVID-19 outbreak and a myriad other ills has the more paranoid corners of social media abuzz with concerned citizens leaping upon random pieces of street furniture as potential 5G infrastructure.

The unanimous advice of the world’s scientists, doctors, and engineers that it is inconceivable for a phone technology to cause a viral outbreak. Amusingly, 5G has not yet been rolled out to some of the places where this is happening. But with conspiracy theory, fact denial only serves to reinforce the idea, however misguided. Here at Hackaday we have already ventured into the technical and scientific side of the story, but there is another side to it that leaves the pandemic behind and reaches back over the decades. Fear of new technology and in particular radio is nothing new, it stretches back almost as long as the public has had access to it.

This innocent-looking Royal Mail post box in an English village could conceal a hidden 5G mast! (If only! – finally, decent bandwidth around here.)

Where this is being written, in a quiet corner of rural Southern England, we don’t have a good mobile signal. In part this is due to an ineffectual roll-out of cell towers across the country going back decades, but in particular it is due to the residents of a neighbouring village who successfully campaigned against a proposed mast during the 3G deployment over a decade ago.

Browsing the archives it rapidly becomes obvious that we aren’t alone, with fears of everything from headaches to cancer clusters being blamed on cell towers worldwide since their arrival on the scene. But the archives also reveal a parallel set of stories from the 1920s, when it wasn’t the centimetre and millimetre wavelengths of mobile phone signals in play, but the much lower frequencies of AM radio.

Fear And Mistrust In The Age Of Marconi

There have been quasi-humorous compilations of seemingly-absurd small-town headlines on the subject, but it’s interesting to note that this was not restricted to superstitious peasants, instead reaching to the top of some societies. In a distant precursor to some of today’s pronouncements from on high, in 1926 the French statesman Paul Painlevé, then Minister for War, blamed a spell of unusually wet and stormy weather on radio transmissions. This was quickly debunked by meteorologists, who instead fingered sunspot activity as a more likely culprit.

As if to prove that we are a set of actors performing the same character roles separated by a century, it was not difficult to find a 1920s technical journalist willing to go into battle just as we have on 5G. Hugo Gernsback was editor of Science and Invention, and in October 1924 he felt it necessary to pen a lengthy editorial debunking the idea (PDF, turn to page 13). Some of his claims of the health-giving properties of radio lack substance from a 21st century viewpoint, but we can certainly see a parallel. Perhaps in a hundred years time another exasperated scribe will write a piece for whatever medium serves the thirst for tech news debunking fears about quantum entanglement communication heralding the end of the world.

Pro Science, Not Anti Testing

Advert: "DDT is good for me-e-e!"
There must be times in every copywriter’s life when they wish they could go back and change what they’ve written. Courtesy of Science History Institute (Public Domain).

It is right and proper to question new technologies for potential harm as they emerge, lest they conceal another tragedy such as Thalidomide-related birth defects or leave a toxic legacy such as DDT accumulation in the ecosystem. It is even right to question new developments in the light of emerging scare stories such that surrounding the MMR vaccine and its supposed connection to autism in the 1990s. This is the point of science; to always question and push the boundaries of human knowledge.

But this article is not dealing with the evidence-based research. Instead we are up against a much more primeval part of human nature;  the fear of that which we don’t understand. The same impetus that made some of our ancestors burn suspected witches when their livestock became sick is making them ascribe random headaches or other pieces of bad luck to the appearance (or in the case of those random pieces of street furniture, imagined appearance) of a cell tower. While the concerned citizens will almost certainly all use cellphones, to them they are a magic artifact covered in glowing runes that might as well have been seized from the dust of a hidden tomb as part of the plot of an Indiana Jones movie.

Are we as engineers and technologists in part responsible for this? Have we made the technology so invisible as to be considered witchcraft? The purpose of technology should be to make lives better, and for that to extend to everyone it means you shouldn’t need an engineering background to use it. So yes, we have made it invisible and perhaps were we’ve been lax is in making the basic concepts a part of the hype for cell technology itself. But no matter how good a job is done in educating the end user, to exercise the vernacular of social media: idiots gonna idiot.

Header image, a broadcast radio curtain array: MikeincDerivative work: Chetvorno / CC BY-SA 3.0.



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How Do Delivery Robots Work? How They Safely Deliver Your Packages

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A distant future involving robotic package deliveries is now very much a reality. Advances in robotics, GPS tracking, automation, and navigation now mean you might not find a delivery person at your door with your package.

You might find a delivery robot instead.

With semi-autonomous robots beginning to enter the world, here’s a look at how delivery robots work.

What Is a Delivery Robot?

A delivery robot is an automated robot that brings your delivery directly to your door. These robots aren’t walking and talking humanoids; rather, these robots are cute delivery containers on six wheels, resembling giant (but friendly-looking!) bugs.

As with other delivery services, you make your purchases through an app with vendors based on your location. The robot trundles to the vendor—whether for shopping, food, drinks, or otherwise—and then it makes its way to your home.

How Does a Delivery Robot Work?

The primary example of delivery robots in action comes from Starship Technologies, a company based out of San Francisco with engineering facilities in Estonia and Finland. Starship Technologies is the brainchild of Skype co-founders Janus Friis and Anti Heinla, and they are currently the largest “last mile” delivery robot company around.

So, how does an autonomous delivery robot make a delivery?

The robots have a cargo capacity of around 9kg, can travel at a maximum speed of 4 mph, weigh around 25kg, and cost over $5,000 to manufacture. The delivery robot uses many of the same features as an autonomous car: 10 cameras for 360-degree vision, several ultrasonic sensors, GPS navigation, measurement units, gyroscopes, and much more.

How Do Delivery Robots Navigate?

The route between a vendor and a delivery point might look A-to-B if you plug the locations into a navigation app… but there are extra considerations for a delivery robot, including sidewalks, crossings, driveways, humans, animals, vehicles, and so on.

Starship’s robots calculate a route based upon the shortest distance and satellite imagery detailing the route. Each feature on the route (crossings, driveways, etc.) receives a time calculation, which the robot factors into route selection and delivery time.

Over time, the robots build a collaborative memory of an area, creating a wireframe map of constant features (buildings, crossings, statues, pathways, etc.) and ensuring that future journeys through the area are faster. The collaborative area-building makes navigation easier for every robot in the vicinity, with all units contributing to building out the local map.

But navigation isn’t always smooth sailing. Aside from regular navigational dilemmas, a malfunctioning robot comes with its own problems. For example, a Starship robot in Milton Keynes malfunctioned—and drove straight into a canal.

Does Anyone Control the Delivery Robot?

While the Starship Technology robots are autonomous, they are not disconnected from their operators. If a robot comes up against a significant challenge, such as a particularly massive curb (they can climb up and over regular sidewalk curbs), a human operator can take control and find a solution.

But for the most part, the robots are designed to take everything into account, focusing strongly on the sidewalk. Delivery robots sharing the same routes as pedestrians has all the potential for irritation.

All these potential issues are all considered, but the robots must learn the correct way to interact with humans. How many times have you faced the awkward situation of walking at a similar pace to someone just ahead of you? Do you speed up to pass, then continue walking faster? Do you slow down to give them time to move further ahead? Is your destination close enough so that you don’t need to overtake?

The delivery robots are learning how to solve these problems, as well as countless others.

If you want to get involved with robotics, check out these DIY robotic arm kits.

How Do You Order Take-Out From a Robot?

Starship’s robotic delivery team are currently operating in several US cities but in limited geographic areas. For example, you can order via Starship at Arizona State University, in Fairfax City, Virginia, or Modesto, California—but only in a limited area. The images below show the delivery areas for those respective locations:

If the vendor you want to order from and your delivery address are with the bounds of the robot, you can order from the Starship Delivery app. The app displays a list of vendors you can make an order with. You place your order, and a local delivery robot makes its way to the vendor to pick up your order. The robot then trundles to your front door. You track the delivery robot using an app, as well as unlock the secure cargo compartment, too.

The Starship Technologies delivery service costs $1.99 per delivery.

For vendors, the reality is slightly different. The delivery robots are cute and get the job done, but Starship’s terms of partnership can take up to a 20% cut per delivery, after a free month’s trial of the service.

Delivery Robots and COVID-19

The 2020 COVID-19 pandemic provided a new and interesting dynamic for Starship Technologies and its delivery robots. With huge numbers of people entering lockdown at differing times and with many people attempting to self-isolate and socially distance from the general public, the delivery robots present a perfect non-human delivery system.

In Milton Keynes, UK, the demand for robot deliveries rose significantly during the early stages of the UK COVID-19 lockdown. The US cities and university campuses also saw similar demand for robotic, almost zero-human interaction deliveries. For those on at-risk lists due to pre-existing conditions or healthcare workers struggling to purchase groceries after a long shift, robotic deliveries are a vital lifeline.

Does Amazon Have Delivery Robots?

Starship Technologies was the first company to use delivery robots as its core delivery method. Recognizing that last-mile delivery is a phenomenally large market is a masterstroke. But the world’s largest online marketplace, Amazon, isn’t far behind.

Amazon Scout is another six-wheeled robot that moves across sidewalks and crossings at walking pace, but this one brings your Amazon delivery directly to your door. Scout is currently available to Amazon customers in the area near Amazon’s headquarters in Seattle, as well as Irving, California, with recent trial expansions to Atlanta, Georgia and Franklin, Tennessee.

Delivery Robots Are Coming to Your Home

A friendly delivery robot bringing curry to your door is charming and is a reality for millions of people. The rollout of delivery robots won’t be overnight, and there are significant challenges for the delivery robotics sector, as well as rural communities.

If you like the sound of robots, check out these robots that’ll do your chores!

Image Credit: JHVEPhoto/Shutterstock

Read the full article: How Do Delivery Robots Work? How They Safely Deliver Your Packages



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Letter-writing staved off lockdown loneliness. Now it’s getting out the vote.

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For the past couple of years, Courtney Cochran hosted a Nashville-based meetup group called the Snail Mail Social Club. Before the pandemic, it involved people gathering, pen and paper in hand, to write letters together. “It was a fun social endeavor,” Cochran says. “You got some face-to-face connecting time with people.”

When the coronavirus made meeting impossible, a friend suggested she set up a pandemic version. So she started an Instagram account, offering to connect potential pen pals. Shut In Social Club was born.

It blew up—so much so that Cochran had to create Google sheets and forms to help match up writers. And when the American Association of Retired Persons ran a feature on pandemic pen pal programs in its magazine, she had “a deluge.” She says she has already matched hundreds of people. As we talk, she gasps while she’s scrolling through sheets: “Lord, a lot of people still need to be matched up!”

Of course, there’s nothing new about writing letters. But a combination of social distancing measures and a volatile political year has made the traditional act of putting pen to paper suddenly more attractive than just shooting an email or an emoji-filled text. Beyond Instagram-fueled social projects for people in quarantine, letter writing has become a form of retro-political activism to help get out the vote.

“It’s a thoughtful and generous act”

The isolation we all felt during lockdown has been a central theme for many of the letter-writing projects that sprang up in recent months. For example, Dear Loneliness was brainstormed over Zoom by three students as an interactive art project in which people write letters about their experiences with isolation and upload pictures of them to the site to create a constantly evolving, public-sourced gallery.

Since June, Dear Loneliness has collected about 35,000 letters. “We’ve been really surprised by the similarities between some of them,” Sarah Lao, one of the student cofounders, says. “We’ve read through quite a few letters about Zoom, suffocating family dinners, the role of sound and music, birthdays and anniversaries, and racially charged encounters. When we look at everyone’s nationalities, it becomes clear that we’re all more similar in how we experience loneliness than we might expect.”

While Instagram was home to many mail art accounts pre-pandemic, interest in writing letters—and documenting them online—has grown. In a report published in April about the impact of covid-19 on the US Postal Service, 17% of people reported sending more letters and postcards than usual. More than half of respondents agreed that sending letters gave them a unique connection with the recipient.

“It’s a thoughtful and generous act,” says avid letter writer Caroline Weaver. “You have no control over how long a letter takes to get to someone. You’re putting your faith in the universe to get this beautiful piece of communication out where it’s going.”

Write, stamp, vote

But letter writing is about more than just nostalgia, connection, or whimsy. Weaver—the owner of CW Pencil Enterprise, a pencil shop in New York, and a lifelong lover of stationery—has always been a letter writer. She says she generally sends about 40 letters a month, and she documents mail art frequently on her and her store’s Instagram. But recently, she’s been sending 100 letters a week as a form of activism—to members of Congress about Breonna Taylor’s murder, to family members to urge them to vote, and more. She’s even created a Google doc of addresses to make it easy for people to send letters to politicians.

Letters have an advantage over clicking automated forms online, she says. “They [congressional staff] can’t ignore it,” she says. “They can ignore an email, but they have to open and read and log a letter.”

In the US, even sending mail that’s not explicitly political has become an inherently political act.

The USPS had always been financially strapped, and this year matters got worse. In May, Louis DeJoy—who’d never held a position in the postal service—was appointed postmaster general. Almost immediately, he slashed overtime; coupled with social distancing measures, this led to widespread (and, in many areas, continued) delivery lags. During this election year, that gave rise to questions and worries about mail-in voting in the midst of a pandemic.

One result has been calls to #savetheusps by buying stamps and writing more letters. In April Christina Massey, a Brooklyn-based artist, created Artists for the USPS, an Instagram-driven group that connected amateur and professional artists in pairs, all as part of a move to help support the service. One person would start a piece of mail art and then send it to a recipient, who would finish it. Writing a letter became a patriotic act, and Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez went so far as to propose a (yet to be seen) national pen pal program in her Instagram stories.

Meanwhile other groups have been using organized letter-writing to urge voters to the polls in November. In April, a coalition of progressive organizations organized the Big Send. The idea is that volunteers sign up to write letters, stamp them, and hold them until late October, when they will be sent en masse to battleground-state voters across the country. 

That might sound insane in 2020—why not send text messages? Emails? Even flyers? Especially in the midst of mail delivery chaos?

“It’s a noisy information environment,” says Scott Forman, the founder of Vote Forward, one of the organizations behind the Big Send. “Once you open a letter and you see that a fellow citizen cared enough to spend five minutes of their time and 60 cents in supplies to send you this thing and it’s respectful and personal, that’s an entirely different weight, and it feels more significant.”

Forman carried out his own experiment to see if it worked. In 2017, he accessed public voting records and hand-wrote 1,000 letters to Alabama voters, urging them to vote in a special election for a US Senate seat. He compared voter turnout rates with a control group of 6,000 people who didn’t get letters. Forman’s informal analysis showed that people who got the letters were more likely to vote.

Forman tried this method again in 2018’s midterm elections. This time, he worked with colleagues and volunteers to write letters from home. Letter receivers voted at rates of “one to three percentage points higher,” he says, “which might not sound like a ton, but that’s pretty competitive with get-out-the-vote initiatives.”

After this voting cycle, he’ll have a lot of data points to play with. “We have tens of thousands of users, and volunteers are writing exponentially now, at about 140,000 letters a day over the last two months,” Forman says. On September 9, the Big Send announced they’d reached 5 million letters, with about a month to reach their goal of 10 million in all. Forman is confident they will.

Much of this type of activity has been driven by Instagram, where stories and posts encourage young people to sign up and write letters to get out the vote. 

It’s not only letters. Postcards are also fast gaining popularity as Instagrammable activism. The Sunrise Movement, a youth climate-change initiative, is aiming to send 1 million postcards to voters (as of this writing, the postcards are sold out).

Postcards to Voters is a similar effort, with a bot that sends voter addresses to volunteer writers. According to the founder, Tony McMullin, 660,000 postcards have been sent so far, and the group is well on its way to exceeding the 2 million postcards sent in 2018. 

For him, postcards have clear advantages. “They’re only 35 cents [per card, compared with 55 cents for a standard letter],” he says. “I think of postcards as an open-face sandwich: You know what’s inside without any effort. You [the postcard] won’t be eyed with suspicion [as a piece of junk mail]. It’s less intimidating. It’s short—it doesn’t take a long time to read.”

Like Vote Forward, the group is heavily female. It leans older but has a wide spectrum of ages, from teens to the elderly. Zoom marathon sessions are common, and users are encouraged to Instagram their work.

Courtesy: Linda Yoshida

Courtesy: Linda Yoshida

Linda Yoshida—arguably Instagram’s most prominent calligrapher, with 19,000 followers—has been sending postcards to representatives since 2017, embellishing them with gorgeous calligraphy and documenting them on her Instagram account. 

That’s partly a strategy. “I hope my calligraphed envelopes stand out in the Capitol Hill mailrooms and make staffers open them first, and my postcards to voters get a second glance rather than being tossed into the junk mail pile,” she says.

Courtesy: Linda Yoshida

And that’s ultimately what makes snail mail possibly more powerful than an email or text. During a divisive election season amped up by a pandemic, the ability to connect is valuable. It’s universally available, it’s affordable, and it can be as simple as a note scrawled on a postcard or as complex as a work of calligraphy. And with a quick upload onto Instagram, it’s an easy, effective way to push for policy change while stuck at home.

As Weaver says, “Never underestimate the power of a written letter. It’s a bigger thing than just letter writing.”



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Closely Examining How A PG&E Transmission Line Claimed 85 Lives In The 2018 Camp Fire

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In 2018, the Camp Fire devastated a huge swathe of California, claiming 85 lives and costing 16.65 billion dollars. Measured in terms of insured losses, it was the most expensive natural disaster of the year, and the 13th deadliest wildfire in recorded history.

The cause of the fire was determined to be a single failed component on an electrical transmission tower, causing a short circuit and throwing sparks into the dry brush below – with predictable results. The story behind the failure was the focus of a Twitter thread by [Tube Time] this week, who did an incredible job of illuminating the material evidence that shows how the disaster came to be, and how it could have been avoided.

Mismanagement and Money

The blame for the incident has been laid at the feet of Pacific Gas and Electric, or PG&E, who acquired the existing Caribou-Palermo transmission line when it purchased Great Western Power Company back in 1930. The line was originally built in 1921, making the transmission line 97 years old at the time of the disaster. Despite owning the line for almost a full century, much of the original hardware was not replaced in the entire period of PG&Es ownership. Virtually no records were created or kept, and hardware from the early 20th century was still in service on the line in 2018.

The failed C hook which caused the 2018 Camp Fire. Note the rust marks on the face of the broken hook, indicating slow, gradual wear prior to failure.

In the hours after the Camp Fire began, investigators working to establish the cause found a broken C hook beneath Tower #27/222 on the Caribou-Palermo line. The C hook is responsible for supporting an insulator, which holds the high-voltage jumper conductor in position. When the C hook broke, the jumper conductor fell, striking the tower, with the resulting short circuit throwing sparks into the vegetation below, starting the Camp Fire. With a PG&E helicopter spotted in the area, investigators worked fast to secure the area as a crime scene, with evidence collected and sent for further analysis.

The resulting grand jury report released in June of 2020 as PG&E entered their guilty plea is damning in its conclusions. The failed left-side C hook, along with the insulator and jumper conductor that started the fire, were all determined to be original components in continuous service since 1921. Additionally, PG&E were found to have virtually no information or records of the equipment on Tower #27/222. Pictures taken of the hook showed significant wear over time, before finally failing on November 8, 2018.

The still-intact right hand side C hook recovered from Tower #27/222. Note the significant wear on the hook. PG&E did not enact a comprehensive inspection and maintenance plan for these components.

Further evidence suggested serious negligence on the part of Pacific Gas and Electric. Despite a lack of records, recovered components of Tower #27/222 indicated prior knowledge of a need for maintenance on the line. Both the left and right side C hooks were mounted on plates bolted to the tower, through holes that showed significant wear. These plates had been installed as the original holes for mounting C hooks on the tower were almost entirely worn through with similar keyhole wear. The wear was caused over many years, as the C hook moved back and forth in the slot due to wind. The fact that the plates had been installed indicated that PG&E knew the C hook attachments needed attention over time. Despite this, PG&E were unable to field any records of when, why, or by whom the plates had been fabricated and installed.

On Tower #27/222, new hanger plates for the C hooks had been bolted on due to wear on the original hanger holes, clearly visible here. Note that even the newer hanger plate shows significant keyhole wear. This indicated that PG&E were at some point aware that the hangers required maintenance, yet failed to take it seriously in the years hence.

The investigation also goes further, revealing a “Run To Failure” ethos within the company, with no regard for potential negative outcomes. It bears remembering that Pacific Gas and Electric were found guilty of six felony charges for the 2010 San Bruno gas line explosion. In both cases, investigators found a radically inadequate approach to safety and maintenance, with fatal results. In the case of the Caribou-Palermo line, largely untrained workers were used to perform trivial inspections by helicopter, that fundamentally consisted of a visual check as to whether or not the tower was still standing. Cost cutting was endemic as far as inspection and maintenance was concerned, aiming to increase the operation’s profitability, with little regard to the possible consequences of an equipment failure.

Overall, the failures of Pacific Gas and Electric in the running of the Caribou-Palermo line were multitude and varied. At the very first instance, with almost no records of the infrastructure’s hardware or condition, it was simply not possible for the company to have any idea if there was a problem in the first place. Additionally, with an approach of saving costs on inspections in order to avoid finding problems that need costly solutions, the company all but guaranteed an expensive and dangerous failure. The fact that it took a full 88 years to happen since the company purchased the line is perhaps more down to sheer luck than anything, and the foresight of whoever did an interim replacement of hanger plates at an unknown point in the past. Fundamentally, the company’s active efforts to cut costs and maximise profits, as well as a total disregard for proper engineering practice, resulted in the deaths of 85 innocent people. It’s a disaster we would do well to learn from.



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