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Fossil discovery shows how ancient ‘hell ants’ hunted with metal headgear



Researchers discover the fossil of a ‘hell ant’ preserved in amber. (Credits: NJIT / SWNS)

A new fossil discovery shows how ancient ‘hell ants’ hunted with metal headgear and vertically-grasping pincers.

The 99-million-year-old amber fossil has pristinely preserved the hellish predator as it embraced its unsuspecting final victim, an ancient relative of the cockroach.

The ancient encounter recovered from Myanmar, offers a detailed glimpse at how the prehistoric hell ants once used their killer features to exterminate prey.

It also reveals vital information about how the evolutionary process enabled the ants to accrue their remarkable killing kits.

Perhaps at the pinnacle of its hellish armoury were deadly, scythe-like mandibles which operated in a vertical motion to pin prey against their long horns.

Among the recently-identified ants is a species named Linguamyrmex vladi, or ‘Vlad the Impaler’ by Dr Phillip Barden and his colleagues in 2017.

The 16 species of hell ants evolved their jaw dropping head and mouth weaponry in an integrated process helping them to trap their ancient prey, without hurting themselves.

The researchers say the earliest hell ant ancestors would have first gained the ability to move their mouthparts vertically.

This, in turn, would integrate the mouthparts and head in a way that was unique to this extinct lineage.

Dr Barden, of New Jersey Institute of Technology, US, said: ‘Integration is a powerful shaping force in evolutionary biology… when anatomical parts function together for the first time, this opens up new evolutionary trajectories as the two features evolve in concert.’

He added: ‘The consequences of this innovation in mouthpart movement with the hell ants are remarkable.’

Vlad the Impaler, discovered by Barden and colleagues in 2017, was thought to have used a metal-reinforced horn on its head to impale prey — a trait potentially used to feed on the internal liquid (hemolymph) of insects.

He continued: ‘While no modern ants have horns of any kind, some species of hell ant possess horns coated with serrated teeth, and others like Vlad are suspected to have reinforced its horn with metal to prevent its own bite from impaling itself.’

The ancient fossil recovered from Myanmar, offers a detailed glimpse at how the prehistoric hell ants once used their killer features to exterminate prey. (Credits: NJIT / SWNS)

Researchers say the rare fossil demonstrating the hell ant’s feeding mode offers a possible explanation for its unusual morphology.

They also said the finding highlights a key difference between some of the earliest ant relatives and their modern counterparts, which all feature mouthparts that grasp laterally.

The hell ant lineage are suspected to have vanished along with many other early ant groups during periods of ecological change around 65 million years ago.

Dr Barden added: ‘Fossilised behaviour is exceedingly rare, predation especially so.

‘As palaeontologists, we speculate about the function of ancient adaptations using available evidence, but to see an extinct predator caught in the act of capturing its prey is invaluable.’

‘This fossilised predation confirms our hypothesis for how hell ant mouthparts worked

‘The only way for prey to be captured in such an arrangement is for the ant mouthparts to move up and downward in a direction unlike that of all living ants and nearly all insects.’

Since the first hell ant was unearthed about a hundred years ago, it’s been a mystery to biologists as to why these extinct animals are so distinct from today’s ants.

Dr Barden said: ‘This fossil reveals the mechanism behind what we might call an ‘evolutionary experiment,’ and although we see numerous such experiments in the fossil record, we often don’t have a clear picture of the evolutionary pathway that led to them.’

To explore further, the researchers compared the head and mouthpart of hell ants with similar datasets of living and fossil ant species.

The team also conducted an analysis to reconstruct evolutionary relationships among both extinct and modern ants.

Their probe confirmed that hell ants belong to one of the earliest branches of the ant evolutionary tree and are each other’s closest relatives.

Moreover, the relationship between mandible and head morphology is unique in hell ants compared to living lineages due to their specialised methods for capturing prey.

The fossil has finally provided Dr Barden’s lab with firmer answers as to how this long-lost class of ant predators reigned for nearly 20 million years.

But questions persist, such as what led these and other lineages to go extinct while modern ants flourished into the common insects we know today.

The team is now seeking to describe species from new fossil deposits to learn more about how extinction impacts groups differently.

Dr Barden added: ‘Over 99 per cent of all species that have ever lived have gone extinct.

‘As our planet undergoes its sixth mass extinction event, it’s important that we work to understand extinct diversity and what might allow certain lineages to persist while others drop out.

‘I think fossil insects are a reminder that even something as ubiquitous and familiar as ants have undergone extinction.’

The findings were published in the journal Current Biology.

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



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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CIA’s new tech recruiting pitch: More patents, more profits



America’s most famous spy agency has a major competitor it can’t quite seem to beat: Silicon Valley.

The CIA has long been a place cutting-edge technology is researched, developed, and realized—and it wants to lead in fields like artificial intelligence and biotechnology. However, recruiting and retaining the talent capable of building these tools is a challenge on many levels, especially since a spy agency can’t match Silicon Valley salaries, reputations, and patents.

The agency’s solution is CIA Labs, a new skunkworks that will attempt to recruit and retain technical talent by offering incentives to those who work there. Under the new initiative, announced today, CIA officers will be able for the first time to publicly file patents on the intellectual property they work on—and collect a portion of the the profits. The agency will take the rest of the balance. Dawn Meyerriecks, who heads the agency’s science and technology directorate, says the best-case scenario is that the agency’s research and development could end up paying for itself.

“This is helping maintain US dominance, particularly from a technological perspective,” says Meyerriecks. “That’s really critical for national and economic security. It also democratizes the technology by making it available to the planet in a way that allows the level of the water to rise for all.”

It’s not the first time the agency has worked to commercialize technology it helped develop. The agency already sponsors its own venture capital firm, In-Q-Tel, which has backed companies including Keyhole, the core technology that now makes up Google Earth. Meyerriecks says the CIA maintains relationships with a variety of other venture capitalists with the same goal. 

It also works closely with other arms of government like the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity to do basic and expensive research where the private sector and academia often don’t deliver the goods. What CIA Labs aims to do differently is focus inward to attract—and then keep—more scientists and engineers, and become a research partner to academia and industry.

Officers who develop new technologies at CIA Labs will be allowed to patent, license, and profit from their work, making 15% of the total income from the new invention with a cap of $150,000 per year. That could double most agency salaries and make the work more competitive with Silicon Valley.

CIA Labs is looking at areas including artificial intelligence, data analytics, biotechnology, advanced materials, and high-performance quantum computing.

One example of an immediate problem Meyerriecks says the agency faces is being overwhelmed by the amount of data it collects. Its many types of sensors—the kind of tech found on drones, for instance—suck up incalculable mountains of data per second, she says. Officers badly want to develop massive computational power in a relatively small, low-power sensor so the sorting can be done quickly on the device instead of being sent back to a central system.

Of course, efforts to develop new technology inevitably run into questions about how it will actually be used, especially at an agency that has long been a fundamental instrument of American power. Some inventions have been uncontroversial: during the Cold War, Meyerriecks says, the agency helped develop lithium-ion batteries, an innovative power source now widely used by the public. More recently, however, during the war on terrorism, the agency poured resources into advancing nascent drone technology that has made tech-enabled covert assassination a weapon of choice for every American president since 9/11 despite despite ongoing controversy over its potential illegality.

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Exploring the Clouds of Venus; It’s Not Fantasy, But it Will Take Specialized Spacecraft



By now, you’ve likely heard that scientists have found a potential sign of biological life on Venus. Through a series of radio telescope observations in 2017 and 2019, they were able to confirm the presence of phosphine gas high in the planet’s thick atmosphere. Here on Earth, the only way this gas is produced outside of the laboratory is through microbial processes. The fact that it’s detectable at such high concentrations in the Venusian atmosphere means we either don’t know as much as we thought we did about phosphine, or more tantalizingly, that the spark of life has been found on our nearest planetary neighbor.

Venus, as seen by Mariner 10 in 1974

To many, the idea that life could survive on Venus is difficult to imagine. While it’s technically the planet most like Earth in terms of size, mass, composition, and proximity to the Sun, the surface of this rocky world is absolutely hellish; with a runaway greenhouse effect producing temperatures in excess of 460 C (840 F). Life, at least as we currently know it, would find no safe haven on the surface of Venus. Even the Soviet Venera landers, sent to the planet in the 1980s, were unable to survive the intense heat and pressure for more than a few hours.

While the surface may largely be outside of our reach, the planet’s exceptionally dense atmosphere is another story entirely. At an altitude of approximately 50 kilometers, conditions inside the Venusian atmosphere are far more forgiving. The atmospheric pressure at this altitude is almost identical to surface-level pressures on Earth, and the average temperature is cool enough that liquid water can form. While the chemical composition of the atmosphere is not breathable by Earthly standards, and the clouds of sulfuric acid aren’t particularly welcoming, it’s certainly not out of the realm of possibility that simple organisms could thrive in this CO2-rich environment. If there really is life on Venus, many speculate it will be found hiding in this relatively benign microcosm high in the clouds.

In short, all the pieces seem to be falling into place. Observations confirm a telltale marker of biological life is in the upper levels of the Venusian atmosphere, and we know from previous studies that this region is arguably one of the most Earth-like environments in the solar system. It’s still far too early to claim we’ve discovered extraterrestrial life, but it’s not hard to see why people are getting so excited.

But this isn’t the first time scientists have turned their gaze towards Earth’s twin. In fact, had things gone differently, NASA might have sent a crew out to Venus after the Apollo program had completed its survey of the Moon. If that mission had launched back in the 1970s, it could have fundamentally reshaped our understanding of the planet; and perhaps even our understanding of humanity’s place in the cosmos.

Just Passing Through

The Apollo program was fantastically expensive, and many believed it would be a waste to simply abandon all that equipment and collected knowledge once the primary mission had been completed. So even before the 1969 Moon landing, NASA had started studying potential future uses for the hardware as part of what they called the Apollo Applications Program. The greatest success of this program was SkyLab, but there were other fascinating ideas proposed that unfortunately never left the drawing board.

Certainly the most outlandish of which was the proposed 1973 Venus flyby mission. Using an Apollo Command and Service Module (CSM) that had been specially modified for long duration spaceflight, and a “wet workshop” crew compartment made out of a spent Saturn V upper stage, three astronauts would have embarked on a year-long journey to our nearest planetary neighbor.

After the Saturn V upper stage had put the vehicle into orbit, the Apollo CSM would have detached and rotated 180 degrees to dock with a pressurized storage compartment that had been installed in place of the Lunar Module. The upper stage’s J-2 engine would then be used to perform the trans-Venus injection burn, and afterword, any remaining propellant would have been vented into space. On the journey away from Earth, astronauts would have moved the tightly packed equipment and supplies from the storage area into the now empty propellant tanks through a special hatch installed at the top. With the J-2 engine now inoperable, the redundant twin engines of the proposed Block IV CSM would be used to perform any course corrections as well as the braking burn when the vehicle returned to Earth.

There would have been no way to slow down at Venus after the four month interplanetary flight. Instead, the vehicle would have made a partial orbit of the planet at an altitude of approximately 5,000 kilometers (3,000 miles) before being slung back towards home. This would have only given the crew a few crucial hours to make their observations and deploy sensing equipment, but it was believed their close proximity to the planet would allow them to do more useful science in that short amount of time than could be accomplished remotely with the technology of the era.

Exploring the Clouds

While the human occupants of this makeshift interplanetary ship wouldn’t have stayed for long, it was expected they would drop off a few robotic probes that would descend into the planet’s atmosphere. These probes would have continued operating for a few days after the initial flyby and communicated directly with the retreating crewed spacecraft. This would have allowed them to pack smaller and less powerful radio transmitters than would otherwise have been required to send their findings directly back to Earth, increasing not only their useful payload capacity but the amount of time they could have operated before their batteries were depleted.

Vega spacecraft with spherical entry module.

While we can only speculate as to what form these probes would have taken, it’s a safe bet that at least some would have been similar to the balloons carried on the Soviet Vega missions in 1985. Filled with helium and treated with chemicals to help resist the corrosive properties of the Venusian clouds, these probes were designed to reach equilibrium and remain within the 50 km temperate zone to collect as much data as possible before their batteries ran down. The Vega balloons proved to be highly successful, though they only carried rudimentary instrumentation.

Had NASA gone ahead with regular Apollo-Venus missions, these floating probes would likely have become more advanced as technology improved and scientists learned more about the planet. We now know that the lower atmosphere is so thick that probes and spacecraft can easily be floated within this temperate zone. Robotic vehicles, and perhaps eventually even crewed ones, could be designed to “splashdown” in the atmosphere rather than pass through it.

Venusian Airships

Despite the inhospitable surface, there are several compelling reasons to mount crewed expeditions to Venus. For one, it’s the second closest destination in the solar system after the Moon. With transit times as short as four months, a round-trip mission is well within the established limits of human endurance in space. From orbit, humans can conduct more detailed and varied observations and experiments than what’s possible with remotely operated vehicles alone.

But humans are explorers by nature, and eventually astronauts will want to descend into the planet’s atmosphere themselves. In that case, they would experience gravity 90% of what they’re used to on Earth; close enough that muscular and skeletal degradation will no longer be a concern. It’s also notable that the breathable mixture of nitrogen and oxygen that human explorers would need to bring along with them would function as buoyant gas in the planet’s 96.5% CO2 atmosphere, allowing for the possibility of crewed Venusian dirigibles.

The idea of sending crewed inflatable vehicles, and even building a permanent outpost in the clouds, was explored by NASA as recently as 2015. Called the High Altitude Venus Operational Concept (HAVOC), this study proposed a spacecraft architecture that could safely insert human crews into the temperate layers of the Venusian atmosphere, allow them to work there for extended periods of time, and then return them to orbit with an air-launched rocket. Outwardly these craft, some as large as 129 meters in length, would closely resemble large rigid airships of the early 20th century such as the USS Shenandoah and the Hindenburg.

The Next Steps

As exciting as the prospect of a human “Cloud City” on Venus might be, it’ll probably never happen. If recent history is any indication, securing the long-term political backing necessary to fund an undertaking of this magnitude would be all but impossible. It was hard enough getting American astronauts back into orbit on domestic spacecraft, and the agency’s elaborate plans for a return to the Moon seem perpetually years down the road.

An exciting, though improbable, vision of the future.

Sending a crewed mission into orbit around Venus would be considerably easier and cheaper than establishing an outpost, but it’s still far more likely that the most direct consequence to finding phosphine gas in the planet’s atmosphere is a push for a new generation of robotic missions. Technology has improved dramatically, and building a floating atmospheric probe designed to seek out signs of biological life is no longer the insurmountable challenge it was in the 1970s.

Indeed, the wheels are already in motion. Rocket Lab CEO Peter Beck has already announced his company plans on launching a small probe towards Venus as soon as 2023 that will be designed to dive into the planet’s atmosphere and search for signs of microbial life. The probe will be tiny, owing to the relatively meager payload capacity of the Electron rocket, but it’s a start. Hopefully larger and more elaborate spacecraft won’t be far behind.

While we’ll never see an astronaut take their one small step on the rocky surface of Venus, it’s still a planet that clearly deserves a closer look. Confirming the existence of extraterrestrial life would be one of the greatest scientific discoveries of all time, doubly so if it ends up being on a world so much like our own. Studying the hearty lifeforms that make Venus their home would be as near as we’ll ever get to directly observing Earth’s distant past. Or, if we’re not careful, Earth’s distant future.

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