Lieutenant LaForge to the bridge!

Numerous news sources reported this morning on Roger Pontz of Michigan and the technology that is changing his life.  Roger is blind due to a particular degenerative disease, but now research at University of Michigan has given Roger a bionic eye with which he can now ‘see’ his wife, his cat, and his grandson–for the first time in many years.

Notice the camera in the middle of the glasses

It would seem this technology still has a long way to go, as it only offers very rudimentary vision and only appears to be applicable to people with this certain class of disease, but gosh! We live in the future.




Walmart’s Super Semi

Just saw this piece on experimentation that Wal-mart has been doing in partnership with Peterbilt to make the big rig of the future.  The tractor is highly aerodynamic and light, and puts the driver at the center of the rig with far more technology to help him drive.  Kudos to Wal-mart for pushing the limits of a technology which, honestly, still looks to me very similar to the semis that were driving around at the time of Smokey and the Bandit.

I do have a few questions or outside criticisms of this whole thing, though:

  • This thing is made out of carbon fiber.  Do they realize what an incredible hazard that will be when this thing gets in an accident? Response personnel would almost certainly get cut with thousands of carbon-fiber slivers.  Bad juju.
  • I hope that all the fuel savings won’t get wiped out by bad driving habits.
  • For that matter, I predict the real future of trucking is in driverless trucks. Once the technology has sufficiently developed, you can get trucks that can drive 24/7 without getting tired and drive with precise fuel-optimal technique.  And not trivially, those trucks won’t get paid nor will they belong to the Teamster’s Union.

Walmart unveils futuristic concept big rig | Circa

The Fight Over UAV Regulation Is Reaching Critical Mass

On one side of the duel is the FAA, claiming that it is preserving the safety of other aircraft and people on the ground.  On the other is a growing population of remote-control aviators who claim that they are flying prudently and providing valuable service, and that the FAA is merely trying to flex its muscles and assert authority where they have none.

Just over a month ago now, an administrative law judge ruled in favor of Rafael Pirker, whom the FAA was attempting to fine $10,000 for using a five-foot wing span UAV to take aerial photographs for the University of Virginia.  The FAA laid its case on a 2007 policy letter that they issued, which says that UAV flight for business purposes is only allowed under certification by the FAA and that model aircraft are distinct and separate.  The judge, however, found that the FAA’s definition of a UAV was so broad and vague that it could apply to a paper airplane or a fly ball in a baseball stadium, where the FAA is clearly beyond its jurisdiction.  He also found that this policy letter was internal guidance for FAA personnel and not a basis for jurisdiction, nor did it follow the law with regards to rulemaking procedure.  As a result, this policy letter is non-binding and not equivalent to actual regulation. [EDIT 04/14/2014: It seems that Slate published a criticism that foreshadowed the judges’ ruling.  Only fair to link it here.]

Additionally, there are a couple of other problems with the FAA’s policy letter, and how they have been enforcing that policy. They have threatened news organizations from even using footage taken with a UAV–footage donated by a hobby operator which was not at the request of the journalists–which is likely infringement of the First Amendment.  Another operator was served with a cease-and-desist letter for simply taking camera footage with his quadcopter.  Perhaps the most disturbing is the case of Equusearch.

Gene Robinson, a licensed pilot and R/C aircraft hobbyist has been assisting local law enforcement agencies by volunteering his plane in search and rescue missions. His assistance has help recover the remains of 11 people so far; he prides himself on carefully following the FAA’s voluntary guidelines for model aircraft (published in 1981), and doesn’t take a cent.  More recently, his efforts have been in conjunction with a non-profit called Equusearch, who uses riders on horseback in conjunction with Gene’s model airplanes to search and rescue.  However, even this operation qualifies in the FAA’s eyes as “civil usage”, and accordingly has deemed it illegal.  Says Robinson’s lawyer, “It is incomprehensible that the FAA would for decades raise no issue with respect to recreational operation of these devices but prohibit and deem ‘illegal’ the exact same use for the purpose of saving the lives of missing children.”

The FAA’s actions in this case raise a host of more general, and very important issues about the impact of government regulation upon innovation.  Senior research fellow Adam Thierer has written a book, Permissionless Innovation, which touches on these very issues.  Innovation, by its very definition, exists outside the current rule set.  Requiring innovators to fit inside the old rules will tend to stifle real innovation (see Tesla’s case, for example).  Requiring innovators to fit inside rules that at best are unclear and discriminatory, and at worst don’t even exist, as the FAA is doing, can be expected to have an even more dramatic effect on innovation.

So how should UAVs be regulated? No one in the industry disagrees with the basic premise that UAV operation should be safe, and operate in a respectful manner with regards to people’s privacy and property.

  • First, the FAA has had seven years since releasing that initial policy memo to develop a basic set of reasonable operating rules.  They ought to put the pedal to the metal on the rulemaking process, which they claim is in the works if the UAS Roadmap is to be believed.  If they want to enforce regulations, they need to write them in a clear and unequivocal manner which respects the constitutional rights of airmen, follows the laws of rulemaking, and leaves room for judgement and common sense to prevail.
  • Better yet, the rules (at least for certain classes of airspace and aircraft) ought to be left to the experts in academia and industry such as the AOPA, and AUVSI.  These organizations have a vested interest in maintaining safe operations.
  • For lower altitudes, say below 400 ft above ground, jurisdiction ought to belong to state and local governments, and ideally those governments would define ownership of a piece of land to include the airspace above it.

Are quadcopters going to be delivering packages to your home in the near future? The next few months will probably determine the answer.

The Great Urban Race

Last weekend my wife and I competed in an event known as The Great Urban Race. I don’t normally post about recreational or personal stuff here, but this race has enough nerd-value to warrant it here.

If you haven’t heard of the Great Urban Race (let’s call it the GUR for sanity’s sake), this is the short version: You and your partner(s) get a clue sheet that requires you to solve a handful of puzzles to find out where the checkpoints of the race are; once you figure out the points, you have to get to each of them and typically do some activity or challenge, then make it back to the starting line as quickly as possible. Conveyances other than foot or public transit are verboten. A smartphone with a camera is essentially required for the course as some of the tasks require taking photos, posting to Twitter or Instagram, etc., plus you would never get some of the clues without using Google.

Photo Apr 05, 12 03 52
Page 1 of our clue sheet
Photo Apr 05, 12 04 07
Page 2 of our clue sheet


What ensues is a crazy mix of 10k footrace, traveling salesman problem, and optimal resource allocation. When the race starts, how long should you fiddle with the clues? Should you solve everything to get an optimal route before you start, or get to the first destination or two and solve the rest on the way? You are allowed to skip one of the 12 clues, so which do you skip? Is it faster in the long run to wait for the bus or just run to the next locale?

We met a nice young roller derby gal whom I had to knock down to win the challenge.
We met a nice young roller derby gal whom I had to knock down to pass this challenge.

We had run this before, in 2012, finished in 41st place with a time of 4:17, and learned a lot from the experience. (The first place team finished in 2:40.) First, we swore off the tic-tac-toe clue since it seemed like we wasted a bunch of effort getting those items. Second, we resolved to get a master googler on the advice of the 3rd place finishers, who could look up clues on their computer rather than relying on our thumbs and phones. We ended up kind of randomly selecting the order in which to go, when we should have taken MARTA to the furthest point and worked our way backward. Finally, we resolved to be smarter about using public transport, as we ended up running way more than we needed to.

View Larger Map

These changes helped a little bit; our master googler ended up with a surprise internet outage which meant he only ended up solving 3 of the clues, and this years’ course didn’t lend itself to using the bus or train much. We completely ignored the tic-tac-toe, and to our detriment–this year we could have gotten it within a few minutes, and the winners it turns out, did those tasks while their team of researchers answered all the questions for them and planned the route. C’est la vie, I guess.  At the end of the day, we finished in 2:49 and 14th place, while the winning team finished in 1:46.

Anyway, if you’re reading this and you like to get out and do stuff, I highly recommend running the Great Urban Race when it comes to a nearby city.