Biofuel researchers at UC Berkeley may keep the tobacco industry from going up in smoke. Scientists are engineering tobacco plants to produce oils that can serve as biofuels to power airplanes, cars, trucks and other machines. (May 17)
Using laptops, tablets, and six sided speakers, Princeton University’s Laptop Orchestra teaches students the art of creating and coding music. It’s neither Mozart nor Star Wars. (May 15)
Deadly explosions mar landmark Pakistan election
Russian official: Syria conference not possible in May
Defense department to let Apple devices onto Pentagon network
Astronauts making a rare, hastily planned spacewalk replaced a pump outside the International Space Station on Saturday in hopes of plugging a serious ammonia leak. (May 11)
PopSci – In the 1960s, the Central Intelligence Agency recruited an unusual field agent: a cat. In an hour-long procedure, a veterinary surgeon transformed the furry feline into an elite spy, implanting a microphone in her ear canal and a small radio transmitter at the base of her skull, and weaving a thin wire antenna into her long gray-and-white fur. This was Operation Acoustic Kitty, a top-secret plan to turn a cat into a living, walking surveillance machine. The leaders of the project hoped that by training the feline to go sit near foreign officials, they could eavesdrop on private conversations.
The problem was that cats are not especially trainable—they don’t have the same deep-seated desire to please a human master that dogs do—and the agency’s robo-cat didn’t seem terribly interested in national security. For its first official test, CIA staffers drove Acoustic Kitty to the park and tasked it with capturing the conversation of two men sitting on a bench. Instead, the cat wandered into the street, where it was promptly squashed by a taxi. The program was abandoned; as a heavily redacted CIA memo from the time delicately phrased it, “Our final examination of trained cats… convinced us that the program would not lend itself in a practical sense to our highly specialized needs.” (Those specialized needs, one assumes, include a decidedly unflattened feline.)
Operation Acoustic Kitty, misadventure though it was, was a visionary idea just 50 years before its time. Today, once again, the U .S. government is looking to animal-machine hybrids to safeguard the country and its citizens. In 2006, for example, DARPA zeroed in on insects, asking the nation’s scientists to submit “innovative proposals to develop technology to create insect-cyborgs.”
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The U.S. Navy on Friday began testing two new aerial tools, borrowed from the battlefields of Afghanistan and Iraq, that officials say will make it easier to detect, track and videotape drug smugglers in action. (April 26)
The FAA has approved Boeing’s plan to fix the lithium ion batteries on board its new flagship airliner. (Wall Street Journal). The 787 grounding, which followed two worrisome battery meltdowns in January, caused huge financial headaches for airlines that had already taken delivery of the ultra-efficient, but very pricey jetliner.
The company’s engineers tried several approaches to eliminate the risk of meltdowns, finally deciding on a special containment box to house the battery assembly:
The box serves several purposes: withstanding higher temperatures than the old design, and keeping dangerous chemicals from leaking. It also vents smoke outside the plane, and in the event of overheating automatically sucks oxygen from the battery. That is intended to snuff out any fire in a fraction of a second.
Boeing invested some “200,000 hours of engineering, design, analysis and testing” in the ultimate package of fixes, Ray Conner, head of Boeing’s commercial airplane unit, said last month.
The 787 is the star of Boeing’s product lineup in the high stakes commercial airplane business, and it took some hits in the publicity fallout from the battery fires. But airlines are anxious to return to normalcy and restart the revenue streams interrupted by the grounding. The company’s stock, which also reflects the fortunes of its huge defense business, has been on the upswing. As Boeing is a major contributor to USA’s balance of trade, the 787’s comeback is a plus for the nation’s economy, which could use some good news.
Image credit- spaceaero via Wikipedia
Stock chart: via StockCharts.com
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