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4 Ways to Fly Like A Bird

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Ever since early man could walk upright, we've dreamed of flying. And you can bet homo erectus wasn't imagining a cramped middle-seat next to a fussy baby on a 747; the personal-flight freedom of birds has always been the goal, however distant. Daredevils among you will be happy to learn that in recent years, humans have been drawing ever closer to achieving it -- by a variety of methods, some crazier than others -- and here are our faves.

1. The Wingsuit

Batman jokes aside, the wingsuit is pretty darn cool, and probably approximates personal flight more accurately than any of our other examples. It's also scary as all get-out: to make it work, you've got to jump off of something really high, like a cliff or an airplane. The jumper wears a special suit with fabric sewn between the arms and the body and between the legs to create an airfoil shape, not unlike that of a flying squirrel. Once adequate air speed relative to the jumper is created -- this happens more or less instantly when skydiving, but takes a little longer if BASE jumping -- air speed is converted to lift.

This is where the magic happens: the jumper's body essentially becomes a wing, and rather than falling toward the ground at around 120 mph, a good portion of that vertical momentum is converted into horizontal momentum; wingsuiters often travel 2.5 feet forward for every 1 foot down (that's called the "glide ratio,") slowing their descent to between 60-90 mph, and quieting the wind rush around them to a degree that they can hold casual conversations with one another while traveling in formation. Here's a video.

Unlike birds, however, most wingsuiters don't try to land on their feet -- you need special, expensive landing strips for that sort of thing -- they wear parachutes, deployed once they're within a few thousand feet of the ground.

2. Human-powered helicopter

Humans have been trying to power their own helicopters since at least the 50s, and seriously attempting it since 1980, when the Sikorsky Prize was introduced. To claim the prize, one has to develop and fly a human-powered helicopter at an altitude of at least 10 feet for at least 60 seconds, and though many have tried, no one's come close yet. The current record is held by a group of Japanese university students, whose HPH Yuri I flew for 19.46 seconds in 1994 at a barely-measurable altitude of 2 centimeters. Somewhat more impressive was the Da Vinci III, which got all of eight inches off the ground, though for only 7 seconds, in 1989. Here's a photo of their feat, and their contraption:
da-vinci.jpg

As you can probably tell, it's pedal-powered, and features very light construction in its body and its enormous wings. The challenge all these pioneers have faced is creating an HPH with a super-efficient power-to-weight ratio; they must create a lot of lift but not much drag, since drag consumes power. (Sounds like an exhausting pedal.)

3. The Personal Jet Wing

jet man.jpgThis is distinct from the jet back or rocket belt, which as Miss C pointed out in a blog earlier today, are fairly impractical methods of flight that use a great deal of fuel and don't allow for more than 30-60 seconds in the air. The only personal jet wing we know of was developed and built by a Swiss daredevil named Yves Rossy, and is essentially a winged modification of the jet pack designed for use during skydiving. The carbon wings unfold from Rossy's pack when he jumps, and with a hand throttle he controls the wings and four small jet engines connected to it. A former Swiss Air Force fighter pilot, Rossy in 2006 became the first person to fly horizontally for more than six minutes with just a pair of wings strapped to his back. Check out this video of one of his flights:

4. The Backpack Helicopter

pentecost_strapon.jpgMilitary contractors in the US, Britain and the Soviet Union have been trying to develop a backpack helicopter since the 1940s, with mixed results. The first breakthrough of any note was the US military's Hoppycopter in 1945, which didn't actually fly -- it hopped, hence the name. (Hoppycopter pictured at right.) The project eventually faded away, but recently there's been a resurgence of interest in the personal copter. The most successful (and accessible) one we've heard about is Japan's GEN H-4, which has a seat, landing gear, and supposedly requires only two hours' training to use. Here are some specs, courtesy Newlaunches, and a video:

Unlike traditional helicopters it has 2 sets of coaxial, contra-rotating rotors (KA-52 Hokum for all you military buffs) which eliminates the need of a tail rotor for balancing. The rotors have a length of only 4 meters (118 inches) so no parking problems too. It is powered by 4 lightweight 125 cc 2 cylinder engines which use standard gasoline. The GEN H-4 can fly to a maximum altitude of 1000 meters at a top speed of 90 km/hr (59 mph) for up to 30 minutes.

This one's definitely on my Christmas list.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
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What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief

Fans of the romantic-comedy Love Actually recently got a bonus reunion in the form of Red Nose Day Actually, a short charity special that gave audiences a peek at where their favorite characters ended up almost 15 years later.

One of the most improbable pairings from the original film was between Jamie (Colin Firth) and Aurelia (Lúcia Moniz), who fell in love despite almost no shared vocabulary. Jamie is English, and Aurelia is Portuguese, and they know just enough of each other’s native tongues for Jamie to propose and Aurelia to accept.

A decade and a half on, they have both improved their knowledge of each other’s languages—if not perfectly, in Jamie’s case. But apparently, their love is much stronger than his grasp on Portuguese grammar, because they’ve got three bilingual kids and another on the way. (And still enjoy having important romantic moments in the car.)

In 2015, Love Actually script editor Emma Freud revealed via Twitter what happened between Karen and Harry (Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman, who passed away last year). Most of the other couples get happy endings in the short—even if Hugh Grant's character hasn't gotten any better at dancing.

[h/t TV Guide]

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