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24 Photos of the Mojave Desert's Airplane Graveyard

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I thought it was a mirage the first time I saw it. I was driving through the wastes of the Mojave Desert, two hours from anywhere, when off in the shimmering distance appeared the silhouettes of a hundred parked jetliners. I pulled off and tried to get closer to them, but a mean-looking perimeter fence keeps onlookers far away. All I could do was stand and stare, wondering what the hell this massive armada of airplanes was doing here, silently baking in the 110 degree heat. For years afterward I'd ask people what they knew about it, and I kept hearing the same thing: the place has been on lockdown since 9/11, and they won't let civilians anywhere near the boneyard.

But one day my luck changed -- I met a very nice fellow who works there, and with a minimum of cajoling on my part he agreed to take me beyond the high-security fence and show me around. Of course, I brought my camera.

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The first thing to know is that the Mojave Air and Spaceport, as it's officially known, isn't just a graveyard for inactive planes. It's an active airport, home to one of the nation's only civilian test pilot schools, and most famously the place where Space Ship One was developed and performed the first privately-funded human spaceflight in 2004. But it also functions as a giant parking lot for hundreds of jets owned by dozens of different entities, from major airlines to private individuals. If an airline doesn't anticipate needing some of its planes for an extended period of time, it's much cheaper for them to park those planes in the desert and have maintenance crews check them out once every few weeks than to keep them active.

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Some planes have been there only a few months -- some have been there for years and years, owned by companies that rent space at the boneyard by the acre.

plane nose ps

The most fascinating part of the facility, to me at least, is the boneyard itself. This is where planes that are no longer valuable enough to be repaired and put back into service -- totaled, as it were -- are cannibalized for spare parts. It's not a delicate operation: the planes are ripped apart by big machines, torn into piles of fuselage that look, standing amidst them, like the aftermath of terrible crashes.

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fuselage

Other owners dismantle their planes piece by delicate piece, leaving most of the jet intact save some crucial part:
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Inside some planes, you'd hardly know they weren't simply waiting for the next planeload of passengers to take their seats.
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Whole sections of a plane might be removed, but otherwise be intact. They sit like donor organs waiting for a transplant candidate.
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Decapitated planes abound:
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Further inspection revealed that the insides of these "plane heads" are often empty, stripped of their valuable avionics.
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Some of the worthless bits become part of the landscape.
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Aisle or window?
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This tail section is held up by a hand-stacked pile of railroad ties.
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I hope I never fly on a plane equipped with landing gear salvaged from the boneyard. But I suppose I would never know.
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Inside an old cargo hold (I think) --
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Scrapper graffiti.
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Salvaged inflatable emergency slides, ready to be shipped off to new homes.
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A jet engine without a jet.
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Air Canada planes giving the grass a shady place to grow.
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Elsewhere at the Air and Space Port, a glimpse of a few of Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic space planes. I believe that's the White Knight Two, designed to ferry Space Ship Two into suborbital space. The juxtaposition of the deeply broken and the cutting edge at Mojave is jarring.
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plane on truck

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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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May 23, 2017
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