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A Brief History of the Goodyear Blimp

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If you tuned in to Game 1 of the National League Championship Series last night, you were treated to spectacular aerial views of Dodger Stadium and greater Los Angeles courtesy of one of Goodyear's blimps. America's most recognizable airships, the tire and rubber company's "Aerial Ambassadors," travel more than 100,000 miles each year to cover more than 80 sporting events. Here's a brief history of how Goodyear's blimps have evolved.

What's a Blimp?

A blimp is simply a balloon filled with nonflammable helium and propelled by an engine. Goodyear blimps are powered by two aircraft engines. Lt. A.D. Cunningham of Great Britain's Royal Navy Air Service is often credited with coining the term "blimp." As the story goes, Cunningham, who commanded an air station in England during World War I, plucked the material of His Majesty's Airship SS-12 and it made a strange sound. "Blimp," is how Cunningham supposedly described it.

The Goodyear Blimp's Origins

pilgrim-blimpGoodyear has manufactured over 300 airships since the company was founded in 1898. In March 1917, Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels awarded contracts to four American firms for the construction of 16 non-rigid airships, of which nine were to be produced by the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company. Two years later, a Goodyear-owned airship being tested for future passenger service caught fire and crashed through the glass roof of a Chicago building, killing 11 people. Determined to maintain its position as America's leading manufacturer of airships, Goodyear purchased the rights and patents to build zeppelin-style airships in 1924. One year later, Goodyear launched the Pilgrim, the first commercial non-rigid airship flown using helium.

World War II and Beyond

Goodyear provided at least two different types of airships for the Navy during World War II. The first airships were rigid and served as airborne aircraft carriers, but proved difficult to handle in certain conditions and were destroyed. Goodyear later provided non-rigid airships capable of aerial surveillance, which the Navy made use of until 1962. Today, Goodyear operates three non-rigid airships, or blimps: the Spirit of Goodyear (based in Akron, Ohio), the Spirit of America (Carson, Calif.), and the Spirit of Innovation (Pompano Beach, Fla.). The Spirit of Innovation, which was christened in 2006 and is filled with 20,000 cubic feet of helium, is the newest blimp in the fleet and the first to be named by the public in a "name-the-blimp" contest.

Goodyear Enters the Sports Arena

Two years before the Navy discontinued its blimp program, Goodyear pioneered the use of blimps to provide aerial coverage at sporting events.

In 1960, the first images from a camera installed on one of Goodyear's blimps were broadcast on national television from Miami's Orange Bowl.

The technology has improved dramatically since then, including the introduction of gyrostabilized camera mounts in 1984. All three blimps in Goodyear's current fleet feature electronic sign technology and can display text, animation, and video. Cruising high above the action at Super Bowls, playoff games, NASCAR and horse races, and golf tournaments, the Goodyear blimp's purpose is to see and be seen, and not only by the fans in attendance. If the Goodyear blimp is at an event that you're watching on television, you'll know it, and not only because of its distinctive shots. At some point during the game, the broadcasters will announce that aerial coverage has been provided by Goodyear, and they might even mention the name of the blimp's pilot. The recognition accomplishes the same goal as a 30-second commercial for Goodyear, which will receive a lot of airtime in the coming weeks. "I'd say baseball is where we receive the most recognition," Goodyear public relations manager Jerry Jenkins told FoxSportsBiz.com in 2000. "During the baseball playoffs in October, our fleet of three blimps can be on the air for as many as 12 to 15 days in the month."

The Goodyear Blimp on the Big Screen

black-sunday
The tagline for John Frankenheimer's 1977 film, Black Sunday, sounds like it's straight out of Beyond Balderdash: "Members of the Black September terrorist group plot to kill thousands of Americans at the Super Bowl in Miami by using a specially designed dart-gun in a hijacked Goodyear blimp."


The movie was based on Thomas Harris's best-selling novel and filmed at the Orange Bowl before and during Super Bowl X between the Pittsburgh Steelers and Dallas Cowboys. An actual Goodyear blimp was used for some of the scenes, while the nose of a blimp was recreated and supported by a crane for the scene in which the blimp enters the stadium.

Other Blimps

While Goodyear's are the most iconic, other companies, including Budweiser, Fuji Film and MetLife, have advertised with their own blimps over the years. MetLife has brought attention to itself since 1987 via the Snoopy One and Snoopy Two blimps, which provide aerial coverage of more than 60 events each year. Tomorrow, MetLife-owned blimps will hover above the Cotton Bowl for the Red River Shootout between Oklahoma and Texas, and be in South Bend, Ind., where Notre Dame plays host to USC. The Fuji Film blimp was used by the New York Police Department to assist in patrolling Madison Square Garden during the 2004 Republican National Convention.

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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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Name the Author Based on the Character
May 23, 2017
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