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How to Fly a Hot Air Balloon

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ThinkStock

Flying a hot air balloon requires a pilot’s license, so you shouldn’t just borrow your neighbor’s basket without asking. But if you want to pick up a really interesting hobby – and a certification along the way – here’s how to get the best view of the local landscape.

1. Brush Up on Physics

Before you sail away, you’ll want to know how your craft works. Hot air balloons float because warm air is lighter than cool air, which makes the heated envelope of gas less dense than its surroundings. To get the balloon flying, the air inside is usually heated to over 200 degrees.

2. Light Your Fire

The job of doing the heating generally falls to a propane burner. Pilots should wear heavy gloves so they can safely touch hot parts of the burner while turning it on and off or making emergency repairs. The average balloon burns about 15 gallons of propane an hour.

3. Cast Off

To launch, a pilot and crew simply allow the burner to gradually heat the air inside the balloon. Once conditions are hot enough, the balloon will begin to rise above the ground, and the pilot and passengers can take off.

4. Blow In the Wind

Bad news for fans of precision steering: once the balloon goes up, you can really only control its altitude. Its course through the sky is determined by the wind, which is why pilots pore over wind charts and forecasts before flights. An experienced pilot can read the wind well enough to chart a predictable course, but this reliance on the breeze explains why it’s still wildly impractical to use a balloon for the daily commute.

5. Open Things Up

Once a pilot spots a good landing zone that’s free of trees and power lines, he radios to his ground crew to let them know where he’s setting the balloon down. Balloons are equipped with valves on the top that allow hot air to escape. Opening the valve allows the balloon to make a controlled descent. A skilled pilot won’t just slam the basket into the ground, instead they’ll skip the compartment several times to gently slow the descent.
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You don’t need a hot air balloon to take things to new heights. Elevate your taste in beer by cracking open a cold Dos Equis.

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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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