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An Espresso Machine Designed for Space Travel

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Astronauts orbiting the Earth in the International Space Station often miss the many comforts of home: A warm shower. Family time. And of course, a good cup of joe.

“‘An espresso coffee is what I miss most aboard the International Space Station.’ We have repeatedly heard this comment from the Italian astronauts,” says Italian coffee company Lavazza, which teamed up with aerospace engineering company Argotec to create an espresso machine designed specifically to be used in space. It’s called the ISSpresso (I-S-S for International Space Station. Get it?), and it arrived at its destination this morning, three days after leaving Earth on a SpaceX supply ship. Now astronauts can get a cup of coffee that is “good, hot, and steaming,” says Giuseppe Lavazza, Vice President of Lavazza.

The first pour will likely go to Italian Air Force Captain Samantha Cristoforetti. She’s been on the ISS for four months already, forced to drink instant coffee which, when you’re used to the glory that is Italian espresso, is torturous. "For an instant coffee, it's an excellent instant coffee," Vickie Kloeris, who manages the space station's food supply for NASA, tells NPR. “Can it compete with brewed espresso? No."

While the ISSpresso machine is specially designed to withstand space conditions, nobody really knows how it will behave. “The principles that regulate the fluid dynamics of liquids and mixtures are very different from those typical on Earth,” Lavazza says. In a normal espresso machine, the tubes that carry water are made of plastic. In the ISSpresso, they’re made of a special steel that can withstand extreme pressure. The machine is roughly the size of a microwave but weighs about 44 pounds.

Here’s how it’s supposed to work: A little capsule containing the coffee is installed along with a water bag. When the brew is done, the coffee makes its way into a standard NASA drinking pouch, which can be removed—and voila—espresso in a bag. (They’re working on designing a little cup that could be used in zero gravity.) It’s sort of like the pod-based Keurig machines we’re so familiar with down here on Earth, and like the Keurig machine, the ISSpresso produces waste with each brew. That could create a lot of trash in a short amount of time, and getting things on and off the ISS is an expensive process. "We'll see how it goes," Kloeris says. "If it's successful, then we'll have to figure out how we're going to resupply it."

But why go to all this trouble for a cup of coffee? NASA hopes the ISSpresso machine will do more than caffeinate astronauts. It will provide a place for socializing and exchanging ideas, a sort of in-orbit corner cafe. Relaxation is “an aspect that should not be ignored in missions that keep the astronauts away from home for many months in a very challenging environment,” Lavazza says.

“Food provides an important psychological support,” says David Avino, Managing Director of Argotec. “Being able to enjoy a good Italian espresso may be just the right way to finish off the menu designed especially for each astronaut, helping him or her to feel closer to home.”

The ISSpresso machine arrived at the space station with a first batch of just 20 to 30 coffee capsules, so Cristoforetti might want to pace herself.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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