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Otherlab

These Cardboard Drones Are (Highly Useful) Paper Airplanes for the Military

Otherlab
Otherlab

The U.S. military has started playing with paper airplanes. DARPA, the Defense Department’s technology lab, is funding research into inexpensive, biodegradable cardboard drones that can deliver supplies and then disappear, as the MIT Technology Review reports.

Designed by Otherlab, Aerial Platform Supporting Autonomous Resupply Actions (APSARA) gliders are made of heavy-duty cardboard that ships flat, like IKEA furniture. They’re cheap to mass-produce, so it’s not risky to send them into remote areas where the military might otherwise lose another pricey drone. Soldiers can assemble them in the field if necessary.

There’s no engine or battery, just a small set of electronics to allow the glider to navigate to its destination. They can carry 2.2 pounds (one kilogram) of blood, medicine, or other humanitarian supplies into areas that don’t have road or plane access, including onto the battlefield.

According to Otherlab’s press release, a military transport plane stocked with hundreds of pre-programmed cardboard gliders could deliver supplies to an area the size of California in one go. However, this design is just a trial run for the concept. According to Air & Space magazine, Otherlab plans to make the final product out of mycelium (living root structures from mushrooms) that could be activated when the glider is released. The spores would digest the frame, and within a few days, the drone would disappear completely.

If you thought the military’s drone programs were secretive now, just wait until they have drones that can eat themselves.

[h/t MIT Technology Review]

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NUS Environmental Research Institute, Subnero
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Researchers in Singapore Deploy Robot Swans to Test Water Quality
NUS Environmental Research Institute, Subnero
NUS Environmental Research Institute, Subnero

There's something peculiar about the new swans floating around reservoirs in Singapore. They drift across the water like normal birds, but upon closer inspection, onlookers will find they're not birds at all: They're cleverly disguised robots designed to test the quality of the city's water.

As Dezeen reports, the high-tech waterfowl, dubbed NUSwan (New Smart Water Assessment Network), are the work of researchers at the National University of Singapore [PDF]. The team invented the devices as a way to tackle the challenges of maintaining an urban water source. "Water bodies are exposed to varying sources of pollutants from urban run-offs and industries," they write in a statement. "Several methods and protocols in monitoring pollutants are already in place. However, the boundaries of extensive assessment for the water bodies are limited by labor intensive and resource exhaustive methods."

By building water assessment technology into a plastic swan, they're able to analyze the quality of the reservoirs cheaply and discreetly. Sensors on the robots' undersides measure factors like dissolved oxygen and chlorophyll levels. The swans wirelessly transmit whatever data they collect to the command center on land, and based on what they send, human pilots can remotely tweak the robots' performance in real time. The hope is that the simple, adaptable technology will allow researchers to take smarter samples and better understand the impact of the reservoir's micro-ecosystem on water quality.

Man placing robotic swan in water.
NUS Environmental Research Institute, Subnero

This isn't the first time humans have used robots disguised as animals as tools for studying nature. Check out this clip from the BBC series Spy in the Wild for an idea of just how realistic these robots can get.

[h/t Dezeen]

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iStock
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Google's AI Can Make Its Own AI Now
iStock
iStock

Artificial intelligence is advanced enough to do some pretty complicated things: read lips, mimic sounds, analyze photographs of food, and even design beer. Unfortunately, even people who have plenty of coding knowledge might not know how to create the kind of algorithm that can perform these tasks. Google wants to bring the ability to harness artificial intelligence to more people, though, and according to WIRED, it's doing that by teaching machine-learning software to make more machine-learning software.

The project is called AutoML, and it's designed to come up with better machine-learning software than humans can. As algorithms become more important in scientific research, healthcare, and other fields outside the direct scope of robotics and math, the number of people who could benefit from using AI has outstripped the number of people who actually know how to set up a useful machine-learning program. Though computers can do a lot, according to Google, human experts are still needed to do things like preprocess the data, set parameters, and analyze the results. These are tasks that even developers may not have experience in.

The idea behind AutoML is that people who aren't hyper-specialists in the machine-learning field will be able to use AutoML to create their own machine-learning algorithms, without having to do as much legwork. It can also limit the amount of menial labor developers have to do, since the software can do the work of training the resulting neural networks, which often involves a lot of trial and error, as WIRED writes.

Aside from giving robots the ability to turn around and make new robots—somewhere, a novelist is plotting out a dystopian sci-fi story around that idea—it could make machine learning more accessible for people who don't work at Google, too. Companies and academic researchers are already trying to deploy AI to calculate calories based on food photos, find the best way to teach kids, and identify health risks in medical patients. Making it easier to create sophisticated machine-learning programs could lead to even more uses.

[h/t WIRED]

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