Monday, December 22, 2014

Hyperloop is coming 'within a decade,' says CEO

Tesla Motors CEO and SpaceX founder Elon Musk's idea for the Hyperloop is one that sounded a bit like fantasy to some.
But it appears that there's progress being made on the potentially game-changing transit system: The developers estimate an up-and-running Hyperloop in just 10 years.
Of course, there's still plenty of work to do. On Friday, the brains behind bringing Hyperloop to reality released a 76-page white paper outlining progress on the land travel system, which transports people in pods that move as fast as 800 mph. Since then, it's not so much in Musk's hands as it is Dirk Ahlborn's. He's the CEO and cofounder of JumpStartFund, the startup overseeing Hyperloop with Musk's approval.
The paper includes new renderings, showing pods with a improved geometry and design. The front end is circular for better aerodynamics. And people now sit in capsules that are then loaded into outer shells. There will be tickets for the rich and the poor, too, of course, with freight, economy and business classes.
Originally, Hyperloop was slated to travel between Los Angeles and San Francisco. Ahlborn said that he believes the LA-San Francisco route could be built for $7 billion, up to $16 billion. The plan is expanding, too. But the ultimate goal is to create a vast network for Hyperloop, so that travelers could go from Houston to Phoenix, New York to Salt Lake City — all faster than air travel.
That seems a bit daydream-ish for now — $7 billion for a California travel system might seem inexpensive to JumpStartFund, but to others, not so much. Imagine the price estimate for a national network.
"When I talk to people they look at me and say, 'Oh, you're building a spaceship,' " Ahlborn told Mashable. "The technical issues are not the problem. ... That is something we've already defined. We've found solutions to all of the problems. There are technologies out there."
The problem, Ahlborn said, is convincing the naysayers that this is something that can come true. People would need to use it — every single day — for it to be a viable transportation. As for funding, Ahlborn said that he's been approached by several "rich individuals" and other investment opportunities. And the idea of crowdfunding has been tossed around.
The whole point of this update is to get feedback from the public that would be interested in commuting with Hyperloop. The developers invite feedback via their website from everyone. That includes potential employees and investors, as well as the "mom with a toddler," Ahlborn said. By Rex Santus (
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Wednesday, December 17, 2014

California will need 11 trillion gallons of water to end epic drought, NASA says

SAN FRANCISCO — Forget about the possibility that a single "atmospheric river" storm could end California's worst drought in at least 1,200 years, NASA researchers said Tuesday.
Instead, it will take 11 trillion gallons of water, which is one and a half times the capacity of Lake Mead, Nevada, the country's largest reservoir, to climb out of the water deficit the Golden State is in, new data shows.
The NASA analysis comes from satellite and aircraft-based measurements of groundwater and mountain snowpack in California, and was released at the annual meeting of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco on Tuesday morning. The data also comes a week after a severe storm hit California, dumping more than nine inches of rain in some places, and just before another storm hits central and northern California.
"It takes years to get into a drought of this severity, and it will likely take many more big storms, and years, to crawl out of it," said NASA's Jay Famiglietti in a NASA press release.
NASA claims the calculation of the volume of water required to end a drought is unprecedented, and was made possible by a set of satellites collectively known as the Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment, or GRACE. Other data came from airborne measurements of mountain snowpack using NASA's Airborne Snow Observatory (ASO).
Previously, the same research team from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, showed that water storage in the state's Sacramento and San Joaquin river basins was 11 trillion gallons below typical seasonal levels, a figure that has steadily grown larger since GRACE satellites launched in 2002. These river basins lost a volume of about four trillion gallons of water each year since 2011, the data shows, with the vast majority of this lost in California's Central Valley.
To put this annual amount into perspective, it is more water than California's 38 million residents use for domestic and municipal uses, NASA said.
Speaking at a press conference, Famiglietti said the Central Valley of California — one of the most agriculturally productive areas in the U.S. — has lost a Lake Mead's worth of water since 2011. (Lake Mead itself has reached record lows in recent years.) The Sacramento River and San Joaquin River basins, Famiglietti says, have lost one and a half times Lake Mead's capacity of 36 million acre-feet, or about 12 trillion gallons, in just the past three years.
He says the recent rainstorms improve conditions on the surface, where soil moisture is improving, but groundwater in aquifers beneath the Central Valley will take far longer to refill. "The groundwater takes much longer to respond," Famiglietti said. He compared the long-term decline in the Central Valley's groundwater to a tennis ball bouncing down a flight of stairs — there are temporary bounces when rain is plentiful, but high water demand is ensuring that the overall direction is downward.
The results show that the 2014 snowpack in the state's Sierra Nevada mountain range was the lowest on record, beating out the previous record-holder of 1977, when the state had half the population than it does now. The ASO data show that previous data based solely on ground observations had miscalculated the snowpack and the water running off of the snow pack when it melts, and the new numbers are half of the previous estimates.
According to NASA's Tom Painter, the low snow extent contributed to the unusual warmth in California during 2014, as the year is likely to be the state's warmest since records began in 1880.
Painter said scientists used two main instruments mounted to a De Havilland Twin Otter aircraft to measure how much water is in the snowpack and how much light the snow absorbs, both of which influence how much water will flow out of a basin when the snow melts and into area reservoirs and rivers. One of the instruments is known as a LIDAR, which is mounted on the belly of an aircraft. This acts as a "high-frequency laser pointer," Painter said. The other instrument is an imaging spectrometer, which detects reflected light from the snow.
The GRACE satellites help measure Earth's changing shape, surface height and gravity field, and allow scientists to measure groundwater based on very subtle shifts in the planet's gravitational field.
New drought data shows the groundwater levels in the Southwest U.S. are in the bottom 10% since such records began in 1949, reflecting increased drawdowns of these resources by farmers and other water users, as well as the influence of droughts.
The GRACE satellite mission is already operating beyond its designed lifespan, with a new satellite system planned for launch in 2017. Famiglietti and his colleagues at NASA are hoping the current satellites manage to eek out another few years without disrupting the data. By Andrew Freedman (

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Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Artificial Skin That Senses, and Stretches, Like the Real Thing

South Korean and U.S. researchers have developed a stretchable material that senses touch, pressure, and moisture, and could be used to give artificial limbs feeling.
Some high-tech prosthetic limbs can be controlled by their owners, using nerves, muscles, or even the brain. However, there’s no way for the wearer to tell if an object is scalding hot, or about to slip out of the appendage’s grasp.
Materials that detect heat, pressure, and moisture could help change this by adding sensory capabilities to prosthetics. A group of Korean and U.S. researchers have now developed a polymer designed to mimic the elastic and high-resolution sensory capabilities of real skin.
The polymer is infused with dense networks of sensors made of ultrathin gold and silicon. The normally brittle silicon is configured in serpentine shapes that can elongate to allow for stretchability. Details of the work are published today in the journal Nature Communications.
Stretchable sensing materials have been in development for years. But this is the most sensitive material yet, with as many as 400 sensors per square millimeter.
“If you have these sensors at high resolution across the finger, you can give the same tactile touch that the normal hand would convey to the brain,” says Roozbeh Ghaffari, who contributed to the research and heads advanced technology development at MC10, a startup in Cambridge, Massachusetts, developing wearable products based on flexible, sensor-laden materials.
What’s more, the researchers tuned the sensors to have the right stretching ranges depending where on a hand they’d be located. They used motion-capture cameras to study how a real hand moves and stretches, and then applied varying silicon shapes to different spots on the prosthetic skin to accommodate that stretchability.
Finally, in a further effort to make the materials seem more realistic, they added a layer of actuators that warm it up to roughly the same temperature as human skin.
The new smart skin addresses just one part of the challenge in adding sensation to prosthetic devices. The larger problem is creating durable and robust connections to the human nervous system, so that the wearer can actually “feel” what’s being sensed.
In a crude demonstration of such an interface, Dae-Hyeong Kim, who led the project at Seoul National University, connected the smart skin to a rat’s brain and was able to measure reactions in the animal’s sensory cortex to sensory input. This did not, however, show whether, or to what extent, the rat was feeling heat, pressure, or moisture. “To tell the exact kinds of feeling,” Kim says, “we need to move onto larger animals, which would be our future work.”
There remains a big gap between what the new materials can do and what existing interfaces can actually convey to the human brain, says Dustin Tyler, a professor of biomedical engineering at Case Western Reserve University, and an expert in neural interfaces. “This proof-of-concept demonstration is interesting, but there is a lot of hard work that remains to show the robustness and performance necessary to translate this device to usable prosthetic hands,” he says.
Only recently has an interface capable of restoring sensation been demonstrated in a human, when Tyler and colleagues equipped a Cleveland-area man who lost his hand with such a system. The man could control the hand using a muscle interface, and some 20 sensors on the prosthetic hand relayed sensory information back to him through the electrode attached to a nerve in his arm stump. This allowed him to know if he’d picked up something soft like a cherry and to stop himself from crushing the fruit. By David Talbot (

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Tuesday, December 2, 2014

A $13 Minimum Wage in California?

Legislation introduced in Sacramento would substantially increase paychecks.

With cities across the Bay Area approving minimum wage hikes at the ballot box, state Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, is proposing upping the state minimum wage to $13 by 2017.
Leno introduced legislation Monday that would raise the state minimum wage to $11 an hour in 2016, to $13 in 2017 and begin annual inflation-based adjustments in 2019.
Under current law, the state minimum wage will increase to $10 per hour on Jan. 1, 2016. The minimum wage in some Bay Area cities is already set to rise more than that.
Last month, Oakland voters approved a minimum wage hike to $12.25 effective in March and San Francisco voters approved a gradual rise to a $15 minimum wage in 2018. The Berkeley City Council also enacted an ordinance this year to raise the city’s minimum wage to $12.53 on Oct. 1, 2016.
A statement from Leno’s office lauded the local efforts, but lamented that a quarter of California residents live in poverty.
“Raising incomes for millions of Californians will reduce poverty and provide them a better shot at the American Dream,” Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de Leon said in a statement. “Senator Leno’s measure will make sure this opportunity is real for all of California’s minimum wage workers.” By Bea Karnes (

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