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Update  June, 2019


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Science & Technology
 

EU publishes Europe-wide rules on drone operation

Berlin (AP) — The European Union has published EU-wide rules on drones to provide a clear framework for what is and isn't allowed, improve safety and make it easier for drone users to operate their craft in another European country.

The European Aviation Safety Agency said Tuesday that the new rules will come into force from July 2020, giving member countries and operators time to prepare. The rules will override any relevant existing national rules.

EASA said the rules specify that new drones must be "individually identifiable," allowing authorities to trace a particular drone if needed. They will also allow operators authorized in one EU country to fly their craft in others.

EASA Executive Director Patrick Ky said that "common rules will help foster investment, innovation and growth in this promising sector."


Testing shows these waves are sick, in totally the wrong way

This May 30, 2019 photo shows an enlarged image of microscopic sea creatures being studied in a laboratory at Monmouth University in West Long Branch, N.J. University researchers are studying the relationship between heavy rainfall and elevated levels of bacteria from animal waste that gets flushed into storm sewers and out in the ocean at popular surfing beaches at the Jersey shore. (AP Photo/Wayne Parry)

Wayne Parry

Long Branch, N.J. (AP) — Most surfers know it's best to avoid surfing near pipes that dump storm water into the ocean soon after a storm, due to the increased chance of getting sick from bacteria that enter the surf.

Many do it anyway because the periods just after storms often bring bigger waves, prompting them to hold their nose and brave the so-called "chocolate tube" or the "root beer float."

Although the relationship between heavy rain, outfall pipes and water-borne bacteria has been well established, it continues to be studied around the country and the world.

One such study is underway at New Jersey's Monmouth University, where researchers are evaluating water quality at popular surfing beaches along the Jersey shore with an eye toward documenting higher levels of harmful, illness-causing bacteria in the water after storms.

The idea is to give surfers and others who use the water more information to make more informed decisions about when to surf and what might be in the water around them.

"It's not a question of if you're going to get sick, it's when," said Richard Lee, a surfer and executive director of the Surfers Environmental Alliance, which is funding the $30,000 yearlong study in New Jersey. "There have been ear infections, eye infections, respiratory infections, intestinal problems.

"The water is murkier; sometimes we call it the 'root beer float,'" he said. "You get this orange-brown float on the surface."

A 2010 study by the Surfrider Foundation found surfers are more likely to get sick from being in the water than other beachgoers. This is partly because they are in the water more frequently and for longer periods, and ingest 10 times more water than swimmers, the survey found.

A team of student and university staff researchers is taking water quality samples before and after each rainfall this year.

"When we get big storms, the stuff that's getting into the water is what's making us sick," said Jason Adolf, a marine science professor at Monmouth. Most of the bacteria come from pet waste in streets that gets washed down drains and out into the ocean, but occasionally sewer systems overflow into storm drain systems, as well, adding human bacteria to the mix.

New Jersey authorities also do their own beach water quality testing along the shore, but mostly during summer months. The Monmouth testing will continue through fall and winter, when storms can be more numerous and surfers are still in the water. Jeff Weisburg, a specialist professor who teaches about microbiology, health and disease, said fall hurricanes usually produce the best waves of the year on the East Coast.

While the state testing is used to issue swimming advisories and if necessary, to temporarily close beaches when bacteria levels are high, the Monmouth research is aimed more at documenting local conditions at particular beaches throughout the year.

Larry Hajna, a spokesman for the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, said the state has no plans to incorporate the Monmouth research into its own beach monitoring program, and noted "the connections between heavy rainfall, storm water pipe discharges and temporary increases in bacterial levels are well documented."

Similar work has been going on for years wherever surfers take to the water. High school students in Santa Monica, California, have tested the waters at popular surfing beaches there. Health departments in Los Angeles and San Diego monitor water quality near outfall sources.

And in the U.K., a group called Surfers Against Sewage collected evidence of raw sewage entering waterways and pushed for stricter laws to prevent it. It sent out over 244,000 real-time text alerts about water quality during the 2016 bathing season.


UN panel: Connect half the world, and $20 phones can help

Melinda Gates and Jack Ma present United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, center, with the "The Age Digital of Digital Independence" report, at U.N. headquarters, Monday, June 10, 2019. (Eskinder Debebe/UN Photo via AP)

Edith M. Lederer

United Nations (AP) — An independent U.N. panel called Monday for much greater cooperation to bring digital technology to roughly half the world's people, and a senior Google executive said mobile phones with internet access are being created to sell for about $20 that can help make this possible.

Google Vice President Vinton Cerf said at a news conference after the panel's report was officially launched that "it's going to cost a lot of money" to end the digital divide.

But without driving down costs of phones and communications, he said, "we won't succeed in getting the other 4.5 billion, or 3.5 billion, people online."

Nonetheless, Cerf was optimistic. "I think that we're going to see the investment made primarily out of pure, simple incentive on the business side and demand on the consumer side," he said.

He said the new cheaper cellphones won't have all the features of a $1,000 smartphone, "but they have enough to be useful — they have enough to get access to the content of the internet and the applications that it offers."

Cerf is one of 20 members of the panel established by Secretary-General Antonio Guterres in July 2018 to advance a global dialogue on how the world can work better together to realize the potential of digital technologies to advance the well-being of all people while mitigating their risks.

It is led by Melinda Gates, co-chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and by Jack Ma, executive chairman of China's Alibaba Group.

"We are living at the dawn of a new digital era," Ma said in a statement. "Global cooperation among all parties — private sector, government, citizens, academics and civil society — is needed to use technology to achieve more prosperity, more opportunity, and more trust for people around the world."

Cerf, who is also Google's "chief internet evangelist," said the most significant places without access to digital technology are in rural areas, not only in countries in Africa but in the United States, where perhaps 10% to 15% of the population doesn't have reliable internet access.

In addition to costs, he said, having internet applications that are useful is also a problem. It's not helpful if on the web "you can discover a plumber in New York but you happen to be in Bogota," and you can't find much in the language you speak, Cerf said.

Norway's minister of digitalization, Nikolai Astrup, also a panel member, said he strongly believes new technologies can help developing countries make "that quantum leap" to achieving U.N. goals for 2030, including ending extreme poverty while protecting the environment.

"Digital technology is no longer a luxury," he said. "It is essential for development, also for a developed country like Norway."

Whatever the cost, Astrup said, it will be overshadowed by the benefits of improving people's lives, solving some major global challenges and using big data, for example, to predict and prevent famine.

But Gates said in a statement that "digital technologies can help the world's poorest people transform their lives, but only if we are willing to address the inequalities that already keep them from fully participating in the economic and social lives of their countries."

The report recommends that every adult in the world have affordable access to digital networks and digital financial and health services by 2030.

But the panel also cautioned that growing opportunities from digital technologies "are paralleled by stark abuses and unintended consequences." It noted the serious problem of harmful content on social media and challenges to privacy, and it called for more effective action to prevent the erosion of trust by the proliferation of irresponsible uses of cyber capabilities.

The panel also urged Guterres to conduct a global review of how human rights apply to digital technologies.

Panel member Nanjira Sambuli of Kenya, who is a senior policy manager at the World Wide Web Foundation, said a key recommendation is that technology companies "shouldn't only consult on the human rights element as an afterthought."

"They have to start figuring out among themselves the proactive steps to engage at every step of the way on the human rights implications," she said.

Guterres said that every day he sees how digital technology can advance the U.N.'s mission to promote peace, human rights and development — but also "news of the disruption digital technology can cause and the threats it can bring to that mission."


Google's activities under scrutiny by US, Europe regulators

 Marcy Gordon

Washington (AP) — Google, the tech giant known universally for its search engine, also has fingers in a number of other pies, like online advertising, email messaging and video. That gives U.S. antitrust enforcers, who have reportedly evinced a new interest in pursuing competition charges against Google, lots to look at.

Governments around the world are becoming increasingly unnerved by the power amassed by major technology companies — with the dominance of Google in search, Facebook in social networking and Amazon in e-commerce raising the sharpest concerns. In the most dramatic scenario, a case might be made for breaking the companies into smaller pieces.

The U.S. Justice Department is readying an investigation of Google's business practices in search and other areas, and whether they violate antitrust law, according to news reports. Neither the company nor the Justice Department will confirm or deny that a probe has been launched. The Federal Trade Commission, which shares competition oversight with Justice, made an antitrust investigation of Google but closed it in 2013 without taking action.

The company made changes voluntarily after the FTC probe, including letting advertisers use information from their Google ad campaigns to create campaigns with rivals. But an FTC staff report released years later showed that the agency staff had urged the presidentially-appointed commissioners to bring a lawsuit against Google. That never happened.

It isn't clear what specific areas of Google's business the Justice Department might be probing. But here are some possible areas U.S. antitrust cops might poke into.

 Ads

Google commands the lead in digital ad revenue by a wide margin, controlling 31.1% of global digital ad dollars, according to eMarketer's 2019 estimates. Facebook is a distant second with 20.2%.

European antitrust regulators slapped Google in March with a $1.7 billion fine for freezing out rivals in the online advertising business — the regulators' third big fine against the company in less than two years.

Still, the latest penalty isn't likely to have much effect on Google's business. It applies to a narrow portion of Google's ad business in which Google sells ads next to Google search results on third-party websites. It involves practices the company says it already ended, and the amount is just a fraction of the $31 billion in profit that its parent, conglomerate Alphabet Inc., made last year.

 Search Results

Google's search engine handles two out of every three queries in the U.S. European regulators have found that Google manipulated its search engine to gain an unfair advantage over other online shopping sites in the lucrative e-commerce market, fining the company $2.8 billion. Google disputes those findings and is still appealing the 2017 decision.

The FTC staff report released after the agency's investigation showed that the staff legal recommendations rejected by the commissioners involved allegations of Google tinkering with its search results in a way that stifled competition.

Lawmakers from both parties appear determined to examine whether Google rigs its search results to also promote its own political agenda.

Android Antics

Another huge antitrust fine from the European overseers, $5 billion, came against Google in July 2018 for a finding that it abused the dominance of its Android operating system by forcing handset and tablet makers to install Google apps, reducing consumer choice.

The company appealed the ruling and also made changes to avoid additional fines. It started this spring giving European Union smartphone users a choice of browsers and search apps on Android. Following an Android update, users will be shown two new screens giving them the new options.

Android users who open the Google Play store after the update will be given the option to install as many as five search apps and five browsers. Apps are included based on their popularity and shown in random order.


Report: NASA's major projects busting budgets, schedules

 

This artist's rendering provided by Northrop Grumman via NASA shows the James Webb Space Telescope. (Northrop Grumman/NASA via AP)

Marcia Dunn

Cape Canaveral, Fla. (AP) — NASA's major projects are busting budgets and schedules like never before, according to a congressional watchdog agency.

The U.S. Government Accountability Office reported Thursday that NASA's major projects are more than 27 percent over baseline costs and the average launch delay is 13 months. That's the largest schedule delay since the GAO began assessing NASA's major projects 10 years ago.

The still-in-development James Webb Space Telescope is the major offender. The projected launch date for this advanced successor to the Hubble Space Telescope is now 2021, with an estimated $9.6 billion price tag, the GAO noted. Its original target launch date was 2007, with initial cost estimates as low as $1 billion.

NASA's yet-to-fly mega rocket, the Space Launch System, also faces big cost overruns because of production challenges and, likely, even more launch delays.

On the bright side, the Parker Solar Probe launched last summer and looping ever closer around the sun came in millions under budget and was also on time.

The GAO defines a major project as having at least $250 million in lifetime costs. Altogether, NASA plans to invest $63 billion on the 24 major projects listed in the GAO's latest report.

The partial government shutdown, which stretched from December to January, was not factored into the report.


NASA's first-of-kind tests look to manage drones in cities

 

In this May 21, 2019 photo, two drones fly above Lake Street in downtown Reno, Nev. as part of a NASA simulation to test emerging technology that someday will be used to manage travel of hundreds of thousands of commercial, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) delivering packages. It marked the first time such tests have been conducted in an urban setting. (AP Photo/Scott Sonner)

Scott Sonner

Reno, Nev. (AP) — NASA has launched the final stage of a four-year effort to develop a national traffic management system for drones, testing them in cities for the first time beyond the operator's line of sight as businesses look in the future to unleash the unmanned devices in droves above busy streets and buildings.

Multiple drones took to the air at the same time above downtown Reno this week in a series of simulations testing emerging technology that someday will be used to manage hundreds of thousands of small unmanned commercial aircraft delivering packages, pizzas and medical supplies.

"This activity is the latest and most technical challenge we have done with unmanned aerial systems," said David Korsmeyer, associate director of research and technology at NASA's Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California.

An autonomous drone took off Tuesday from the rooftop of a five-story casino parking garage and landed on the roof of another out of view across the street. It hovered as onboard sensors adjusted for gusty winds before returning close to the center of the launch pad.

Equipped with GPS, others flew at each other no higher than city streetlights but were able to avoid colliding through onboard tracking systems connected to NASA's computers on the ground.

Similar tests have been conducted in remote and rural areas. The Federal Aviation Administration has authorized individual test flights in cities before but never for multiple drones or outside the sight of the operator.

The new round of tests continuing this summer in Reno and Corpus Christi, Texas, marks the first time simulations have combined all those scenarios, said Chris Walach, executive director of the Nevada Institute of Autonomous Systems, which is running the Reno tests of unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs.

"When we began this project four years ago, many of us wouldn't have thought we'd be standing here today flying UAVs with advanced drone systems off high-rise buildings," he said.

The team adopted a "crawl, walk, run" philosophy when it initiated tests in 2015, culminating with this fourth round of simulations, said Ron Johnson, project manager for unmanned aircraft systems traffic management at NASA's Ames Research Center.

"We are definitely in the 'run' phase of this development here in Reno," he said.

The results will be shared with the FAA. The agency outlined proposed rules in January that would ease restrictions on flying drones over crowds but said it won't take final action until it finishes another regulation on identifying drones as they're flying — something industry analysts say could be years away.

Critics assert that the FAA has stymied the commercial use of drones by applying the same rigid safety standard it uses for airlines.

"There can be a lot of Silicon Valley mentality where people don't want to wait. So, we're trying to strike a balance between unleashing entrepreneurship and ensuring we're doing it safely while trying to accelerate acceptance of drones in public," Johnson said.

Amazon and FedEx are among the companies that hope to send consumer products by drone by 2020. Drone delivery company Flirtey began testing delivery of defibrillators for cardiac arrest patients last year in Reno under FAA oversight.

Johnson said cities present the biggest challenges because of limited, small landing areas among tall buildings that create navigation and communication problems.

He said it became apparent early on that the travel management plans for drones would have to be completely automated because FAA air traffic controllers can't handle the enormous workload.

The system is being tested with the help of 36 private partners, including drone manufacturers, operators, software developers and other third-party service providers, Johnson said.

The system uses software on the ground that communicates flight plans and positions to other software systems. The drones are equipped with programs for landing, avoiding crashes, surveillance, detection and identification, optical cameras and systems similar to radar that work with lasers.

Huy Tran, director of aeronautics at NASA's Ames Research Center, said her supervisors at NASA headquarters were surprised to hear they had be testing drones in Reno.

"They said, 'Are you crazy?'" she said. "We hope (the test in) Reno shows drones can be flown and land safely."


Amazon’s Bezos says he’ll send a spaceship to the moon

Jeff Bezos speaks in front of a model of Blue Origin’s Blue Moon lunar lander, Thursday, May 9, 2019, in Washington. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

Seth Borenstein

Washington (AP) — Amazon tycoon Jeff Bezos says he’s going to send a spaceship to the moon, joining a resurgence of lunar interest half a century after people first set foot there.

Bezos said his space company Blue Origin will land a robotic ship the size of a small house, capable of carrying four rovers and using a newly designed rocket engine and souped-up rockets. It would be followed by a version that could bring people to the moon along the same timeframe as NASA’s proposed 2024 return.

Bezos, who was dwarfed by his mock-up of the Blue Moon vehicle at his May 9 presentation, said, “This is an incredible vehicle and it’s going to the moon.”

He added: “It’s time to go back to the moon. This time to stay.”

The announcement for the usually secretive space company came with all the glitz of an Apple product launch in a darkened convention ballroom bedazzled with shimmering stars on its walls. Astronauts and other space luminaries sat in the audience under blue-tinted lighting before Bezos unveiled the boxy ship with four long and spindly landing legs.

Bezos, who also owns The Washington Post, walked off the stage without providing details, including launch dates, customers and the plan for humans on his rockets. He spent more time talking about his dream of future generations living on orbiting space station colonies than on concrete details about Blue Origin missions.

Blue Origin officials gave conflicting answers to questions about when the company would land on the moon with and without people. Blue Origin Vice President Clay Mowry said 2024 was not a concrete goal for a mission with people and said it was more up to NASA as a potential customer.

Former U.S. Rep. Robert Walker, a private space consultant who is working with Blue Origin, said it plans for a 2023 launch without people.

Blue Origin in 2017 revealed plans to send an unmanned, reusable rocket, capable of carrying 10,000 pounds (4,500 kilograms) of payload, to the moon. The company had a successful launch earlier this month, reusing one of its New Shepard rockets, which barely goes to the edge of space, for a fifth time.

The new moon race has a lower profile than the one in the 1960s. It involves private companies, new countries and a NASA return mission to place astronauts back on the lunar surface by 2024.

While a $30 million prize for private companies to send robotic probes to the moon went unclaimed last year, one of the competitors, from an Israeli private nonprofit, crashed last month as it tried to land.

China has landed a rover on the moon’s far side. SpaceX last year announced plans to send a Japanese businessman around the moon in 2023. And the Israeli nonprofit said it will give it a second shot.

The first successful moon landing was by the Soviet Union in 1966 with Luna 9, followed by the U.S. four months later. NASA put the first — and only — people on the moon in the Apollo program, starting with Apollo 11 in July 1969.

“The next leap in space will be fueled by commercial companies like Blue Origin and commercial innovation,” said former Obama White House space adviser Phil Larson, now an assistant dean of engineering at the University of Colorado.

Space companies have in the past made big announcements with goals that never came true.

Former NASA deputy administrator Dava Newman, an MIT professor working as a customer of Blue Origin, said this time it’s different. The new engine is the reason, she said, “It’s for real.”


SpaceX launches 60 little satellites, with many more to come

A Falcon 9 SpaceX rocket with a payload of 60 satellites for SpaceX’s Starlink broadband network lifts off from Space Launch Complex 40 at Florida’s Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Thursday, May 23, 2019. A 149 second time exposure of the launch Thursday night is viewed from the end of Minutemen Causeway in Cocoa Beach, Fla. (Malcolm Denemark/Florida Today via AP)

Marcia Dunn

Cape Canaveral, Fla. (AP) — SpaceX has launched 60 little satellites, the first of thousands that founder Elon Musk plans to put in orbit for global internet coverage.

The recycled Falcon rocket blasted off late Thursday night, May 23. The first-stage booster landed on an ocean platform following liftoff, as the tightly packed cluster of satellites continued upward.

Musk said all 60 flat-panel satellites were deployed and online a few hundred miles above Earth. Each weighs 500 pounds and has a single solar panel and a krypton-powered thruster for raising and maintaining altitude. The satellites have the capability of automatically dodging sizable pieces of space junk.

The orbiting constellation — named Starlink — will grow in the next few years, Musk said.

Twelve launches of 60 satellites each will provide reliable and affordable internet coverage throughout the U.S., he said. Twenty-four launches will serve most of the populated world and 30 launches the entire world. That will be 1,800 satellites in total, with more planned after that.

Musk told reporters last week there’s “a fundamental goodness” to giving people in all corners of the globe choices in broadband internet service. He’s especially interested in reaching areas without coverage or where it is expensive or unreliable.

Other companies have similar plans, including Project Kuiper from Jeff Bezos’ Amazon and OneWeb.

According to Musk, California-based SpaceX can use Starlink revenue to develop more advanced rockets and spacecraft to achieve his ultimate goal of establishing a city on Mars.

Musk, who also runs the electric carmaker Tesla and other ventures, said Starlink is one of the hardest engineering projects he’s encountered. The satellites include a lot of new technology, and he warned last week that some of them might not work.

The Starlink satellites are designed to re-enter the atmosphere after four or five years in orbit, burning up harmlessly over the Pacific. Musk stressed there will be no safety issues on the ground from falling chunks of debris.

The launch was delayed twice last week, first by high wind and then for software updates. It was the third flight for this booster.


NASA: Budget boost ‘good start’ to put astronauts on moon

In this November 1969 photo provided by NASA, Apollo 12 mission Commander Charles P. “Pete” Conrad stands on the moon’s surface. He was the third man to walk on the moon. On Tuesday, May 14, 2019, NASA’s chief says the Trump administration’s proposed $1.6 billion budget boost is a “good start” for putting astronauts back on the moon. (AP Photo/NASA)

Marcia Dunn

Cape Canaveral, Fla. (AP) — NASA’s chief said that the Trump administration’s proposed $1.6 billion budget boost is a “good start” for getting astronauts back on the moon within five years.

Administrator Jim Bridenstine addressed employees a day after the White House introduced the budget amendment.

During an hourlong town hall from NASA headquarters in Washington, Bridenstine said $1.6 billion is enough for 2020. But more money will be needed in the years ahead to land “the next man and the first woman” at the south pole of the moon by 2024.

NASA is once again turning to Greek mythology for the name of the project. It’s being called Artemis, after the twin sister of Apollo. Apollo was the name of NASA’s moonshot program that, 50 years ago this summer, achieved the first manned lunar landing.

NASA landed 12 men on the moon over six Apollo missions. For the next go-around, the space agency wants its moonwalkers to reflect today’s more diverse astronaut corps, thus the name of Apollo’s sister. Artemis was goddess of the hunt as well as the moon.

“I have a daughter, she’s 11 years old, and I want her to see herself in the same position that our current, very diverse astronaut corps currently sees itself, having the opportunity to go to the moon,” Bridenstine said. “In the 1960s, young ladies didn’t have the opportunity to see themselves in that role. Today, they do.”

Bridenstine said he’s heartened by the fact that the extra money, if approved by Congress, will come from outside NASA, rather than being taken from the International Space Station or other departments within the space agency.

The administration seeks to use money from Pell Grants for college education, for NASA’s new spending.

Bridenstine said he’s already heard criticism of how the new spending will be “dead on arrival” in Congress because neither NASA nor the administration worked in advance with Congress on it. As a former congressman from Oklahoma, he said he knows how the process works and assured the space agency’s 17,000 employees that would not be the case.

“This is a good out-of-the-gate first start, a very honest proposal from the administration that keeps us all together, moving forward,” he said.

He also plugged NASA’s ongoing Space Launch System mega-rocket and Orion spacecraft, both under development, and a proposed outpost in the vicinity of the moon, called Gateway.

A few hours later, Bridenstine found himself before the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, talking up the Artemis moon plan. The space agency envisions that the effort will involve private industry as well as other countries. Just last week, Amazon chief Jeff Bezos introduced a mock-up of his own planned lunar lander for his Blue Origin space company.

In March, Vice President Mike Pence urged NASA to accelerate its moon-landing program, moving it up from 2028 to 2024.

NASA has flip-flopped between the moon and Mars, a victim of changing presidential administrations. More recently, President Barack Obama targeted Mars as astronauts’ next big destination, while President Donald Trump has favored the moon.


UPDATE

HEADLINES [click on headline to view story]

EU publishes Europe-wide rules on drone operation

Testing shows these waves are sick, in totally the wrong way

UN panel: Connect half the world, and $20 phones can help


Google's activities under scrutiny by US, Europe regulators

Report: NASA's major projects busting budgets, schedules

NASA's first-of-kind tests look to manage drones in cities


Amazon’s Bezos says he’ll send a spaceship to the moon

SpaceX launches 60 little satellites, with many more to come

NASA: Budget boost ‘good start’ to put astronauts on moon