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Space-age slingshot

Startup hopes to launch satellites using a catapult 

Big players in the aerospace and technology sectors are now major investors in a radically new approach to launching small payloads into outer space: space catapult.

SpinLaunch Inc., a Silicon Valley startup founded in 2014, recently announced it had raised $40 million, in part from venture capital firms affiliated with Airbus and Google.

“We are very intrigued by SpinLaunch’s innovative use of rotational kinetic energy to revolutionize the smallsat market,” said Wen Hsieh, a general partner at Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, another investor, according to Bloomberg Businessweek.

Since the dawn of space flight, large booster rockets have been the only way to launch payloads into orbit. SpinLaunch would use an electromagnetically powered centrifuge to accelerate a small rocket containing a payload to speeds approaching 5,000 miles per hour. The launcher would then release the rocket, allowing its momentum to carry it into orbit.

Catapulting a payload into orbit could be more efficient than using conventional rocket boosters, which require large amounts of fuel. In a conventional rocket launch, typical payloads constitute less than 5 percent of the launch vehicle’s total mass. A catapult system could radically lower the cost per launch.

“SpinLaunch is targeting a per launch price of less than $500,000,” founder Jonathan Yaney told technology website Techcrunch. “All existing rocket-based companies cost between $5 million and $100 million per launch.”

Yaney claims the “core technology has been developed, prototyped, [and] tested,” and says the major challenges will be scaling up and constructing the launch systems.

Some physicists have cautioned that a potential challenge will be overcoming the resistance of the atmosphere once the catapult launches its payload. Still, some aerospace experts unaffiliated with the project have come away impressed.

“It’s a very good approach in my opinion,” Simon “Pete” Worden, the former director of NASA’s Ames Research Center, told Bloomberg.

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Denis Balibouse/Reuters/Newscom

Testing the ecoRobotix robot in Switzerland (Denis Balibouse/Reuters/Newscom)

Technology

Robots against weeds

Weed-killing bots may transform herbicide practices

Autonomous farming robots that target weeds directly are poised to disrupt the current practice of mass spraying of herbicides.

Swiss company ecoRobotix is one of several newcomers in the emerging field of digital agriculture. Its solar-powered robot, which looks something like a pingpong table on wheels, can identify and spray weeds for 12 hours straight without an operator. Its developers believe it will use 20 times less herbicide than traditional methods that involve spraying entire fields.

Another company, Silicon Valley startup Blue River, recently acquired by U.S. agricultural equipment maker John Deere, has also developed a weed-killing machine: It uses cameras and artificial intelligence to distinguish weeds from crops.

Industry analysts believe plant-specific precision spraying will only grow in importance.

“If you can reduce herbicides by the factor of 10 it becomes very compelling for the farmer in terms of productivity,” Richard Lightbound, the European CEO of automation consultancy group ROBO Global, told the Reuters news service. “It’s also eco-friendly and that’s clearly going to be very popular, if not compulsory, at some stage.”

The new technique could disrupt the $26-billion-per-year herbicide business, which, according to Reuters, involves spraying nonselective weed killers such as Monsanto’s Roundup (glyphosate) on large fields sown with genetically modified crops resistant to herbicides. Decades of widespread use of glyphosate has given rise to resistant strains of weeds that are invading U.S. farms.

Huge agrochemical companies such as Bayer—which acquired Monsanto in June—are embracing the “smart spraying” approach and developing their own targeted spraying technology using more selective herbicides rather than broad-spectrum weed killers.

“There won’t be a new glyphosate,” said Liam Condon, head of Bayer’s crop science division, noting that precision spraying could be the final blow for nonselective herbicides. “That was probably a once-in-a-lifetime product.”

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A Microsoft employee demonstrates the HoloLens headset (Elaine Thompson/AP)

Technology

Guide for the blind

An augmented reality headset and app could aid those who cannot see

Technology developers often don’t anticipate the creative ways people will use their inventions. Microsoft developed its HoloLens headset to combine digital and real-world images—a technology called “augmented reality” (AR)—but researchers at the California Institute of Technology have developed an app for HoloLens that turns it into a device for helping people who are blind navigate buildings.

In newly published research, the Caltech scientists used HoloLens’ real-time image and video capture capabilities to create a 3D map of a path through a campus building, according to MIT Technology Review. The app sends auditory commands to the wearer such as, “Railings on both sides,” “Up stairs,” or “Right turn ahead.” The female voice—repeating the words “follow me” and designed to sound as if it’s coming from a few feet in front of the wearer—directed seven test subjects from the main lobby, up a flight of stairs, and around corners to a room on the second floor.

Markus Meister, a Caltech professor and a co-author of the study, acknowledged that for now, routes must be scanned in advance and there isn’t a way for the system to track other people who might be in the wearer’s path. But he believes the research could lead to devices that help the visually impaired navigate public spaces such as hotels or shopping malls.

Legos alive

Lego is known for giving builders of all ages a creative outlet for constructing almost any kind of object with simple plastic bricks. Soon, Lego fans will be able to bring their constructions to life with augmented reality.

Using Apple’s updated ARKit 2, Lego has developed an app that lets builders augment their physical Lego kits with virtual buildings, plants, vehicles, and people, reported Digital Trends. During a demonstration at a recent Apple developer conference, Martin Sanders, Lego’s director of innovation, pointed an iPad camera at a completed Lego building and created an entire digital town around it on the iPad’s screen.

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